In 1989, in a tame display of product placement by today's standards,
Universal Pictures released the feature film "The Wizard,"
in which a young autistic child and his brother hitchhike across
the country in order to avoid being split up by their divorced
Their destination is a national video gaming competition in which
Jimmy, the autistic video game "wizard," will compete
in nearly 100 different Nintendo titles, including the new Nintendo
release, "Super Mario Bros. 3."
The following year, as the youngest members of Generation Next
were born, Nintendo hosted a real-life video-gaming competition
in order to find a "World Nintendo Champion." Starting
in 1997, similar competitions began sprouting up, and now professional
gaming has grown into a multi-million dollar industry.
According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the
average age of a video gamer is 33 years old, but according to
Game Research, a Danish group devoted to studying video games,
the average age of a competitive video gamer is younger, about
21 years old.
So even though older generations have maintained a casual gaming
habit throughout their lives, younger gamers have purposed a casual
activity into a full-fledged profession.
The rise of professional gaming
The Game Research study found that one-third of competitive gamers
defined themselves as "professional gamers," which indicates
that there's a rising class of 16-25 year olds who are considering
playing video games as a job.
percent of respondents said that "a career as a professional
gamer would be a dream come true," and 58 percent expressed
interest in competing in a tournament in the near future.
"My mom used to tell me to stop playing video games and
that it wouldn't get me anywhere," said Eric Hewitt, an 18-year-old
freshman at Penn State University. This past year, Hewitt -- who
plays under the name "Gh057ayame" -- earned $41,000
competing in tournaments as a professional gamer with Major League
Along with his three teammates on Team Carbon, Hewitt plays the
first-person shooter game "Halo 2" on Microsoft's Xbox
and Xbox 360 in nation-wide tournaments pitting four-man teams
against each other. Under the MLG tournament rules, the teams
compete in three different styles of play on a variety of battlefields.
Other leagues have sprouted up in recent years. The World Cyber
Games hosts an international field and holds competitions in first-person
shooter games including "Halo 2" and "Counter-Strike:
Source" as well as role-playing games such as "Starcraft:
With corporate sponsorship from DirecTV, Best Buy and Microsoft,
the Championship Gaming Series (another league) has tournaments
for shooting games, racing games and one-on-one fighting games.
The rise of professional gaming has even motivated software companies
to create and pay for their own "house teams." UbiSoft,
the publisher and developer of the popular Rainbow Six brand of
first-person-shooter games, put together a gaming team in 2004
named the Frag Dolls.
By day, Morgan "Rhoulette" Romine, 25, works as an
online marketing manager for UbiSoft, but in her spare time she
is the team captain of the all-female Frag Dolls in an industry
dominated by men.
According to the Game Research report, less than 10 percent of
competitive gamers are female.
"[My team members] have to deal with the doubt factor more
often, and people in competition don't take us very seriously,"
said Romine. "It always feels that there is a little bit
of responsibility, just in case anyone's watching, to prove to
them that girls can play games very well."
As competitive gaming has grown as a business and a pastime,
more women are entering the industry, according to Romine, who
also thinks the trend can only snowball into a greater female
stronger female presence will bring in different and new genres,
with more women being illustrators and developers
marketing towards women," said Romine. "It's a cultural
barrier we have to overcome. [Video games] have been considered
a toy that goes into the boy's toy chest."
When it comes down to tournament success, the gender gap makes
little difference to the Frag Dolls. In 2004, the team swept one
tournament and placed second the past two years in other related
competitions. They are currently competing in an on-going "Beat
the Girls" contest through UbiSoft.
A schedule balancing act
The Frag Dolls' success is in part due to their grueling practice
schedule. On average, the team's seven members practice a combined
300 hours a week. While three of the Frag Dolls are full-time
gamers, the others are like Romine with jobs or classes to attend.
Many other gamers have similarly busy schedules.
Hewitt, the freshman at Penn State, has found setting aside the
necessary practice time to be a difficult task.
"In school, there's a lot of work, it's college," he
said. "I'm either at my fraternity where I'm pledging, at
class or doing homework."
