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It’s tourney time

Call it the biggest shoot ’em up of all. Game centers have been popping up around the country, trying to boost the popularity of tournament gaming while catering to an increasingly game-savvy clientele.

Ben Haseleu creeps along the ridge and quickly glances around for snipers. While laying mines across the enemy’s path, he turns when he hears a blast in the distance, then shouts, “They’re shelling our number one point!” He makes a dash for the mounted gun up the hill. Just as he reaches it–bang!–he’s dead again.

His team, the Dennis Miller Kill Ratio (DMKR), groans. This round in their “Battlefield 1942” online tournament is going to be harder than expected, but they don’t mind. The team, an eight-man group made up of high school and college students and business professionals, simply loves the adrenaline rush of good competition.

The center where the DMKR is playing, Minnetonka, Minn.-based Game Tech, is hoping that the rise in gaming and the thrill of tournament play will draw more teams into the fray, and it’s not alone in trying to attract a wide array of people to play. Centers have been popping up around the country, helping to boost the popularity of tournament gaming while catering to an increasingly game-savvy clientele.

Not all centers are using the same tactics to draw gamers and get them clicking. Some, like Game Tech, rely on organizations like iGames, which employs a grassroots network model, developing relationships among centers and growing through strength in numbers. Web2Zone follows a more corporate path, signing up heavy-duty sponsors and using standardized centers to attract a mix of gamers and business professionals. World Cyber Games (WCG) uses a variation on the Web2Zone system, partnering with CompUSA to provide the kind of standardized gaming experiences its players need in order to qualify for the computer games equivalent of the Olympics.

The two models are akin to mom-and-pop restaurants competing against national chains like the Olive Garden or Applebee’s. Although eatery franchises have been known to knock out the little diner on the corner, usually the two types of restaurants have co-existed peacefully, and it’s possible that the same will happen with tournament centers. Most likely, each model will grow further in its own direction, and it will be up to gamers to decide which one suits their tastes.

Finding center

The question of where to go to play “Battlefield 1942” against other teams is a fairly new one. As gaming technology became more sophisticated in the last few years, it was possible to finally network them together and play shoot-’em-up with people around the world.

New and experienced gamers, eager to try out their skills, gravitated to cybercafes where they could take advantage of T1 lines and a continual stream of caffeine. Seeing such an enthusiastic audience, game centers began to sprout up, focusing on increasing the number of amateur gamers, unlike organizations establishing “stars” such as the CyberAthlete Professional League (CPL) and the World Cyber Games.

Soon, gamers had found a new place to hang out–and spend money. The huge rise in popularity for these places is due to one simple fact: The centers offer perks that home gaming can’t. As well as in-person camaraderie, players revel in being free from one-room LAN environment competition, and the ability to play without having to be invited to a LAN party. The centers often have a wide variety of the newest and hottest games, which would be tough to replicate for anyone on a budget, and while playing them, gamers get to meet fellow players who share their love of shooting or sleuthing.

The industry is starting to broaden its target audience to accommodate new, atypical players who love to just dabble in games, like college students with T3 connections, or working professionals with kids. The strategy brings its share of challenges, though. Kevin Meintsma, owner of Game Tech, is glad to have DMKR competing in his store–he rarely sees many customers over the age of 18. Other center owners lack adolescent business, or can’t attract weekday customers.

Through organizations like iGames, centers are trying to smooth these difficulties by using tournaments to increase their customer base. Like the players who need to work together to win, centers have been finding that they need to team up to win the hearts and wallets of gamers.

Growing grassroots

Since the advent of LAN gaming years ago, game centers have traditionally been separate small businesses. Centers had very little to do with each other, which gradually prompted gamers to start competing online in their own homes. To attract gamers who were unlikely to compete in hardcore organizations like the CPL, iGames began organizing national tournaments through local centers like Game Tech.

The association has been growing steadily. It recently developed strategic ties with the VGA, a similar 60-center organization in the United Kingdom that will run iGames UK. That brings the center network count up to 800 worldwide, with at least one center in every country. Teams like DMKR compete in local tournaments or work their way through regional and national tournaments with other teams through the centers. These are held solely through iGames, or in conjunction with other smaller team organizations like Firing Squad, which set up DMKR’s “Battlefield 1942” tourney.

iGames is attempting to enhance social aspects of online tournaments with its new Ranking and Tournament system. The system will get its inaugural run this summer as iGames hosts its seasonal tournament structure, which runs three months at a time, similar to athletic team seasons. Each player can see how they rank locally and regionally compared to their friends and opponents. Soon, the rankings will extend nationally and internationally.

For each game, teams will compete throughout the season for the title, ranked individually and by team. The idea is to encourage rivalries–more gamers will play because they want to finally beat a player with a higher ranking. Mark Nielsen, president of iGames, says he hopes the rivalry will entice even the least computer-savvy gamer to become regularly involved. “I see this as a way for gamers to develop broad relationships with each other over a course of time,” Nielsen adds.

