Competitive video gaming could be the television sport of the future – that’s the premise of Gameboys, written by US sports journalist Michael Kane. The book tells the story of America’s two biggest Counterstrike clans and their struggle for dominance in one of the most popular multiplayer FPS games.
First, we’re introduced to Team 3D and their manager Craig Levine; a shrewd businessman, slavish networker and self promoter, he’s garnered considerable finance from corporate sponsors NVidia and Intel. Team 3D are the empire, the establishment, with fame (at least among their cotterie of fans), money and egos to match.
If Team 3D represent the empire, their rivals and America’s number two team CompLexity are the rebels and the story’s underdogs. Their manager, Jason Lake, lacks the corporate funding of Team 3D, and funds CompLexity out of his own pocket, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife.
Gameboys follows the two teams as they compete in nationwide LAN tournaments, their rivalry becoming increasingly heated with each subsequent competition. The stakes are high for Jason Lake; if his team can’t defeat the reigning champions, he won’t get the corporate cash injection he desperately needs.
While author Michael Kane’s prose is breezily written and easy to read, he has a tendency to wander off on page-filling tangents (do we really need to know about the history of the Hyatt hotel in Dallas?), and spends half of the book’s three hundred pages introducing characters and scene-setting. In fact, Gameboys doesn’t really begin to grip until the final third, where the competitions between CompLexity and Team 3D finally take place. There’s also an over-reliance on America-centric sports jargon and analogies that are, to the average European, unintelligible; Craig Levine is described as the ‘George Streinbrenner of e-sports’, which means nothing to me whatsoever.
Kane’s attitude to other video games is also curiously dismissive; Counterstrike may be popular, but other games like Halo or Guitar Hero are just as popular and worthy of coverage.
Fortunately, Gameboys does, as it reaches its dying chapters, build to a thoroughly page turning final act – the televised face-off between CompLexity and Team 3D is a tense affair, with the carefully described backstory finally paying off – as Kane says himself, ‘to make it compelling, the viewer must understand the game,’ and by these final pages it’s clear that everything hangs in the balance for Jason Lake and his team.
Kane should also be commended for making a bunch of lazy, mostly white middle class young twenty-somethings seem even remotely sympathetic or interesting – it’s just a shame that bit-players like Punkville (who, between bouts of Counterstrike, enjoys fighting in bareknuckle tournaments) aren’t given more coverage as they’re often more interesting than the book’s main characters. The bizarre moment when washed-up actor Stephen Baldwin (the one who was in The Usual Suspects) shows up outside a LAN tournament, vainly trying to tempt gamers with his Christian literature, is also memorably incongruous, and a much needed antidote to the sporting analogies and machiavellian power struggles found elsewhere.
Perhaps Gameboys‘ biggest problem is its muddled target audience; its Douglas Coupland-esque cover suggests an audience that’s already video game savvy, but the book’s written as though it’s aimed at a far broader, non-gaming demographic, with lengthy explanations of almost every element of Counterstrike and LAN gaming in general. Whether anyone outside the hardcore gaming community actually cares if e-sports hit the big-time or not – much less read a three hundred page account of it – is highly debatable.
Ultimately, Gameboys‘ e-sports premise isn’t its most interesting aspect; far more compelling is its illuminating portrait of America’s competitive spirit, the obsession with perfection, and the desire to win no matter what the cost.
A flawed but competent page-turner.