That ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Money for nothin' and chicks for free
Now that ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Lemme tell ya them guys ain't dumb
Maybe get a blister on your little finger
Maybe get a blister on your thumb
-- "Money for Nothing" - Dire Straits

On June 21st, 2006, 4 gentlemen changed the world. OK, maybe not. Maybe they just put the nail in the coffin of the change already happening. Or maybe they put the period at the end of sentence that was the transformation of gaming. Or maybe it was a "boom! Headshot!"

Screw the metaphors: they're getting paid to game. $83,300 a year. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

I'm 11 years old. I've just started to really get into games. I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons, I've been playing all the wargames I can get my hands on. I've started what will become a lifelong admiration and personal-suck relationship with chess. This is when my grandmother decides I need some schoolin'.

"Let me show you a real game Julesy." She's an animated model of godzilla. She channels Julia Child. She enters the mothball-soaked living room and carefully sets down her Seagram's-and-7up on the coaster protecting the mahogany sideboard. The card table is well used, and has that "made in the '50s" air to it. She brandishes a backgammon board.

"Backgammon, Grandmom? It's so random." I turn my disappointed eyes to the clock. I've got two hours before my mother rescues me from the lair of the old woman. She smiles at me and picks up the doubling-cube--that odd die that always stays in the tray when we play. "Not with this it isn't."

She proceeds to explain to me the joys of playing backgammon for money. Apparently, in the days of yore, one could go to a casino, sit down with other friendly housewives, and play backgammon while the husbands played blackjack. The women, it would seem, were much more ruthless. She hands me 64 M&Ms. She takes 64 herself. We play. At least half the time when I feel cocky and double, she says "You got me, Julesy, I'm out." I feel like a god. We played off and on for years. It was a little secret we kept from my parents.

I never, not once, ended up eating any M&Ms. Then she taught me Mah Jong and it was even further downhill from there.

Games, when played for money, are no longer games. They are contests. They change the fundamental nature of the activity from diversion to "who has the biggest... um... car." The GamersWithJobs Sunday evening Half Life 2 toilet-toss deathmatch sessions are as fun when I'm losing as they are when I'm... OK, they're fun when I'm losing. The game itself, and the relationships with the players, are what make it entertaining, satisfying.

Backgammon, when played for money, is not like this at all. It becomes a vicious, angry game. One where the point is to beat your opponent into a position of submission, and hope they get the math wrong. Mah Jong, when played for money, transforms from "Gin Rummy with more rules and cool tiles" to one long, protracted, bluff-and-screw-your-neighbor cage-fight. Don't believe me? Go watch a money game in Chinatown some day. Solitaire--which my Grandmom swore she used to play for money at the Marlborough-Blenheim in Atlantic city for $52 in, $5 a card out--goes from being something you do during meetings to a nail-biting, mortgage-losing exercise in perpetual failure.

And then there's poker. Poker is, without a doubt, the most popular money game in the world right now. It is also the best. I had the luxury of spending two days in Las Vegas "studying" poker from a group of those-guys-you-see-on-TV. It was a charity thing. Once the initial "hey I saw you lose in that big poker thing last year" blush had worn off, I spent most of my time trying to understand how these folks see what they do for a living.

It's a job. For them, there's no gambling involved. One of the gentlemen with whom I played has lined the walls of his library with dozens of three ring binders. In that closely guarded collection he has a record of every major player he has ever played against, how they played, how he played, and how it all worked out. He could tell you with certainty that if, say, Howard Lederer has this kind of a hand in this kind of a situation, he will almost always play it a certain way. He spends his weekdays sitting in the office of his gated Las Vegas community studying, laying out strategies for different situations against the specific players he expects to be up against in whatever event is coming up next.

I asked a different player over dinner: "Why is poker taking off?" His answer was simple. "It's the best game ever invented." For him, I'm sure it's true; he's made a nice living off of it for 15 years. But I see his point. It's a game of skill, where the skill comes from two fundamental, diametrically opposed techniques. One is math, pure and simple. If you are going to play poker well, you need to know, with absolute certainty, what your position is at any given point in the game. The second is the fuzzy bluff-and-read. The ability to simultaneously send off signals of deception while ferreting out the tells and weaknesses and irrationalities of your opponents.

I'm no big-shot poker player. I find playing online dull. I find my local monthly poker game entertaining and social, but in reality it's less a game than a party. Nobody wants to win too much and make his friends feel bad. But when I've had the opportunities to play in casinos, or even better in tournaments, I absolutely love it.

But I don't love it when I lose. That's the downside of money. Sure, you might learn something. You might admire someone else's play. But there's just no enjoyment in leaving something on the table.

This is why the professionalization of video games leaves me conflicted. It's not like I spend Thanksgiving dinner at my in-laws' talking about how much ass I can kick as a commander in Battlefield 2. So I'm delighted for any shred of legitimacy this addiction can scratch out. On the other hand, moving into this wierd world of "pro" fills me with a sense of impending doom. I don't fire up Guitar Hero to make a quick buck. I fire it up to forget all the making of not-so-quick bucks that dominates way too many of my waking hours.

Money changes everything. I've spent more of my life trying to make money than not. I've spent time on the stock market, time bussing tables. I've spent time pretending to be gay in order to sell women's clothes. I've spent time hawking tech, hawking companies, hawking stereos. But in all those cases, I've been spending time to earn money. It's nearly the opposite of what I do here, in my gaming world.

Here I spend time and money. But I get something more important back.


