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dot life Monday, 29 October, 2001, 13:00 GMT
Gamers gather global audience
Counter-Strike screenshot, Half-Life TV
Soon you could be cheering on teams like these
Computer games have long been synonymous with sitting at home, all alone. But, writes BBC News Online's technology correspondent, Mark Ward, they could soon be the next big spectator sport.

A good computer game can make you forget everything. It can take you away from your cluttered back bedroom into another world that rewards, rather than derides, your prowess with a keyboard, mouse or joystick.


Some clans just don't want to be watched. They don't want people seeing their tactics

Peter Lambert
Counter-Strike website UK Terrorist
But the problem with computer games is that so few other people get to appreciate your skill, your intimate knowledge of the battlefield or the slick moves you have practised until your thumbs are raw.

Even multi-player games, that let you take on, and impress other players, offer only a small audience for your hard-won expertise. But all that could be about to change

Computer game makers are releasing software that can bring a multi-player game to thousands of spectators. Soon you could be heading down the pub on a Saturday to watch a match between teams playing computer games rather than ball games.

Already TV stations are signing up to use the software and some of the professional gaming leagues are using it to beam the action to crowds at regional competitions.

Scientists with guns

One of the games leading the way is first-person shoot-em-up Half-Life.

The game revolves around the efforts of scientist Gordon Freeman to escape from the Black Mesa research facility after an experiment goes awry and leads to it being infested with all manner of extra-dimensional creatures.

One of the enemy entities from computer game Half-Life, Half-Life TV
But you won't be cheering creatures like this
One of the reasons Half-Life has stayed popular since its 1998 release is the add-ons and software tools that its maker, Valve Software, has produced.

These extras turn a game for one into a multi-player experience that lets teams take on each other. By far the most popular add-on, or modification, is called Counter-Strike. This pits two teams against each other: one side plays the terrorists and the other is given the job of stopping them.

Counter-Strike's popularity could be boosted by Valve Software releasing an add-on that lets a match between two players be viewed by potentially thousands of fans at the same time.

Fighting terror

Many games, such as Quake, have had generic spectating software for some time, said Alan Bell, editor-in-chief of New Zealand's Game Planet website. This crude software lets people flip between the points-of-view of those playing the game, and can make it difficult to follow the action.

"This sort of 'first generation' spectating has limited popularity," he said. "People don't tend to get connected to a game just to spectate."

Screenshot from multi-player computer game Counter-Strike, Half-Life TV
Teamwork and planning are key in Counter-Strike
The bigger users of this type of spectator mode are members of teams in games such as Counter-Strike who have been killed and have to wait until the end of the battle before joining in again.

But, said Mr Bell, the spectator software from Valve was a huge improvement. This lets viewers get an overview of the terrain and home in on any action. They can jump to different viewpoints to get a look from behind the gunsite. Half-Life TV could prove popular.

"Watching this is very exciting, even for non-Counter-Strike players," he said. "It makes for great entertainment when there is a big game going on."

Doug Lombardi, a spokesman for Valve, said the software was already proving popular.

"The first week it was released over 8,000 people tuned in to watch a match between Belgium and Germany," he said. Many professional gaming leagues are using it to broadcast matches across the net.

Big future

The Cyberathlete Professional League is also planning to use it to take the matches from its world championship in December to a wider audience. Up to 25,000 people could be watching the gamers shoot it out for the top prize of $150,000 (105,000).

TV shows like Bravo's Mercenaries and others in Korea and Italy are starting to use it to capture and relay the action from televised matches.

It is likely that the biggest mass of spectators for games will be found at professional gaming championships, trade shows and on TV. The difficulty of setting up separate, or proxy, servers to relay the action has deterred some sites from adopting it.

There are other objections, too.

"Some clans (teams) just don't want to be watched, " said Peter Lambert, the founder of Counter-Strike site UK Terrorist. "They don't want people seeing their tactics."

He said some clans were also suspicious that spectators watching via the net were giving hints to players in the game using voice communication software products such as Roger Wilco.

But he has no doubt that it has a big future ahead of it.

"I am looking forward to the Pro Gaming tournaments. The class of play is just amazing," he said.

Weely guide to getting buttoned up

See also:

20 Aug 01 | Science/Nature
30 Jul 01 | dot life
24 Sep 01 | Science/Nature
11 Jul 01 | Entertainment
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