By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
"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.
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.
As they huddle over sandwiches at Subway, it's plain to see Team Forsaken's members are not your older brother's creepy friends down at the mall arcade. They're all handsome in a fraternity boy kind of way, wear baseball hats, play soccer and hockey, and kiss girls -- or claim they have, anyway. For reasons known only to adolescent males, they enjoy bonding by constantly humiliating one another. And although none of them seems truly homophobic, they are eager to prove their heterosexuality by labeling anything or anyone strange as "gay" or "a fag."
"Not as funny as you getting hit by something," quips Brandon without missing a beat, and the Forsaken boys chuckle.
David, who is known strictly as Funk, got started with Counter-Strike after he injured his wrist and could no longer play his first love, baseball. A tall, moon-faced blond with a soft voice, Funk led his team as far as a World Cyber Games event in New York City (based in Korea, the WCG is much like the Asian twin of the CPL). But soon after returning from the Big Apple, they disbanded. Funk says he wasn't getting enough respect from some of the other players.
In an online interview for a gaming Web site, Forsaken team member David Jones explained that "fellow clan members like to mess around with Funk, it can be funny at times but people don't realize he's a living thing too and I'm sure if they were in his shoes they would have taken 20,000 pills already."
But a year or so ago the team regrouped with Funk after fellow players promised they'd changed their ways -- although how serious they are remains to be seen. Other members of Team Forsaken include 17-year-old Sam Spitzer from The Woodlands and 18-year-old Mario Cebolao from Houston, who couldn't make it to the Austin CPL qualifier because he was on vacation. Forsaken recruited Denton-based Mat over the Internet.
As the boys eat, they discuss their morning at the tournament. Mat complains that they're "playing like ass," despite having developed a new strategy at Whataburger the night before. In addition to having a fast food dinner, the boys spent the evening before the tournament going to see Terminator 3. Then they retired to the Exel Inn, where teammates say Stuart spent much of the night taunting them by sticking his rear end in their faces while they were watching television.
"I've seen more of Stuart's ass than girls' asses," sighs Mat.
The blond, deeply tanned Stuart is one of the most animated members of the group, and he enjoys showing off Team Forsaken's signature move, which involves resting a hand on a wall and gently thrusting one's pelvis back and forth.
"It's guaranteed to get the girls running in under five minutes," he says, grinning.
Stuart is starting at Clemson University next year on a soccer scholarship, so it's clear he doesn't spend all his time gaming. According to Angel Munoz, founder and president of the CPL, athletic, all-American, pelvis-thrusting boys like Stuart are the new face of video games.
"It's shocking to see the type of person who comes to the events," says Munoz, an investment banker who specializes in high-tech companies. "They're well-adjusted men with good communication skills from stable families. It's not what you would expect."
According to Munoz, the average competitive gamer is a male between 17 and 24, from a middle- to upper-class background. Because of the competitive nature of the games, most are quite athletic and in good shape from participating in other sports. Although whites dominate gaming, Munoz says it's slowly gaining popularity in ethnic communities, too.
When Munoz founded the CPL in 1997, he was riding a wave that was just beginning to build. Computer gaming caught fire when the Internet exploded, and it was different from the days of going to the arcade or plugging in the Atari. In games like Pac-Man and with systems like Nintendo, players mostly competed against themselves to earn points and become the high scorer. With first-person shooter games like Counter-Strike, gamers play the game on a digital map as if they were inside another world, and they compete online against players in other states or even countries.
"I can tell you how many people are playing Counter-Strike online right this second," Munoz says, checking his computer. "84,889 are playing online. And that doesn't count gaming centers."
Gaming centers are for players who want the excitement of action surrounded by others -- they're a phenomenon that caught on quickly on the West Coast in the late '90s. Gamers can have LAN (local access network) parties at the centers, where they play together at one location. LAN parties can also be BYOC (bring your own computer) and held at people's houses or rented spaces. BYOC LAN parties often involve computers that have been modified to be extra-fast, or to include colorful cathodes that make a boring PC look much more interesting.
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.
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.)
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.
