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The next action sport

Say hello to the new breed of pro athlete — and goodbye to their grassroots
By CAMILLE DODERO  |  November 21, 2006

061124_gamerz_main
RUSH HOUR: Super Smash Bros. Melee doubles team Daniel “KoreanDJ” Jung and Marcus Kennedy, who’s Chris Tucker to Jung’s Jackie Chan.

At New York City’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in mid October, hundreds of people are squished into bleachers, staring at cyborg super-soldiers who’re killing each other. The combat they’re watching is being projected onto giant overhead screens, controlled by eight young men onstage behind eight televisions. Divided into two teams, these guys will kill and kill and kill each other until one side wins. The successful squad will split $30,000. The loser, $20,000. Not a bad day’s wage for bashing away at buttons with your thumbs.

This is the final match at Major League Gaming’s (MLG) 2006 playoffs. The video game they’re playing is Xbox’s hugely popular Halo 2. The top-seeded team is Final Boss, the New York Yankees of Halo 2, whose dominance is already the stuff of prepubescent legend. Their opponents are Carbon, teenage underdogs who took advantage of Final Boss’s recent slump and defeated them at the last MLG-sponsored tournament in Orlando. Everyone on stage is under 22. As representatives of MLG, the largest sanctioning body of console professional gaming, like to say, these young men represent a “new brand of athlete.”

With mob scenes occurring over PlayStation 3 last week, and gaming popular across the generations, MLG co-founder Mike Sepso thinks this could be the next NASCAR. In other words, professional video gaming is becoming not only a sport, but a mainstream lifestyle — which seems all the more likely now that MLG is on TV in a seven-episode Saturday-morning USA Network series, Boost Mobile Major League Gaming Pro Circuit.

But MLG still has one foot in the gaming movement’s original grassroots culture. If an online title like Halo 2 represents MLG’s future, the other title MLG is hosting in New York today, the head-to-head Nintendo GameCube fighting game Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001), represents its past.

There are other differences: if Halo 2 is 3-D sci-fi, Smash is 2-D Japanese-pop fantasy. Halo 2 players morph into cyborg super-soldiers; Smash players pretend to be classic Nintendo characters like Pokémon’s pink globular creature Jigglypuff, Super Princess Peach, and that mustachioed Italian runt named Mario. Halo 2 is a mysterious ring-world of stony alien ruins; in Smash reality, the clouds have smiley faces. Halo 2 weapons are sniper-rifles, rocket launchers, and grenades; Smash players do battle with dinosaur eggs and turnips.

“When people first look at Smash, they see Nintendo — kids’ game,” says Chris “PC Chris” Szygiel, a 19-year-old Smash pro who has won at least $30,000 playing the title. “They don’t automatically think like, ‘This game could be cool or this game could be competitive like Halo.’ But it’s just as competitive as any other fighting game.”

Halo 2 may be MLG’s marquee name, its top players the most moneyed in console gaming, its superstars the most adulated. But even though Smash doesn’t have the same lustrous shine as Halo 2, the 2001 GameCube release has its own appeal: a fervent underground community. Since, like most fighting games — Dead or Alive IV being a notable exception — Smash isn’t online, it fosters high-school-and-college-age Nintendo heads who travel every weekend to basements, university classrooms, and arcade centers to practice with players who are at the same competitive level.

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