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Sunday, October 7, 2007
Updated: October 11, 9:59 AM ET
So you wanna be a professional video game player?

By Patrick Hruby
Page 2

ST. CHARLES, ILL. -- Victory smells like Red Bull. Maybe it's body spray. The hall is alive with the sound of small arms fire: popping pistols, thumping shotguns, staccato assault rifles. The crack 'n' whistle of sniper rounds; the sudden, terrible boom of exploding frag grenades. There are breathless ooohs! and frustrated groans and the urgent, irritating bleeps of depleting deflector shields, squawking reminders that you are absolutely, positively about to die, or worse yet, get pwned -- that is, blasted and humiliated -- by some 14-year-old kid wearing a Pokemon Breeders T-shirt. And somewhere beneath the din, nestled deep in the dull gray furrows of the temporal lobes, between the fading lift of too much caffeine and the rising tide of an imminent migraine, a lone note registers, maddening and incessant.

Click-click. Click-click.

Arena
At the Chicago tournament, gamers and spectators could follow all the action on the big video screens.

Fingertips on plastic. Angry cicadas. Hundreds of gamers jabbing hundreds of buttons, slack-jawed, unblinking, faces damn near pressed to the glass, all jockeying to become the very best "Halo 2" players on the planet, watched in turn by what seems like -- wait, what is -- a couple thousand fans. This is Major League Gaming's Chicago tournament, the latest stop in an eight-month, six-event season, host to 16 professional teams and dozens of semipro and amateur wannabes. And no, that's not a misprint. The on-screen space cyborg-slaying may be virtual, but everything else is as real as the guys in the booth doing play-by-play: stage lights and metal bleachers, empty water bottles and half-eaten burritos, tees reading KILL3N and WE Y THE OGRES, the 15-year-old California girl who's better at digital gunplay than you've ever been at anything and the 36-year-old construction worker who drove six hours from Iowa just to snap pics on a disposable camera. (He's a big, big fan of a gamer dubbed Strongside.)

For three long days and three late nights, nicknames like Skarfaze and Captain Anarchy and Miss Baretta! are the norm; shaggy, Ashton Kutcher clone army haircuts de rigueur; energy drinks and fast food subs and parking lot cigarettes the biofuels of choice. No one here would rather be sitting at a Cubs game, practicing violin, sweating through two-a-days. Please. Who has time? There are bombs to plant, plasma pistols to overcharge. Sick killing sprees to pull off. Because 25 years after Pac-Man Fever, playing video games can finally make you rich. Famous, even.

Oh, and if that seems improbable -- like the clouds opening up and raining Guinness -- well, you don't know the half of it.

PRO GAMING FAQ

So you think you have what it takes to be a professional gamer?

Check out Patrick Hruby's FAQ to answer all your questions about injuries, money, expected career length and ... groupies.

The FAQ

ESPN VIDEO GAMES
Check out ESPN Video Games -- including the latest on the release of "Halo 3."

"We have groupies," says pro gamer Ben "Karma" Jackson, flashing a sheepish grin.

"There's a lot of girls around," adds pro gamer Tom "Tsquared" Taylor. "I honestly find them annoying. Because I'm not here to talk to you. I'm here to play 'Halo.' I'm not going to give you a hug. I'm going to my station to play."

"I give them hugs," Jackson interjects. "I'm not going to lie."

Jackson sits on a padded chair in an empty conference room, upstairs from the main hall. He pulls his knees into his chest, rocks back and forth, talks quickly, cracks jokes. Makes expansive gestures with his hands. A 19-year-old who recently moved from California to the East Coast, he's a member of team Carbon, the defending "Halo 2" national champions and winners of the most recent MLG tournament, held in Dallas.

