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Playing for a Living

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With an honors degree from England's Cambridge University in his briefcase, Sujoy Roy didn't take long to land a dream job as an investment banker at J.P. Morgan in New York. There he had it all: an all-expense paid apartment on Broadway and a $50,000 salary that was sure to balloon to six figures in a year.

Then he chucked everything and started playing computer games for a living.

"I'm looking at making about $200,000 this year," says Roy, 24, now one of the world's hottest cyber-ath letes. Known to rivals as "Thunder Fingers," Roy lives in London but travels the globe, playing in tournaments and promoting computer games as the sport of the new millennium.

"It's just fantastic to be able to live this lifestyle. I'll never go back to banking," he says. "I'd never be able to get up in the morning to get to work on time."

It's a strange concept - computer gaming as a sport, or as a career. But all the elements are taking shape - the hype, the endorsements and the glitz. Consider Dennis Fong, a Californian who won a red Ferrari in a tournament and parlayed his fame into a startup dotcom with $11 million in venture capital. Or Stevie Case, the blonde featured in "Quake" whose looks and gaming prowess landed her in a Playboy pictorial.

They're examples of a new breed of gamers who have found big money in their hobby, often subsidized by corporate sponsors who aren't playing around. Babbage's electronics stores, Gateway Computers and other big- name companies are putting up first- place prize money of $40,000 and more for international tournaments, most of which involve the shoot-em-up game "Quake 3."

"It's been a blast," says 19-year-old Johnathan Wendel of Kansas City, Mo., who plays under the nickname "Fatality" and has won $70,000 so far this year in "Quake 3" tournaments. "It's still a lot of work staying competitive, but it's a lot better than working at McDonald's."

Endorsements are adding to the riches. Like several rivals scattered throughout the United States, Korea, Sweden and Russia, Roy and Wendel are paid tens of thousands of dollars to promote gaming accessories like the Razer, a high-sensitivity, $100-mouse and the weapon of choice for many top digital warriors.

Robert Krakoff, general manager for the San Francisco-based Razer Inc., said the firm's investment in top players - who get cash, computers, gear and travel expenses - is money well-spent. Razer is also putting up $150,000 in prize money for a tournament early next year in Dallas.

"As this has gotten more and more international, it's really opened the market for us to get more exposure," said Krakoff, whose fame has earned him the nickname "Razerguy" and requests for autographed mice.

"We used to do more traditional advertising, like full-page ads in gaming magazines, but this is a segment of the population that doesn't trust everything that they read," Krakoff said. "So we shifted our marketing funds to sponsorships of the tournaments, and that kind of grass-roots marketing has paid huge dividends for us."

Taco Bell, Coca-Cola, Visa and Microsoft are also looking to reap benefits. Angel Munoz, who heads the Cyberathlete Professional League, a hub of sorts for professional gaming, said Nike is sending a group of executives to December's "Quake 3" tournament, also to be in Dallas.

"This is getting to be a very serious sport with very serious money," Munoz said. "When we started the league in 1997, people thought it was laughable. Now today, a lot of people are taking notice. We're in conversations with ESPN2 about covering the December event. This has got to be more exciting to watch than their bass fishing show."

"Quake 3," the most popular battlefield for digital gladiators, pits multiple players against one another in virtual mazes and multi-level dungeons. There, they guide their characters from room to room, dispatching opponents with rocket launchers, futuristic laser rifles and explosives.

Tournaments are played from Singapore to Saskatchewan, in hotel ballrooms, airplane hangars, warehouses and nightclubs.

The professional gamers themselves are a colorful bunch who practice up to 10 hours a day before tournaments but never seem to lose sight of the fact that their job is playing games.

"This is a great thing," Munoz said. "I don't know of any other sport that you can practice in your underwear."

By most measures, a gamer's life is somewhat less stressful than, say, that of a heart surgeon or a stock trader.

"My day consists of working out, laying by the pool and playing Quake," says 21-year-old Victor Cuadra, a Livermore, Calif. resident known as "Makaveli" who won $20,000 at an April tournament.

He was narrowly beaten by Wendel in a final match that saw spectators "oooh" and "ahhh" over a slow-motion, giant screen replay that showed Wendel's character bounce out of a lava pit as he moved in for the kill.

Cuadra bills himself as the "Muhammed Ali of video-gaming," largely due to his mouthiness, which he is quite proud of.

"I like talking trash," Cuadra said. "I get a lot of heat for it. But when it comes down to it, that's my edge. I'm an emotional player."

Big-money tournaments are always land-based, rather than played over the Internet, in order to assure consistency.

Each player competes on a computer with similar specifications -that way, there are no excuses.

Among the best known cyberathletes is "Thresh," whose real name is Dennis Fong, a 23-year-old Los Altos, Calif., native who vaulted himself and computer gaming into the limelight when he won a snazzy red Ferrari in a 1997 "Quake" tournament.At the time, such a prize was unheard of.

Fong parlayed the big win into a career, complete with digital superstar status among gaming fans.

His picture is on a trading card, and the Ferrari now sits in the lobby of his company, Gam- ers.com, in Richmond, Calif.

A high- tech venture capital firm, CMGI, gave Fong and others $11 million to start up the Web site, which offers gamers more then they ever wanted to know about any game you can think of.

"We put the car in the lobby because it's become a symbol of sorts," says Fong, who has been invited to tournaments in Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Russia and more than a dozen other countries.

"The Ferrari convinced a lot of people. I think they're seeing this as a viable and very interesting sport. The barriers of traditional sports is non-existant with this, because there are no physical limitations. In basketball, you can't be five-feet tall and play. In computer gaming, it doesn't matter. I have a friend who is a quadriplegic and he can play as well as anyone."

Fong doesn't play in tournaments any more.

He says his schedule is so busy with corportate matters that he doesn't have time to practice.

"I would prepare for tournaments by playing eight hours a day," he explains. "If I can't dedicate myself to that full-time, then I shouldn't compete. A big part of it is staying sharp and just getting the moves down, it's like hitting the ball back and forth in tennis. You just have to do it a lot."

Such spinoff careers are not uncommon among gamers - who, for the most part, are savvy, intelligent and looking for a way to avoid a 9-to-5 job.

For instance, Sujoy Roy, the London champion, has a Web site called www.excessreality.com, which covers tournaments with blow-by-blow descriptions of the action.

He supplements an already large income with advertising revenue.

Then there is Stevie Case, a 23-year-old Kansan who plays under the name "Killcreek" and who just parlayed her game- playing talent into a Playboy .com pictorial in May. Her reputation soared a few years ago, after she beat John Romero, co-creator of the "Quake" series and one of the chief designers at gaming giant Id Software, in a head-to-head match. The two began dating almost immediately.

Case also is featured in the September issue of Working Woman and is now a top designer at a Dallas-based game software company, Ion Storm.

"Competitive gaming in particular has been a terrific social outlet," she told Playboy in an interview. "I love my job, found a wonderful boyfriend and truly found myself through games."

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