Game Boys

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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.

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson