The team looked stricken, the sweat of exertion dripping down their faces. The long stretch of fierce competition had taken its toll on each member and it was clear that they were near collapse. Their rivals, the opposing team that had bested them in recent events by a terrible margin was now making a run. The bitter taste of defeat was tickling the back of their throats. Would they choke? Would they allow their nemesis to defeat them once again? Could they reach that last shred of stamina, that extra bit of adrenaline that their bodies were holding in reserve for just such a moment, wipe away all fatigue, and drive that last bullet into the heads of their enemies?

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Except for that last bit, I could have been describing a moment in a pastime with which 90 percent of the world is intimately familiar: physical sports. Be it the 2004 American League Championship Series when the Boston Red Sox finally defeated the rival Yankees, or the Celtics recaptured past glory by beating the L.A. Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals (I’m biased, shoot me), drama is a big reason why we find competitive sports so compelling. The players’ battle for supremacy becomes our battle. When we watch a team defeat the opposition, part of their victory becomes our victory, just as their defeat becomes our loss.

At the latest Major League Gaming event held in Raleigh, NC, I witnessed the team called Final Boss defeat Instinct in the final 4×4 match of Halo 3. Before attending that event, I had only a passing interest in competitive videogaming or e-sports; as a gamer, I was happy that such leagues existed but I had never taken the time to watch or follow the proceedings. It was just a lot of noise.

But when I heard the stories of the competitors and saw their dedication, I felt some of their emotion. More importantly, when I saw the looks on the competitor’s faces when Final Boss began to feel that victory was slipping away, I found myself rooting for them; I wanted them to win. And in that moment, I became a fan.

***

“It’s actually little overwhelming to think about the fact that in six or seven years, we have gone from an idea to this established professional circuit that has the ability to draw in so many gamers,” says Sundance DiGiovanni, the CEO and co-founder of Major League Gaming (MLG), when I spoke to him in the crow’s nest above the arena where Instinct and Final Boss would later compete. “This is an incredible event for us because it’s our 50th event. It’s a milestone. It’s a really big deal for us.”

MLG was created in 2002 by DiGiovanni and Mike Sepso, borne from their own competitiveness playing Halo against each other. The pair put up their own money to finance the tournament at a LAN center in New York City in late 2003. It didn’t quite go as planned, but some of the players who attended stuck around and helped the brand grow. The second event, held in Philadelphia in early 2004, was a lot bigger and much more of a success. That’s where players that are still on the MLG Pro Tour now first got their start with MLG, players such as Tom “Ogre 2” Ryan and Dave “Walshy” Walsh, who had already been making a name for himself in professional gaming.

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“My first [competitive gaming] event was in 2002. I went with a few of my high school buddies, drove down during Spring Break,” says Walshy when asked about the first time he played games for money. “I took 5th place in the free-for-all tournament, but my teammates didn’t do so well. I won about 50 bucks and just continued from there.” Out of the 50 MLG tournaments that have been held since then, Walshy has been at close to 45 of them, including every event from 2006 until now.

“This has all come from a grassroots organization. At the first events I went to, I had to bring my [game] disc, sign it in and make sure I got it back at the end. It was more about the pride back then. It’s gotten a lot bigger, got some sponsors. It’s really blowing up,” Walshy says. What about the competition? Is it hard to stay frosty? “Absolutely, the pool of talent is just so much larger,” he says before he smiles. “I hate it, man. Some of these kids don’t even have a driver’s license. They’re just destroying me and I’m 26, I got my car insurance break already. Come on, now.”

The personalities of players like Walshy are a big reason that MLG is still around and earning a profit when so many other gaming leagues have either folded or fallen from prominence. In 2008, the Cyberathlete Professional League cancelled the remaining events on its tour due to the costs of running its tournaments. Under new Asian owners, the CPL plans to open again soon but it is a far cry from the heyday of the 2005 World Tour, which made Jonathan Wendel (Fatal1ty) a household name. (Or at least a name which emblazons mouse pads at your local Best Buy.) Other leagues and championships have done well internationally, such as the Korean World Cyber Games which models itself after the Olympics, but MLG is in the spotlight here in the US with recent coverage on ESPN.

