Wednesday, October 20, 2004
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Bring on the major leagues
Major League Gaming comes to Boston
BY MITCH KRPATA

PLAYOFF BASEBALL wasn't the only intense competition rocking Boston last weekend. While most of the city was battling a Red Sox-induced hangover on Saturday morning, hundreds of avid gamers from around the country amassed at the Bayside Expo Center to compete in the final regional event for Major League Gaming (www.mlgpro.com), dubbed "The Battle of Beantown."

MLG has been quietly picking up momentum since its debut almost a year ago. The goal, says co-founder Sundance DiGiovanni, is to establish a strong grassroots following before starting a full-on propaganda blitz. As such, MLG is targeting the top ten media markets � holding events in cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago � and counting on word of mouth to cultivate the brand. By establishing strong relationships with sponsors such as Nokia and GameStop, as well as signing gaming's most promising stars to management contracts, DiGiovanni hopes MLG will become the de facto standard for all gaming competitions.

Judging by the turnout, he may be on to something. Registration for the weekend-long event starts at eight o'clock (that's in the morning), and I'm surprised to find dozens of people already embroiled in Halo deathmatches. "They've been here since seven," says DiGiovanni.

Yes, these people take their gaming seriously. By 8:45, the thirteen Halo stations are full. Each station consists of two televisions and two linked Xboxes. Multiply that by eight players per station and there are just over a hundred people warming up more than an hour before the event is scheduled to start, with still more lined up at the registration table. MLG director of operations Adam Dicella roams the room, shouting, "Let other people rotate in! If they call next game, let 'em in!"

Although MLG provides the monitors, consoles, and software, gamers bring their own controllers. Anxious competitors circle the room, looking for an open spot; they carry their controllers against their hips like gunfighters about to draw their six-shooters. Only a few third-party controllers are allowed. Anything that might give a player an unfair advantage, say something with auto-fire, is banned. Under the official Halo rule sheet's list of six illegal devices is a seventh item reading, "Any controller not listed."

As if this weren't enough, competitors must present their controllers to officials before playing. Crafty people looking for an unfair advantage have been known to alter the stock hardware, cracking it open and, for example, inserting stronger springs for quicker button response. "It's like people modifying their cars outside of specifications in NASCAR," says DiGiovanni.

The competitiveness is palpable. The official tournament won't start for a couple hours, but already profanities are punctuating the proceedings. It's hard to go five minutes without hearing, from some corner of the room, a cry of "Fuck that!" I see more than one person staring at the screen with the kind of steely intensity you see on the faces of people like Mariano Rivera.

One of the surprising things is what sort of person shows up to an event like this. Forget any stereotypical image you might have of career gamers. Most of the Halo players wouldn't look out of place at the Warped Tour. There are piercings, Mohawks, afros, sunglasses, and more braggadocio than you'll see anywhere outside of the NBA.

"You get a lot of taunting and smack talk," acknowledges DiGiovanni, "but these are family events." As soon as he says that, a kid who looks about 18 wanders by, wearing a t-shirt that says FUCK YOU YOU FUCKIN' FUCK. DiGiovanni smiles ruefully. "He wears that to every event."

THE HALO COMPETITION gets underway at eleven. There will be tournaments in 2v2 and 4v4 modes, but the day starts with Free-For-All. It's a pretty simple system: eight gamers are put together randomly. They play two games (first to 50 kills wins the match), and the four players with the highest cumulative kill counts advance to the next round. This continues until a winner-take-all one-on-one.

Halo commissioner Chris Puckett announces the match-ups over a megaphone, referring to people by their in-game names. It sounds like a Conet broadcast, just a string of ciphers reeling off in an even tempo: "Zvers, A3, Red Dot, Hubcap�" Upon hearing their names, gamers jump up like Rod Roddy has just told them to come on down, and start unraveling their controller cables while making their way to the game stations.

Some gamers harbor no illusions about their chances. "I came knowing I was going to lose," says TEOKarma, a college-aged kid with fearsome-looking spikes of hair sticking six inches off his head. And he's right: although he acquits himself well, he's eliminated after the first round.

More common is the experience of one humbled gamer who said, "I thought I was good! All my friends said, 'Oh, you're gonna own!'" But he was happy enough simply to be in the presence of greatness, waxing rhapsodic about his conversation with MLG stalwart Strangepurple. "It's like meeting your favorite baseball player!"

This is exactly the sort of effect MLG is hoping for. DiGiovanni knows an organization is only as big as its superstars, which is why MLG signs its best and brightest to management contracts. While MLG isn�t aiming for pro wrestling-style bombast from its players, they're fully aware of the merchandising potential of heroes and villains. "Personality is as important as skill," says DiGiovanni. "Gotta have a bad boy, gotta have a golden child."

MLG's premiere bad boy is Matthew "Zyos" Leto, a cocky, 20-year-old Halo pro. Zyos's ultimate claim to fame was going undefeated at the World Cyber Games' 2003 Halo tournament in Seoul, South Korea, for which he pocketed $20,000. MLG parlayed that success into a consulting deal for Zyos on the upcoming Xbox title Greg Hastings' Tournament Paintball. Not that Zyos is taking it easy and enjoying the spoils of fame; this past weekend, he successfully defended his title at the 2004 WCG in San Francisco.

The first player MLG signed was Dustin "Darkman" Langton, a perennial champ whose name DiGiovanni describes as being "synonymous with Halo." Darkman had been Hulk Hogan to Zyos's Ultimate Warrior, but has recently been taking a break from the rigors of being one of the most prominent faces of the burgeoning pro gaming industry. The time is right for the ascension of a new golden child, and as unlikely as it seems, MLG seems to have found her.

That's right, "her."

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Issue Date: October 15 - 21, 2004
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