As soon as the CPL administrator cuts the lights, the boys' goofball natures disappear. They're in game mode, their eyes set on the screens and their faces stoic.
"We're live," says Welch.
Immediately, Forsaken starts getting its ass kicked.
"What the fuck are you doing?" yells Stuart, as the faraway sound of explosions echoes from his computer.
"Just shut up, shut up!" answers Mat, slamming on the keyboard and jerking his mouse around as his legs jiggle nervously up and down.
"Oh, God, I'm blind, I'm blind!" someone yells, as computer monitors fill with on-screen white smoke from a grenade set off by ExS. While a player is blind, he's almost useless.
Funk's playing is especially off, and his teammates excoriate him loudly as he makes excuses. The boys, who moments ago were joking with one another, are now very pissed at each other and their playing.
ExS, on the other hand, is running smoothly, as if their five bodies were sharing one brain.
"Come on, guys, we can do this," says one ExS member, and they quickly rack up round after round until they win the match 13 to 3. Now they just need to win more match and they'll take the whole tournament.
Welch announces a ten-minute break, and a nervous Brandon tells the Forsaken guys to get together and figure out what's going wrong. But it's a rare teenage boy in the mood for a therapy session. Instead, David storms out for a smoke while Mat announces to no one in particular, "Everyone's missing their fucking shots!" Funk wearily suggests to Sam that they do some one-on-one practice, to which Sam quickly and quietly responds, "I don't want to play Counter-Strike."
Out in the hallway, an ExS player advises that Forsaken shouldn't yell at Funk, because "it only makes his playing worse."
The boys brood separately, then venture back into the room when it's time for the second match. They must win this one, or it's over.
"Let's do this, guys," says Brandon, trying to get upbeat.
"We're live," Welch says, as the room goes dark again.
Something has happened to Forsaken during the break -- although it's probably a mystery to them just what that is. But they win the first round in seconds. Brandon cheers loudly.
Bam. They win another round. And then another and another.
"With my magic ," sings David in a strange voice, and he jerks around as if having a seizure. A few of his teammates laugh. It's starting to feel better inside the gaming room. At least for Forsaken.
One, two, three, round after round makes it under Forsaken's belt. They got scared, and now they're getting revenge. They win ten rounds in a row and are suddenly only three away from taking the match. But then, out of nowhere, ExS starts winning again. It's 10-1 Forsaken, then 10-2, then 10-3.
"Come on, guys, let's put an end to this right now," begs Brandon, closing his eyes.
10-4 Forsaken, 10-5 Forsaken, 11-5 Forsaken. Back and forth the score moves until finally Forsaken takes the 13th round and wins the match 13-8.
"We're going to CPL, baby!" announces Brandon, jumping up from his seat. The Forsaken guys cheer -- but not too much, of course, because that would seem gay.
While the teams shake hands, Welch invites Forsaken to come outside to get their pictures taken in the lobby. It takes some coaxing before the boys will put their arms around one another.
While posing, the boys entertain the question of how long they'll keep playing Counter-Strike.
"Until Funk dies -- probably in the next few days," announces David with a smirk. Funk rolls his eyes.
Stuart answers that he'll probably play until college, which means only for a few more months. At an earlier tournament, he had denounced players "in their thirties and forties, when they've got beards and shit" as a little bit sad. Like they were trying to hang on to some kind of extended adolescence.
"You get worse with age," Funk had added. "Plus, you have to get a full-time job, and you have a wife, normally."
In all their self-consciousness, the members of Team Forsaken seem to realize that there are only a few precious years in your life when society will allow you to humiliate your friends publicly, shake your ass in other people's faces, wear baseball caps at all times and play video games for hours on end. They seem to understand that the time for these things is now, and that soon -- for better or for worse -- it will be time to move on.
But not yet. After the photographs, the guys get their gear together. It will take them three hours to get back to Houston in Funk's Camry -- although probably longer than that, because the members of Team Forsaken have decided that Funk drives like a woman. As Funk begins to explain that he doesn't want to get a speeding ticket, David hollers "Shotgun!" and in a minute they're all traipsing out to the parking lot carrying their backpacks and their half-empty bottles of Mountain Dew.