Wired for War
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.
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?").
There are different objectives (plant or defuse a bomb, reach a certain point on the map, protect or assassinate someone) and different maps to follow, but the point is generally to vaporize the other team. All teams begin with pistols and earn money as they kill their enemies. Then they use the cash to upgrade their weaponry -- grenades, AK-47s, Desert Eagle handguns, scoped sniper rifles. Weapon weight and recoil are factored into the game and into the players' strategies. For instance, if you're a terrorist who's just planted a bomb and you know the counterterrorists will be coming to defuse it, you want to set up on the high ground with a sniper rifle to pick them off as they try to reach the explosive. Players judge each other based on skills (speed and aim), "strats" (knowing how to use a given map -- where to ambush, where to fire through walls), and the indefinable edge known as "clutch," as in: "Bro, you should watch 'Lectric play. He's nasty clutch."
A woman on a leather couch -- obviously someone's mom, obviously under strict instructions to remain inconspicuous -- watches the TV as a grenade explodes, turning a flak-jacketed counterterrorist into a bloody pile of pixelated chunks. The boys crowded around the set cheer, one or two voices cracking into falsetto range. The woman takes a Bible out of her purse and begins reading. She glances around warily; she knows this place belongs to them.
Liu and Ching think they're getting in on the ground floor of a good thing. "When we opened the Kendall store in October 2001," Ching says, "we knew that gaming was a real phenomenon across the country, but there was some risk because we saw that a lot of Internet cafés in Miami had opened and closed quickly. We saw pretty quickly that there are a lot of gamers in this area. We're not sure when it happened, but our timing was just about right -- gaming is catching on here, whereas in a lot of other big cities it was already a big deal."
There are enough of them in suburban Miami-Dade to keep two E2 cafés in business -- one on Kendall Drive and this one across from FIU. "Everybody plays," Cromeyer stresses. "When I first started, a friend hacked into Miami-Dade Community College and downloaded Counter-Strike so we could play in the lab. Tons of people started showing up -- preppy white guys, full-on bling-bling gangster guys. The administrators eventually started cracking down because some fights started, so we couldn't play there anymore."
Some teams have sponsors, and semi-pro leagues are emerging. Companies such as CompUSA, Intel, and BAWLS bankroll the tournaments and leagues. The Cyberathlete Amateur League (CALeague to gamers) oversees hundreds of teams competing online in eight-week seasons. The Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) sponsors Local Area Network tournaments worldwide (all players show up at one location), culminating in an annual world championship in Dallas. The total purse at the championship last year was $200,000, and the winning team -- Schroet Kommando from Sweden -- won $25,000.
The larger implications of tens of thousands of kids all over the globe pointing, clicking, and blowing each other to pieces? The moral body count is best left to Joe Lieberman's nightmares, although it's easy to pick gamers apart: They spend too much time in front of computer monitors; they're emissaries of Generation Whatever who'd rather play a game for 10, 20, even 30 hours per week than interact with the "real world"; they've been passive receptacles for electronic entertainment (movies, cable TV, the Internet) their entire lives.
The players refute these claims simply: It's just a game, yeah, but it's basically a fun team sport. And wouldn't you rather suit up for battle against cyberwarriors from across the globe than play cards? In any case, the commercial potential of the gaming community is beginning to become clear, even to suits who live about as far from the digital battleground as possible.
"They're young people, usually with money," says Hoby Buppert, president of BAWLS, a Miami Beach-based company that makes a high-caffeine guarana drink. Buppert's company is the house that gamers built. Order an espresso at E2 and the look on the face behind the counter will tell you how many people prefer BAWLS to coffee. "When we started in '96, gaming wasn't really part of our marketing plan; gamers really found us," Buppert marvels. "Since we have more caffeine than any other soft drink, we were sort of a natural choice. Some of these tournaments start on Friday and I don't think the gamers sleep until Sunday night."
