GAMEBOYS: PROFESSIONAL VIDEOGAMING’S RISE FROM THE BASEMENT TO THE BIG TIME
By Michael Kane
Viking Books, 288 pages, $24.95
Having read Michael Kane’s Gameboys, I now know almost all there is to know about professional videogaming, certainly more than the average American and definitely more than I ever cared to know. Example: College dropouts can make up to $40,000 a year playing video games. That fact, depending on your disposition, is either a sure sign of America’s imminent demise or the advent of a technological golden age. Mr. Kane warmly endorses the latter view, and lays out a fairly persuasive argument over nearly 300 pages.
To write Gameboys, Mr. Kane spent 18 months on the professional videogaming circuit, where he dutifully tracked the premier players of a videogame called Counter-Strike as they attempted to popularize their “sport.” For the uninitiated—which included me before I read this book—Counter-Strike is a computer-based competition, played by two teams of five. Teams alternate between defense and offense, and the primary objective, of course, is to kill your opponent. The team with the last person standing wins a game, and matches are won when a team wins 15 games.
Aided by his extensive reporting and familiarity with his subjects, Mr. Kane departs from the familiar and clichéd tropes used by many writers when they discuss the videogame subculture. He disdains the N-word (nerd) and favorably compares top-level videogame players to professional athletes. While that argument is excessive, the book is well served by Mr. Kane’s earnest tone, and readers will be surprised by the fleshed-out personalities of the videogamers, many of whom defy the typical characterizations of computer geeks.
One such character is 20-something Danny Montaner, a Cuban-American living in Miami. Like virtually all of the elite Counter-Strike players, Danny has a self-invented nickname—fRoD, for those who are wondering—and he plays the game despite his parents’ objections. Danny is a BMW-driving college dropout, who also happens to be the best Counter-Strike player in the world. He was a standout baseball player as a teenager, but gave up sports after breaking his arm.
AT TIMES, MR. KANE RAMBLES on, indulging in wasteful digression, such as his two-page disquisition on the historical significance and aesthetic properties of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dallas. His work is made more difficult by the subject matter: Explaining the finer points of videogames is no easy task; making it interesting even harder.
Mr. Kane compensates by filling Gameboys with priceless glimpses of the videogaming world. At a Louisville, Ky., Counter-Strike tournament, he catches bad-boy actor turned born-again Christian Stephen Baldwin proselytizing to young gamers from the back of a rented truck, promoting slacker-friendly religious literature. At another tournament, the author notes the superstitions of different Counter-Strike players: One gamer places a miniature stuffed Teddy Bear atop his monitor; another plays every game barefoot.
As for the narrative arc promised in the subtitle, after several false starts the gamers find financial backers in DirecTV, who agree to sponsor a professional Counter-Strike league. In the aftermath of a highly dubious tournament in San Francisco (emceed by a brainless twit from the Los Angeles-based radio station KROQ), principles and integrity are sacrificed to accommodate a wider audience. The drama ends at the Playboy Mansion, where the inaugural league draft of the Championship Gaming Series is held.
Videogaming has made it, and America should be O.K.
Oliver Haydock is on the staff of The Observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.