Game Boys

Krisztian Katona's inviting smile hints at his unhindered optimism. Nothing seems to bother the 25-year-old with the wire-rimmed glasses, thin goatee, and wave of brown hair that crashes gently around his head. He speaks with a slow eloquence that gives his Eastern European accent a soothing rhythm.

"Krisztian just likes to hear himself talk," a friend says of him.

Another adds: "Everybody likes to hear Krisztian talk."

In the western suburbs of Broward County, Katona has found his home. It's a long way from Hungary, which the young man describes with a shrug of his shoulders: "I've still got some family there."

Katona's first memory of his native land involves school grades. Despite his best efforts, he did poorly on one of his early report cards. He didn't know how he was going to tell his parents or how they would react. On the walk home, he rehearsed what he would say, gathering the courage to be honest. He opened the door and then saw their faces. They already knew. Because of his marks, they'd just been demoted at work. "I never got bad grades again," Katona explains.

His last memory of Hungary involves vacations. Every year, he and his parents would travel to Austria on tourist visas. Once, when he was 10 years old, he left school to find his parents parked outside, waiting for him. "We're going on vacation," his father told him.

The family drove four hours to the border and parked along a deserted patch of fence in the middle of the night. At that spot was the entry to a short tunnel. "It was the hole everyone used," Katona says. "Everyone seemed to know about it." Katona and his parents crawled under the fence and simply walked into Austria, becoming citizens of nowhere.

Soon, the family moved to South Florida, where Katona attended high school and received a degree in information technology from Florida Atlantic University. He landed a gig at a company that e-mails x-ray charts to doctors around the country for second opinions. Katona made sure the technology worked. "It was a great job," he says. But it didn't last. Nine months ago, the company laid him off. He's been unemployed since.

Now, Katona wants to make it as a pioneer in an industry that has taken off in Asia and California but so far has found a lukewarm reception in tech-unfriendly South Florida. Succeeding won't be as easy as crawling beneath the Iron Curtain.

It's 3:30 p.m. on May 17, and Katona has been setting up tables, hauling in computers and monitors, and stringing together computer networking cables since late last night. Yet he has more on his mind than computer hardware. He's thinking about fragging terrorists. Despite his amicable disposition, Katona can be a cold-blooded killer when he straps on his World War II helmet and winds his fingers around a laser mouse.

He goes by the name "NecroPhilic." His specialty is Counter-Strike, which pits a team of terrorists against counterterrorists in missions that include rescuing hostages and planting bombs. Katona navigates maps on his computer screen as if he were walking through his apartment. He knows every bomb site and myriad ways to get there. In the buildings and landscapes that shoot across his monitor, he knows where air ducts lead and where every ladder will take him. He can tell you which munitions penetrate brick walls and which can put a hole in your enemy's head and then kill his partner. He's a wicked predator.

Today is the eighth time Katona and his business partners have held their monthly LAN (local area network) party, called "The Event," in the large community room of the Lofts, an Oakland Park townhouse complex. Inside, 20 gamers in their late teens and early 20s are fragging away from behind monitors. Nearly every computer is modified and souped-up as if it were an Acura or Honda. Inside each computer glow pink, green, and blue lights, all cold cathodes that do not increase the temperature inside the metal boxes. Keeping heat down is essential. Most of these gamers so overwork their machines that they need a thermostat linked to a digital readout. If the computer gets too hot, they flip a switch and turn on a high-speed fan that sounds like a small lawn mower. It cools everything in seconds.

Vincent "Pyrophilic1" Garcetti, age 24, Katona's clan colleague and partner in the Event, sits in front of his black computer. The left side of his machine is Plexiglas, so you can see lights shining down on the motherboard that make it look like a small city. In the center of the PC is a fan adorned with skull facing outward.

With rimless sunglasses perched on the bridge of his nose, Morpheus-style, Garcetti taunts his Counter-Strike opponents as he navigates his pistol-toting counterterrorist.

On the computer image they share, Joe "Yuri" Sagginario, 16, chases one of Garcetti's teammates and blows past without noticing Garcetti crouched in the corner. Sneaking up from behind, Garcetti fires three bullets into Yuri's back, taking him out before he can fire -- an excellent show of skill.

"No!" Yuri says, pushing his chair back, disgusted that he hadn't heard or seen Garcetti.

"Counter-Terrorists Win!" flashes across all the computer screens.

