By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
For those who think computer gaming is a lot of wasted time, Munoz reminds critics that there's money to be made. The top Counter-Strike clan in the country, Team 3D from Dallas, has CompUSA as a sponsor and its members earn a regular salary. Companies such as Intel sponsor the huge Dallas tournament, allowing for high-dollar prizes. And the top solo player in the nation, Jonathan Wendel, has earned more than $200,000 in cash and prizes and was featured on an MTV program titled True Life: I'm a Gamer.
But even though the members of Team Forsaken wouldn't mind winning the $60,000 top team prize at the CPL tournament, and Funk says he would like the money for college (his dad was recently laid off), they're all a little wary of getting too obsessed.
"I wake up in the morning, I drink Jolt cola, I play Counter-Strike, I eat macaroni and cheese, I play Counter-Strike, I drink Jolt cola," says David in a deep voice, mimicking Jonathan's interview on the MTV program. David and the other Forsaken guys think it's weird to spend your whole life playing video games. One of David's biggest loves is hockey; he plays regularly and coaches young kids starting out in the sport.
"I don't want to get paid to play a computer game," he says. "Do you want to play computer games your whole life?"
It's a warm Friday night in late June -- perhaps one of the last summer nights in Houston amenable to outdoor activity. But for the nearly 100 Houston-area kids crowded into Netzone, the great outdoors are of no interest. You can't play computer games outside.
Netzone, one of Houston's first gaming centers, is located in an upscale strip mall in the northwest part of town, just outside Beltway 8. Large and spacious, with 60 computers and a lightning-fast T1 connection, it's a gamer's paradise. Today a late-night tournament is taking place from 6 p.m. till midnight. But that's nothing compared to the center's lock-ins, where players tackle games continuously from 10 p.m. until 7 a.m. the next day. They don't sleep, or simply fall asleep at the computer. Houston police officer Tom Griffin is hired to patrol these all-night events, where players massacre and attack one another on-screen -- but he says he rarely needs to break up a real fight. Not that he hasn't seen things get dirty.
"Once there was a kid playing who got so motion-sick from the game, he threw up on the keyboard," says Griffin. "They are dedicated."
Netzone opened in June 2002, the brainchild of three former Compaq employees who heard of the gaming-center craze on the West Coast and decided to give it a go in Houston. It's doing so well they recently decided to open up a store in College Station, hoping to tap into the university students there.
It costs $35 to join for a year, plus $4 an hour to play. Nonmembers pay $6 an hour. Netzone is one of five gaming centers in the Houston area -- Toe's Online Gaming Center in southeast Houston and Gladiators in Sugar Land are two other large ones. They all draw many of the same type of customers: young teenage boys from the suburbs with plenty of disposable income.
"The social aspect is a big draw," says Netzone owner Ginger Benwell. "We do a lot of birthday parties."
If the CPL qualifying matches are for the hard-core cyberathletes, these all-nighters at the gaming centers are for the amateurs and novices. Team Forsaken would be bored silly on a night like tonight, which means it's the perfect place for the average player who just wants to enjoy the action or try a new game.
It's so crowded that not everyone who wants a computer can get one. A gaggle of hyper 14- and 15-year-old boys waits around for a free PC to open up so they can play. Their parents pay for their memberships to Netzone, they say, and drop them off here every Friday night.
"This place is where we hang out," says one curly-haired 14-year-old named Albert Garcia. "Usually the girls we bring here think it's horrible. They call us all losers and leave. They go to the movies. But we stay here."
There are barely any girls at Netzone. Two of them, 16-year-olds with gold glitter on their faces and purses slung over their shoulders, stand behind some of the boys who are playing, half observing the action on-screen.
"We have nothing else to do," one says coolly. "We are here out of sheer boredom."
But there is one young woman, 17-year-old Merrisa Davis, who has taken a seat behind the monitor. Tonight she's trying out a game called Return to Castle Wolfenstein.
"I know you're battling Nazis; beyond that I'm not sure," she says, as she shoots and a Nazi soldier crumples before her in a pool of blood.
Merrisa admits she plays computer games every day, but her parents don't mind as long as she gets her homework done first. She likens her enjoyment of gaming to her love of reading -- both activities take her to another place, allow her to become a different person. In the case of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, it lets her dismantle the Third Reich.