SINGAPORE – "And it's a goal for Singapore!" the commentator screamed as fans erupted, pumping their fists and roaring to celebrate an equalizer against Romania. But far from an ordinary soccer match, this game was contested by two gamers pounding away at keyboards at the World Cyber Games — the computer industry's equivalent of the Olympics.
The total prize money of $430,000 at this week's event is more than some Asian Tour golf tournaments pay out — and some of the 700 game enthusiasts from 67 countries who have gathered in Singapore for the tournament play for a living.
Awe-struck spectators craned their necks to get a glimpse of well-known gamers as they hunkered over their machines to play FIFA Soccer 2005, shooting games likeCounter Strike: Source, and real-time strategy games like WarCraft III: The Frozen Throne.
"Normal people look up to the pro players because they are young and earn a lot," said South Korean team captain Kang Dongwon. "They want to watch how they play so they can be as good."
South Korea's Seo Ji-hoon, the StarCraft game defending champion, can earn around $100,000 in sponsorship, pay, appearance fees and winnings annually.
South Korea remains the largest gaming market in the region, but others such as China, Thailand and Malaysia are quickly catching up, experts say. Even impoverished Bangladesh fielded two players at the five-day tournament at Singapore's Suntec Convention Center, which ended Sunday.
"Gaming is more respected in Asia than in other parts of the world," said Robert "Razerguy" Krakoff, president of computer gaming peripherals maker Razer.
"In Korea, gamers are almost like rock stars. The Korean press follows gaming much like the American press follows sports," he said.
The console and PC game market is estimated to be worth $20 billion annually, and analysts say that is just the start — another boom is expected once cheaper computers and faster connection speeds reach poorer Asian nations.
Technology market researchers IDC estimate the Asia-Pacific online gaming market, excluding Japan, grew over 30 percent last year, generating $1.09 billion in revenue.
It's this market growth, driven mainly by teenagers and twentysomethings, that prompted electronics giants like Intel Corp. and Samsung Electronics Co. to sponsor this week's event.
But cyber-gaming isn't always well-received in Asia — where many countries are known for a strong work ethic, and parents often pressure their children to excel in their studies to improve their job prospects.
Reports of injury and rage from nonstop computer gaming in South Korea and China also have hurt the industry's image.
Like the soccer World Cup, countries have to go through regional qualifying to get to the World Cyber Games.
Iran has reached the finals in each of the past three years, but was unable to play in one.
"We were only able to play two of them because we couldn't get visas to go to the U.S.," Iranian captain Pejman Leylabadi said of the 2004 finals in San Francisco.
Back on the big screen, the game between Singapore and Romania entered its final minutes.
Romanian student Marius Badita, 17, commandeered a pass from midfield that found a well-positioned striker. With just two seconds left, Badita fired a shot out of the keeper's reach to give Romania a 3-2 win.