Jackson says he has obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, and gaming, of all things, helps him cope. He borrows Taylor's laptop, shows me a picture of what looks like a fat woman with dreadlocks. Turns out it's him, a few years back. Seeing himself during an MLG television broadcast spurred him to lose weight. (Well, that and wanting to meet girls). He starting working out, ran two or three times a day, dropped 100 pounds. Today, his stylish white belt hardly holds up his sagging jeans. He walks with a hint of a strut, the slight swagger of the nouveau cocky, and has the wide, wounded eyes of a particularly sensitive 5-year-old.

"I don't eat or drink before I play," Jackson says. "I can go an entire day. Back when I started, I'd get so nervous I'd throw up before [playing]."

Tom Taylor
Nineteen-year-old Tom Taylor lifts weights, owns a gaming company -- and has a $250,000 contract from MLG.

Like Jackson, Taylor lifts weights. Burns off his self-professed "Halo anger." The 19-year-old Syracuse, N.Y., resident slouches into a couch. His entire existence revolves around gaming. He has a $250,000 contract with MLG, makes thousands more in prize money and charges up to $115 per hour for online gaming lessons though a self-founded company that counts New Jersey Nets forward Richard Jefferson among its 1,000-plus clients.

Taylor recently broke up with his girlfriend of more than two years, in part because of his lifestyle. Most days, he makes like a vampire, rising in the late afternoon, going to bed at sunup (online gaming largely takes place at night). The week before an event, he'll practice up to 14 hours a day; the week after an event, he'll sleep up to 18 hours a day, fending off the nagging cough, blurry vision and overall malaise that pros call "tournament death."

As we talk, I notice Taylor's holding a pristine control pad. I ask if I can see it. He shakes his head.

"My controller is sacred," Taylor says. "I don't let people touch it. If they do, I have to buy a new one. It has to be completely clean, no matter what. It's like a baseball glove."

For all his dedication -- a box of sanitary wipes sits above his television at home -- you might assume that Taylor is the Tiger Woods of "Halo 2," far and away the world's preeminent player, leader of MLG's best team.

Actually, he's none of the above.


One week before the Chicago tournament, MLG's top four-man Halo 2 squad -- the aptly named Final Boss -- has assembled in the basement of a two-story home outside Columbus, Ohio. Watch your step. The floor is a plastic jungle, overrun with headphones and Internet routers, chocolate-smeared Twix wrappers and empty Sour Patch Kids boxes, fat black Xbox controllers and electronic cords snaking in every direction. Poster-size prize checks hang from the walls, reading AGP CHAMPIONSHIPS NASHVILLE $4,000 and WORLD CYBER GAMES SINGAPORE: US $20,000; bowling-league-style MLG trophies rest on a small wooden bookshelf, next to a canister of disinfecting wipes and, inexplicably, a lone copy of Cosmo Girl magazine.

In the far corner, a kitchenette counter is piled high with what appears to be the contents of an entire 7-11 snack aisle: cookies, peanuts, vanilla wafers, cinnamon chews and empty cans of Red Bull, all arrayed around a hulking tub of protein powder.

Dave Walsh
Dave Walsh, right, known as the best Halo player in the world, practices with Final Boss teammate Tom Ryan in the basement of the Ryan house.

"These kids eat out all the time," laments Andrew Poor, a 22-year-old Ohio State senior. "Eat sugar and junk, then drink Red Bull. They have extremely high metabolisms. It pisses me off, because my heart can't take it and I have to eat it, anyway."

Poor coaches Final Boss, which brings us to our next point: Pro gamers have coaches. And game plans. They scout opponents by watching film. They even hold NFL preseason-style scrimmages -- hence the two kids, Justin and Lester, playing "Halo 2" on two of the half-dozen flickering televisions lining each side of the room. They're members of 5K, one of MLG's up-and-coming squads, here to give Final Boss some quality practice. And also crash on the couch.

Over by the stairs, Dave Walsh emerges from an adjacent bedroom, groggy and bleary-eyed. It's almost 2 o'clock.

"Sorry it's such a mess in here," he says. "We thought about cleaning up last night, but ..."

