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Playing for Keeps

Mon, Aug 15, 2005 (9:29 a.m.)

"You can't make a living playing video games."

It's the classic parental argument voiced to children who spend hours each day staring intently at the TV, game controller in hand.

Growing up Matt Leto heard the same argument and more from his parents.

"It's taking away from your school and your family," they told him.

Then the money started pouring in from video game tournament victories and commercial endorsements. Leto made an estimated $80,000 last year as a result of his video games prowess, and is on pace to nearly double that income this year.

His parents have had a change of heart about his waste of a career choice.

"Now they've become supportive," said the 21-year-old Dallas resident known in gaming circles as "Zyos."

Leto is one of a handful of professional gamers.

Similar to other professional athletes, he spends hours each day practicing. He travels from city to city to compete. He has endorsement deals. He's paid to make appearances. He even has a management team.

"This is my career," he says proudly. "This is what I do for a living."

If the concept of making a better-than-average living playing video games seems far-fetched, consider where skateboarders, BMXers and other extreme sports athletes were two decades ago before ESPN's X Games turned extreme athletes such as Tony Hawk into celebrities.

Mike Sepso, a 33-year-old New Yorker, has the same idea for video game players.

Three years ago he and a longtime friend, Sundance DiGiovanni, co-founded Major League Gaming (MLG), the first nationally organized professional video gaming league.

MLG is divided into a series of regional tournaments (east, west and central), followed by three conference tournaments and, ultimately, a national championship.

The tournaments feature an ample mixture of neighborhood gaming champions and top players from around the world paying anywhere from $24 to $50 to compete.

At stake is a grand prize of $250,000 in cash and prizes, along with thousands of dollars for tournament victories.

Last year MLG hosted 10 tournaments, drawing 250 contestants on average. This year MLG is putting together 13 tournaments in cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Seattle, Chicago and New York and averaged 700 contestants so far.

The Las Vegas tournament, the seventh competition overall, marked MLG's biggest event yet.

An estimated 1,400 gamers from around the globe -- including Japan, Germany, England, Australia, South Korea and the Netherlands -- competed in the three-day tournament at Green Valley Ranch Station Casino's Grand Events Center.

"I don't think any sport has ever grown this quickly," Sepso said.

On Saturday morning the ballroom was filled with pre-teens, teens and twentysomethings hunkered in front of 20-inch TVs playing team competitions of the first-person shooter "Halo 2," and one-on-one matches of the fighting games "Tekken 5" and "Super Smash Bros. Melee."

By Sunday afternoon, although nearly three-fourths of the field had been eliminated, most of the players stuck around to watch the best gamers in the world face off on big-screen TVs.

Many, such as Joey Yamchauern, a 17-year-old Indiana resident, dreamed of getting better by playing on the competitive circuit, securing an endorsement deal and becoming a professional gamer.

Yamchauern's teammate Charles C.R. Thomas, a 20-year-old college student from Maryland, fulfilled that dream only two months ago.

After emerging the winner of a field of 15,000 players on MTV's Best Gamer on Campus '05 contest, Thomas signed with MLG.

Thomas joins an elite cadre of players on MLG's list, ranging in age from 7 to 25.

While their gaming skills are topnotch, just as important is their disposition, which determines their marketability.

"What's driving sports in the U.S. today is personality," Sepso said. "Look at NASCAR. Without people like (the late) Dale Earnhardt, the Intimidator, it's just a bunch of left turns."

Just as NASCAR markets its drivers as "regular guys" who are all about fans, Sepso is taking a similar tack with the players under MLG's management.

For example, MLG will soon offer online gaming lessons from its elite players, such as Leto, for an hourly fee or, perhaps, $50.

Imagine paying $50 for Tony Stewart for rides around a track for an hour.

"We looked at the NASCAR business plan as our model," Sepso said. "I got into (professional gaming) to make it a real sport and to professionalize it."

Others, such as Leto, are excited about the prospects of professional gaming as well.

Fresh off the Las Vegas tournament championship victory "Halo 2," Leto is already making plans for he and his team to compete in the Nashville, Tenn., tournament in two weeks to earn more points and improve their overall standing.

From there his team will have to battle it out in at least one conference final before moving to the championship round in New York.

"It's an evolving thing in its infancy," Leto said of professional gaming. "It's only going to get bigger."

Bigger than the X Games?

"Hopefully bigger. It will rival poker eventually," he said. "All we need is airtime and large cash prizes."

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