Yankees vs. Red Sox. Lakers vs. Celtics. Michigan vs. Ohio State. And now ... Team 3D vs. ComplLexity. That would be America's next celebrated rivalry if the men of professional video gaming have their way.
In this excerpt from his new book "Game Boys," writer Michael Kane takes us behind the scenes of the fierce and furious world of professional gaming and shows how a group of new-styled "athletes" are pushing competitive gaming into the big time.
Boom, boom, boom, boom! The house music is pumping and the crowd is stomping the bleachers. The house lights lower and the purple and green bulbs of the stage glow through smoke rising through the Championship Gaming Invitational's mesh stage. White spotlights swirl as the music pounds.
In the narrow, darkened space behind the set, TV sound engineers spin dials on control panels and production assistants hustle past and chatter into wireless headsets.
From this backstage blackness, a set of metal steps rises up past scaffolding to a platform above splashed in spotlights. For these gamers, it's an ultimate ascent from the underground to the limelight. At last, gaming had the validation that it wasn't just some basement-dwelling activity for pasty-white nerds.
The teams are standing ready, juggernaut world champion Team 3D in their red jerseys and never-say-die underdog CompLexity in yellow. They're shaking out their wrists, cracking their necks from side to side, finishing off cans of Red Bull. Nobody says a word.
"Okay, 3D you're up first," shouts the stage manager, waving them over to the bottom of the steps. "You guys ready?"
Manager Craig Levine pulls the team in for a huddle. "All right," he says as everyone comes in close, draping their arms across each other's shoulders. "This is why we practice. This is why we boot-camp. This is what we've been playing for all season. You guys are ready. You're better than every other team here."
Team captain Rambo jumps in. "We can do this. We're better than them. Don't play scared."
"All right," coach Levine says, "One, two, three."
All five teammates yell, "Desire! Discipline! Dedication!" and break huddle, climbing the steps, followed closely by two film crews.
Over the house PA, the announcer's voice booms: "They're an international powerhouse, considered to be the world's premier Counter-Strike squad. They live hard and play hard. Everybody make some noise for Team 3D."
The audience hollers in approval and pounds on Thunderstix as Levine and his team step out into the lights.
Backstage, the stage manager gives CompLexity its cue. "Okay, come on over."
Coach Jason Lake calls his team in for a quick huddle, although these guys really don't need another pep talk right now. They've gotten enough pep talks from him in the last two years. They know what needs to be done. Lake's concern is the pressure of the moment. He needs his guys loose up there, so he reaches deep into his bag of coach tricks to try and break the tension.
"Jeremiah was a bullfrog ..." Lake begins to sing, poorly no less, "... he was a good friend of mine. I never understood a single word he said, but I helped him drink his wine." His players are looking at each other like, okay, Jake's finally lost it.
"Joy to the world ..." the coach continues, just when they thought he'd stop, " ... all the boys and girls. Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea. Joy to you and me."
His players are all laughing, falling out of the huddle. "Jake, man, that's terrible," says Warden.
"Okay, good," says the coach. "I don't want you guys too serious. Let's stay loose out there, have some fun, all right? Now, come on, let's go win this thing."
CompLexity breaks huddle and heads for the stairs. The five players ascend to the platform, as the announcer's voice booms overhead: "From Atlanta, they're a rag-tag band of gaming outcasts. Please put your hands together for team CompLexity!"
Lake pauses at the bottom of the steps. There's nobody who's sacrificed more for this team, this game, and this fledgling industry than this stubborn coach. "This is my life. I've got it all on the line," he says. Then he begins to climb.
CompLexity makes its entrance and files into the seats across from 3D. Lake steps in behind the chairs, as usual. He's here at last. He's finally made it to the big stage.
The players warm up, double-checking their settings and ensuring their headsets are loud and clear. All their pre-match quirks are on display. Warden kicks off his flip-flops under the table to go barefoot. Across the way, Rambo is fastidiously picking specks of lint off his mousepad. It calls to mind a backyard quarterback, ripping up blades of grass in the huddle while brainstorming the next play.
CompLexity's star sniper fRoD, the best player in the world, is sitting perched up on his foot. He looks at ease, confident, unburdened by the weight of his future. As he fine-tunes the settings on his keyboard and mouse, he's like a real-life sniper calmly calibrating the scope on his rifle before battle.
Click-click-click. fRoD sets his screen resolution to a preferred 1024 X 768 and refresh rate to 100 hertz. He adjusts his mouse sensitivity to a factor of 2.4 and locking his focus on the little green cross-hairs on his screen, the lethal sniper fires two warm-up bullets to test the precision of his virtual weapon.
Satisfied, fRoD slowly sits back in his chair and takes his hand off the mouse.
The referee steps between the teams. "Okay, let's get ready to go," says the ref, resetting the game clock.
Team captain Tr1p calls into his headset for CompLexity's standard defensive alignment. Across the way, Rambo is wracking his brain. Train was the map where deposed play-caller Moto's complex smoke-and-mirrors strats were most useful. All those heavily orchestrated fakes might have proved crucial in cloaking 3D's rushes and reducing fRoD's sniper-rifle advantage.
But it's Rambo's show now. He's not sending fraggers like Method and ShaGuar out to run misdirection ploys. He's not getting them picked off while they're trying to synchronize flash-grenade tosses. Rambo is putting into the fight. Screw the choreography. 3D is an all-star team. They'll run and gun and win this on raw ability.
"Okay, let's go Outer Fast," he says, ordering a rush on the site that Storm will defend. Rambo's played CompLexity plenty enough to know where their lethal sniper fRoD will lurk, so he'll try the other side first. "Come on," Rambo says. "Let's do this."
It's go time. Team 3D trash talker ShaGuar stands up out of his seat and yells across the stage, "Let's see what you got, CompLexity. Bring it. Whoooo!"
And once more, these old rivals charge into the fray, hammering away furiously on their game controllers.
Michael Kane is an entertainment features writer for the New York Post. Previously he as a sportswriter and editor at the Denver Post, where he covered a wide range of subjects, from the NBA to MLB to offbeat sports like bicycle polo and ultimate Frisbee. His writing has appeared in ESPN The Magazine and Sport.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from GAME BOYS by Michael Kane, Copyright Michael Kane, 2008.