SHOOT-OUT AT THE HIGH-TECH CORRAL : Laser duels waged in space-age shooting galleries have emerged as alternatives to video games and may become a sport of the future.

Times Staff Writer

N EW ORLEANS, April 16, 1999 ( UPI )-- The Cal State Northridge Laserheads won the NCAA-MTV Photon championship today by zapping MIT's defending champion Androids before a sellout crowd of 75,000 at the Superdome.

The upstart Laserheads, making the jump to Division I this year, parlayed a solid defensive shield with a conservative Phaser-gun attack to end the Androids' hopes of becoming the first three-time national champion since Iowa State's Cyborgs in 1992.

"Offense wins fans, defense wins Photon titles," Cal State Coach Ray "Ray Gun" Jones said.

The preceding sports fantasy indicates:

a) There is some hope that coaches are going to stop using cliches.

b) CSUN will upgrade its athletic program one of these days.

c) College teams will start adopting creative nicknames.

d) Laser games are a sport of the future.

The correct answer is d. If basketball can go to the three-point shot, perhaps the world is ready for something as far out as laser games. All signs point to their emergence as a popular sport:

--The Lazer Maze in the Sherman Oaks Galleria attracts nearly 2,500 players a day on weekends. Since opening last December, it already has signed up about 14,000 members at $5 each.

--Fueled by a high-energy commercial on MTV and network stations, Lazer Tag was the rage among college and high school students last Christmas, making Lazer Tag weapons as hard to buy as U2 tickets. "The guns were being bought faster than we could get them in," said Amy Cullen, a clerk who waits on laser weenies at Don's Toys & Hobbies in the Sherman Oaks Galleria. "We could have sold a million."

--An arena game called Photon is sweeping the country. By the end of this year, according to a Photon spokesperson, 70 centers will be built, including one in either Encino or Northridge. An existing center in Fountain Valley averages 1,000 players a day. Later this year, Photon will hold a $250,000 international tournament, with the winner receiving $100,000.

--The National Intramural-Recreational Sports Assn., with a membership of more than 400 colleges, recently adopted Lazer Tag as an intramural sport.

--Forever in a feeding frenzy for new and innovative sports, television already has become involved with laser games. Both MTV and CNN recorded for posterity the first "national collegiate" Lazer Tag championship last December, covering Cal State Long Beach's victory over 31 other teams at the downtown Bonaventure Hotel.

"It's not ridiculous at all to think that laser games will become a big spectator sport," said Ben Platt, a spokesman for Lazer Maze.

Another sign of the times: Laser games are not played with lasers. Nor should they be. Real lasers can destroy nuclear missiles. To keep the carnage imaginary, most laser games are no more complicated than the remote device on the TV. They use a 9-volt battery to shoot an invisible beam of infrared light as far as 60 feet. An accurate shot activates sensors on the target and triggers a sound effect.

A high-tech version of cowboys and Indians, most laser games use Buck Rogers-type space guns instead of cap pistols. Photon calls its gun a "Phaser," and Lazer Maze arms its players with a "Lazer Blaster." But Daisy, the venerable BB gun manufacturer, has just introduced its $50 Pursuit "combat survival game," which includes a replica of a .45-caliber pistol that even uses the traditional percussive "bang."

A combination of paint- and pellet-gun games and Saturday morning cartoons like "Voltron," laser games represent the state of the art in interactive sports: futuristic, computerized and with violent themes. The rush comes from avoiding your enemy and buzzing his sensor before he buzzes yours.

"Everybody can be Rambo," Platt said. "You can really take out your aggressions and release hostility."

Platt says that a lot of Vietnam veterans see "Platoon" upstairs at the Galleria theater complex and then relive the battles at Lazer Maze, where they're allowed to win the war. A player pays $3 ($10 for five games) to stalk for 2 1/2 minutes through four dark rooms and defend himself against a succession of evil-looking robots that randomly light up around him. A successful hit from the Blaster will blow the enemy into Technicolor bits of antimatter and automatically register on a TV scoreboard outside in the space-age lobby.

The first Lazer Maze in the country, the Galleria's space-age shooting gallery is owned by Lenny Sigalov. Sigalov is also a relative newcomer to the United States, having emigrated from Russia 11 years ago. If the robotic effects look like something out of a sci-fi movie, it's because they were designed by Roland Crump, who used to work for Walt Disney as a senior projects director at the EPCOT Center.

While Lazer Maze players score points by annihilating nonhuman opponents, participants in both Lazer Tag and Photon can win by shooting other players.

Photon, at 3 years the oldest of the laser games, is played by two teams of as many as 15 players each. The players each pay $3.50 to take part in about 6 1/2 minutes of simulated warfare. Hooked into the Photon computer that keeps score, they wear uniforms, carry 14 pounds of equipment and creep around ramps, tunnels and labyrinths in a 14,000-square-foot star chamber. Ambient lighting, electronic music and artificial fog add to the illusion.

