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Adrian Szczepanski of Toronto plays in the Project Gotham Racing 3 final at the 2007 World Cyber Games Canadian Finals at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. (Ted Kritsonis)

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Technology

Going pro

Professional tournaments put Canadians in spotlight

Last Updated August 29, 2007

The screens flash continuously as the sound of gunfire blares out of the speakers. Would-be coaches on both teams blurt a stream of instructions. Within minutes, there are only two shooters left alive. They see each other, there's a hail of bullets, one dies — and the crowd roars.

The World Cyber Games Canadian Finals at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre Aug. 26 determined who would represent Canada at the World Finals in Seattle in October. (Ted Kritsonis)

This was the scene at the World Cyber Games (WCG) Canadian Finals at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre Aug. 26 as teams squared off in Gears of War, a futuristic shooter that is among the most popular video games for the Microsoft Xbox 360. It was one of eight titles being played to determine who would represent Canada at the World Finals in Seattle in October.

Running simultaneously only 30 metres away was the World Series of Video Games (WSVG), an international pro circuit that was making its first stop in Canada. The WSVG had a separate lineup of games to avoid any conflict with the WCG, along with $75,000 US in prize money.

The weekend events were part of the annual Fan Expo, a show devoted to vendors and fans of science fiction, comic books and other pop culture icons. Tapping into an audience of more than 40,000 during the three-day expo, both the WCG and WSVG were eager to raise the stature of their respective brands.

"Many showgoers asked us questions about the program and how they could participate in the future," says Stephan Richard, executive director of WCG Canada. "Our open, public tournament for Need for Speed Carbon was a great success, and this is something we will definitely consider doing again."

Canadians headed for world competition

The competitions are providing Canadian players with a spotlight — and a media platform — that showcases the best pro gamers in the country. Winners of the WCG events will travel to Seattle to take on the world's best. It is expected that the Grand Finals in Seattle Oct. 3-7 will be the biggest WCG event in its short history, with as many as 700 gamers representing 70 countries.

Edmonton native Ryan Ward is only 19, but he is the reigning world champion for Dead or Alive 4, a one-on-one fighting game. He breezed through the competition to capture another Canadian title and is headed to Seattle as part of Team Canada in October.

"I've played video games all my life, but to be able to make money and travel the world doing something I have a passion for is great," says Ward. "It's a huge process to get to this level and to stay at this level."

Ward adds that the public's misconceptions about the training involved in pro gaming can be unnerving, given that he "studies the game and plays at least four hours a day" to keep his skills honed.

The payoff? On top of the prize money he wins at events, Ward is also sponsored by DirecTV and Championship Gaming Series, another league operating out of the U.S.

Andrew Ryder of Barrie, Ont., competed in the August World Series of Video Games tournament in Toronto as a member of an Intel-sponsored team called Evil Geniuses. The 21-year-old finished ninth in the shooter game Quake IV. (Intel)

Not far from Ward at the WSVG event in Toronto was Andy Ryder, a native of Barrie, Ont. He was competing as a member of an Intel-sponsored team called Evil Geniuses in the WSVG tournament. The 21-year-old finished ninth in the popular shooter game Quake IV, just one place shy of the prize money awarded to the top eight contestants.

Ryder has won more than $60,000 in prize money so far in his two years as a pro, and also earns a small salary from his sponsors. Though it sounds like a dream career for a hardcore video game fan, Ryder says he's not fully committed to a long-term career in pro gaming.

"I'm going to school in September, so gaming will probably have to take a backseat for me," he says. "But I'll keep playing where I can, so we'll see where gaming ultimately takes me."

Marketing pro gaming to the masses

While the pro video game circuit is still in relative infancy, it's gradually picking up momentum — and fans.

Trevor McGhee, 19, and David Moore, 20, weren't competing at the WSVG event, but both were taking in the atmosphere at an event where they hope to appear on the big stage next year. The two work at a Future Shop store and belong to a five-man team playing the multiplayer shooting game Counter-Strike.

Related

"With conventions like this, it's good to have big screens set up so that everyone can see what everyone is doing," says McGhee, as he watched a Counter-Strike competition. "This is a sport, any way you look at it."

"Everyone's got their team that they're rooting for," adds Moore.

Though McGhee and Moore were well-informed about the teams and players to watch, marketing the gaming talent to the general public has been one of the greatest challenges for the organizers of both events. Without players who are remotely close to being household names, and dealing with a society that still sees video games as a basement-relegated activity, the personalities in the pro leagues are still battling for more widespread recognition.

Even in the receptive setting of Fan Expo, several passersby weren't aware that the WCG event was a Canadian final. Fewer still seemed to realize that the two gaming events were being organized by separate groups.

In contrast, an event like this in Asia would be very different in scope and appeal, pro gamers at both events say. In those events, high-profile gamers are treated like rock stars or pro athletes are treated here. In South Korea, for example, there are television channels devoted to specific video games, and 10 million television and online viewers tuned in for the WSVG event held in China in May.

While there are no official numbers on attendance for the latest Canadian event, a reasonable level of interest was evident in Toronto, and that's what the organizers want to build on.

"We may not have the same media exposure in Canada compared with Asian nations, but we certainly match any of them in the cyber arena by ranking fourth amongst more than 70 countries at the last WCG Grand Final in Italy," says Richard.

"It definitely has a bigger base [in Asia]," adds Matt Ringel, WSVG commissioner. "It takes time for exposure and it will certainly take recognizable personalities here in North America. We do a lot of casting online that viewers can watch, and we hope that the public will interact with the pros at events like this."

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