The Olympics of the video game world launched Thursday with players from 58 countries marching through the Los Angeles Convention Center waving their nations' flags. Over the next four days, more than 400 gamers will compete at the 10th annual World Cyber Games Grand Final for more than $250,000 in prize money, as well as new gear.
"We're quite confident," said Johan "face" Klasson, who will be representing Sweden while playing the first-person shooter "Counter-Strike" with his team. "I think the strongest opponents this year will be the Ukrainian team, also known as Navi. They've been playing really well in tournaments all over the world. Those are the ones we have to look out for."
Players who previously qualified at regional competitions held across the globe are here to face off in such games as "Guitar Hero 5," "Forza Motorsport 3," "FIFA 10," "Tekken 6" and "Warcraft III." The tournament-style matchups are occurring along rows of monitors erected in a giant circular pattern inside a dimly lit convention hall.
After the World Cyber Games launched in Seoul in 2001, the Grand Final has been held over the past 10 years in such cities as Singapore; San Francisco; Seattle; Monza, Italy; and Cologne, Germany. Last year, organizers said more than 82,000 spectators attended the event at the Century City New Convention and Exposition Center in Chengdu, China.
"We wanted to come back to America to celebrate our 10th anniversary because it's the most important market in terms of entertainment," said Hyoung Seok Kim, president of the World Cyber Games. "It's the center of entertainment. Many publishers and developers are located here, and there's a good infrastructure. We don't have to worry about translation."
Kim said he expects 40,000 attendees at this year's Grand Final. While the World Cyber Games have grown over the last decade, competitive gaming still lacks the same cultural punch in the United States as it does in Asia, where players like Lee "The God of Destruction" Jae-Dong are chased by squealing female fans and earn enormous salaries.
"I think it will happen soon but not now," Kim said. "There's still a big cultural difference with the Western audience. American people are enjoying playing games now more than ever, but their level of competition is not like that of Chinese or Korean players. It's still more a form of entertainment for friends and family than it is a competition."
Despite the trappings of traditional sports -- players in uniforms, referees in stripes, corporate branding in every place imaginable -- competitive gaming, or e-sports as some call it, hasn't upgraded from niche to mainstream, though the World Cyber Games and main sponsor Samsung Electronics Co. hope to change that mindset with "WCG Ultimate Gamer."
The second season finale of the Syfy reality TV contest, which features players battling in real and virtual challenges, will be filmed Friday at the Grand Final's main stage with the winner taking home $100,000. Besides cheering on gamers, attendees will also be able to test Kinect, the upcoming gesture-recognition system for Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360.