But ... gaming comes first. A 23-year-old from Grandville, Mich., Walsh -- nicknamed "Walshy" -- may be the best "Halo 2" player in MLG, and as such, the world. He's certainly the best-known: team captain of Final Boss, personally sponsored by Red Bull, a man whose gaming exploits are preserved for posterity in dozens of YouTube montages.

Players revere Walsh for his mind -- studying his "Halo 2" strategies the way chess aficionados study Kasparov -- and for popularizing "the Claw," a way of holding the game controller that allows him to keep his right thumb on the right stick while pressing buttons.

(Note: in first-person shooter games such as Halo 2, the right stick controls on-screen vision. With a traditional grip, players must move their thumb from stick to button to execute attacks; Walsh's fingertip jujitsu, by contrast, allows players to look around and strike at the same time. In terms of technical advantage, think Fosbury Flop versus face-first high jumping).

Walsh yawns, tugs at the sleeves of a T-shirt reading STRICTLY FOR MY NINJAS. He was up until 6:30 this morning, playing Nintendo Wii. To relax. Halo 2 is business, and Final Boss has been putting in double shifts: battling 5K, eight hours a night, tweaking tactics and execution. Over and over. Walsh tallies the results on a clipboard, makes notes, leaves nothing to chance. For more than two years, Final Boss has dominated MLG play -- been the league's New York Yankees, really -- at one point winning eight consecutive tournaments. Recently, however, the gap has narrowed: Carbon beat Final Boss three straight times last season, pocketing a $100,000 prize at the season-ending championship in Las Vegas.

Cords
A gaming basement: Don't step on the cords!

"I was gonna make a nice spot for that check, too," says Tom "OGRE2" Ryan, nodding toward an empty space on the wall.

Ryan's parents live here, along with his twin brother, Dan (OGRE1). Together, the 21-year-old twins make up half of Final Boss; if Walsh is the field general, the Ryans are the shock troops, regarded as the top triggermen in "Halo 2" competition. Like Walsh, they're often bored by the game itself (Tom says he played the single-player levels for all of "10 minutes"). But they love competing, and winning, and the cartoonishly large checks that come with the latter. Both brothers played high school and travel soccer, and both dropped out of Ohio University last year to pursue pro gaming full time.

"I'm just kind of riding the wave," Tom says. "I think I could do it for another five years. It's not like a real job. But it feels like a real job sometimes."

Practice time. Dan plops into a loveseat, kisses his girlfriend, Chantal, who lives in Australia. They met playing "Halo 2" online. No joke. Tom looks half asleep. The fourth member of Final Boss, Michael "Strongside" Cavanaugh, sits next to Walsh. A 19-year-old from Edgewood, Kent., Cavanaugh used to play for team Carbon; because pro gamers are basically independent contractors along the lines of tennis players, Vinatieri-to-the-Colts-type player movement is commonplace in MLG.

"We need to figure out the worst-case scenario," says Walsh, nervously clicking a pen. "We'll most likely win. But if we lose, what do we do?"

"I think that if we win the first two rounds, we'll be able to destroy the other team," Tom replies. "We won't have to worry."

"No, no," Walsh says. "Worst-case scenario."

Walsh leans toward his screen. Game on. Carnage erupts, a spinning symphony of simulated muzzle flashes and floppy death animations. Dan hardly blinks. Tom lets out an occasional whaaaa? Cavanaugh fiddles with the rubber band connecting his Xbox microphone to his oversized headphones.

"This is just warm-up," Tom says. "To warm up our shot."

Ryan twins
The Ryan twins pose for pics with their girlfriends after winning the MLG Chicago tournament. From left, Tom, Amy, Chantal and Dan.

"Yeah," Walsh adds. "So if you're last or second to last, it's not a big deal."

Check the scoreboard: Walsh is second to last in kills.

"Hey, Dave's getting old," Tom cracks. "His reflexes are going."

