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Video game enthusiasts aren't just arcade rats, prepubescent shut-ins anymore



R.O.B. stared out blankly from his perch on a shelf, flanked by stacks of gaming magazines and other related novelties collected over the years. The ill-fated Robotic Operating Buddy from the Nintendo Entertainment System is just one of the many obscure treasures in Eddy Hrdlicka's apartment, including a "Halo" Master Chief helmet, posters and 540 games stored in clear tubs representing just about every major console, from the Atari 2600 to the Nintendo Wii. 


Not every gamer is created equal, and the video game industry has ballooned to embrace a growing multitude of avenues for players to indulge in the experience. Some enthusiasts seek out tournaments to vie for dominance in a specific title, like "Soul Caliber" or "Super Smash Bros. Brawl," while some take a more journalistic approach and share their opinions on new releases via blogs and gaming Web sites. Some just want to plug in and play to relieve job stress or bond with the family.

Hrdlicka doesn't spend as much time entrenched in the video game world now that he balances college and a full-time job, but he still actively pursues rare gems from consoles past. He has flooded his Oklahoma City apartment with titles, creating a sort of museum to a life spent in gaming.

"There is nostalgia and intrinsic value to the stuff that I played with as a kid," he said. "Today, these games still have meaning, and it is fun, after you've started a collection, to continue searching for these games."

Hrdlicka estimated a quarter of his gaming is on previous-generation consoles. Like a collector of stamps, sports cards or antiques, a key facet to building a respectable catalog of games is in the research.

"The biggest site I use is GameStop, because they have a great database source for games that go all the way back to the (Magnavox) Odyssey, which was recognized as the first home video game console," he said. "They also have a great tool for me to manage my wish list."

There are certainly gamers who turn up their noses at those who clutter their entertainment centers with outdated consoles. For Hrdlicka, however, it makes more sense to collect older used games, which are much more affordable than new releases. New releases can range from $40 to more than $100 if the game comes with peripherals like "Rock Band," which includes a drum kit, a wireless guitar and a microphone.

Video game stores have responded by stocking antique games to draw in collectors like Hrdlicka.

"There are people who will come in every day and when they see these games, will say, 'I remember playing that; it was a good game,'" said Mark Race, co-owner of Play N Trade, 3248 S. Broadway in Edmond. "There are also the collectors who want to have everything possible."

Video game makers have also started courting the collector fans with compilations that assemble long-lost titles and convert them for current-generation consoles. An example would be "SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1," which is an anthology of 16 games from the antiquated NeoGeo arcade machines. The games may seem rudimentary in sound, control and graphics by today's standards, but former arcade rats that grew up on them revel in the memories.

Hrdlicka is cautious with compilations, however.

"You are emulating; you are creating a software environment that emulates what the old hardware could do," he said. "Sometimes that can be done flawlessly, but little things like audio processing and video processing will not translate as well or be really playable on new consoles. I will pick compilations up because they are released at a good value, but if I catch wind that the compilation is not very good, I will concentrate on finding the older, original stuff."

Hrdlicka is satisfied with collecting and playing as a form of relaxation, but there are other gamers who want to pit their skills against the world. A vibrant tournament scene has developed throughout the country, catering to competitive players. The best of the best are even able to carve out a living.

To climb the ranks and reach the video game elite, one must first know where to get started. Saif Khan founded the Web site in 2006 to unite the state's growing competitive scene, and now promotes around 100 tournaments a year through its forum. Tourneys are held for a variety of games in different venues, from regional matches, online melees and events in video game stores to house parties. Khan said the site is designed to lure gamers out of isolation.

"When there is a tournament going on down the road, a lot of times you miss out on it because you didn't know about it," Khan said. "Gamers are locked up in their house and they need to network so they can know when tournaments and events happen."

OKgamers also offers its services to help run tournaments. If a store wants to throw a "Madden" tournament, but doesn't have the know-how or manpower, its employees can contact the Web site.

OKgamers is even a legitimate outlet for volunteer hours for college students at universities in the Tulsa area.

"It's a great way for gamers who aren't that social and wouldn't be able to help out the elderly or pick up trash to pick up their community service hours," Khan said.

Played to Death magazine, or PTD, is another outlet for gaming enthusiasts. The free video game tabloid is distributed at stores throughout the state and nation, and keeps readers up-to-date on new releases, as well as recalling throwback titles from the past. The monthly publication also prints specialty editions, such as the November issue, dedicated to all things James Bond.

PTD is offering the state's best button-mashers a chance to prove to their parents that video games weren't a waste of time after all " specifically, gamers skilled in "Halo 3" and "Super Smash Bros. Brawl."

 "It won't be a salary so as much a sponsorship, where a pro gamer is offset for their costs of going to events," Khan said. "And if they win, they have to be wearing a Played to Death T-shirt."

Sponsorships are just one way players can be rewarded for achieving top-level status in a specific game. A precious few can even obtain a coveted career playing for game manufacturers.

According to Khan, plenty of opportunities exist for skilled players to supplement their income, whether in tournament winnings, sponsorships or salaried positions. Competitions are held all year long, paying out a few dollars to a few thousand.

Khan used to play in the tournament scene for two incarnations of the fighting game "Soul Calibur," earning up to $1,000 a year while he was actively traveling. Tournament players are considered "old-school pros."

"A new-school pro is salary-based and will make 40 to 50K a year," Khan said. "You have to find an organization that supports a game that you play. They recruit at different events every year, and if you catch the eye of a recruiter at the scrimmages, they review you and might hire you."

Job security is a problem for new-school players, since one's usefulness to the company only extends as long as the life of the title. Once the game is obsolete, players can either embrace the next generation of the game, if there is one, or switch to the next hot product and hope their skill set translates.

Khan also said that opportunities are limited, and plans to start a league-based program similar to the National Football League or Major League Baseball have yet to take off. He said a few Oklahoma pros played in the Championship Gaming Series, which tried to establish an e-sports league, but the business ultimately couldn't sustain itself.

That doesn't mean the idea won't work in the future. With the massive growth in the relatively young industry, it is likely more changes are to come.

"We see video games as not only the market of the present, but of the future," Race said. "There are so many more people getting into games."

Video games are now a billion dollar enterprise, with movie spin-offs, soft drink tie-ins, action figures and cable TV shows dedicated to keeping gamers informed of what to play next. It should come as no surprise that local businesses would also spring up to cater to these loyal consumers.

Arcade games are so last century, but Leon Stevenson opened Gamerz Paradize as a next generation arcade. The arcade, 2225 W. Edmond Road in Edmond, is decked out with 23 gaming stations and dozens of games for the current crop of consoles, including Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii.

Customers rent time on the consoles and can switch between games to try out a variety of titles. The concept itself isn't new, Stevenson said, but he thinks that focusing on customer service and offering food will make Gamerz Paradize a watering hole for the area's gamers.

Gamerz Paradize doesn't actually sell games. For that, there are numerous alternatives to big-box retailers. Game X Change, with multiple locations in the metro, deals only with used games and Play N Trade, 3248 S. Broadway in Edmond, lures in buyers by allowing customers to try out games in the store before they buy.

Mark Race is co-owner of Edmond's Play N Trade store and said that the industry is drawing a wider variety of clientele. The development of gaming as a legitimate family entertainment option has made the industry uniquely immune to economic downturns.

"Two-thirds of all American households actually have a video game console in the household," Race said. "We continue to see it grow in an economic downturn like this. It is a recession-proof industry because when people don't have as much money, they spend more time at home and look for more value-priced entertainment sources. Video games offer that.""Charles Martin

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