Photon also sells equipment in toy stores. A Phaser, helmet with flashing lights and chest module sell for about $80. BE

Lazer Tag gear, also sold for $80, comes with a detailed rule book that takes the game seriously. "Lazer Tag is a noncontact sport," the book warns. Then, in a section that must have been written by a coach: "Although Lazer Tag sportsmen can be highly competitive individuals, they must always consider the success of the team first." An official Lazer rule: six hits "kill" and put you out of the game; in Photon, it's four.

Another version of Photon is being played on the Universal Studio tour. Thirty-eight pistol-packing people are herded into a 900-square-foot regulation Photon arena and try to pick off four gunslingers dressed like the Road Warrior. Games last about 2 1/2 minutes. The first customer who scores 300 points is the winner. On weekends, people stand in line for as long as an hour to play.

Laser games are the offspring of video games, the next step on the evolutionary ladder. Playing Lazer Maze, for instance, has been described as being inside a game of Space Invaders. Photon's George Carter calls his creation "the first live-action video game." It's not unexpected, then, that video games are beginning to show signs of old age. The video-game industry is in trouble: from a 1981-82 high of $10.5 billion, it fell to $7 billion in 1985. Laser games are siphoning off bored video-game junkies looking for new thrills.

"I used to hang out at the video arcade," said Marvin Patton, 18, who was awaiting his turn at Lazer Maze, "but the games just aren't as challenging as this."

It's the competitive nature of the laser games--plus the athletic skills required to excel--that put them in the realm of sports.

"We picture Photon as a sport," said Kathy Davidson, a spokesman for the company. "The people who play it treat it like anyone who'd take a sport seriously. They practice, they devise strategy and have playbooks, and they even recruit team members."

At the Orange County facility, there are already Photon leagues for churches, corporations and neighborhoods. Lazer Maze recently held a tournament for Galleria teams and plans to create citywide rivalries after opening other branches around Los Angeles.

"If enough kids from Beverly Hills become proficient at it," Platt said, "maybe we can stir up some friendly competition with Valley high schools, which already have some very skilled players."

Who knows? Pretty soon a high school league, then CIF playoffs . . . The first Galleria champion, beating 19 other teams, was Merrill Lynch, led by captain Marc Cohen. "I've been an athlete all my life," Cohen said, "and laser games are just like other sports. You've really got to have quick reflexes to score well."

Laser games also can provide a fast fix for fitness buffs. "You work up a sweat in Lazer Maze," Cohen said, "but Photon is really a workout. You have to run for more than six minutes with all that equipment on. It really makes you tired."

Despite their violent theme, laser games appeal to and are played by women. At Lazer Maze, Malia Bernal was playing against her son, Mark. It's not easy having Annie Oakley for a mother. She blazed through the course before him and was watching his totals register on the lobby TV screen. As soon as he emerged into the lobby, his Blaster still smoking, she smiled and said, "I beat you again."

But not everybody loves laser games, "I think it's harmful for youngsters to feel so unemotional about killing something," said Nancy Katz, who was standing outside Lazer Maze.

The make-believe destruction doesn't bother Bernal, however.

"Nobody really dies," she said. "This is fun. My son and I are competitive and this gives us a chance to do something together."

To minimize potential criticism, Laser Tag isn't being marketed as a war game, said Annette Harzan, spokesman for Smith Marketing in Los Angeles. "We call it a game of tag," she said.

Laser games came under close scrutiny--and criticism--recently when a Rancho Cucamonga Lazer Tag player was shot to death by a police officer who thought he was carrying a real gun.

"There have been complaints for years from police departments across the United States that the toys were getting more realistic and the possibility for tragedy was increasing all the time," said Rick Gaumer, a staff member of Stop the War Toys Campaign, a project of the War Resisters League of New England.

As the years go by, equipment will no doubt become more sophisticated and players will undoubtedly refine their skills, said Mike Munson, coach of the Cal State Long Beach Lazer Tag champions. The game is very young, Munson noted, and is like other sports in their formative years. In the nationals, for example, "The rules were still up for debate."

Munson is making his own contribution to the game. He has come up with a novel training method to improve hand-eye coordination: Target sensors attached to pet dogs, who make elusive quarries once they're prodded off the couch.

Another possibility for a TV sports show: "Laser Safari--Endangered Species Get Phased On, Not Out."

It was inevitable, perhaps, that laser games would give rise to laser weenies. You know the type: They somehow understand every technical nuance of the game and think it's their inalienable right to tell everybody within earshot. One such laser weenie, a 15-year-old from Northridge, was hanging out at the laser counter at Don's and staring down the barrel of a Phaser.

"Yeah, it's definitely a narrow white beam, possibly using a dip switch mechanism, range only about 40 feet," he said. "Give me a Lazer Tag gun anytime. Trouble is, you'll never find one. It's impossible. When a new shipment comes in, the word really gets around school. Seventh-graders have been known to scalp them. It's scary."

Then he went across the mall to Lazer Maze, released the safety on the old Blaster and put a few dozen worthless aliens out of their misery.

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