Garcetti bobs his head up and down to the music playing in the background. "Yeah," he says. "Owned."

Then Katona turns away from his computer. Practice is over. At today's party, he expects tough competition. The Boca Raton clan known as South Florida LAN, or SFL, will compete against his clan, Philic, in a Counter-Strike tournament. Just before 5 p.m., he receives a call from SFL leader Jason Vassil. The enemy is down the road.

Katona walks outside and spots Vassil walking toward the building with a 17-inch monitor cradled in his arms. Katona turns, smiles, then intones in Hungarian-accented English, "We're gonna own."

Once all the players are inside, there's no chit-chat, no bragging, no questions. Vassil's five clanmates, 18-year-old John "Billis" Hunt, 20-year-old Lawrence "Scrub" Bower, and 19-year-olds Ross "Fuzzeh" Fusz, Marcelo "Chump" Morse, and Tyler "relyt" Pennel, are here to compete, not socialize. They play Counter-Strike constantly at Vassil's offices in Boca Raton. When Vassil realizes his goal of opening a PC gaming room in Fort Lauderdale, these guys will be the sponsored clan. They constitute a well-trained fighting force. Even while "scrimming" -- short for scrimmaging -- the players shout commands and curse at one another when one slips up.

"These guys live, breathe, and shit Counter-Strike," Vassil explains as Leo Rodriguez, an energetic 15-year-old who's in training for the clan, smirks and nods. Of the five clan members, only one has a girlfriend. Two don't have jobs, though Vassil offered them steady paychecks at his company, NetBoca. They declined. If they had to work, after all, when would they play?

"Look at these guys," Vassil says. "Never go on dates, never meet girls, never go to the movies, never do anything but Counter-Strike. That any way to live?" Indeed, the 31-year-old Vassil is a reminder that socially awkward video gamers can grow up to be successful and have a woman like the clan leader's girlfriend, Charlene. And he's affluent. His company installs high-speed Internet connections in condominium towers, sets up networks for companies, and builds high-performance custom computers.

Garcetti saunters over to Vassil and introduces his friend, Ray M. Douglas, who recently started gaming. Douglas is a big guy with a thin mustache who sells mortgages during the day. The only African-American in the room, he's reserved, even shy.

Garcetti turns to me after introducing his friend. "Seen Full Metal Jacket?" he asks.

I nod.

Garcetti looks around the room twice as if to announce that he's on stage. "Excuse me, ma'am," he says, quoting the movie and gesturing toward Douglas. "What we have here is a magnificent specimen of pure Alabama black snake."

Everyone laughs. That's Douglas' LAN party handle.

All the while, Peter Willis, an 18-year-old from Weston, types away at his computer. On top of his monitor sits a four-inch stuffed animal; it's Tux, the penguin mascot of the free operating system Linux. Willis' black hat reads "got root?" -- another Linux reference -- and his shirt proclaims: "I see fragged people."

He's trying to tweak his computer to run the Windows-based Counter-Strike in Linux. Rage Against the Machine blasts in the background. Willis' legs pump up and down as he types. Every time guitarist Tom Morello's distortion sounds, Willis' left hand rises and scratches an air record, DJ-style. When Willis loads Counter-Strike, the game server immediately kicks him off. "Hey, guys, can we set the server to allow more than just eight people?" he asks. Behind him, Zack de la Rocha goes off: "They say jump/Ya say how high/Ya brain dead/Ya gotta fuckin' bullet in your head."

Garcetti walks over to the center of the room and modifies the server. Willis loads Counter-Strike once more. The server accepts him. "Yeah," he says, heels bouncing to the beat. He joins the game as a terrorist. "Yo peepz," he types to all the other players to announce his arrival.

With an acned face and bloodshot eyes, Willis is a LAN party veteran. He's been to dozens of parties and says he would attend more if it weren't so hard to find a ride. He's also been to enough of these gatherings to know that chances are slim the Event will survive the year. Parties come and go. This is fun, sure, but he doesn't attach himself to any group of gamers. "A LAN party will run for a few years and drop off, and then another takes its place," Willis says with a maturity that belies his appearance. Earlier this month, the organizers of another well-known local LAN party, OurReality.net, announced that their last event would be held June 27 and 28. They couldn't draw enough regular attendees.

