Game On

Young warriors gather for battles in cyberspace

"What the fucking shit fuck ass!"

It is the cry of a warrior, of a soldier who is losing his cool.

But the battlefield is not some desert in Iraq, it's a darkened back room of a CompUSA store in an Austin strip mall. And the situation is not looking so good right now for our heroes in the trenches.

Team Forsaken participates in a Counter-Strike 
tournament at Toe's Online Gaming. The playing went 
on until 3 a.m.
Troy Fields
Team Forsaken participates in a Counter-Strike tournament at Toe's Online Gaming. The playing went on until 3 a.m.
Forsaken (from left: Mat, Brandon, Funk, Sam, Stuart 
and David) relaxes between matches.
John Anderson
Forsaken (from left: Mat, Brandon, Funk, Sam, Stuart and David) relaxes between matches.

The soldier in peril is 18-year-old Mat Brown, a dark-haired, hyper kid from Denton who is wearing a headset and hunching over a computer. The name of the game is Counter-Strike, and his weapons are not guns and knives -- not real ones, anyway -- but his own two hands. He uses them for clicking his mouse and tapping at his keyboard with the lunatic speed of a lab rat on coke. Mat admits he fell asleep during the SATs last year. But the SATs are boring, man. And right now he's wide awake.

To Mat's right and left sit his four comrades in arms, each of them wearing a headset and each of them equally obsessed with the computer in front of them. On their glowing monitors are images of explosions and of soldiers in green and khaki jumping, running and bursting into blood-red splotches. Sometimes digital pictures of two large hands appear at the bottoms of the screens holding grenades and guns and knives. They're meant to represent the weapons carried by the player seated at that computer. When a screen fades to black, the boy at that monitor knows he's dead.

Seated in a row, wearing those headsets and never for a second taking their eyes off their computer screens, these five teenage boys could pass for a bunch of TimeLife operators who are waiting to take your call. Instead, they are warriors in a new kind of fight being played out on hundreds of thousands of computers across the planet. And the stakes are not just street cred but money and prizes and a certain kind of rabid fame inherent to a weird subculture like the one surrounding computer gaming. Independently, these are five boys who are great at video games. But together they are Team Forsaken, one of the Houston area's best gaming clans -- to borrow a bit of the lingo.

"Anybody have a smoke?" yells 17-year-old David Jones from Conroe, clicking away.

"No time to smoke," answers Stuart Holden, also 17.

No time to smoke indeed. Right now Forsaken, made up of mostly Houston-area players, is in a triple-overtime match with Team ExS, from the Dallas and Austin areas. The two five-man teams sit on opposite sides of the black-walled room, their backs to each other so they can't look over their shoulders to see who's located where on Counter-Strike's digital war zone.

"There are times when I'll want so badly to tell them something, and I can't," says 17-year-old Brandon Wright, Forsaken's manager, who looks on nervously from the demilitarized zone between the two sides. Wright doesn't play, but he's got his hands full anyway, building their Web site, booking reservations for their away tournaments like this one, and handling their corporate sponsorship. Forsaken is sponsored by local IT company Big Daddy Systems. But just because Forsaken has played tournaments in New York City and has taken in a couple of grand in prize money doesn't mean its members are living the computer-gaming high life just yet.

"Last night we stayed at a place called the Exel Inn," says Brandon over the clickety-clack of computer keys and the occasional shouting of a swear word. "The smell…I don't really want to describe it."

As Brandon watches, Forsaken slowly starts pulling ahead. Once they win this match, they will be guaranteed a spot in the tournament's final round, where the winner will take $1,500 and a berth at the Cyberathlete Professional League's world championship in Dallas next month. If they make it to the CPL, they'll be up against at least 5,000 other players from all over the world who'll compete for $200,000 in cash and prizes, including a $60,000 prize that goes to the top Counter-Strike team.

"This is the kind of stuff that makes me a wreck," says Brandon, his eyes trying to absorb the action on five screens at once. "But they're a big clutch team."

Suddenly, all five players on Team ExS have black screens. Their players are dead. Forsaken has taken it.

There's a shout of excitement from Forsaken, and the CPL administrator monitoring the game flips on the lights. The Forsaken boys' cheeks are red and blotchy, and as they stretch from their seats they blink as their eyes adjust to the light. Then, just like in soccer or basketball, they turn around to shake hands with the members of ExS.

"Good game, good game," they mumble to one another.

They've got a break, and the boys of Forsaken are starving. Their last meal was a meager complimentary motel breakfast. As they troop out they start arguing about where to eat lunch. Mat says he's got only a couple of bucks in his pocket to get home, so whatever it is, the Forsaken boys need to eat cheap.

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