In a way, Tom isn't teasing: Walsh is the oldest MLG star of note, the grand old man of a pastime in which many of the top competitors are still wading through the hormonal riptides of puberty. Still, reflexes aren't the issue. It's time. Interest. Life. Marty "OGRE3" Ryan, the twins' 23-year-old brother, is a semipro "Halo 2" player himself. He also works full-time at a pharmaceutical company and coaches youth soccer, leaving him little time to hone his gaming skills.

"My brothers' whole day revolves around playing Halo and when they play," Marty says. "I'll work from 6:30 in the morning 'til 5, coach soccer until 8, then practice Halo until 11. I try to squeeze in dinner."

Walsh's space cyborg gets popped by sniper fire. He leans back, then forward, incredulous. He dies again, this time by exploding grenade. Walsh glares at his controller -- the look of a betrayed spouse -- and turns to Cavanaugh.

"Is it that obvious," he asks, "what I was going to do there?"

As the firefight rages, players on both teams bark coded commands, like offensive linemen calling out blitzers: One shot! Topside! Two top blue! Under glass! Under glass! Turns out shooting is the easy part of the game; the hard part is making instant decisions, outthinking opponents in what amounts to three-dimensional speed chess, a game of capturing and holding territory. Which is where Poor comes in. Top teams like Final Boss win through coordination and execution of prerehearsed battle plans, called "strats." Because Poor can watch all four of his team's screens at once, he can act like an offensive coordinator in football, offering God's-eye-view commands and suggestions.

Poor gestures toward Cavanaugh, who stares at his screen, silent and still.

"He's tired, stayed up too late," Poor says. "During a good practice, he'll be talking. So part of my job is being a baby-sitter. At tournaments, you'll see the younger teams wander around the hotel, get to bed at 5 in the morning. By the second day, they're totally drained. A team like ours knows that they need to rest and eat right."

On cue, Cavanaugh's avatar perishes via sniper shot. Final Boss loses the game. Walsh wrinkles his nose, takes a swig of Red Bull. Anne Ryan, the twins' mother, peeks in from the stairway.

"We're pretty well ready to eat, guys," she says.

Upstairs is enough lasagna to feed an army platoon. Four color-coded bottles of Johnnie Walker sit atop a kitchen island -- gifts for the twins' recent birthday, courtesy of Gilbert Arenas. Yes, that Gilbert Arenas. An obsessive Halo player, the Washington Wizards guard met Final Boss at a Red Bull office in Santa Monica, Calif. He challenged them in Halo, talked trash, got thumped -- badly -- and then offered to sponsor the team. So far, so good: Walsh and company were VIP guests at Arenas' ballyhooed birthday bash in Washington, D.C. They get free gear from Arenas' shoe sponsor, Adidas. When Final Boss beat Carbon at an MLG tournament held at the Meadowlands earlier this year, Walsh promptly received an excited text message.

Ogre fans
The Ryan brothers have their fans.

"Gilbert says, pick a vacation, anywhere you want to go," Walsh recalls.

"We said Hawaii," Tom says.

"He said, 'You can do better than that,'" Dan says.

"Now we're thinking Fiji," Tom says.

"There's a problem," Walsh interjects, "We're not athletes or anything, but a sports player doesn't take a vacation in the middle of the season."

"We can't take two weeks off not thinking about Halo," says Tom.

"And we want to take a real vacation," Walsh says. "Not have to think about the game. Just worry about having fun."

If it all seems like an odd inversion of everything you learned about life in high school -- jocks worshipping gamers? Yeah right! -- imagine how Anne and Mark Ryan feel. They figured their twin sons would follow in the footsteps of Marty, who played soccer at Georgia Tech before graduating from Ohio State. Only Tom won a car playing games. And Dan pocketed so much prize money he needed help with his tax return. And MLG offered lucrative contracts.

"From a mom's perspective, it's a little hard to say that my kids dropped out of school for video games," Anne says. "But it's like an athlete deciding to go pro: Do it now before you break a leg or someone younger and stronger comes along."

She pauses.

"It is kind of weird that you can Google your kid online."

"Mom!" protests Kristen, the Ryans' younger sister, a 19-year-old student at Ohio University. "They have their own Wikipedia pages."