It's still several minutes until the competition is to start, so Willis loads Dance Dance Revolution -- a popular arcade game recently made available for PC. On the screen, arrows indicate how his feet should move, creating ridiculous steps you might expect to see Justin Timberlake perform with a boy band. Willis jumps up and down, his legs twisting and his arms motioning back and forth to balance his weight. His headphones wrap around the top of his head and encircle his ears, booming techno music and attaching him to the computer like an umbilical cord. Around his monitor are four bottles of Bawls, a high-caffeine drink made from the guaraná berry that has become the Gatorade of LAN parties nationwide.

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."

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.

But the venues haven't yet blossomed in South Florida. Kathy Hammond, a Boca Raton business consultant, is a pioneer. A friend from Los Angeles gave her the idea for the Coral Springs location last year. "Have you heard of these PC baangs?" she asked Hammond. "They're huge here."

Hammond, a pretty 46-year-old who walks with long elegant strides, talks with the strike-while-the-iron's-hot enthusiasm of a New York stock trader who just downed her third café latte. "As I started looking into it more, I saw that [the baang industry] was completely untapped in the United States," she says. "I went out to L.A. and went to several game rooms and thought, 'Hey, this is what we need in Florida. '"

Hammond opened PCBaang! in January. Her stepson helped decorate the walls, which are painted black and adorned with neon lights and pseudograffiti. Along each side of the room, kids sit in cushy leather chairs that face computer screens. A shelf juts out from the desks to give players easy access to keyboard and mouse. On a shelf above the desk, speakers blare to create a symphony of gunfire, grunts, and explosions.

That Hammond's business is smack in the middle of Broward's sprawling, traffic-gnarled suburbia is no accident. "We're surrounded by five area high schools," Hammond says, speaking loudly over the tap-tap-tap of terrorists' AK-47s and the clunk-clunk of shotgun shells hitting the computer-generated ground. "That's 25,000 children."

The gamers attracted to PC baangs are younger than the ones who play at Katona's LAN parties. Most of the kids Hammond sees are teens and early teens. All prepay their $3.25 per hour, assumedly with Mom and Dad's money. But Hammond adds breathlessly: "We're not baby sitters."

At 5 p.m., Hammond yells out to the adrenalin-pumped kids: "Can I have everybody's attention, please?"

Her young assistant screams out behind her: "Everybody turn your speakers off. Speakers off, please."

The sound of gunfire dissipates quickly, but the kids continue playing. "OK, everybody," Hammond says, "it's time for the drawing." When PCBaang! opened, Hammond started a raffle to give the first customers an opportunity to win a new AMD Athlon computer system like the ones used in her PC room. "The winner is going to be selected by a very special guest," Hammond continues. "This is Trevor from the New Times newspaper."

On the spot, I reach into the bag and select a card. Across the top of the orange piece of paper, in hurried handwriting, is a scribbled name.

"John Schwartz," I announce. "John Schwartz."

No one moves. No one makes a sound. Hammond looks around curiously.

Then, immediately to her left, she spots 13-year-old eighth-grader Schwartz and two friends playing Counter-Strike. They hadn't heard a thing. "John," Hammond says, lifting the headphones from the boy's ears, "you won."

John spins around in his chair and hangs the headphones around his neck. "I won?" he asks, his mouth gaping open. "I really won?"

The Coral Springs PCBaang! is the model for dozens more that Hammond would like to open across the state and the nation. If she can keep the chairs filled for eight hours every day, her PC baang could pull in more than $350,000 annually. Although Hammond won't divulge information about her financing, she claims she's close to opening a second location in Boca Raton and will expand statewide in coming months.

Close to 8 p.m., the Counter-Strike tournament between Katona's Philic and Vassil's SFL is about to begin. SFL lines up on the west side of the room, while Philic sits scattered on the other side. The level chosen is Train Depot, which requires the terrorists to plant and detonate a bomb inside a terminal while evading, or killing, all the counterterrorists. Katona's clan needs to put on a good show.

SFL starts out as the counterterrorists. It isn't pretty. Vassil's clan clears rooms with grenades and charges alleys in unison with the precision of a Navy SEAL team. Katona, Garcetti, and their Philic teammates are mangled and sniped before even approaching the bomb site.

After round 12 of Counter-Strike, the clans switch sides. Katona's players become counterterrorists, Vassil's terrorists. It's already a 12-0 slaughter. Vassil, wearing shorts and a V-neck white T-shirt, folds his arms together and turns to me. "The Event is old, man. It's hurtin'," he says. "When we get in the car, I'm going to be hearing it. 'I can't believe we dragged up our computers for this,' they'll be telling me."

