Game Boys

Back when I first got my PS3 and started looking for good gaming podcasts, one of the things I found was the already defunct (but awesome) GFW radio (If you’re not familiar, this 4 hour best-of compilation will keep you busy for a while and is well worth a listen). Despite the fact that all the regulars had left 1up to pursue other careers, I delved a bit into their back catalog of podcasts, and in one episode they mentioned an interesting book called Game Boys: Professional Videogaming’s Rise from the Basement to the Big Time by Michael Kane. It sounded interesting so I ordered a copy and promptly put it on my shelf, where it gathered dust and got buried under other books. Earlier this year, I vowed to clear off my shelf and read these suckers (7 out of 10 down and only 2 new books added in the meantime!), and I just finished reading Game Boys last week.

The book delves into the world of competitive video gaming and essentially follows two teams of Counter-Strike players as they vie to become the best US gaming team. One team, called 3D, has heavyweight sponsors like Intel and Nvidia. Their players tend to pull in around $30k a year in salary, plus any winnings from tournaments. At the start of the book, they’re pretty much the uncontested champions of the US circuit. After all, most players at tournaments are talented amateurs playing for the love of the game. They can’t really compete with professional players who spend full workday’s practicing CS. But then we find out about team compLexity. This team also plays its players a salary, but it doesn’t have any major sponsors. Their manager/coach, Jason Lake, is funding the entire enterprise out of pocket because he believes that professional gaming is the way of the future and he wants to get in on the ground floor. As the book progresses, we see Lake struggle to find sponsors and when we find out that he’s sunk in about $200k of his own cash, we can’t help but feel a little bad for the guy. He’s middle aged, has a family and a successful law practice, but his passion seems to be getting professional gaming off the ground.

Lake fancies himself a coach and he seems to be a stereotypical jock. He paces behind his team, cheering them on and generally getting fired up as the matches progress. Interestingly, one of the angles that the author highlights frequently is how gamers at this level aren’t necessarily the fat slobs who spend all their time in the basement staring at their computer – indeed, many seem to be former jocks who realized they couldn’t cut it at their sport of choice and turned to video games as something they could do really well. Kane perhaps goes a bit overboard with this angle at times, but it’s interesting that the biggest competitors in video gaming tend to come from actual physical gaming backgrounds.

The author, Michael Kane, didn’t really come from a video gaming background. He was a sports journalist who did a story on competitive gaming and got intrigued. As such, the book reads like a standard sports underdog story, with Lake’s compLexity taking the role of the scrappy, underrated upstarts, while team 3D (lead by manager Craig Levine, who doesn’t take the same “coach”-like role that Lake does) are portrayed as the unbeatable champions. As one player describes, 3D is like the Yankees and compLexity is like the Red Sox. Of course, that’s not exactly the case, but the human drama represented by that dynamic is one of the interesting things that draws you in when reading the book.

As a sports journalist, Kane does an exceptional job explaining the game, whether that be describing the intricacies of the CS maps, the strategies (or strats) used by the teams, or the blow-by-blow accounts of various matches. I’ve never played CS, but by the end of this book, I think I had a pretty good idea about what makes the game tick. Kane also does a good job describing the interpersonal relationships and team dynamics that drive the competition. He falters a bit when describing biographical details of each player, but while such asides can break the momentum of the book from time to time, it’s still good information and gives the later chapters more of a sense of urgency.

The most interesting thing about the book is Kane’s description of competition at the highest level, and how gaming was constantly struggling to break into the mainstream. As previously mentioned, the players aren’t quite the pimply nerd types as you might assume, and the way Kane describes their various talents is interesting. Team 3D seems to have a more tumultuous lineup, as their manager, Craig Levine, will ruthlessly replace players who don’t play well. Towards the beginning of the book, team 3D suffers a setback and Levine shakes things up by rehiring a former player, with the gamer handle of Moto. Moto is 23 years old and while he was once a top player (Kane describes one infamous game which has coined the term Moto Box), his skills have declined considerably. To make up for these shortcomings, he is able to devise complicated strategies and formal drills for his team that can give them a bit of an edge. Moto also seems to be much better at handling media attention than any other player, and this is something that Levine was counting on… Levine seems to be a savvy businessman. He’s recognized that there’s money to be made from gaming, and he sees 3D as one part of a larger scheme. Having Moto on the team is not so much about 3D winning as it is about getting gaming to a mainstream audience. This, of course, doesn’t sit so well with teammate Rambo, who has a much different philosophy. As one of the elite players, he doesn’t care for the precision strategies designed for Moto – he’s much more of a run-and-gunnner, and he’s got the skills to pull it off. Moto and Rambo clash for most of the book, and it presents an interesting dynamic.

