Michael McGuirk's eyes narrowed in concentration and his fingers danced across the keyboard as he battled aliens and other players in a brutal round of StarCraft. With headphones clasped to his ears, he was completely unaware of anything except the action on the screen. Finally, he took a break.
"I just won a game," he said. "I'm hoping I can keep winning more but who knows? I'm playing for fun because the people are cool."
Michael, 16, traveled from Pennsylvania to Cyberzone Centers, a modern-day video arcade in the Springfield Mall, to take part in regional qualifiers for the World Cyber Games. The best players to emerge from the competition won a shot to compete for a spot on the national team in Long Beach, Calif. next month with a $200 travel voucher. The U.S. team will take on the world at the World Cyber Games competition in San Francisco in October.
Spread out over three days last weekend, the regional round drew hundreds of hopefuls to the Springfield Mall to compete in eight games: StarCraft, WarCraft III, Counter-Strike, Need for Speed, FIFA Soccer 2004, Unreal Tournament 2004, Halo and Project Gotham Racing 2.
"THIS IS REALLY big. Really, really big for this to be at our store," said Steve Garcia, the manager of Cyberzone Centers, which opened last year. "I didn't know the gaming community was this large."
Many of the competitors brought their own broken-in keyboards or controllers to maximize their chances. Some drank Bawls, a super-caffeinated drink that allows gamers to stay up all night when they need to practice. Most of the players shut out the world around them with headphones, while staring intently at their screens.
"Some of these guys get so into it. It's like a trance," Garcia said.
The competition even had its share of gamer celebrities such as Zach Godfrey, one of the country's best FIFA players who plays under the alias Hoo-Man. Godfrey, 19, played FIFA at the world championship in Korea last year with the U.S. team and hoped to make the squad again.
"Korea's a blast," he said. "They really had it up nice. We were in the Olympic Park," built originally to host athletes at the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988. When he's training, Godfrey, who lives on Telegraph Road, said he puts in 10 to 15 hours a day in practice. When he's not competing, he works as a broadcaster for TSN, a network devoted entirely to video games that broadcasts over the Internet. Strangely enough, Godfrey said he doesn't particularly like FIFA Soccer.
"It's not something to call home about," he said. "My real game is Tribes. ... But there's no making money off Tribes."
VIDEO GAMES have come a long way since the days of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Some games, like StarCraft, involve building elaborate bases in outer space and waging war against aliens. Others, such as Counter-Strike, the Internet's most popular game, group players into teams of five and has teams compete against each other. One team plays the role of terrorists who have to plant a bomb; the other of counter-terrorists who have to foil the plot.
But video games, particularly the more violent ones, have come in for their share of criticism since the Columbine massacre, when two Colorado high school students who played violent games opened fire at school killing 12 students and a teach before killing themselves.
Garcia said the stigma doesn't reflect the friendlier side of gaming.
"Everybody always looks at the negative side of gaming, but the good side is the camaraderie," he said. "These guys are good sports. Everybody's cool. ... We have an Air Force general who comes in once a week and he loves it. He plays with his three sons."
To players like Michael, the allure of StarCraft is not its violence but its chess-like tactical nature.
"It's really deep strategically," he said.
Michael's friend, Fairfax resident Nathan Rightnour, 17, said he used to play a lot but had to stop. "It was taking up too much of my time because it was addictive," he said.