Not-so-virtual Athletes

Computer games are real sports, as far as Israel's top gamers are concerned. Purses at international tournaments can reach $100,000 and millions tune in to watch

Computer games are no longer just for couch potatoes: Anyone following the latest developments released at the U.S.-based E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo held last month in Los Angeles saw that the other video game console giants are following in Nintendo's footsteps, and getting gamers out of their seats.

Nintendo's Wii, whose wireless controller detects movement in three directions, forces players stand up and jump around as they play games including virtual golf, virtual tennis and more. It has now been joined by Sony's Wand and Microsoft's Natal.

All of the above turn video games into real sports - the kind that finish you before you finish them.

But if you ask Yossi Rubin, a 24-year-old student from Netanya, computer games have been a sport for years. As one of Israel's leading gamers, he knows what he's talking about.

Rubin began his career as a professional player of the computer game FIFA Soccer more than a decade ago, at a competition sponsored by the Strauss food company.

The FIFA Soccer series of computer games is officially endorsed by FIFA, the world's governing body of soccer, and is updated annually. The latest version, FIFA 09, lets players simulate games in virtual versions of real-life stadiums. The virtual players bear the names of real FIFA athletes, and their stats are updated in keeping with their real-life performance.

"I started with the first version of the FIFA computer game [in 1993]. In 1998, I participated in my first competition. In order to participate I had to bring the covers of five pudding containers, so the night before the competition my father and I ate pudding like crazy. I participated and won, and things developed from there."

"Every Saturday when I was a child, my father would take me to video game arcades. I could hardly reach the joystick but somehow it sort of happened, in part because of him. Now that I'm an adult they support me, especially because I've fulfilled my father's dream."

Rubin and his father love the real-life version of soccer as well: In 2001, they attended the Champions League finals at the San Siro, in Milan, Italy, between Bayern Munich and Valencia.

Rubin continued winning competitions in Israel, and was sent to a competition in South Korea as part of the Israeli delegation. The experience was unbelievable, he said - as was participating in the launch of FIFA 09, where he played at the stadium of London soccer giants Arsenal.

Rubin is a member of Team Dignitas, a Britain-based professional team that includes players from around the world. The team is sponsored by companies including Intel, LG, Dell and the gaming hardware manufacturer Razer. This enables them to travel to competitions abroad, where they earn monetary prizes.

Nitzan Dikshtein, manager of the site, has been the driving force behind many video game competitions in Israel. While local prizes are a few thousand shekels at most, first prize at competitions abroad can reach $100,000, he says. The players compete in sports games like FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer, action and first-person shooter games like Counter-Strike, and online adventure games like World of Warcraft. The first-person shooter games are largely responsible for the development of the modern computer game, he notes.

However, Dikshtein says gaming is going through a difficult period globally, and even more so in Israel. Global competitions generally hold qualifying matches around the world, culminating in a massive championship event. But two of the biggest, the Electronic Sports World Cup and the Cyberathlete Professional League, have shut down due to economic difficulties, leaving only the World Cyber Games.

Now, the computer game world has no single body to organize international competitions, even though such events can draw tens of thousands of live spectators, hundreds of thousands of home viewers and many corporate sponsors.

"These events can draw 700 gamers from 80 countries. Another 40,000 people come and pay to watch, and another 100,000 to 200,000 follow from home, via live broadcasts around the world. In total, hundreds of millions of people could be following these events."

The Israeli scene is much smaller. There are fewer sponsors, and two competitions organized by ended in financial losses, despite Intel's sponsorship, Dikshtein says.

"We have gamers with stunning potential, who are as good as the international players, and some make it to very advanced levels in the championships. The problem is that no one supports them," he says.

In some countries, such as Sweden, professional gamers even receive government recognition and assistance. In Israel, however, gamers are not eligible to receive army recognition as outstanding athletes - status that allows soldiers to practice and compete in their field - and thus many promising careers are cut short, he says.

Dikshtein says the computer game culture abroad is very different. It largely developed from LAN parties - groups of people bringing their computers to one place, and hooking them up to one another to create a LAN (local-area network), in order to play multi-player computer games. LAN parties used to be popular here, but disappeared when home broadband Internet connections became common. LAN parties were not only a way to play with friends, but also "a preliminary platform to create a professional league. If you have a group in Tel Aviv, one in Haifa and one in Jerusalem, you can build clubs that compete with one another," he says.

At the simplest level, computer games are a way of playing out fantasies - with one click you can climb walls, win a football or basketball game, or travel through outer space. But if you can be on par with the greatest soccer players by simply clicking a button, what makes this a sport? And why would someone want to be a spectator?

Rubin says he plays an average of 10 hours a week, and that playing well is a matter of instinct, training, luck and constantly learning new tricks. His team members help each other, and keep him up-to-date when he is busy with schoolwork.

"What's nice about the games is that if you keep practicing, you improve. Every move has a counter-move, and it becomes a game of minds. If a player knows the system, then you have to plan a way to fool him, make him think you are going to do one thing and actually do something else."

And why would people want to watch others playing, instead of playing themselves?

There are several reasons, says Dikshtein. The simplest is that computer games are fun to watch - the graphics improve with each new version. Beyond that, "as a gamer, you see the best people in the world who studied the game and can do amazing things. The local champion of the Israeli Pro Evolution games won the finals 12:0 - but the minute he goes abroad he's beaten 12:0. It's like seeing a real game."

Some top gamers have celebrity status, with their own product lines and product endorsements.

"A gamer who loves and knows the game can sit for hours and watch another player in order to learn tricks," he says. "For spectators, it's a pleasure to watch. It's like watching a movie where the participants build the story right in front of your eyes."