They do. Tom's page even has a mug shot. Meanwhile, Kristen receives random Facebook requests and gets approached at college parties -- Hey, are you the Ogre sister? Oh my God! Tom's girlfriend, Amy, says he can't go to the mall without being recognized by the kids working behind the counter at Hot Topic.

MLB fans
Contracts, big paydays and groupies: Hey, it's just like professional sports!

"Tournament weekends are the craziest," she adds. "Me and Chantal will be walking with Tom and Dan and people want pictures, want them to sign their shoes. They want to give me a hug. And Tom just wants to go to the bathroom."

Things have changed since Tom and Dan's senior year of high school, when they put MLG on hold to play varsity soccer. This past summer, the twins signed up for a local rec league -- as a diversion from gaming.

"We told them, 'Whatever you do, if you fall, don't put out your arms!'" Mark says, chuckling.

"Really," adds Chantal, "just fall on your face."

"Can you imagine," Kristen says, "if either of them broke their hands?"


Chris Puckett is hyped, dude. In fact, he's calling it right now: best match of the weekend. And from his vantage point -- perched atop a 20-foot-high Erector Set of metal scaffolding and colored stage lights that serves as the MLG Chicago tournament's press box/broadcast booth -- it's hard to argue the point.

Taylor's squad, Str8 Rippin', is playing a team called The Agency. Three oversized screens tower over the main stage like Pink Floyd concert props, flickering with simulated gunfire and smoke. Players hunch behind dual banks of dueling televisions, four to a side, immersed in digital combat; around them, fans sit cross-legged on the floor, spilling over from bleacher seats running five rows deep.

Bam! Taylor's on-screen cyborg takes a sniper round to the face. The crowd lets out a low, approving moan.

"It's just been head shots all day!" Puckett gleefully yelps. "No body shots. These guys are not wasting any ammo!"

Puckett is the color guy, MLG's John Madden. He wears a headset, gabs with a play-by-play partner and scans a laptop computer for stats. A former marketing student at Ohio University -- like the Ryan twins, he dropped out -- Puckett does this for a living. He can hardly believe his luck. A few years back, his job didn't exist. Pro gaming hardly existed. Tournaments were fortunate to have a single large screen, and Puckett sat with everyone else, holding a microphone, yelling himself hoarse.

Halo players
In Halo, teams of four battle opponents in hopes of winning the big payday: $100,000.

"Everyone brought their own TVs and Xboxes, too," he recalls. "It was fun, but you never knew if you'd get your TV back, or if it would be stolen."

Today, everything from the on-screen action to Puckett's amped-up narration gets recorded, digitized and piped back to the computers and A/V equipment tucked behind the stage, where MLG's 70-plus person production staff cuts and packages content for the league's Web site and cable television show. And yes: pro gamers have a show. For that and everything else, they can thank league co-founders Mike Sepso and Sundance DiDiGiovanni -- both avid gamers, both in their mid-30s, both confident enough to pour every cent they could borrow into a video game circuit modeled after NASCAR, both crazy enough to think it would fare better than, say, the XFL.

"That main hall? It's a representation of a cocktail napkin I drew on four years ago," DiGiovanni says with small smile. "Our production designer has it framed."

He laughs.

"And I wasn't even drunk when I did it!"

The story goes like this: Sepso founded the New York City-based broadband consulting company where DiGiovanni worked. The two became friends, hit the bars together, always seemed to end up back at DiGiovanni's Tribeca loft, where groups of buzzed guests would play Halo, cheering and talking trash. Time and again, the same question came up: Hey, why don't you guys throw some gaming parties?

The question became a concept, then a business plan. Sepso and DiGiovanni knew there were others like them, figured they could do the underground leagues and church basement shootouts one better. In 2002, MLG was born. And nearly died. Sponsors were skeptical, financial backers few and far between. For three years, Sepso and DiGiovanni paid themselves zilch, putting every cent they made back into the company. At tournaments, DiGiovanni set up the folding tables. Sepso lugged the TV sets. They would wake up before dawn, buy bagels and coffee for their makeshift staff, raid electronics stores for extra games and extension cords, duct tape their handful of sponsorship signs to their lone projector screen. If the duo wanted to sell T-shirts, they had to make them; if the power went out, they had to fix it.

