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Anyone walking into the E2 Café on 107th Avenue, across from Florida International University, hoping to get in a little e-mailing is likely to be surprised. The room behind the smoked-glass windows is not a typical Internet café, with a couple of terminals and a two-head espresso machine. This café, built to accommodate burgeoning legions of Internet gamers -- young people, mostly male, generally interested in getting juiced on high-octane caffeine drinks and playing body-splattering war games -- houses about 80 high-end terminals; the matte-black machines emit an electric hum and a dim phosphorescence -- a cyber flight deck? A Radiohead recording session? An electric predawn troop muster for computer world war? Anyway, the equipment sits gloomily stylized at long tables, side-by-side-by-side.
On this particular day, E2 is holding a Counter-Strike tournament and the place is packed with about 200 kids, teens to twenties. They dart around like water bugs, watching the first-rounders setting up on the terminals, getting ready to face off in teams of five. They wear baggy shorts, backward baseball caps. Most look like healthy, happy suburban boys, though some have the wispy facial hair and basement pallor of the homebound computer geek. They speak in rapid-fire acronyms and amped-up MTV Ebonics and -- for some reason -- call each other "fag."
Luis Cromeyer sits cross-legged on the floor at E2, watching the big-screen TV, sizing up the competition. The burly 23-year-old, almost never without a rolled knit cap crowning an earnest baby face, is at the high end of the age range for tournament players and E2 habitués generally, but he's not embarrassed. "Call me a computer geek, I don't give a shit," he says amiably. "That doesn't even mean much anymore. Everybody's a computer geek."
Cromeyer found Counter-Strike four years ago, after messing up his knee trying out for the Florida Barracudas arena football team. "I destroyed it completely," he says of his ruined knee. "The doctor said we could try to do a total reconstruction but I was probably too young for that. I'm not a violent guy, but I really like competition, and after my second surgery I couldn't walk for two months. A friend of mine had started playing Counter-Strike and he showed it to me."
Today Cromeyer is scanning the room, sizing up other clans. (Counter-Strike devotees, like many other subcultures, fetishize language: Teams are "clans"; inexperienced players are "newbies" or just "newbs"; a Desert Eagle .50-caliber handgun is a "D-eagle," and so on.) Everyone is already talking shit.
Café managers Henry Liu and Kelvin Ching call for quiet and get the first set of teams ready to play. Teammates gear up for the all-day affair, plugging in mice -- they prefer more expensive custom jobs to the standard equipment attached to the café's computers -- and rigging up headphone/microphone sets to communicate during combat. There are too many players even for E2's arsenal of tech, so more than 100 kids will have to wait until this round ends for their first combat of the day.
They're a small portion of the hundreds of thousands of Counter-Strike devotees worldwide, cyberwarriors who play the game at cafés with friends or, more likely, online, where all you need is an Internet connection, a headphone/microphone setup, and the address of a Counter-Strike Website to log on to one of the Internet's most popular games.
Unlike other computer games in this age of sophisticated tech, Counter-Strike's appeal is almost entirely visceral; there is no back story, just two five-person teams facing off in a digital wasteland. "It's like playing football or basketball," Cromeyer says. "You get with some other guys and play the game. It's complicated to learn about the different weapons and stuff, but basically it's simple: You run around and shoot the other guys."
Actually there's a little more than that. Avid players wrap themselves in the game's aesthetic, the language of weaponry and technology, the end-of-the-world landscapes -- deserted fortresses, industrial parks, railyards -- that provide the combat backdrop, the names of their digital alter egos. "It's almost like your identity," Cromeyer muses. "It took me a long time to decide [to call myself] nyquil. It was kind of a big deal."
He heads outside for a smoke break as the players mill about, crowding the big-screen TV that shows all the tournament action, cycling through views from different players' terminals. The images -- combat teams of khaki-uniformed terrorists and camouflage-clad counterterrorists chasing each other through tunnels and over walls -- will play out on the TV ten seconds after they actually occur in the tournament; the time lag ensures that players don't watch the TV to figure out opponents' strategies or locations.
"Live on three," Liu shouts. "Everybody quiet."
The kids grudgingly obey, the near-silence punctuated by excited shouts, though the players' headsets mostly transmit mumbles. The exclamations are completely earnest, straight out of a Vietnam movie: "Fall back -- shit! Flash grenades!"
"Flank left -- move!"
The TV shows the game as the players see it on their terminals -- through their digital alter egos' eyes, right hand holding a knife, handgun, or rifle, as they move over the sandy terrain. Sometimes a teammate is visible, moving alongside or ahead. Opponents appear and weapons flash. Occasionally the screen goes white, indicating that an opponent has thrown a flash grenade. Sometimes the point of view switches abruptly and all a player can do is look up, paralyzed, from the ground, possibly catching a glimpse of the opponent who has just killed him. Of course if you happen to be in the same room as the (real) person who just ended your game, you'll likely hear about it. As the body count rises, the room fills with elaborate adolescent taunting, unconscious homoerotic homophobia ("D-Eagle to the forehead fag, I think that makes you my bitch"; "I'm sorry, did that hurt? Are you a little girl or just French?").