Gaming new pro outlet

Eric Wrona used to walk the halls of Zionsville (Ind.) just like any
other high school student. As an alternate on the varsity tennis team, his
athletic exploits were modest. And more than anything, he loved to play
video games.

He was just a lot better at them than you. Turns out, that means a lot more than
bragging rights in today's video game world.
Wrona's life changed dramatically this past April when he competed in a Major
League Gaming Pro Circuit tournament in New Jersey. Wrona and three other gamers
placed seventh as a team in the Halo 3 4v4 tourney to earn pro status in Major League
Gaming, a rapidly rising competitive league that gives high school students a chance
to call themselves professional athletes (hey, if NASCAR and fishing are sports, video
games can be too).

Less than a year after his successful debut, Wrona is considered the hottest star in
the sport. He competes under the name "Snipedown" and plays for the league's best
Halo 3 team, Str8 Rippin, which is sponsored by Dr. Pepper. Wrona has traveled to
events in Orlando and Toronto and has already banked more than $30,000 this year.
Needless to say, school is a little different these days.

"It's cool," says Wrona, now a senior at Zionsville. "People know who I am."
Wrona might not have had the opportunity for stardom without MLG, a professional
league founded in 2002 to provide a formal organization for gamers who were already
playing competitively online.

Six years later, the league is a booming success. MLG Pro Circuit events average
roughly 10,000-15,000 attendees, including 2,000 competitors. NBA All-Star Gilbert
Arenas even sponsors a team. "It's amazing seeing fans out there who want to see you
play," says Wrona.

But it gets better than legions of fans for the competitors. The top pros can make
up to six figures per year in tournament earnings and endorsements. And just like other pro sports, there are trades and free agency.

Unlike pro leagues such as the NFL or NBA, however, high school kids can
actually get in on the action. The majority of competitors are either in high school
or are college-aged, and MLG co-founder Mike Sepso estimates 70 percent of
MLG's audience is between ages 16-24. The league even plans events so as not to
interfere with students' high school schedules.

"We're structured very much like a sport," says Sepso, MLG's chairman. "There's
an understandable path for how you go from amateur to pro just like there is in
basketball or football or anywhere else. Your initiation into the sport of Major
League Gaming is instant competition. There is no practice. You can just jump in
and you're playing against people.

"We've done a lot of behavioral research on our wider audience and people
who are our best competitors," he adds. "They generally share the same kind of
psychological and behavioral tendencies of any pro athlete. They're highly
competitive and highly social. Their whole world is wrapped around beating
everybody else in whatever it is that they're doing. So gaming just happens to be
an outlet for our players."

Using social networking website gamebattles.com, MLG features a
pyramid-style system in which players register as amateurs and can join teams of
four with the hopes of one day competing in the pro circuit. Gamers could go pro
this year in Halo 3, Gears of War, Rainbow Six Vegas 2 and Call of Duty 4 (the
games on the pro circuit change from year to year).

To join the pros, teams must finish among the top 16 (the top eight place in
the money) in one of the MLG-recognized games at the five pro circuit stops. This
year, MLG held events in New Jersey, San Diego, Orlando, Toronto and Dallas.
There's even an open amateur component to the live tournaments that allows
amateurs to go up against established pro teams. Think of it like a high school
hoops team having the chance to play the Boston Celtics.


A senior at Carlisle Area (Carlisle, Pa.), Burton was MLG's first
female competitor. She took the second half of the season
off this year to concentrate on school but plans on returning
in 2009.

Though only a sophomore at Ryle (Union, Ky.), Elam
has made quite a name for himself competing in Halo 3
this season.

Fritsche, a junior at Oak Grove (Oak Grove, Mo.), led his team
to victory in Gears of War at MLG's Toronto event.

A junior at Mountlake Terrace (Mountlake Terrace, Wash.),
Reiser led his team to the Halo 3 title at the Orlando event.

In only his first year in MLG, the Zionsville (Zionsville, Ind.)
senior has already established himself as one of the league's
best in Halo 3.

After the five regular season stops, the top eight teams from each game are
invited to the national championships. All told, the 2008 season ran from April
to November.

In 2006, Chris "Shockwave" Smith and his Carbon team won the national title in Halo 2, earning the team $100,000 in the process. Smith was a senior
at Conestoga (Berwyn, Pa.) at the time and actually had to rush to catch
a plane after the championships so he could get back in time for school.
Now a sophomore at Virginia Tech, Smith is one of the standout pros on
the MLG circuit.

"It's pretty amazing, I'm not going to lie," says Smith, who estimates
he won between $50,000-60,000 during his senior year of high school. "A
lot of people may smirk thinking I'm a pro at video games until you tell
them the prize you can win. You feel accomplished to put so much into
something you care about and come out on top."

Carlisle Area (Carlisle, Pa.) senior Bonnie "Xena" Burton, MLG's first
female competitor, recently surprised her English teacher when she
wrote a paper talking about her experiences playing Halo and traveling
for video game competitions. A player on the Carlisle Area varsity tennis
team, Burton believes MLG's popularity and participation among high
school students will continue to grow.

"It's a great option, really," says Burton, who's planning on returning
to MLG competition in 2009 after taking the second half of this year off
for school. "It's showing that it does take a lot of skill. It's very strategic
and it's a mental game.

"I can't see a stop in this," she adds. "It's a great opportunity for kids.
It's something you don't really need to be born to play."

Which is why Wrona is no longer just like any other high school
student. He may not be the next LeBron James, but he's blazing his own
preps-to-pros trail.

Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.