"Imagine George Steinbrenner running concessions at Yankee Stadium," DiGiovanni says. "What we were doing did not make a lot of sense. But people were just happy to be a part of it."

Last year, MLG received $10 million in funding from Ritchie Capital, an asset management group. Boost Mobile, Red Bull, Scion and video game retailer Gamestop became sponsors. Matthew Bromberg, a former Time Warner executive, signed on as league president and chief operating officer.

Back in the main hall, I watch Final Boss warm up behind a row of televisions that has been roped off from the floor. A small crowd of young men gathers, necks craning, some clad in just-purchased MLG sweatshirts, others wearing T-shirts reading HEY! ARE THOSE MY BALLS ON YOUR FACE?

Everyone watches the screens, transfixed. Steve DeAngelis nods. He's from Michigan. Works in advertising, for a company called Mindshare. Wears jeans and a black blazer. Says he's looking at the future.

"So many people look up to these guys, it's crazy," he tells me. "Gaming is big in '08, going to blow up. But my older clients, they don't get it."

Ogre fans
Contrary to popular belief, there are girl gamers as well.

Warmup ends. Cavanaugh smiles, hands out Final Boss-themed T-shirts and wristbands. Walsh signs autographs, poses for a picture with someone's grinning girlfriend, hustles over to the player's lounge. Any minute now, he's supposed to chat with the BBC.

Wander around, past the small stage where amateurs are invited to PLAY WITH A PRO and players like Jackson take on all comers. Here's Brandon, a 19-year-old game design student from Minnesota. He has class tomorrow, has to drive home tonight. He doesn't want to leave. Here's Aaron, an 18-year-old from Oregon who works at a pizza parlor. He saved all summer for this trip, calls it the best weekend he's ever had. Here are half a dozen fans of the OGREs, a dozen more kids who know Walsh's back story by heart: high school tennis player and wrestler, played Halo after matches to burn off leftover adrenaline, drove to a spring break tournament in Nashville on a whim, finished fifth out of 300 people, later met (and defeated) the Ryan twins, and the rest ... is gaming lore. The building buzzes with coaches scrambling back and forth, players moving ever-closer to their screens, winning squads exchanging high fives and chest-bumps, losing teams stumbling into the hazy afternoon sunlight, shaking their heads in disgust.

"Pathetic!" mutters a guy whose team-themed shirt reads TOO HIGH GAMING, the "T" spattered with fake blood. "If I ain't hosting, I ain't playing again!"

Where are the young men? How do we reach them? Advertisers and network executives and everyone else looking to connect with and/or exploit the coveted 12-28 demographic want to know. The answer is all around. The young men are here, and everywhere control pads click, and they're too busy blasting space aliens and each other to care about Aaron Sorkin's latest offering. They're here for competition and community, here to meet their online teammates in person for the first time, to talk without the use of telemarketer-looking headsets. They're here because Halo means more to them than Tom Brady and LeBron James put together, because the game is their poker -- easy to learn, hard to master, a celebration of skill and ego -- and guys like Walsh are their answer to Chris Moneymaker, the American Idols next door.

Keep pressing start. That could be me.

In the lobby, I spy another themed T-shirt. This one reads WALSH IS MY HOMEBOY.


Walsh is edgy. Perturbed, if not quite panicked. Final Boss is about to face Taylor's Str8 Rippin' squad in the Chicago tournament final. Walsh and Co. are heavily favored.

Problem is, their good luck charms are missing. Four palm-sized plastic Transformers toys, religiously placed atop Final Boss' television screens, replacement totems for four plastic ninjas that were kicked to the curb following a previous loss to Carbon.

