Will Video Game Players Turn Pro?

— Like most athletes, Jan Cifra is guided by a deeply held belief: Losing to a competitor is something to be avoided at all costs.

"The first thing you have to have: You have to hate losing. That's the main drive," says the 22-year-old Cifra, a university student from Slovakia. "When you hate to lose, you want to win as much as possible… you want to be the best."

And over the last year Cifra has devoted at least three hours every day — depending on his commitments to studies and girlfriend — to training and studying the strategy of his top opponents. Now he has traveled thousands of miles to San Francisco hoping to walk home with the gold — in video games.

Cifra and hundreds of players from around the world have flocked to the fourth-annual World Cyber Games championships being held in California's city by the bay. There, players will compete in one of eight "events" — popular video games ranging from FIFA Soccer 2004 to a terrorist combat game known as Counter-Strike: Condition Zero. And at the end of competition on Sunday, winners will walk away with top bragging rights — and thousands of dollars in cash prizes.

Game for Growth

Spurred by the growth of the Internet, home computers and video game entertainment, tournaments such as the WCG have become increasingly popular.

When the WCG tournament was first held in 2000, 10,000 players from 17 nations competed in preliminary rounds in their home countries. In the final round of competition, held in South Korea, 174 players competed for $200,000 in prizes. The tournament's largest sponsor then was the South Korean electronics giant Samsung.

This year, more than 1 million players, from 64 countries, registered for the preliminary rounds of play. Over the course of national competitions, about 700 players were left standing to compete in this week's grand final competitions in San Francisco — the first city outside of South Korea to host the international game play.

Meanwhile, corporate sponsors ranging from computer maker Hewlett-Packard to graphics chip maker Nvidia, have ponied up over $400,000 in cash prizes for the final WCG tournament.

Putting on a Pro Polish

Both players and organizers are excited about such growth. They are using it to fuel a push to take video gaming to the next level — as a professional sport.

Hank Jeong, president and chief executive officer of International Cyber Marketing, which produces the WCG events, says that Asian countries have already embraced video games as a competitive sport.

"In [South] Korea, there are three channels devoted to gaming on cable TV," says Jeong. "In China, the minister of sports — the same organization that handles Olympic athletes — is developing a new registration system for game competitors. It really is [treated as] a sport."

Jeong says the WCG is set up to handle the players and competitions much like the international Olympic games. In each country, players must register and compete in local, officially sanctioned gaming events culminating in a final national tournament.

Show Us the Money

But just as in most "professional" sports, being the quickest on the trigger or having the shrewdest playing strategy isn't a sure slot into the grand finals. Players must also have the funds to travel and compete — something that many players are increasingly finding in corporate or even national sponsorship.

Team 3D, a U.S. team of five Counter-Strike players, will compete this year with sponsorship from both Hewlett-Packard and Nvidia. Team manager Craig Levine says cutting-edge equipment donated by the sponsors helps the team's players keep on top of their game, while sponsorship funds help pay their way to WCG and other competitive tournaments.

Video game competitor Cifra says such sponsorships are among the dramatic changes over the last few years. When he started competing nationally in Slovakia three years ago, he says he was lucky to win tournament prizes equal to a few hundred U.S. dollars. But now a local gaming Web site has stepped up to sponsor him and 10 other Slovaks at the WCG finals.

"Many international teams are paid for by sponsors," says Cifra. "It's a reality and it's what's happening more and more."

An Olympic Buildup

But it's still debatable when — or even if — video game playing becomes an actual professional sport with "athletes" whose livelihood depends on beating contestants on a virtual battlefield.

Certainly, promoters such as Jeong say the signs are hopeful. In South Korea some gamers have already turned pro and enjoy a lifestyle — and fanatic following — similar to other sports athletes, he says. But to bring that fervor to the United States and globally, much more mass market interest will need to be developed.

As such, Jeong's company has set up the WCG final tournaments to be much more than just a gathering of hard-core gamers. To draw in the masses, the WCG event is also hosting an exhibition hall where video game and entertainment companies can show off their latest attractions. To foster more industry interest and interaction, ICM is also hosting a concurrent gaming conference where the industry will toss about issues such as how to develop games that will attract female players.

And since the event is designed to equate competitive video gaming with physical sports, ICM is also pulling out the stops to entertain attendees and spectators. The actual contests will be broadcast on huge video screens at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, as well as online for fans who cannot attend in person. During the day, live skateboard and BMX bike riders will perform outside the competition hall. At night, there will be live performances from various musical groups.

Such festivities and events will certainly create an entertainment atmosphere, but will it really help cast gaming as a "serious" sport?

"I think it's something people can adjust to," says Cifra. "It's the same as the Olympics — just that they're different kinds of games."