It's two o'clock on a Sunday morning, and explosions are going off in the Puck Building. Medusa, a soldier with dark hair falling in ringlets to his shoulders, rounds a corner, hoists his weapon, and fires. A figure crumples to the floor as Medusa shakes a fist in triumph. Nearby, a peach-fuzzed 19-year-old called KnowOne stares with hollow-eyed exhaustion at a computer screen, overwhelmed by his violent first taste of New York.
No, this isn't some apocalyptic battle for control of Manhattan's downtown party venues. KnowOne and Medusa are two of about 500 computer gamers gathered for the Cyberathlete Professional League's Ground Zero tournament. At 2 a.m., the "amateur room" is sparsely populated with dazed and dozing players who have been competing all weekend for $25,000 in cash and prizes. KnowOne -- a.k.a. Scott Marshall, who has driven up from Virginia -- looks ready to crash. But he hasn't hooked up with anyone in New York, as he had hoped to. "I've been sort of staying here," he admits. "As long as you sleep in your chair, it seems pretty okay."
In the pros' lounge, it's a different story. These are the video-gaming elite, boys -- and not a few girls -- in their teens and twenties with worldwide reputations forged in the mazes of the first-person-shooter game Quake. Flown in from all over the country, they're put up in midtown hotels by fawning software and hardware companies. Top female competitors are treated to Broadway shows and pampered at Elizabeth Arden.
Aside from the strains of Dean Martin wafting in from the San Gennaro festival to mix with the whine and buzz of lightning guns, the atmosphere is that of any other sporting event. Well, almost. The screaming fans in the spectators' gallery are also comparing notes on the keyboards used by their idols. At the awards ceremony, Wombat -- a.k.a. Mark Larsen, a pudgy high-school sophomore from Itasca, Illinois, known for his way with a mouse -- accepts an oversize check for $10,000. "It's all about the Logitech," he says gratefully, referring to the mouse-maker he favors. Clad in Adidas, Wombat may be wearing Logitech gear before long: Endorsements are not unheard of in cyberathletics, and even Nike sponsors the CPL tournament.
But few of the gaming addicts attracted to events like Ground Zero have their sights set on turning pro. Most come for the chance to meet face-to-face the people they've been blowing away over the Internet. Medusa, a.k.a. Andy from Brooklyn (last name withheld, since he's called in sick to his computer-networking job), stands on the steps of the Puck Building at half past two in the morning, a brown-bagged Bud in hand. "I've been here since Thursday, and I've slept on the floor," he says. "There have been some unbelievable matches. But I'll tell you . . ." A pause as the combatant musters the wisdom of his years. "All this cybergaming stuff ain't gonna be worth nothing till they're quoting odds in Vegas."