Game Boys

What do you get when you mix guaraná, computers, assault rifles, and explosives? A fragger's paradise.

Bawls is, in fact, based in Miami. The beverage became popular at computer competitions by accident, according to founder Hoby Buppert. Blogger Stephen Heaslip wrote fawningly about the guaraná drink, a kind of fruity Sprite, and sparked the interest of wired gamers around the country. "We kind of grew with them," Buppert admits. "Now we sponsor about 30 [LAN parties] per weekend. No one else listened to the gamers or paid attention to them. We did."

Indeed, Willis has brought his own case of 12 Bawls, each bottle wrapped tightly in tin foil so no one takes one by mistake. Personal stashes are common at LAN parties.

Alabama Black Snake walks up to the front of the room as a projector displays music videos on a bare wall that separates two bathrooms. "OK," he says, placing the microphone to his mouth. "I'd like to announce the 5-on-5 Counter-Strike tournament."

Peter "PsyPete" Willis, Joe "Yuri" Sagginario, and Krisztian "NecroPhilic" Katona (top right) play Counter-Strike (top left) at late-night, caffeine-fueled LAN parties (bottom)
Colby Katz
Peter "PsyPete" Willis, Joe "Yuri" Sagginario, and Krisztian "NecroPhilic" Katona (top right) play Counter-Strike (top left) at late-night, caffeine-fueled LAN parties (bottom)

For Katona, there's a lot riding on this competition. Winning would be good for business.

For nearly ten years, LAN parties were an underground part of one of the world's largest industries: video games. According to the Interactive Digital Software Association, a trade group representing the video game software industry, 60 percent of Americans age 6 and older -- or about 145 million people -- play them (including office workers who kill time with solitaire). In 2002, worldwide sales of video game software accounted for $6.9 billion.

The rise of LAN parties, such as the Event, is a result of two factors: cheap, ubiquitous computer networking equipment and the creation of so-called team-based, first-person shooter programs, which allow each player to imagine himself a warrior in a battle.

In 1992, id Software changed the gaming industry with the release of Castle Wolfenstein 3D -- a game in which the player hunts down Germans in a Nazi-controlled castle. One year later, id released Doom, which boasted better 3-D graphics and more blood and guts. Doom's successor, Quake, allowed players to compete over the Internet in death matches.

A host of imitators followed id's formula, and first-person shooters became evidence of the connection between computer games and real-life violence. As was widely reported, Columbine High School attackers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold played Doom and Quake regularly before they killed 15 people and then each other in 1999.

But first-person shooters survived the criticism and flourished. While today, hundreds of thousands of people play games on the Internet, LANs offer gamers distinct advantages -- faster, more reliable connections and the ability to hear the reaction of the guy four computers down when you pump cold hard steel into the back of his head.

Counter-Strike is one of the most popular first-person shooters. At any given time, more than 100,000 people are playing it online. The 4-year-old game's graphics are lackluster and the player's experience primitive by today's standards. But what made Counter-Strike unique when it was introduced was its need for teamwork and its believable rendition of reality. In most previous first-person shooters, players could shrug off bullets like Superman. In Counter-Strike, one shot to the head and you're dead.

Gaming is also a professional sport. In the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) and the World Cyber Games, video gamers compete for cash and prizes. "There's the same characteristic you find in any sport," explains Angel Munoz, president of CPL. "You have to have incredible hand-eye coordination, lightning-fast reflexes, a capacity to strategize and think fast under incredible pressure." The best-known Counter-Strike team -- or clan -- has become Dallas' Team 3D, which has garnered corporate sponsorships and whose players receive a monthly salary.

Professional sport or not, first-person shooters are fraggin' huge.

It's May 14, a half-day at Broward County schools, and since 1 p.m., PCBaang! has been operating off a waiting list. In the front of the narrow space of strip mall on Atlantic Boulevard in Coral Springs, a cash register rings up sales. Behind a rope that separates the door from the computers, four kids wait for gaming machines -- actually souped-up PCs -- to become available.

In the rear, adolescent boys sit in front of the 35 computer gaming stations. Most of the kids are divided into small pickup clans of three or four as they move from four-minute round to four-minute round of Counter-Strike. Each boy is trying to pop off as many mouse-wielding opponents as he can before his luck runs out and he catches a sniper bullet in the skull. None of the kids moves -- their eyes are all fixed on the monitors as index fingers click the left mouse buttons over and over to unleash torrents of high-caliber bullets.

At last count, there were 26,000 PC baangs in Korea, which is widely considered the video-gaming capital of the world. The rooms function as cafés turned arcades, where Koreans compete and socialize and where top gamers garner groupies and followings generally reserved for rock stars. PC baangs are the next generation of video arcade, a sort of malt shop for the 21st century where kids can be with others but socialize only if they want to. The trend has caught on out west, where fragging has become a popular pastime for kids living in the hills of Los Angeles' suburbs.

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