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh with his good-luck charm: a toy Transformer.

"Hey," Walsh asks, "you guys have your Transformers out there already?"

"It's in my bag," says Cavanaugh.

"Tell Ray to go get your green bag!" Walsh commands.

Ray Lau works for MLG. He's standing in what amounts to a makeshift locker room, a couple of leather chairs and a Red Bull cooler, tucked under the main stage media tower. Sorry, he says, but you can't put the toys atop your screens. Only on your Xboxes. League rules.

"I gave [Taylor] my hoodie last night," Lau tells me a few minutes later, smiling. "Now he won't take it off. He's looking for something lucky. He's been switching haircuts at every event -- done the Matt Damon thing, the Jesus look. There's not much he can do if they lose this. Maybe go bald."

Nothing left to chance. Not even chance. Dan Ryan slaps himself in the face. He crouches over one of the colored lights, warming his hands. Prolonged gaming, he says, makes his fingers go cold, ruins his aim, saps his reflexes. Cavanaugh joins him. Tom Ryan yawns, looks half-asleep. Walsh and Poor huddle, talk strategy. Keep calling things out. Don't sit back. Go take it.

An amped-up announcer calls the players to the stage, one by one, introduces them in the manner of NBA All-Stars. WAAAAALSHY! Final Boss wears monogrammed Adidas track jackets, gifts from Arenas; across the stage, Taylor sports Lau's MLG-branded sweatshirt. He mugs for a camera, making mock-mean faces.

In the bleachers, I spot Dan's girlfriend, Chantal. She's nervous.

"It's better when they win," she says. "The worst is when they lose, and you have to sleep in the same bed."

Game time. Walsh leans toward his monitor. Tom keeps yawning. No one blinks. Final Boss dominates, runs its strats to perfection, rolls to a near-insurmountable lead. The final game is Slayer -- first squad to 50 kills wins. The sound system erupts: thumping grenades, rolling bursts of gunfire, the slide 'n' click of rifle magazine reloads. A malfunctioning speaker makes sniper shots sound all too real: Pop! Pop! Pop! On screen, red and blue-colored space cyborgs leap and shoot and die and come back to life, only to die again, over and over, ignorant armies clashing by projector light; around the stage, spectators look on, eyes wide, hunching forward, mouths slightly askew. There are no ThunderStix, no foam fingers, no cheerfully obnoxious chants. Everyone remains still, oddly silent, as if they're playing Halo, too, at least until the digitized, ominous-sounding in-game announcer -- not to be confused with Puckett, or the stage announcer -- makes a final, definitive statement.

GAME OVER.

Final Boss wins. Again. The fans finally cheer. Out comes an oversized check, followed by first pounds and half-hugs. Walsh grips a camcorder, accepts congratulations from Sepso and DiGiovanni. Tom stuffs his Transformer toy into a knapsack. Cavanaugh and Poor sign autographs. Dan hugs Chantal, stops for an interview with a MLG television crew. I enjoyed it, he says into the lens. It was fun.

The camera lights go off. I ask Dan what he's thinking.

"For the next month," he says, "I get to feel good."

The main hall empties, a bar after last call. Walsh slumps on the bleachers, spent, looking almost gaunt. The Dallas loss, he admits, ate at him. Every loss does, so much so that he can't bear to watch game videos of his defeats. He sees every mistake.

"I feel more relieved than excited," Walsh says. "It's like [Roger] Federer. Like you let yourself down if you don't win."

A weak smile. Around us, a breakdown crew disassembles the stage, packs away the A/V equipment, shoos stragglers toward the lobby, where a small, happy crowd laughs and takes pictures. Walsh's girlfriend, Nicki, is waiting for him. So are his teammates. Tonight, he'll join them for dinner and drinks, try to unwind. Put his profession out of mind. Maybe think about Fiji. For now. For a few days. Until the next time he fires up "Halo 2." Until the next time he claw-grips a control pad and gets back to work. He hasn't played the game in years.

Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2. Sound off to Patrick here.