Let the World Cyber Games begin

The first day of the international tourney sees in-game carnage surrounded by eerie silence; Romania, Bulgaria, Germany, and America clash in early competition.

Every sight and sound at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, site of the World Cyber Games 2004, informs spectators that they are present not just in the real world. Inside the cavernous hall, sensory concessions are made to the virtual playing field: Lights are dimmed to enhance visibility on the competitors’ monitors. A hushed tone belies the presence of hundreds whose exuberance is contained behind the silent veil of headphones.

These competitors, whose skill is refined as any athlete's, can’t afford to take chances when the stakes are high. At stake is $400,000 in total prize money, in addition to the national pride of the various nations' teams. An Unreal Tournament 2004 player needs to be able to hear a player pick up a weapon in the next room. The glare from a flashbulb could distract a Need for Speed racer as he negotiates a tricky corner (which is why they were strictly forbidden). Though the auditorium is packed with hundreds of monitors laid out in neat arrays, an eerie silence hangs inside each gaming cubicle.

An assortment of banners representing all the countries participating in the World Cyber Games hangs above the hall, which is divided into different areas for the various games. By far the largest area is devoted to Counter-Strike: Condition Zero and the smallest to Project Gotham Racing 2. To keep the competitors focused on their games, spectators patch into commentary remotely over various FM frequencies to accompany the action playing out on giant screens suspended over the pit of contention, where uniformed referees make their rounds.

At one point on Thursday afternoon’s round-robin competition, simultaneous matches were taking place in StarCraft, WarCraft, Halo, and FIFA Soccer 2004, with different screens showing spectators the different dramas playing out. Watching an early round three StarCraft match between George Ciurescu of Romania and Vasil Parushev of Bulgaria, one could only wonder how these players were dealing with the pressure to prevail in a heated one-on-one match surrounded by so many onlookers with so much else going on around them. Meanwhile, Sebastian Droschak of Germany battled Dave Walsh of the US in Halo, trying to suss out the strategy of an unfamiliar opponent on a world stage. Replay files will be available on the World Cyber Games Web site.

Outside the auditorium in the relatively harsh light of day, the conference’s organizers had a variety of “cultural programs” on offer in nearby Civic Center Plaza in front of city hall, ranging from band performances to hip-hop dance troupes to BMX demonstrations to tae kwon do displays. These performances were designed to highlight the international diversity of the World Cyber Games and promote cultural goodwill, which is the intended spirit of the event.

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