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Ready to fight to the virtual death

Special to The Times

FOR 26-year-old Adande Thorne, a digital animator who works as a lifeguard at the Hard Rock Hotel in Orlando, Fla., by trade, life as a professional athlete is almost too much to hope for, especially since many would hesitate to call him an athlete at all.

Thorne, along with more than 200 of the nation’s elite players, arrived in Los Angeles last week to show general managers from six teams that they deserved spots in what DirecTV is billing as the first true professional video-game league, the Championship Gaming Series, which held its inaugural draft at the Playboy Mansion on Tuesday.

Esports, as they are known, already enjoy monumental success in Asia, which increasingly influences youth culture in the U.S. (think karaoke, manga comics and sneaker culture).

When Jason Lake, general manager of the league’s Los Angeles franchise, Complexity, took a team of Counterstrike players to Beijing for the World Esports Games in 2005, he had to hire security to shield his team from overzealous fans. And in Korea, where there are 24-hour TV channels dedicated to professional gaming, crowds of up to 100,000 regularly pile into massive arenas to cheer on their idols. In the U.S., however, gaming is still largely for geeks.

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But with Nielsen estimating that there are 100 million console gamers in the U.S., DirecTV hopes to change that perception with the CGS. Live broadcasts begin July 9.

The first to offer all of its players and general managers annual contracts, the CGS is modeled on traditional sports. Each player drafted is guaranteed to make at least $30,000 in their first year, with salaries as high as $100,000 after performance bonuses.

With a ready smile and an easy nature that belies the oversized red T-shirt he wore to the combine last Sunday that read, “Yes, I am a model,” draft hopeful Thorne, or sWooZie as he’s known almost exclusively in the online community, has the charisma of a born entertainer. Eric Shanks, executive vice president at DirecTV, describes how Thorne, who plays Tecmo’s popular martial arts game, Dead or Alive 4, won a match at an invitational qualifier for the draft.

Before the game registered his winning move, sWooZie dropped his controller and pumped his fist at the crowd. Other DOA players, like the undisputed king of virtual martial arts, Emmanuel “Master” Rodriguez, also have a flair for showmanship, as well as a penchant for humor. After dominating an opponent to win a tournament, Rodriguez, riffing on the over-sized swagger of boxers like Floyd Mayweather, famously turned to the crowd and started passing out dollar bills.

But for all the flash, top players like Rodriquez say those moments have to be earned. Bryan “DrDogg” Dawson and Joel “Silent Legend” Pagan, who arrived at the draft in white and black Nehru jackets reminiscent of the Hong Kong movies that influence the fighting game they love, concurred. Dawson, who writes strategy guides about fighting games and is himself a top DOA player, explained: “Moves that take your character five frames, 5/60th of a second, are considered ‘safe’ because your opponent can’t punish you for using them. More than that, though, and you can be in trouble. You have to study to be good.”

The lightning speed at which players think and respond presented quite a production challenge, said DirecTV’s Shanks. Of the four games being used in the CGS, “DOA is a natural for TV. Sitting all the way out in the truck, we can feel the drama. But these players are so fast we’ve had to go back and add fiber-optic cables that run over the shoulders of the gamers so we can show the move and the finish in slow-motion on replay,” he said.

The Counterstrike players, who engage in five-on-five bursts of furious tactical combat, tend to be much less flamboyant but no less intense, and the incredible concentration required to play the game well induces no shortage of behind-the-scenes drama.

Trevor “Midway” Schmidt, founder of Gotfrag.com, which boasts 700,000 unique visitors a month and was recently purchased by the CGS’ chief rival, Major League Gaming, put it this way: “If you think reality television is intriguing, spend some time with a top Counterstrike team. These guys will put in 80 hours a week to prepare, and a single mistimed flick of the wrist will cost them a championship. The next day that team could very well break up.”

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Speaking of reality TV fodder, the CGS players will be “sequestered” in L.A. this summer for the duration of the season. At the second day of the combine leading up to the draft -- where players demonstrate their skills, interview with general managers and submit to hand-eye coordination tests designed by scientists at Stanford -- the atmosphere was tense but friendly. Thorne, however, lost all of his matches.

Not one to give up, Thorne rebounded to take out both “Master” Rodriguez and another top player, “BlackxxxMamba,” in special challenge matches called by general managers to pit prospects against each other. In what may become the first signature move of a new sport, after winning each match, sWooZie dropped his controller, stood up and turned to the audience. With his back to the game screen, he pumped his fist just as his character finished off his opponent in an exaggerated move worthy of any action hero. His peers roared their appreciation as Thorne stepped off the dais, triumphant.

“I’m giving you guys a show, you know,” he said with a grin as he paused to say hello to a representative from DirecTV. The executive chuckled appreciatively before shooting back, “Yeah? You on cloud nine, huh?”

“No man,” Thorne replied. “Cloud 10. Easily.”

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Lake, the Los Angeles general manager, must have been watching. After DOA powerhouse Vanessa Arteaga was taken first by the San Francisco Optix, Lake drafted his own Counterstrike team No. 2, then waited nervously until the order came back around. Without hesitation, he wrote down sWooZie’s name and handed it to a Playboy bunny, who delivered it to the announcer’s podium.

On the lawn behind the crowded bar at the Playboy Mansion, an African crane named Spike raised a limb and balanced on a single leg, a la Ralph Macchio in “The Karate Kid,” seemingly a nod to the dream that was about to be realized in the nearby tent.

When the pick was read, Thorne nearly levitated to the stage.

Apparently, this cloud goes to 11.

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