In 1998 Buppert realized that gamers were flocking to his drink. He started marketing specifically to them and his business has doubled every year since (from 28,000 cases sold per year then to half a million cases last year). BAWLS is now one of the biggest Counter-Strike tournament sponsors. "It's a little weird. We're like a lifestyle accessory for these kids," Buppert says. "I mean, we're not a game, and we're not a computer product, but it's really grown into something." Even Buppert seems mystified by his product's success with gamers -- a lot of caffeine and a pleasantly offensive name are the two main selling points -- but he's not complaining about it. Like pacifiers with ravers, it just caught on somehow.
E2's owners, in addition to building gaming cafés, sponsor a team of five players (Cromeyer is one of them) and two alternates. The E2 team members, all in their late teens or early twenties, seem to skew a little older than the average for Counter-Strike players. They are remarkable for displaying none of the stereotypes normally associated with people who play computer games for dozens of hours each week. They have jobs -- one of them, twenty-year-old Josh DeFeo (screen name cap0ne), has two jobs, goes to school, and commutes from Homestead to practice at E2 when he can. They don't seem to be plotting revenge against high school jocks. In fact team captain Shaun Brown (screen name comtrex) is an ex-jock who says his love of soccer, given up after a knee injury like his best friend Cromeyer, translated into a major Counter-Strike habit. "They both move really fast," he says, "and you have to be able to do things very quickly, like immediate reactions."
Gamers in general seem sharp enough, manipulating their computers like expert technicians, speaking at hyperspeed, spitting out acronyms and abbreviations. Ask them about the Byzantine structure of CALeague, where a set of administrators decides what division your team belongs in based on your record over an eight-week season, and you'll get a five-minute monologue. But like all teenagers, gamers can quickly revert to embarrassed muttering in response to the wrong sort of question. If you have to ask, you're probably hopeless -- one of the reasons so many people are largely unaware of the Counter-Strike phenomenon. Take for example this exercise in vocal reluctance, an exchange with an E2 team member who realized he was speaking, not with another gamer, but with an outsider:
How do you spell your name?
That's how you spell it? 'Fish'?
Great. Thanks. What do you do when you're not doing this?
Right. I meant, where do you work?
(Sigh) Doing what?
Oh. Renting Jet Skis.
The E2 clan members get unlimited practice time at the café (where a terminal costs $3.50 per hour for regular customers) and they use it about three times a week -- for as many hours as possible.
"You have to practice a lot to get good," Cromeyer advises. "I played for months before I even started to learn about strats."
Gamers take their avocations seriously; E2 is filled to varying degrees throughout the day with an odd mix of console cowboys, finessing their strats at Counter-Strike and other games like Unreal, Battlefield 1942, and Medal of Honor, and regular folks who were hoping for some coffee and a little Internet time. On a recent E2 clan practice date two middle-age women walked into the café. They needed to e-mail their kids but they'd never done it before. Clan practice kicked into gear while they were getting the "E-mail for Dummies" course from an E2 employee. The team was ready, psyched, fingers flying over the keys. The gamers spoke into their headphones, measured comments at first. Then things got hectic -- an ambush. They started yelling: "Fuck, bro, grenade! I'm fucking blind!" The women peered around uneasily.
"Backupbackupbackup! Shit, bro, these guys are fucking hacking. There's no way they get that shot off."
The women stopped staring, stopped looking around the room, having apparently decided that if they didn't take their eyes off their own screens, nothing bad could happen to them.
"Shit, bro, I can't kill anybody!" This from DeFeo, mild-mannered, friendly, always with a backward baseball cap. "That's okay, Josh, we love you anyway!" yelled an E2 patron from across the room.
Team captain Brown maintained calm, refrained from yelling. He shook his head. "These guys are either really, really good or really, really hacking."
Hacking is a problem in the Counter-Strike world. Many league games are played remotely, and it's impossible to police them entirely, so savvy players can electronically bolster their abilities with computer programs that make their digital personas bulletproof, or give them near-perfect aim. But any team that thinks it's being cheated can send a screen capture of a match to league officials. (Many players record their matches onto their computers in order to be able to revisit nasty headshots or watch the slaughter of an entire team of newbies via knife.) Cheaters are banned for a year and suffer the additional humiliation of having their screen name and real name posted on the CALeague Website; clans with cheaters are banned for six months.
But practice was practice, and the E2 squad largely maintained its cool, eventually beating the competition, hackers or no.
At the Sawgrass Mills CompUSA store, sleek terminals, five to a side, line the long tables in the black-walled back room. Two officials in zebra-striped referee shirts move from keyboard to keyboard, making adjustments amid the insectoid whirring and clicking of delicate machines. Cases of BAWLS are displayed in the game room.
The store is hosting a prequalifying tournament for local teams hoping to make it into the big CALeague tournament. E2's clan and another local team hang out in front of a bank of terminals on display in the store's showroom. The terminals show screen captures from the game, images of camouflaged warriors crouching, firing around buff-colored walls, throwing grenades into the open doorways of huts. A bank of televisions sits about 30 feet away, CNN broadcasting blurry images from embedded reporters in Iraq. A few shoppers stop to look from one display to the other, the only appreciable difference being the game's higher resolution and better sound. Shoppers lose interest in the game quickly, while the gamers couldn't be bothered to watch the news.
The E2 team -- clad in matching T-shirts -- faces two unknown teams (clearly newbies) and Clan Names Suck, a group of guys they know and occasionally practice with. Clan Names Suck beat the E2 team for the $500 prize at an E2 tournament this past March.
As gaming and Counter-Strike spread, CompUSA is hosting more tournaments in new locations. The Sawgrass Mills staff has never run a Counter-Strike tournament before, but they've got Eddie Wells, a 29-year-old former CompUSA salesman who was plucked out of his day gig in Lewisville, Texas, and given his dream job.
Wells was a gamer from the time he could hold an Atari joystick. By age 25 he was holding tournaments in-house for ten dollars a head when CompUSA executives told him they'd fly him all over the country to set up tournaments and brief staffers on the finer points of gaming. "It's sort of a sign of the legitimization of this thing, of how big it's getting, that I could actually have a legit job doing this," Wells says. "There are [players] out there who are so famous in the gaming community that they actually get paid to fly around and perform in exhibitions and tournaments. Playing this game is their whole job." (U.S. gamer Fatal1ty won more than $100,000 in prizes in 2000.)
Wells, like the E2 clan, doesn't have much to say about the morality of gaming. Sure it's a shoot 'em up, but most kids he sees playing seem well-adjusted enough. Gamers' responses to questions about the inherent violence in a game like Counter-Strike range from muted mumbles ("It's just a game, nobody gets hurt") to full-on adolescent sarcasm ("I like it 'cause I'm fucking practicing to shoot up my high school").
The CompUSA staff, briefed by Wells, is ready to start ushering in the first two teams, and store manager Craig Reed couldn't be more excited about the financial potential. "A couple of them forgot their headphones, and of course they had to have the very best, so they just went and bought new ones. They don't want anything stock, so they're a great add-on and accessory market." He stares at the gamers as they file into the tournament room and begin setting up the computers to their specifications. He shakes his head: "These guys are so particular. They're like rich guys with Ferraris: The screen's not right, this chair's not right."
The gamers -- first-round teams are Clan Names Suck and a group of nervous, young-looking kids with the unlikely moniker Assault Stealth Force -- take great pleasure in telling the staff exactly how they've screwed up the computers and how to fix them. CNS, an older team like the E2 clan, obliterates Assault Stealth Force in short order, and the E2 members line up to play their newbie opponents. They've come directly from an all-night practice and their eyes are red-rimmed with lack of sleep (and possibly the effects of overnight indulgences, though Cromeyer says caffeine is the only performance-enhancer his team uses).
E2 wins easily, setting them up to battle CNS, although both teams qualify for the tournament by virtue of their first-round wins. Adrenaline is high, and Reed, acquiring the air of a frustrated substitute teacher, yells instructions: "No one kill anyone until we get these monitors working right! Guys? Seriously."