Hewitt skips socializing with his friends or going to parties
in order to practice, and it seems to have paid off. Since he
started college last fall, Hewitt has placed first in the past
Hewitt's team captain, Chris "Shockwav3" Smith, has
an equally hectic schedule. A 17-year-old high school senior from
Philadelphia, Smith instituted a strict regimen to hone his skills.
"Right now, I go to school early in the morning, have classes,
get my homework. As soon as I get out of school, I do my homework
in two hours. From there, I have the rest of the day free to work
out or whatever," said Smith. "I put time aside for
video games, that's the difference between other kids and me."
Smith practices two to three times a week for a few hours at
a time, but it has yet to disturb his schoolwork. He currently
has a 3.7 unweighted GPA and is applying to colleges such as Virginia
Tech, Purdue and the University of Michigan.
Professional in every respect
Demanding schedules aside, professional gamers still realize
that they're being paid to play video games. They view their practice
schedule as analogous to the hours that professional athletes
and musicians put into their respective careers.
The comparisons don't end there, according to Hewitt.
"You get paid, you get contracts, there's free agency, restricted
" said Hewitt, talking about the business
side of Major League Gaming. He travels around one weekend a month
to a different city, and comes home with at least $1,000.
In June 2006, the league signed Final Boss -- the 2004 and 2005
champions and eventual losers to Hewitt's Team Carbon in the 2006
competition -- to a $1 million exclusive contract. As the New
York Yankees of professional gaming, Final Boss has cultivated
a celebrity status of sorts, with YouTube tribute videos and big-name
sponsorship from professional basketball star Gilbert Arenas.
MLG has grown exponentially as a commercial enterprise since its
2003 inception. Corporate sponsors include Boost Mobile, Red Bull
and the Toyota car brand Scion. The league has over 30 players
under contract, and a television deal with the USA Network to
broadcast the tournaments on Saturday mornings.
Professional gaming's recent surge in popularity has brought
up the age-old-debate of "Sport or not a sport" that
plagues pastimes like golf or NASCAR.
For Hewitt, the debate is a non-starter: professional gaming
is undeniably a sport. Even questions of terminology (are the
contestants professional gamers or cyberathletes?) offend Hewitt.
"I'm not too fond of the term 'cyberathlete.' It doesn't
quite sound like an athlete. It should be strictly athlete; cyber
is ridiculous," he said. "What are you an athlete in?
Video games or basketball, it shouldn't matter."
According to Hewitt's teammate, Chris Smith, there's an inherent
talent to being a great gamer just as there is to being a great
"Some people are just faster thinkers, with natural ability
with the controller," said Smith. "Same way a basketball
player, as soon as they were born, they were great with a basketball.
It's the same thing with gaming right now."
The generational gap
Brendan Docherty, who works for another video gaming giant, THQ,
said professional gaming is on the verge of exploding in popularly
just as the X Games did. Docherty cited the state of South Korean
professional gaming; thousands of fans gather to watch competitions
in the strategy game "StarCraft."
X Games comparison is even more accurate when you look at the
age of the participants involved; it's dominated by teenagers
and gamers in the early 20s. While the video game industry has
enjoyed dynamic growth across all generations, with $6.06 billion
in sales in 2005, the professional competitions have stayed young.
Generation Xers, the early adopters of video games, watched the
technology evolve from the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
in 1985 to the Sega Genesis in 1989. By the time online gaming
first started, and as the ever-popular first-person shooters became
the centerpiece of competitive gaming, they were too old.
"Quake was one of the first online competitive games,"
said Morgan Romine about the 1996 first-person-shooter game. "So
it's that generation that was brought up with similar games that
is now winning money
enough money to support themselves."
The Team Carbon members ascribe the generation gap as more of
an issue of professional skill and general interest.
Eric Hewitt believes that the skills most needed to succeed in
professional gaming -- hand-eye coordination, intelligence, fast
reflexes -- begin to dwindle by your mid-20s. "Whether or
not you're the best at the game, you're still old," said
-- By Brian Wolly, Generation Next