Only a handful of spectators gathered at Metrotown mall in Burnaby last Sunday to watch the best local gamers compete in virtual galactic wars and international soccer matches during the western championship finals of the World Cyber Games Canada.
But the two winners from Vancouver can expect to play in front of a substantially larger crowd next month in China when they represent Canada at the world's largest gaming competition.
Sam Prowse, better known by his online nom de guerre "FireZerg," swept Karl "Optikzero" Angeles 3-0 to earn a spot on the national StarCraft 2 delegation, while Chris "Lightning" Galleto fended off 12-year-old prodigy Fatih "Faith" Fattah 2-1 to take the FIFA 12 western title.
The two winners from each video game (or e-sport)-the former an alien race war set in a galaxy far, far away and the latter a hyper-realistic game based on the International Football Federation league made by Burnaby's Electronic Arts-will soon be heading for Kunshan, China to play in front of thousands of people at the 2012 World Cyber Games. The event is the international gaming community's answer to the Olympics and features hundreds of gamers from 70 different countries competing in such video games as Cross Fire, Warcraft 3 and DOTA 2.
"I've been playing StarCraft for about five years now but only very recently decided to start taking it very seriously and compete maybe five months ago," said Prowse, a "cyber athlete" and second-year arts student at UBC. "So getting to go to the finals of the WCG and have a chance to represent my country is really, really exciting."
Although it isn't nearly as popular in Canada, in some parts of the world (especially Korea and China) to be a StarCraft nerd means being a major celebrity. Millions of young gamers, almost all of them male, dream of some day making it as a pro-gamer, of having their every mouse-click scrutinized by adoring fans and earning top dollar doing it. Some people may scoff at the idea of men who spend most of their days sitting in a chair playing video games being considered athletes, but it nonetheless requires a high level of dexterity, stamina and mental
"People joke about the physical fitness required for e-sport players but I definitely think it factors in," said Prowse, a slight 19-year-old who admits he rarely sees the inside of a gym.
StarCraft in particular is played at incredible speed and elite gamers must navigate around the screen issuing hundreds of different orders per minute. Many players from other countries have the advantage of being sponsored by corporations and spending entire days feuding with hostile alien life-forms, but Prowse, who coaches StarCraft on the side to make ends meet, has a bit of an ace up his sleeve due to his background as a classical pianist.
"I try to steal some things from piano like during scales. I've come up with what I call macroscales, and there are some actions people do consistently throughout a game and I've sort of taken those out," he said. "And I practise typing them in a Word document out in time to a metronome."
Galleto, a 20-year-old human kinetics student at Langara College who enjoys playing actual soccer as well as the virtual version, says he doesn't expect to own the podium in China but, as an unranked player, is happy just to be going. "I guess you could say I'm an underdog," he told the Courier. "I'm not really into the gaming community so I guess you could say I'm an under-under. I'll be as prepared as I can, but I'm just going to play my game and be myself."