From the inception of MLG, DiGiovanni knew that the tournaments needed to be seen by the public, and part of that is getting audiences interested in the personalities of competitive gamers. DiGiovanni compares the strength of those personalities with a similar sport: “Look at NASCAR. It’s not just about cars going around in circles; there are guys in those cars. The cars are in theory very similar, but the guys, not the logos on the cars … are what people root for.”

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Right now, the most prominent gamers in MLG are the kids who have grown up with the sport. I spoke with Kyle “Elamite Warrior” Elam from Instinct before the tournament began and I was surprised at how grounded he was, while still passionate about winning. “I’m the captain of Instinct and probably what I’m best known for is a support objective-based role,” Elamite says as we overlooked the MLG floor. “What we’re really well known for is our teamwork. We have a really good team-shot, with everyone focusing on killing one person. I’ve got a bunch of young guys on my team. I’ve been playing for five years, while most of them only have 2 or 3 years of experience. I keep everyone focused, make sure that there’s no bickering going on and that everyone is focused on winning the game.”

Even though Instinct had won the previous two events in this 2010 MLG season, the momentum favored the underdog, Final Boss. Cameron “Victory X” Thorlakson is the captain of Final Boss, a team which had lots of success back in the Halo 2 era of MLG but hadn’t won in a long time. In fact, Victory X has never won a tournament since he started competing in 2005. In Raleigh, he was looking to change that. “In Columbus, the last event, we lost to Instinct 6 to 4 in the Finals. We’re looking to avenge that,” Victory X says while preparing for the tournament to begin.

Even though MLG has rules in place for civility between players, Victory X is not above getting into opposing player’s heads, something that athletes at nearly every level excel at. “Some people are a little more head-casey than others so you can definitely get in their heads and make them play a little worse,” he says with a shrug.

Victory X is the captain of Final Boss, but he says that role isn’t important to him. That doesn’t mean that he isn’t above whipping his team into action when they start playing poorly. Early on in the last tournament in Columbus, Final Boss lost a game to a team that Victory X thought they should have beat. “I was pretty blunt about it. I told them to quit acting like little babies, and that we can come back and win this.” After that speech, Final Boss won.

That kind of dedication to winning, to being the best at what they do, is what really convinced me that MLG is not just a bunch of nerds playing at being “cyberathletes.” These players are fierce competitors who would not feel out of place among more conventional sports heroes.

But is competitive Halo fun to watch?

***

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In the Finals in Raleigh, Final Boss led the favorites, Instinct, by a score of 5 games to 1. Elamite Warrior and the other three members of Instinct, their rivals for the past two tournaments, opposed them. It seemed that the match was well in hand, that Ogre 2 would get his first win since he dominated the tour back in 2004-2008 and that Victory X would get his first win ever after years of trying.

But then Instinct took one match. And then another. Suddenly it was 5-3 and the word “choke” was on everybody’s lips. Victory X stood up after that match had some choice words for his teammates. “Look past the games that we just lost, quit talking about them, quit complaining about a lucky spawn and look forward to the games ahead.”

Final Boss closed out the last game with a dominating performance in a Capture the Flag match and won the tournament.

The emotions of that moment infected me with a similar passion that I felt when I watched the Red Sox defeat the Yankees in 2004. That’s when I realized that MLG has captured something special. To be able to translate a videogame into a watchable sport is no easy task. I think part of why it works is because Sundance DiGiovanni has made sure, “Everything that we do is about creating a good show.” MLG is gaining steam and attracting the attention of hundreds of thousands of gamers and non-gamers alike, if the presence of corporate sponsors like Old Spice and Hot Pockets and the massive attendance at the event in Raleigh is any indication. Incredibly-skilled Halo players fighting against each other was fascinating to watch, and once I learned the stories and personalities behind the competition, I became a fan.

Walking away from the event, I found myself wondering what would happen at the next event in Washington D.C. Would Elamite Warrior and Instinct go to DC with fire in their eyes and try to reclaim a tournament win? Would Final Boss defend their title? I remembered something that Sundance DiGiovanni told me. “If you’ve never seen baseball and I described the game to you: a guy is standing on a hill of dirt with a ball, throws it at somebody, a guy with a stick tries to hit it. It sounds crazy.”

Suddenly, watching kids play Halo against each other doesn’t seem so crazy.

Greg Tito is pretty sure that he would get killed pretty quick against Elamite Warrior or Victory X but that he could totally take Walshy.

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