Game On

Young warriors gather for battles in cyberspace

And as for being one of the few girls in the room, Merrisa could care less. She acknowledges that it's "a testosterone thing" to blow stuff up. Then again, she says she's always been a bit of a tomboy.

Sitting next to her is Mike Colvard, one of the oldest players in the room. He's wearing a black T-shirt with a picture of an Atari 2600 joystick on it and the word "Roots" printed underneath it. At 27, he is probably one of the few players at Netzone who actually got his start on the antiquated game system.

"For me, it's a stress reliever," he says of gaming. He says he's tired of hearing people complain that video games are too violent or minimize the amount of time kids exercise. You could argue that people who play baseball are in danger of getting too much sun, he says. And as for the fragging? (That's game-speak for killing.) Mike works at a store that sells computer games, and he says it's a parent's responsibility to understand they're rated for a reason. (In fact, Team Forsaken says it's not unheard of for kids to use fake IDs to try to get into Counter-Strike tournaments, because the game is restricted to those 17 and older.)

BAWLS founder Hoby Buppert stocks Netzone's 
Daniel Kramer
BAWLS founder Hoby Buppert stocks Netzone's cases.
Forsaken's Stuart Holden tackles Counter-Strike, the 
most popular game on the market.
Daniel Kramer
Forsaken's Stuart Holden tackles Counter-Strike, the most popular game on the market.

Mike proudly proclaims he plays 20 to 25 hours a week. Unlike the Forsaken guys, he is stripped of any attempt to appear hip or cool.

"I'm such a geek," he declares as he fiddles with his mouse. "And you know what? I love it."

Sitting next to Mike's computer is a dark blue bottle with the word "BAWLS" printed on it. The highly caffeinated beverage made from the guarana berry is a favorite of gamers worldwide -- in fact, the gaming subculture has helped boost sales of the drink to half a million cases last year. Since one bottle of the light, fruity beverage has the caffeine of about three cans of Coke, the drink is the perfect accessory for gamers who want -- no, need -- to stay up all night.

The Miami-based company didn't start out marketing to gamers, but the lowdown on the drink spread on the Internet, and owner Hoby Buppert, who developed the drink while in college because he couldn't stand the taste of coffee, decided to take advantage of the fan base. Now BAWLS sponsors thousands of parties at gaming centers like the one tonight at Netzone.

"When the gamers first came to us, I didn't even know what a LAN party was," says Buppert, who is visiting Netzone before heading to another gaming event in south Houston. A soft-spoken, clean-cut 30-year-old, Buppert says some gamers have asked him for his autograph at events, even though he admits he's not much of a gamer himself.

"There's a weird aspect to it," he says with a laugh. "It makes me feel a little awkward."

Not everyone craves the product. Albert Garcia and his buddies are clutching some free BAWLS stickers, still waiting for a space to open up so they can transform themselves into digital soldiers. They gleefully admit that when they drink too much of the stuff, it gives them diarrhea.

War is hell indeed.

Back at the CPL qualifying match, the Forsaken boys have just returned from lunch to discover that once again they'll be up against ExS for the tournament's championship round. In the lobby area in front of the gaming room, drinking Mountain Dew (BAWLS is "gay") and pretending to kick each other, the boys from both teams talk gaming and take part in the bizarre ritual that is adolescent male ribbing.

"Asian pride, Asian pride!" yell a few members of Forsaken at their competitors. Team ExS, which is made up mostly of Asian boys, laughs good-naturedly. Then an ExS member smiles, squats and shakes his ass in the faces of several of Forsaken's finest.

To pass the time, and to maximize humiliation for one another whenever possible, the members of Forsaken relate several mortifying stories, including the one about a certain team member who may or may not have crapped his pants during the ride home from a tournament (the player will remain nameless so as to protect the extremely embarrassed). It's the kind of story that desperately cries out for a visual aid, so Stuart spends a few moments waddling around the lobby with his knees pressed together.

Then the CPL administrator, a woman named Tonya Welch, opens the door of the gaming room and announces it's time to get started. After a few brief exchanges of "fag" and "faggot," presumably to make sure no one gets the wrong idea, the members of ExS and Forsaken gather for a quick group hug. Then it's inside for the final match, where they hook up their own keyboards, headphones and mouses, which they carry in backpacks.

"They're like tampons," explains Mat of the special equipment. "You pick the ones that are most comfortable for you." This leads to a brief but spirited discussion about tampons and the various sizes they come in.

There's 15 or 20 minutes of warm-up time. For Forsaken to take the whole game -- and the whole tournament -- they have to win just one match. Because ExS is in second place, they must win two. Each match consists of 25 rounds, so the first team to win 13 rounds immediately takes the match.

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