Team compLexity, on the other hand, seems to have a tighter-knit crew of players. The star of the team, and perhaps the best player in the world (at the time), is fRoD, and the team basically revolves around him. fRoD has an amazing kill ratio and is unstoppable with a sniper rifle. Storm takes on the thankless role of defense, but I think Kane does an exceptional job describing the value of Storm’s defensive prowess. Warden seems like the team leader, holding the five players together (and late in the book, he single-handedly keeps compLexity alive). Towards the end of the book, at a big, fancy tournament being put on by DirecTV, one of the precursor events is a series of drills meant to test each players skills – things like speed and tracking.

No one from compLexity cracked the top five, a further testament that their success comes more from teamwork and coordination than individual skills. Either that or they tanked it on purpose… (page 232)

The rivalry between 3D and compLexity is the center of the book, but along the way, we’re treated to lots of other amusing details about the game, culture, and the goings on at various tournaments. Highlights include an embarrassing appearance by born-again Christian Stephen Baldwin (page 106), the gamers of the Mug N Mouse team (amateur players with drug habits and probably criminal records who share a practice venue with team 3D), and amusing gamer tags (my favorite of which appears on page 136: “Ryan’s alias was ‘TedDanson,’ which may be the greatest gamer tag ever on the grounds of weirdness alone.”)

This is surprisingly compelling stuff. As previously mentioned, the pacing is sometimes a bit uneven, but once Kane has established the players and the details of the game, it becomes riveting. There are some occasional mistakes (for instance, early in the book, Kane mentions that Halo 3 sold something like 4 billion copies in the first day) as well, but overall, Kane has done an exceptional job capturing what it’s like to play video games at the highest level. As with anything involving that level of skill, there are fascinating intricacies and unintended consequences when you see players at that level. It’s well worth a read if you’re interested in video games or even if you just like a well written sports story.

As someone mentioned in the podcast referenced above, this seems like ideal fodder for the documentary crew that made The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. There’s a surprising amount of drama in the book, especially towards the end, as DirecTV seems poised to launch gaming as a mainstream event. Of course, the book was published in 2008 and covers events leading up to the establishment of 2007’s DirecTV gaming league. Here in 2010, we know that DirecTV has cancelled the league and while the gaming tournaments continue, there isn’t as much interest in mainstream competitive gaming on TV these days.

The events leading up to DirecTV’s kickoff event are interesting to read because presenting a game of Counter-Strike to a mainstream audience presents numerous challenges. First of all, watching people play video games has never been a particularly entertaining venture. The game does allow a sorta free-roaming camera for spectators, but it’s still a challenge – there’s 10 people playing, and you never know where the excitement will happen. Then you have to consider that most people in a potential mainstream audience won’t have any idea what’s going on in the game. Long-time players will recognize the maps, the strats, the weapons, and so on, but a newcoming won’t have any of that shared background.

The events of the book were happening just after poker had exploded onto television. But the difference between poker and Counter-Strike is that everyone knows what’s happening in poker. Comparatively few people know the intricacies of CS. The problem with professional gaming in the long run is that it has to feature a game that nearly everyone is familiar with. In Korea, nearly everyone plays StarCraft, so it makes some sort of sense when you watch a video like this (ok, no, that video still blows my mind – look at their uniforms! Look at the crowd!) Such a thing isn’t really possible in the US because while video games in general are quite popular, there’s no single game that everyone can get on board with.

Kane’s book proves that Counter-Strike can be made accessible to just about anyone (his sports writing background ensures that sort of tone), but I just can’t see that translating to a full blown sports league that people will tune into every week. That being said, the book works well for what it is, and it covers an interesting and seemingly pivotal period of gaming.