Katona's team doesn't fare better as counterterrorists. Round after round, Vassil's SFL puts Philic's players in pools of blood -- dropping down from trains, guns blazing, throwing grenades in unison, sniping from rooftops. Less than 45 minutes after the challenge begins, Philic is humiliated 24-0.

Katona rises from behind his computer, his World War II helmet on his head and a look of disappointment on his face. At the same time, Patrick Sander, Katona's business partner for the Event, walks over to Vassil and reminds him that he and his players need to pay $10 per head, the discounted rate for those who come in clans.

That sets off Vassil. He walks away. "No way, man," he says. "I'm not going to make my guys pay. It's not right. They left their own LAN when these guys made the challenge. If we challenged them to come up to Boca, we wouldn't ask them to pay."

The Event's founders apparently didn't understand the nuances of LAN party etiquette. When you challenge a clan, Vassil claims, the challenged clan plays for free. About 9 p.m., the gamers from SFL follow Vassil's lead and begin to haul out monitors, keyboards, and computers. They don't stop to say goodbye. They don't shake hands. They just leave.

Katona smiles over the incident. "Yeah, we got owned," he admits, his accent emphasizing owned. "Those guys were good." He then waxes philosophically about Counter-Strike: "Sometimes you die quick, sometimes you die slow, but you always die."

Will the same hold true for his business?

Katona and Vincent Garcetti met in high school and later studied information technology together at FAU. Garcetti, a handsome Italian-American with dark features and brown oval eyes, will finish his degree this year. He doesn't have any lofty post-college expectations. In fact, he fully expects to join the ranks of the college-educated unemployed. Like Katona, Garcetti sees the Event as a way to build a business out of his love for gaming.

Last year, the two friends began to approach possible business partners for their venture. They had the know-how and the time; they needed someone with the money. Katona and Garcetti initially pondered creating something like Hammond's PC baang. But friends Patrick Sander and Kristy Warren, who are business partners in a mortgage company, didn't want to make the type of investment necessary to buy dozens of computers and rent retail space in a strip mall. So another friend, and subsequent business partner, suggested a compromise: Run LAN parties and attempt to gain revenue through sponsorships. "That's where the money is," Sander says.

Their goal is to gain a large enough following of gamers to move the Event to a convention center that would accommodate thousands of players. Those numbers could then attract sponsorship money from Intel, AMD, nVidia, Alienware, and other technology companies.

So far, things aren't going as planned. Bawls has been the only company to offer backing. The beverage company agreed to send a free case of the guaraná drink for each party. Sometimes it comes; sometimes it doesn't. The Event's business partners also expected to grow by 50 percent every two months. That hasn't happened either. They have yet to attract more than 35 gamers per party. The monthly $525 from admission payments barely covers expenses.

Sander, who put up money to buy networking cables and power strips, isn't sure how long he can keep going. Each party, Sander's job is to "collect the money" and "be the responsible adult." After eight of them, the 36-year-old acknowledges the customer base is elusive. Few kids know the others by more than a handle, and most are so paranoid or secretive that they refuse to give Sander even an e-mail address.

"It's an expensive sport with kids who have no money," Sander says.

"That's not a very good demographic, is it?" I counter.

"Yeah," Sander replies, walking outside into the balmy evening to get away from the ceaseless sound of gunfire, "I've slowly found that out."

It's 10:20 p.m., and LAN party aficionado Peter Willis has had enough. He places his mouse, speakers, and headphones into a backpack, then slides the keyboard into the rear net pocket; it sticks up above his head like a Samurai sword. "As LAN parties go, this wasn't that great," he snorts in disgust. Because of the Event's server limitations, only one game could be played at a time. To Willis, that's a recipe for a loser LAN party.

Katona walks over to say goodbye. "You should play with the full version of the games," Willis says. "The demo versions are limited. You can only play one map."

"Well, you know, it just takes so long for everybody to install the full version," Katona explains.

Garcetti walks up to the mike as Willis picks up his computer. Ten gamers remain. "Is everyone ready for Icy World?" he asks, then looks around. "Icy World! Icy World! Icy World!"

Willis shakes his head loathingly. "Counter-Strike, Counter-Strike, Counter-Strike," he says, just before pushing the door open on his way to the parking lot. "Everybody wants to play Counter-Strike."

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson