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Friday, February 28, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bellevue's cyberbattleground: Area gamers put skills to test at festival, tournament

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Game on!


The International Video Gaming Federation's Northwest Regional Festival and Tournament will be held tomorrow at Meydenbauer Center, 11100 N.E. Sixth St. in Bellevue. Doors open at 8 a.m.

Contestants pay a $50 entry fee at the door by noon tomorrow. Online registration is closed, but as many as 2,500 players will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. Players under 18 must get parental approval. A permission slip is available at the International Video Gaming Federation Web Site at www.ivgf.com

Organizers say Microsoft representatives will be at the event looking for game testers. General admission for noncontestants is $25, and $20 per person for groups of two or more.

Tyler Leverette crept around the concrete walls to avoid flying bullets and shrapnel. The 18-year-old Bellevue resident is the last standing member of his counterterrorist squad.

But before he knew it, everything went black and he died in a hail of gunfire — a sniper camping on the roof of a nearby building had just picked him off.

Leverette replays this scenario dozens of times each day in the 3-D shooting game Counter Strike at Bellevue's cyber cafe LanWerX.

This weekend, Leverette and a thousand other competitors from the Puget Sound region will test their virtual shooting and fighting skills, competing for a portion of up to $50,000 in prize money at the International Video Gaming Federation's (IVGF) Northwest Regional Festival and Tournament at Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue.

"The best gamers all over the region will be here," said IVGF spokeswoman Nicole Francois.

Francois said the Eastside, with its ties to video-game giants Microsoft and Nintendo in Redmond, was a logical choice to kick off the national 10-city tournament.

"People understand technology here and are excited about it," she said. "The level of enthusiasm at this event will be a good barometer of what its success will be throughout the country."

Competitors will be challenging each other on one of four different games and will try to survive a double-elimination round in the first-person shooter games Halo and Unreal Tournament 2003: Death Match, virtual fighting game Tekken 4 or the cartoonish, wooden-mallet slamming Super Smash Bros. Melee.

Those who survive tomorrow will move into Sunday's preliminary tournament, where the number of contestants will be whittled down to 32. The final competition will be decided in a single-elimination round Sunday. Organizers said winners of each game will each receive up to $8,000, $3,000 for second place and $1,500 for third place. This is the first competition of its kind in the country, open to anyone who wants to play, organizers said. In the Cyberathlete Professional League, where hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake in some contests, players must be invited.

This sure isn't Pac-Man.

The multibillion-dollar video-game industry and its legions of fans have become much more sophisticated since the days of shelling out quarters on games like Centipede, Galaga and Donkey Kong.

Today players are connected to each other by a high-speed Internet line and pay about $3 an hour to move through labyrinths of 3-D landscapes. Dozens of opponents from across the globe rack up virtual kills against each other on games like Quake, Unreal Tournament and Counter-Strike.

Instead of standing in front of 6-foot machines spinning around 4-inch-long joysticks, Leverette and his friends sit on plush leather chairs and feverishly tap away at their keyboards and mice. The sparsely lit room at LanWerX glows from rows of computer monitors. The sound of heavy mortar fire trickling from nearby speakers echoes from the concrete floors.

While some players like Leverette admit they spend up to 11 hours a day at cyber cafes working on different strategies, the coin-operated video-game machines just 50 yards away remain unoccupied.

Miles Lippincott, manager of the Bellevue video-game shop Gamestop, said the popularity of first-person shooter games such as Doom, Wolfenstein and Quake have caused competitive gaming tournaments to spring up all over the world.

These tournaments are drawing gamers to compete for ever-increasing cash prizes, but only a handful of gamers actually earn enough prize money to make a career of it. Still, groups like the IVGF are upping the prize money from what local tournaments pay out in an effort to reach out to the lucrative gaming audience.

"You can make all types of money," said Dan Thiessen, a manager at LanWerX. "I know of some tournaments where people are making $30,000."

But Leverette isn't concerned with the money. "I compete because of the adrenaline rush," he said.

Edmonds resident David Kelley has been playing video games since he was 5 and will be gunning for the top spot at this weekend's competition. He and his four-player team took first place and earned $400 at a tournament at another cyber cafe, GameClucks in Lynnwood, earlier this month.

"Winning here (at GameClucks) gives me a good gauge," he said. "I think I might have a chance."

But the 17-year-old doesn't seriously consider making gaming a career.

"I make a little money at it and it's fun. Gaming has actually given me an interest in computers and computer programming," he said. "It helped shape where I want to go with my life, but I wouldn't aspire to the degree of a professional gamer."

Nguyen Huy Vu: 206-464-2376 or vunguyen@seattletimes.com

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