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Out of the Arcade

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Parents of computer game addicts, meet Thresh. And think twice before you snatch that joystick out of your child’s hand again.

Thresh, whose real name is Dennis Fong, is perhaps the world’s first truly professional computer game player. He has an agent. He has endorsement deals. He has a Ferrari.

He is also the marquee name in what is being billed as the Professional Gamers League, or PGL, a bold attempt to bring gaming into the ranks of professional sports.

“It’s kind of crazy,” said Fong, a 20-year-old Berkeley resident. “But I always thought gaming would head in this direction.”

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The PGL is the brainchild of Total Entertainment Network, or TEN, one of a handful of game services that have sprouted up on the Internet over the last two years, allowing players around the world to compete against one another in intense shootouts.

The league is to be unveiled today at a news conference at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.

TEN is going to great lengths to model the PGL on blockbuster sports leagues such as the NFL and NBA. There will be $250,000 in cash and prizes for its inaugural season, which will include a series of tournaments that last three months each. There will be referees, trading cards, an elaborate player ranking system and even a commissioner--Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari.

And--in what might be the real mark of the big time--there’s even an incipient controversy. Some of the world’s top players won’t be participating because of instructions from their manager, Angel Munoz--the first big-time agent in the budding sport and considered by some to be the Don King of online games.

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Whether there will be any significant number of fans for the new league, though, is an open question. Some might also wonder whether video games can really be considered a sport.

But Joe Perez--a devoted gamer and manager of online events at San Francisco-based TEN who came up with the idea for the league last September--doesn’t shy away from the comparisons.

“What inspired me was just the idea that a great game player should get the same kind of recognition of an actual sports player,” Perez said. “Why can’t somebody like Thresh get the same kinds of endorsements and sponsorships as Tiger Woods?”

It’ll be a long time before gamers’ earnings rival that of Woods, the golfing phenom who pocketed tens of millions of dollars last year. After all, winners of the first PGL tournaments will take home about $9,000 in cash and perhaps $10,000 in prizes.

But PGL officials say the purses will grow in the coming years and point out that money is already starting to trickle in for top players.

Fong has won more than $100,000 in cash and prizes over the last two years, including the Ferrari he earned by outlasting a field of 30,000 players in a tournament that ended before a packed crowd at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Atlanta last June.

He collects thousands of dollars for appearances and endorsements. Advanced Micro Devices Inc., the computer chip maker that is sponsoring the PGL, is paying Fong $1,500 for appearing at the company’s booth at the Comdex show in Las Vegas this month. Company officials say more lucrative deals are possible.

“I could even see down the line the Thresh signature computer system based on AMD technology,” said Dean Whitehair, the company’s product public relations manager.

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Thresh recently started a company called Gamers Extreme with friends and his older brother, also a finalist in Atlanta. They sell strategy books and operate gaming Web sites.

The business and the league are both counting on Thresh, whose victories in Atlanta and a 1995 contest at Microsoft Corp. have gotten him coverage in mainstream newspapers and magazines. For the PGL, he provides legitimacy and star power.

In person, the undefeated player is soft-spoken. Online, he is an assassin. On a recent evening from his office in Berkeley, Thresh joined a popular action game called Quake, already in progress. Within minutes, he was the only one in a field of dozens left standing.

Peering down the barrel of a virtual shotgun and hugging the game’s riveted walls, he cruised through byzantine corridors and shadowy rooms. Opponents were greeted with a merciless barrage of firepower. Foes toting rocket launchers could barely take aim before they were riddled with pellets.

His dexterity and vision are obviously keen. But he also has an innate ability to grasp terrain and anticipate opponents’ moves.

“He knows by sound where you are,” said Perez. “If you pick up a certain piece of armor, he’ll know you’re going through a certain portal and he’ll lay a rocket right there.”

Video game tournaments have been around since the days of Pong. In the 1970s and ‘80s, masters of Atari classics competed in bars and arcades. More recently, Sega and Nintendo have staged national competitions with top prizes of up to $25,000.

But the Internet has literally brought a new dimension to such competitions. No longer are bragging rights confined to the neighborhood or local arcade. Top players become online legends, their star status burnished by awe-struck postings to countless chat rooms.

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Suddenly, determining the world’s best is not only possible, but practical--and, most importantly, a promotional opportunity for companies such as TEN and AMD.

Munoz, the agent, says he’s simply making sure the players get their due.

“One day I was watching tennis and I realized that the commentators weren’t talking about the rackets or the net or the court,” said Munoz, whose Dallas company is called New World.com. “In the gaming industry, all we do is talk about the game, not the players.”

To change that, he created the “Cyberathlete” team. He now has a stable of 10 top players, including Kornelia Takacs, a 20-year-old from Los Angeles regarded as one of the best females. He pays them salaries of $500 a month, and they play in tournaments he organizes and allow him to direct their careers.

But Munoz refused to let his players participate in the PGL unless the league met a number of demands, including waiving the $9.95 registration fee for his players. The PGL didn’t, so on Friday, Munoz said he would launch a separate league.

The PGL can certainly learn from the successes and struggles of other leagues built from scratch in recent years. Consider beach volleyball, which has gone from a handful of hundred-dollar tournaments in the early 1980s to a full-scale pro tour that offers today’s players TV coverage, endorsement deals and $4 million in prize money.

League officials said the key is finding fans beyond the ranks of weekend players and sponsors beyond the ranks of equipment suppliers.

“Tools-of-the-trade companies will support a league,” said Lon Monk, a top official with the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals in Marina del Rey. “But they’re not going to be your bread and butter.”

For the AVP, he said, prize money would be paltry if it weren’t for consumer-brand sponsors such as Sunkist and Miller Brewing Co., which see the league as a way to reach more than just volleyball players.

The PGL’s sponsors, by contrast, include Logitech Inc., a maker of computer mouses, modem maker U.S. Robotics Inc. and AMD.

Finding mainstream fans could be even tougher. After all, what’s the spectator appeal of an activity that takes place primarily in a contestant’s mind and a computer’s circuitry, where the only physical action is the twitch of a thumb?

League organizers acknowledge that’s a problem but are already devising ways to involve spectators. They are developing a way for spectators to participate online as “ghosts” who can watch fights, change camera angles and follow favorite players--all without disrupting the game or getting caught in the cross-fire.

And the league is also counting on crowds at championship rounds, where the best players will gather at locations around the country for head-to-head battles.

TEN hopes the league will create new interest in online gaming and expand its existing subscriber base of about 25,000. Anyone can join the PGL for a one-time fee of $9.95. Spectators can watch for free.

For thousands of players, the PGL offers a remote chance at online stardom--and perhaps a chance to prove parents wrong. Even Thresh, whose father is a manager at Hewlett-Packard Co. in Palo Alto, said his parents weren’t always supportive.

“My parents used to say it was a waste of time, that I should study,” he said. Not anymore. They can’t really say anything now that I’ve brought home a Ferrari.”


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