Corporate citizens

Others are trying to unite the amateur gamer and game center, but argue the corporate approach is more likely to be successful. Web2Zone, a large Internet café in Manhattan with intentions to expand, stands as a prime example of the chain-restaurant approach.

Hans Park, COO of Web2Zone, says the gaming industry is too fragmented–everyone’s trying to get a piece of the action, and most of the gaming centers still operate under a “ma and pa” style of ownership. Park says, “With so many independent owners, you need an organization like iGames to aggregate and represent the centers. But it’s still not as efficient.”

Web2Zone is putting everything associated with tournaments under a corporate umbrella. It operates like a traditional business, with executive management, and works constantly to integrate publishers and vendors in the process.

Web2Zone also believes that for gaming centers to be successful, they have to cater to more than gamers. Of the center’s 300 to 400 daily customers, Park says only one-fourth are gamers, and most of them don’t even roll in until mid-afternoon. In the meantime, Web2Zone offers more business-related services in a “professional” atmosphere, maintaining a steady business flow all day.

Web2Zone’s corporate approach works not only to increase its gaming populace, but has also proven attractive to sponsors. “What we’re trying to prove here is that the customers they’re trying to reach are literally sitting in our chairs,” Park says.

The sponsorship network of publishers and vendors not only aids Web2Zone in funding events, but also helps with spreading word about the tournaments. Park says a tournament takes very little time to set up and hold. Within two weeks, Web2Zone can reach all of its target clientele and get teams registered to play. The center has already hosted teams for the World Cyber Games and CPL Regionals. And, if all goes well, not only will the sponsors support the tourneys financially, but they will help in establishing hardware and software standards within the Web2Zone system.

Standard procedure

The creation of standards has proven to be a tough one for centers, and something that affects the ultimate success or failure of both the grassroots and corporate game center systems. If one center has slower network speed, tournament play suffers because the team with sluggish bandwidth will get squashed by their quicker-moving opponents.

iGames has tried to enforce standards by facilitating the nVIDIA Game Center Alliance, which reimburses centers for upgrading their video cards. It’s also developed ties with big-name sponsors like Microsoft. Still, iGames has yet to enforce or offer uniform connection rates for its centers. Some situations, such as two opponents pulling their triggers at the same time, can be decided by the split-second advantage from a faster connection.

Each iGames center’s connection speed, measured in ping rates, is monitored to ensure fairness during games. The DKMR’s ping rates, for instance, were somewhat higher than those of their opponents. Meintsma says the difference was too small to alter the direction of the game, given the varying levels in team skill.

Game Tech runs a 1MB connection, whereas many iGames centers use at least a T1 connection. Still, Game Tech has the fastest ping rates in the region, prompting many teams to travel hours just to compete there.

But Park says even slightly higher ping rates will make for a sticky situation when teams are evenly matched. The only solution, he says, is a national server through the corporate environment.

“When you go into a Starbucks anywhere, you know what you’re going to get,” Park says. “Ideally, we’d like to see Web2Zones in major metro cities and even suburban areas, all playing on the same hardware and on one network. If you’re in New York playing someone in Chicago, it will feel like a LAN experience because it’s the same connection.”

But until Web2Zone has the national reach Park envisions, other gaming leagues will have to be more creative. Joe Moss, executive director of WCG, says standardization is the key reason his organization has partnered with CompUSA. “Every gaming experience should be identical for each player, from video cards to ping rates,” he says. “CompUSA should provide those experiences for us.”

Future blend

Whether the need for standards will make the corporate model triumph over the mom-and-pop shops is a matter for debate.

Nielsen, who spent time studying game centers before starting iGames, recalls a franchising effort Korea that could serve as an indication of the future of U.S. centers. The centers tried to dominate the country, but failed miserably because it couldn’t compete with the independent centers.

“Gamers tend to like the grassroots programs,” Nielsen says. “They lean away from the corporations. When you go into Blockbuster, for example, there’s no social interaction expected. The gaming center industry is a little different; it’s a little like the food industry. For every McDonalds, there are another 30 stores that are independently owned, and social elements make the center what it is.”

Those social elements are going to hook the new gamer, Nielsen says. He envisions a world where tournaments at centers replace American bowling leagues. The center will be, for instance, somewhere the buddies can take their new coworker on the weekend, where the homey, simple environment piques the non-gamer’s interest.

Whether a gamer chooses the shiny world of Web2Zone or the cozy arena of iGames will turn out to be largely a matter of taste, fostered by the centers’ strategy. The current infancy of the game center tournament system makes it impossible to deliver any prognostications about which model will succeed, but one thing seems easy to predict: Now that tourney play is growing strong, it’s the gamers who are poised to win.

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