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Watch your back! Get back! Get back! Check the sword! There’s one below! Go back-door and set up. Do it now!” Ryan Coverstone barks out.

The 20-year-old Port St. Lucie gamer, outfitted in a black hooded sweatshirt and matching fitted cap, sits crouched in a chair with his arms and hands hanging between his legs, gripping a white Xbox controller for dear life. His thumbs fly, fingers squeeze and wrists flex as he handles the weapon of choice at the three-day Major League Gaming competition at the Orlando Marriott World Center.

Two thousand such gamers converged on Central Florida July 11-13 to set up, plug in and wage virtual battle in four different video games, Halo 3 being the main draw. On the line for these gaming aficionados are bragging rights, possible sponsorships, the chance to go pro and, maybe, cash.

ESPN broadcasts the championship matches of this $93,000 prize-purse event. Nothing, with the exception of soccer moms embracing Wii Fit, is a bigger sign of video game world domination than pro competitions being broadcast on ESPN.

The gaming world is on the pinnacle of legitimacy, and nowhere is that more true than in Orlando, which has in recent years turned into a sort of gaming Mecca, with EA Tiburon – makers of the super-popular Madden, NCAA Football and Tiger Woods PGA Tour game series – headquartered here. The Orlando region also hosts world-class competitions like this one and last year’s World Cyber Games U.S. National Finals at the Universal Orlando Resort.

This is Major League Gaming’s second Orlando tour stop in as many years. I spent the weekend immersed in this now-annual geekfest, hanging out with those who want to get paid for what they already spend too much time doing on their couches.

The victorious team will make more money this weekend than many of us will make in the next six months.

Day 1: July 11

Entering through the back of the Marriott’s convention center, I stroll down a hallway occupied by four gossiping Avril Lavigne stunt doubles. “I don’t need to look at the screen to know I’m fucking owning,” a blonde on the far left says to her comrades.

Outside the doors of the competition floor, kids form cliques in circles, standing around doing nothing, sitting together on the floor doing nothing, leaning up against a wall doing nothing. I leave the outsiders to their nothing and enter the main room to finally face the gaming kind at their strongest.

The gaming floor itself is lit like a high-school prom: dark and awkward. But instead of listening to angst-filled love songs, computer-generated gunshots provide the soundtrack. Of the 2,000-plus bystanders, I notice that I’m one of the few who can grow facial hair. Video gaming culture is, of course, a youth movement.

Everyone faces a two-story sculpted-metal stage at the back of the giant room and waits for directions. Announcers direct each team like flight instructors to the 32 gaming stations scattered about the room, and the games begin. I’m standing next to station 14, and out of laziness I decide to make this my home and hang out with a team called “Unmasked.”

Each station is set up with one table, four high-definition television monitors, four Xbox 360s and a referee. You’d think organizing a gathering of hormonally charged teenage video-game nerds would be a bit like herding cats, but the tournament moves like a well-oiled machine.

Unmasked is one of the 272 four-person teams, each of which paid a $240 entry fee to compete at Halo 3, the über-popular game in which you basically try to kill everyone on the opposing team. Unmasked won their first heat. I ask if they’re pros.

“No, but I take this very seriously,” says Rick Lopez, who at 20 is tied for the team’s oldest member. “There are people here now doing this for a living. More people will be able to do it as it gets bigger.”

MLG has signed six-figure contracts with the eight top-ranked Halo 3 teams. Unmasked’s mission is to make the
top 32.

“That’s our goal. Top eight is money, but top 32 is sponsorship,” says 16-year-old Shannon Williams, who goes by the screen name “Crusty Bagel.” “All we are here to do is have fun. Money would be nice, but we are here to have fun.”

The team practiced online together the past few weeks to prepare for MLG Orlando – as did many of their competitors. The team is from all over Florida, so they couldn’t host a strategy meeting face-to-face. “None of us knew each other in real life until a competition,” says Coverstone. “We all met online.”

Using Xbox Live, I discover, is the equivalent of for gamers.

Day 2: July 12

If you don’t understand words like “frag,” “merk” and “lag,” you don’t belong here. These are part of the gaming geek’s vernacular.

“I hope I don’t get merked like that guy,” a spectator in front of me says, pointing to a competitor stretching his wrists like he’d just put in a hard day’s work on a typewriter. To be “merked” is code for getting owned, as in, “Don’t try to get up or I will merk you again.” There’s a lingo here, but no particular dress code or team uniform. Grab a New Era fitted cap, a hoodie and some jeans and you’ll fit right in – unless you’re one of the few female gamers.

Hayley Westcott, 20, who traveled to Orlando from Edmond, Okla., for this competition, is dressed like a Hollister sales clerk. Her all-girl team is called “Fatal Attraction.”

Westcott has only been playing for eight months, but she’s picked up on the inherent gender stereotypes.

“It’s mainly a male-type thing,” she says of gaming. “I think `male gamers` see it as shocking that girls want to come here and pay to play. I get treated both ways. Half of it is respect. Half of it is ‘Girls shouldn’t be playing.’”

Day 3: July 13

As Dr Pepper, GameStop, Hewlett-Packard and Old Spice staffers begin to dismantle their promotional booths, ESPN sets up their cameras. As it does everything else, money drives this culture. In February, for instance, Dr Pepper signed on as the official beverage of
MLG 2008.

From a marketing perspective, it makes total sense: These companies’ target audience now surrounds the glowing LCD championship stage, screaming every time a killer shot or beatdown is played on the giant screens. More than 1,000 gamers push, stand and sit to gawk at the final two teams left in Halo 3: Team Triggers Down takes on Team Str8 Rippin; both have pro money contracts with MLG.

On the giant screens, computer-animated blue and red characters shoot at their opponents, then dodge the return fire. ESPN broadcasters describe the teams’ every move: “Triggers Down is working well together, keeping the sniper rifles on lockdown from Str8 Rippin.” In the end, Triggers Down sweeps the final match 3-0 and is named MLG Orlando champions. They’ll receive $20,000. (Team Unmasked makes it into the top 64 before losing. Fatal Attraction, the all-girl team, loses early on.)

“I could never have dreamed of pulling off some of those moves,” a gamer tells his buddy as they watch from the floor. And I could never have dreamed of watching someone make 20 grand for playing video games.


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