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Vol. 2, Issue 2
November 17, 1999
Game, Set, Match!

The Brave New World of Online Gaming

by Stephanie "Bobbi" Bergman

Online competitive gaming. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? People go online, and play competitive computer games. But when you factor in the people, organizations, egos, and money involved, the world of online competitive gaming gets very complicated.

At the heart of online gaming are the people who log on every night and hangout playing whatever game they play with their friends online. You can find them on ladders like the Online Gaming League, on services like HEAT.NET, and playing in online tournaments. What is it about gaming that keeps them coming back, upgrading their computers to make them better at the games, shelling out wads of cash for the fastest possible Internet access, practicing for hours on end to get that perfect rocket jump?

Then there are the gamers who have earned the tag “Professional” or “Cyberathlete.” They have made something of a career out of winning tournaments both online and off, and are now sponsored gamers, paid to play. There aren’t many of these people, the most well-known being Dennis “Thresh” Fong, but thousands are trying to join him every day, every time they start up a match. A few years ago Thresh seemed as amazed as everyone else that he was making a living playing games. Now it’s just part of a day’s work. What is the life of a “Professional” gamer really like?

It all started a few years ago, when this curiosity popped up on the horizon. It was called the Professional Gamers League, and for a small fee, you could compete in their online league over a gaming service called TEN. The league finals would be held live, with finalists being flown in to compete. And there would be prize money for the winners. Not just prizes, or a new computer...this was a chance to win cold hard cash. Theoretically, the PGL pointed out, if you won every "season" (the idea being there would be four a year), you could live off of the leagues. Hundreds of people signed up and competed in the events. But TEN wasn’t exactly the best of services, and paying a fee to play was restrictive to a good number of people. People stopped paying attention to the PGL, to the point that their last event came and went without many noticing. Then TEN shut down, or turned into POGO.com, an entirely different kind of online gaming service, and certainly not one that would run servers for games like Quake (the game most commonly used in these events).

Rumors flew about the PGL being closed, about it not being possible to run a business doing these events. loonygames spoke with PGL Press Secretary Garth Choteau, who assured us that the PGL is not, in fact, closed, and that they will even be at Comdex this week with sponsored players Kornelia, Sybek and K9-Gloucester playing Quake III: Arena in the Acer booth. The league itself is currently on official hiatus, and the PGL is looking at “a number of prospective partners,” presumably other online gaming services. The PGL is, by league design, dependent on online gaming services to provide servers for their games to be held on. Will the PGL find a suitable partner? Or will the PGL be forced to change format or fold?

Other competitive gaming organizations use different formats. The Cyberathlete Professional Organization, the PGL’s chief competitor, recently awarded a $10,000 prize at the Frag 3 last month. At that event, CPL Founder Angel Munoz announced the largest prize yet to come, $40,000 to be awarded to the first place winner at an event to be held in Los Angeles. i2e2, launched by former PGL and CPL founders Joe Perez and Frank Cabanski, is taking yet another approach, seeking to hold events both “professional” and “amateur”, as well as online and off. To look at this in the coldest way possible, these organizations exist to make a profit off of people playing games they didn’t create. To make money off of gamers. Is it really possible?

And what about the companies making these games? id Software jumped into the competitive gaming ring this past summer with QuakeCon ’99 (held entirely offline), and Microsoft recently gave two Harley-Davidson motorcycles away at a MechWarrior 3 tournament (held both online and off). Microsoft’s Gaming Zone is a study in how to run a ultra-successful online gaming service, but not exactly the premiere place for serious competition (but if you’re looking for a mean game of Hearts, it’s the best around), the MW3 tournament aside. Starcraft, Total Annihilation, Half-Life, Tribes, Age of Empires...all these and more have been used in competitive gaming events. With the Dreamcast’s multiplayer capabilities, other games may soon be entering this arena, bringing other types of gamers with it. How do all of these developers feel about companies starting up to organize people playing their games?

Of course, there is also the issue of bragging rights. How do you really know who is the best player, when so many different formats are being used? Will someone, some organization, create a standard for ranking online gamers?

Then there is the most important question of all. What effect will all this ranking, paying out, and partnering have on the gamers themselves? We pretty much take for granted the ability to jump on a server and play without a rank or registration. Is that time nearing an end?

I don’t know the answers to the questions raised here. But this column will seek, if not to answer them, at least to explore the complicated issues surrounding them. At its most fundamental level, online gaming is about you and me. I am a gamer. I like being able to play, competitively, online. I like the rush I get when I’m winning a game of Quake, and nothing is like the hopeless despair of losing a hard-fought match. It’s a wonderful, exhilarating experience, and what fuels all of these companies, all of these organizations, all of us. Ultimately? We all just want to kick some ass. It’s the fact that we need so much structure (and cash incentives!) to do it that makes it so interesting.

I like to think I know the online gaming world fairly well at this point. This past year, I co-organized the Female Frag Fest '99, an all-female Quake 2 tournament sanctioned by the CPL, and I am a member of the Quake clan PMS. I also currently play on the OGL ladder (Quake III open division), and have participated in a number of other ladders and tournaments, including the PGL. So while I try to answer these questions, I will be doing it, not only from the perspective of a researcher and a writer like everyone else, but also as a former tournament official, and a gamer.

Let me add this. Online gaming is a very confusing, very complicated issue. I've pretty much laid out what I intend to cover in this column. If there is anything not mentioned here, any organization worth looking into, something confusing, please let me know. Online competitive gaming is ultimately about the gamers, and this column will be the same.

- Stephanie "Bobbi" Bergman needs to come up with better taglines.


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