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Leagues Ahead

CPL founder Angel Munoz on the future of professional gaming.

Nearly 10 years ago Angel Munoz founded the Cyberathlete Professional League with the idea that could get gamers to pay money so that they could play against one another. At the time, most gaming meets were informal affairs among friends and held at somebody's house, where everybody would LAN up their computers and deathmatch to Quake.

But today, the best players can travel the world to frag it out in convention halls and hotel meeting rooms against hundreds, perhaps thousands of people for serious prize money. Thanks to the work of Munoz and others like him who started professional gaming leagues, the idea of pursuing a career as a professional gamer is not so far fetched.

In December, the CPL announced that it is creating its own first-person shooter title, Severity, which will be specially designed for competitive use. To be released for testing by the end of 2007, Severity will be built upon an engine from id Software. sat down with Munoz to find out more about Severity, the CPL and making a living from playing games. How did you come up with the idea of starting the CPL? Has the company met the goals you originally envisioned?

Angel Munoz: The initial idea of the CPL was similar to a particle accelerator that smashes its protons at full speed. A few of the random things happening at the time that served as initial propulsion were a growing number of local LAN parties, E3 1997 hosting a game tournament offering John Carmack's used Ferrari, and online competitions were growing exponentially.

After a session of Quake deathmatch, the idea of professional gaming became an obsession of mine and the concept haunted me for weeks until we launched the Cyberathlete Professional League on June 27 1997.

In launching such a concept we were fully aware that sports take decades to attract mass appeal, and we had no illusions about how hard the road we had chosen would be.

Most of our initial goals have been achieved, but we continue to push forward by establishing new goals and projects: for example, the globalisation of our online league, the introduction of CPL-branded peripherals and the development of Severity.

While interest in professional gaming has grown over the past several years the interest in watching others play games for money still seems to be confined to a very niche viewership, especially compared with countries like South Korea and Singapore. Why do you think this is?

Although professional videogame competitions started in the USA, South Korea made it a national pastime like no other country in the world. It's the most wired country in the world - 76 per cent of households in South Korea have broadband access, compared to just 30 per cent for the United States.

Online gaming is made possible by broadband access. High-speed games can be played against opponents on an adjacent computer at the local PC bang or on the other side of the country. Pro-gamers play on television channels devoted to computer games, and receive salaries and the devotion of fans.

Another important factor in the growth of professional gaming in South Korea is the recognition and support of the Korean government. This gave the sport legitimacy that we simply don't have in the USA.

There also seems to be more interest in professional gaming with action RPGs. Is the CPL looking to expand competitions into this category, or other genres like racing and sports?

We are perfectly happy in the FPS genre for our official tournaments, but have also held unofficial tournaments for RPGs, racing, et cetera. We do not use games in our official tournaments that are a mere imitation of traditional sports, because we do not want our sport to be perceived as a caricature of other sports.

It's important that our sport has it's own playground, rules, standards, physics and possibilities. In fact, the FPS genre offers competitive possibilities that we would not dare carry out in reality. For example, chasing an opponent through a labyrinth trying to shoot them down, only for that opponent to immediately regenerate and try to do the same to us... This scenario can only be part of a virtual sport.

What is it about the FPS genre that works so well?

In our opinion, the multiplayer FPS genre appeals to our primitive instinct of survival more than any other genre. It requires excellent reflexes, accuracy, lightning fast reaction, and excellent hand-eye coordination. The frag or be fragged metaphor is easily understood by the general public with very little explanation.

Also, the first-person view is hardwired to our own experience of the outer world and creates an immediacy of integration between spectator and competitor that I think other genres do not easily convey.

With the announcement of the development of Severity, one wonders if the CPL finds today's latest selection of FPSes to be lacking when it comes to multiplayer. Is this so? And what specifically is missing from the current crop of titles?

Severity is not a project that is intended to cast a shadow on other multiplayer games; it was established to provide specific solutions for professional gaming that other developers may not be interested in pursuing.

For example: better broadcast tools for online coverage, better tools for television integration, visual enhancements for spectators, built-in anti-cheat solutions for online tournaments et cetera. Specifically, Severity is being built for competition and spectator appeal and not just for personal entertainment.

The CPL name appears on several products, such as gaming rigs, peripherals, food and drink products... How much of your company's bottom-line business stems from such licencing deals?

The CPL's business model is similar to traditional sports leagues. The primary sources of revenue are sponsorship, advertising, brand licensing, media licensing, merchandising and ticket sales. The licensing agreements are just part of the entire picture, but definitely a growing segment of our business model.

The CPL made a strategic alliance this year with another gaming league to hold competitions featuring games on console platforms. What kind of business potential do you see in this area?

I think the potential for console gaming is huge as it will bring wider audiences to our events. Gears of War is the first game on the console that I think has huge potential at the CPL.

As a matter of fact, we held the first LAN tournament for Gears of War at the CPL Championship Finals in December. Cliff Bleszinski did a great job on the game, and it makes us proud that he's been on the CPL advisory board for many years.

Overall, while we will continue our focus in 2007 on PC games, Severity will be developed both for PC and console, and we hope it can help bridge both communities.

There was some surprise over the CPL's announcement of a drug/alcohol policy for gamers. How did this come about? How different is this from a competitive gamer cranking himself up on an energy drink, bearing in mind the companies behind some such drinks have very visibly sponsored CPL events?

The CPL has had a drug policy for years, but now also has the right to test competitors. Although we have not had any issues with drug abuse at the CPL, we must think in terms of contingencies and future potential problems, and it's important that we establish the standards that should guide the sport in the future.

The abuse of illegal drugs or non-prescribed prescription drugs is something that no one should take lightly and, bearing in mind that our core demographic is the 17-24 age bracket, I'm convinced this policy will help us protect the equality and image of the sport by establishing an attitude that strives for fair play, ethical behaviour and integrity.

Caffeine is not an illegal or prescribed drug and is readily available to everyone, so it does not fall under the same category as the others. We also think that caffeine does not provide a competitive advantage, and on the contrary could be detriment to competitive performance.

What's been the toughest challenge you've had to face in professional gaming?

The general skepticism that still persists about professional gaming as a sport. It's getting better but some people have a very narrow definition of the term "sport" and forget that curling, bass fishing, darts, synchronised swimming, auto racing, archery, and target shooting are all recognised sports.

Angel Munoz is the founder and president of the Cyberathlete Professional League. Interview by Howard Wen.

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