E3: Pro Gaming Hopes to Hit Mainstream

Meet "FATAL1TY," the 27-year-old poster boy of professional video gaming.

He is good-looking, stylish, in good shape and not the least bit socially awkward.

"Gamers aren't all nerds sitting in their basements. I have friends. I work out. I don't have zits," he says as he laughs and runs his hand through his mohawk.

FATAL1TY, whose real name is Jonathan Wendel, has won more than 12 world titles and earned six figures since the age of 19, and he says his league is just like any other professional sport. There are big salaries, team rivalries, drafts and obsessed fans. And yes, he's signed breasts.

"The emotion, the training, the passion, the competition; it's all there," says FATAL1TY from the kickoff party for this week's team world finals of the Championship Gaming Series (CGS). Launched more than a year ago, it's the first worldwide professional gaming league.

"We are athletes, and I'm here to help take this sport mainstream."

The CGS is hoping the league's world finals in Los Angeles, which end on July 28 with the crowning of a world champion team, will help U.S. audiences take notice.

"Gaming is going to be the next great sport for the 21st century," said Andy Reif, the CEO and Commissioner of the CGS. "But, like poker, it's not going to happen overnight."

Professional Gaming 101

"There are so many similarities to traditional sports in this league it's crazy," said Swoozie, a professional gamer turned commentator for CGS. He's dressed in a white sports coat, baggy jeans and a huge Mario necklace.

In this week's world finals, eight teams with names like the Sydney Underground, Mexico City Furia and Wuhan Dragons from Singapore will go head-to-head. They're the survivors from the 18 teams that started the competition.

The teams will battle on four video games: "Dead or Alive 4," a Mortal Kombat-type fighting game; "FIFA 08," a soccer game; "Counter-Strike: Source," one the most popular of the multi-player shooting game games; and "Forza 2," a race car game.

While individual players compete on different video games, all points they rack up contribute to the team's grand total. The team with the most points wins. Counter-Strike is the only game in which five players on a team compete at the same time.

Teams are typically comprised of 10 people, plus bench warmers. Swoozie is a warmer for Dallas Venom this year.

"You never know when someone is going to fall and break their wrist," he says.

Girl Power

While the teams are male-dominated, gaming isn't only for males. One of the female superstars in the league is Vanessa Arteaga, who competes on team San Francisco Optx. She's this year's individual woman's world champion in DOA 4. Not surprisingly, she is quite popular with the players.

"In this league, women are hot commodities," says Swoozie. "It's such a turn-on when they are into all the same games you're into."

That's not to say that the boys don't get attention too.

"The fans throw themselves at this guy," says Swoozie, pointing to gamer "Master" Rodgriguez, the world's individual male DOA 4 champion this year and a fellow member of the Dallas Venom.

"Not all, but some of them are hot too," says Rodriguez, who recently started dating Arteaga.

And how did Master, Arteaga and Swoozie make it on to the team you ask? They all took part in a draft held at the Playboy mansion, of course.

"It's a draft with Playboy bunnies walking all over the place," said Rodriguez. "Can you believe that?"

During the picks, general managers, or coaches/business managers, hand-select their teams.

"I'm looking for skill, personality and a group that gels," says Alex Conroy, general manager of the Venom. "I also want someone who's also played sports. They've got to have that competitive drive."

That becomes important when the Venom faces off against rivals like the Carolina Core.

"Let's just say there's some tension there," says Rodriguez.

Competing as a Pro

Across the board, gamers say it takes a lot of hard work to compete at this level.

"It's not about luck. It's not like you flip a coin one day and you're good at this. You have to practice. You have to work really hard to be the next Michael Jordan of gaming," says Rodriguez, the self-proclaimed Michael Jordan of gaming.

When preparing for a competition, FATAL1TY's schedule is rigid up to two months in advance. He wakes up at noon, plays for four hours, goes for a run, eats lunch and relaxes. That's followed by two more hours of practice, more relaxation and two more hours of practice before bed. That's a total of 8 hours of play time a day. There's also no drinking or partying.

"It's their full time job," says Conroy. "It's an unconventional job, but they still work a 9 to 5 shift. It's just that for a lot of them, their shift is from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m."

"Most of us don't get up till after noon," agrees John Sievers, captain for the Dallas Venom.

While non-gamers may think video game skills are anything but skills, according to Steven Roberts, senior vice president of DIRECTV — the channel broadcasting the world finals — "Many of the gamers exceed the eye hand co-ordination levels of the world's top fighter pilots."

"I practice a lot, but I also work out and run a lot too," says FATAL1TY. "I've got to be at the top of the mental and physical game so I can be ready when competition is intense and I see the other guys fading."

Growing Popularity

While professional gaming hasn't sparked a huge amount of interest in the United States so far, people are watching overseas, according to Reif.

Gaming is so big in China that the city of Wuhan built the first-ever permanent CGS training center. On opening day of the 2008 Pan-Asia Final, 80,000 people showed up.

But the big challenge isn't Asia or Europe; it's attracting a U.S. fan base. Recent strides have left many optimistic.

"The video game market is growing faster than the movie industry," according to Roberts.

Still, some in the industry have their questions about the idea of a mainstream gaming league.

"The spectator has to be able to appreciate the talent. I'm not sure many people outside the game market realize how much skill these games take," said Guy Cocker, the features editor for GameSpot.com. "It might not be anything bigger than a league for people who are already playing."

"But then again, look at poker," says Cocker.