Competition is good, and at times you just don't perform unless something is at stake. Thus the paid athlete. I don't mind pro-gamers, because they will never define the medium (hopefully). It's not like sports, where we lose our "edge" as we age and have to live vicariously through a select talented few.

I've spent time pretending to be gay in order to sell women's clothes.

sigh. I've done that too

Nice article, I enjoyed it.

souldaddy wrote:

It's not like sports, where we lose our "edge" as we age and have to live vicariously through a select talented few.

Oh, how I wish this was true. I get killed on a regular basis in Halo 2 (or any game that requires fast fingers vs thinking) by people half my age. Possibly even 1/3 of my age.

Sigh... the days are gone, when one could say he was a gamer and get a confused blank gaze in response.

The good ol' days!

rabbit wrote:

On the other hand, moving into this wierd world of "pro" fills me with a sense of impending doom. I don't fire up Guitar Hero to make a quick buck.

Unless you plan on playing video games professionally, it won't affect you at all. Millions of people golf, play tennis, play cards and enjoy themselves even as the pros go at it tooth and nail.

I'm a bit confused from reading the article linked by Julesy (such a cute name). I must admit that I followed CPL for a while during my counter-strike addiction but I have no idea what the MLG's business model is. I assume the structure is similar: sign up sponsors, hold tournaments around the country, draw the best players. It sounds like they may also have a league structure with regular teams. I'm assuming all their income is from sponsors. Correct me if they have broadcast, advertizing or other income.

Here's where I get confused. All of a sudden you sign your best players to contracts. What about everyone else? They've got all these teams and decide to pay just one of them all kinds of jack. Am I missing something here or is this not a huge conflict of interest. Who do you think the MLG is going to want to win all their tournaments? What team is going to get preferential treatment? How can a league be fair and unbiased when your own employees are competing in that league?

Following what Copingsaw is saying, professional athletes are paid because people, in turn, pay to watch them. Yes, there are sponsorships for the MLG and maybe a small bit of advertising revenue from the rare televised event (3am on G4, perhaps?), but there has to be spectators to make this worthwhile. Who is actually going to pay to watch other people play video games? I can't even watch my wife take a turn at Hexic or Geometry Wars without fidgeting and growing restless. And that only lasts 5 to 10 minutes. Paying admission to sit and watch others play games for a day? Yeah, right.

Then again, as I type this I can't help but recall that just the other day I stumbled on the World Dominos Championship on ESPN2. Not just on ESPN Deportes neither, but on the Deuce. I didn't watch it for more than 2 minutes or so out of curiosity, but I guess anything is possible if you market it right.

RandomlyGenerated wrote:

. . just the other day I stumbled on the World Dominos Championship on ESPN2. Not just on ESPN Deportes neither, but on the Deuce. I didn't watch it for more than 2 minutes or so out of curiosity, but I guess anything is possible if you market it right.

I had the exact same reaction. I think the "big" prize all of them were competing for was 20K or so, so it doesn't look like it's caught on in a big way yet.

I'm much more interested in games being recognized as art than in gaming being recognized as a professional sport (or at least a moneymaking hobby). Clearly the medium lends itself to both applications, but the former seems more likely to actually improve the quality of the games we play, whereas the latter simply seems inclined to promote more crass commercialism, celebrity worship/association, etc.

Though I'd be perfectly content if the whole thing tanked, I don't think a lively pro gaming league, complete with fans willing to spend money watching (and betting on) players is outside the realm of possibilities. It's happening overseas with Starcraft. I think it could eventually happen here.

And imagine if they could put video-poker style machines in bars (or online) that ran deathmatch games. Or a Mario Kart-style racer. $5 gets you in, and depending on your ranking you get to keep a share of the winnings. I can see that sort of thing getting pretty addictive with some people, especially if random elements were included that would ensure that anyone had at least some chance to win.

Right on, Fly. I wonder what the laws are regarding competition for money in that sort of thing. Could bars begin legally holding nationwide "Golden Tee" tournaments involving entry fees and cash prizes not unlike most poker tourneys? Golden Tee would probably be the biggest gateway drug to getting this whole thing going in the mainstream. If they were to set that up to an independently audited server farm and have nationwide tourneys on a monthly basis -- holy cow! They would rake in some serious dough. $50 entry fees, bar food, beer, parking, all for the glory of spending a day with friends at the local watering hole and the possibliyt of winning $5,000 in a regional tournament? Or the chance of moving on to a national event for a share of a $50,000 purse?

Why does this all of a sudden seem not only very plausible, but also very obvious? If they want to start the whole "playing videogames for money" the route they ought to take is one involving massive tournaments where everyone has a chance at getting paid, not just a select few on salary.


There's some of that already happening in casinos. A modern casino slot machine is an intense little video game console in its own right, and the trend is for them to become more and more game, and less and less machine. My guess is that all that's standing in the way of deathmatch casinos is regulation and concerns about how easily the systems could be "rigged".

I don't actually think we're under some imminent threat of being overwhelmed by this professionalization. But I do think that it can impact our little corner of the universe, perhaps in positive ways. I know I have benefited from professional cycling) but there's a paradigm shift that, I think, comes with the territory. No, I'm not ever going to actually compete in the tour de france, nor am I likely to even ride the same roads or with the same riders. But is the activity somehow different because they're out there? Yeah, I actually think it is. I still love going out and just riding, but somewhere in my head there are "pros" out there that I know, by name and face and record, that will always be and have always been better than me.

On the other hand (how many hands do I have?) professional dominos seems ripe for explosion (grin)