The players on the two winning teams are of a kind: smirking with adolescent confidence, too cool to show excitement. Cell phones hang from belts and poke out of pockets, constantly ringing. They talk with each other briefly while waiting to play, but quickly move to the display games on the CompUSA showroom floor. There is a noticeable sense of boredom with immediate physical surroundings and a near-constant urge to tap into one of the many electronic options for a private reality. Have to wait in line? Fire up the cell for a conversation or to play a game or check e-mail. Stuck in traffic? Jack up the A/C and put the CD changer on random. Waiting to play a Counter-Strike tournament at CompUSA? Play four or five other games while you wait. Generation Z: No matter where you are, there you aren't.
Finally the match is on. The two losing teams gather in the showroom to watch at the bank of terminals while the champions are sequestered in the game room with the refs. Occasionally shoppers push their way to the front of the crowd to see what the fuss is about, staring as the screen shows the crosshairs of a sniper rifle swinging across a wall to a distant doorway. A tiny piece of green digital detritus, the barest pixel, shows at the door's edge, near the top. The crosshairs fix on it and the gun fires. A body slumps in the doorway and a skull-like icon appears at the top of the screen, indicating a successful headshot. The boys cheer.
Chalk one kill up for CNS.
The losing team members are awed at the skills displayed by E2 and CNS, who are clearly more experienced at meshing the complicated series of commands that result in effective, efficient play. To a new player the game doesn't seem to work: one hand fumbling the keyboard to select a weapon or give the command to crouch down or back up, the other moving a mouse, swinging the player's point of view left and right. Fusing all these movements takes a lot of time, and unless you sign on to a server with other new players, it's time you won't have. Hesitate for a couple of moments fussing with the keyboard and you're easy prey. To other players you'll appear to be crouching up and down, maybe jumping in place, your awkwardness screaming "newbie," sending distress signals like a wounded fish to the sharks. You might see your killer pop up from behind a wall before he shoots you, or he might come from behind for the ultimate Counter-Strike insult, a stabbing. In any case, you won't have long to figure out how to move in the field of battle.
The pros move with speed and confidence -- switching from an M-16 to a grenade while hugging a wall, sliding toward an open doorway. Then spin to the door, chuck the grenade, and duck back behind the wall. Wait one second, then back through the door, firing into the smoke from the explosion, shredding stunned opponents. All this while listening to headphone commands and messages: "I think they're in the hallway."
"Nyquil, get behind me, 'nade the shed."
Players' eyes glaze as they're totally sucked into the terminal, fingers blurring, synapses firing complex commands. "It's not flying a jet plane, but it takes some pretty serious hand-eye coordination," says Wells. "That's one reason people consider it a sport, because it's hard. It's hard to be really good."
The match is close. Each round, lasting either five minutes or until an entire team is killed, brings high casualties. CNS and E2 blast away at each other, losing members one by one to heroic headshots and flashes of grenade explosions. The action speeds up until the spectators can barely tell what's going on. The showroom screen shows an E2 player's point of view as walls whiz by and the bottom drops out from under him -- okay, seems like he's running and jumping. The screen flashes as someone shoots him from somewhere, but he's not dead yet. His arm blurs and there's an explosion.
"Grenade, right?" an older man, clearly getting into the game, asks one of the kids, pleased to get an affirmative nod. A CNS player pops up and faces off with the E2 gamer, the muzzle of his AK flashing as the E2 fires back. They're both taking hits, but the CNS player scores a headshot and it's over. When the smoke clears, CNS has won, barely. The players exit the game room stretching necks and popping knuckles, slapping backs like they'd just finished a good pickup game at the local court. Cell phones, reactivated, start buzzing with messages or new calls. Plans are made to see movies, to go home and sleep; calls are made to explain why this or that gamer is an hour or two late to work. Eventually kids drift to the Sawgrass Mills parking lot and separate, but not before a warning shot from Cromeyer: "Hey, rematch at E2 on Monday. Faggots."
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