Xian, China The programs, tickets and scraps of paper are thrust through the railing circling the sunken gymnasium; the people holding them jostle for a favourable position.
The young fans try to make eye contact, pleading for an autograph anything from Su Hao, the man of the moment, and on this rainy afternoon, a star.
"He's the best man in my heart," says Liu Yang, a 20-year-old university student at Xian Petrochemical Institute, clutching a hard-won scribble from Mr. Su. "He's the best in the world, as far as I think."
The crowd, the bleachers, the worn wooden floors, the crush for autographs it could be the scene of any number of Chinese sports heroes reaching out their to fans in this Olympics-mad nation. But one look at Mr. Su and it's clear he's no famous gymnast.At 5 foot 6 (168 centimetres) and maybe 120 pounds (54 kilograms), his only equipment is his computer keyboard, which he carries delicately under his arm like a flute, or perhaps a violin.
Mr. Su is a virtuoso all right. He's a video-game star, the reigning national champion and recently the No..1-ranked player in the world in his specialty, Star Craft, a science-fiction-based fantasy game that demands the same knack for strategy as chess.
The 21-year-old plays for as long as 10 hours a day, but instead of putting him on the fast track to life as a slug, in China his dedication and expertise have earned Mr. Su the status of a national team athlete and the privilege of competing internationally.On this particular weekend in September, he is competing in a China E-sports Games league match. Just completing its first season, the CEG is trying to become the Chinese video-game equivalent of the National Hockey League.
They've got a way to go. Today's match is between a team from Liaoning province, outfitted in black golf shirts, and Mr. Su's team, Shanxi province, wearing white.
The crowd is drawn from exactly the kind of fan base you might expect a pack of perhaps 300 boys in their mid-to-late teens, immersed enough in the nuances of the fledgling sport that they're willing to sit on hard bleachers to watch their peers play video games.
There's a brief opening ceremony during which the players are introduced, along with a couple of bespectacled local sports officials who seem a bit bemused at what passes for sports these days.
The teams are reminded that in CEG matches it's "friendship first, competition second." There's a pre-game warm-up they play video games and then the competition begins.
Given the high-tech nature of the sport, the presentation is a bit on the low-tech side, with the action being carried on a screen better suited for watching family slides, and strangely, no live sound.
Not helping matters is that in the opening contest, a five-on-five Counter-Strike match, action on the screen is delayed by a minute, to prevent either team from getting a strategic advantage. (The eight-man teams compete in four different events, including StarCraft, WarCraft and FIFA, a soccer game.)
The effect, however, is confusing. As the Liaoning team whoops after a big play, the audience doesn't know, for instance, that it's because their sniper has blown away three Shanxi players, so developments don't get celebrated by the crowd.
Thus it falls to the public-address announcer to punch up the atmosphere, and he does his best, with an emphasis on helping the Shanxi team benefit from their home-court advantage: "Our host audience, please give some encouragement to the host team," he says at one point, and is rewarded with a burst of enthusiastic applause and cheers of "Come on Shanxi!"
Chances are that the scene around CEG matches will get a little more energized in the years to come. In South Korea, the world's leading e-sports nation, there are at least two prime-time television shows devoted to e-sports; top gamers earn well into six figures and are adored like rock stars.
The signs are there. When the Korean national team came to Beijing for a friendly match with China last summer, more than 1,500 fans came out to see the match, held at a downtown television studio with only 1,000 seats, leaving hundreds disappointed.
It was only last year that China recognized video games or e-sports, officially as the 99th sport supported by the all-powerful Chinese Sports Bureau, gaining equal status with such traditional Chinese sports and Olympic events as table tennis and gymnastics.
As a result, since Mr. Su qualified for the national team, when they took on Korea in August they did it for their country and for the chance to make some extra money.
"I'm happy with the changes to e-sports in China," said Mr. Su, who studies computer science and information management at the International University of Xian, a city of about six million, a two-hour flight southwest of Beijing.
"It used to be quite unprofessional. Now we get better treatment. As a national-team player, we can go to international competitions and all our costs are covered. As well, for example, when we played an international friendship game with Korea, we each got a minimum of 3,000 yuan [about $442], and if we won our match, we got 5,000 yuan."
Given that corporate-sponsored events can offer as much as a 30,000 yuan first prize, and players in China's newly founded domestic professional league earn a base monthly salary of 2,200 yuan before bonuses, gaming offers a chance at a pretty lucrative living in a country where migrant construction workers are lucky to earn 30 yuan a day.
Video games have exploded in a country that has nearly 400 million people under the age of 18 and an increasing access to broadband Internet connections.
Current estimates say there are about 87 million Internet users in China and about 14 million gamers as of the end of 2003, a year in which the number of Internet game players increased by 64 per cent, according to a report by the China Game Publishers' Association.
Rather than stand with their fingers in the dike that barely holds back the digital flood, Chinese officials quickly decided to embrace the trend, but on their terms.
Two goals were identified: One was to use the popularity of e-sports and on-line games (a companion category of video games in which players participate in games that are accessible on the Internet and are played by thousands of competitors at once) to further Chinese expertise in the field and to help increase China's already booming IT sector.
"The gaming industry is growing," says Kou Xiao Wei, vice-president of the Internet publishing department for China's General Administration of Press and Publication, the agency that approves content for all published materials in China. "Interest in gaming supports the growth of the Internet and is good for the national economy."
A program has been developed at Sichuan University to hatch a new generation of Chinese programmers, while tax incentives have been provided to software companies that can develop games with Chinese characteristics.
Mr. Kou's agency has launched the Chinese National On-line Gaming project, with a goal of developing 100 games in the next five years and reducing the country's reliance on foreign-made games.
That, in turn, helps with the second goal, which is to make sure that if Chinese young people are using the Internet and playing games on-line, they do it in an approved way.
"It is important for Chinese youth to play Chinese-approved games because most foreign games don't have limitations and there is unworthy content," Mr. Kou says. "There is sex and violence, mainly, but also anti-Chinese political statements.
"For example, we just [made changes] to the FIFA. There were teams from Taiwan and Tibet, suggesting that they are independent countries, and that is very bad, because that is not true. Some other games show a PLA [People's Liberation Army] soldier being killed and that is bad for patriotism."
Making sure that video games become a healthy part of growing up in China is part of the impetus behind the CEG, the domestic professional league that Mr. Su also plays in.
December will mark the conclusion of the first season for the CEG, a six-month undertaking in which teams from eight provinces competed against each other in a 14-game regular season as well as playoffs. Each of the eight teams has 16 players chosen from a pool of 6,000 aspiring professional gamers in an April qualification tournament.
The Chinese national team was chosen from the ranks of the 128 players in the CEG.
"Video games and on-line games have a bad image," says Patrick Wang, the CEG's director of operations. "Young people spend a lot of time and a lot of money on them in cyber cafés. In China this has caused some social problems and in some other countries too. Kids steal money from their parents and their schoolmates so they can play games, and in Beijing [in June, 2002] two kids set fire to a cyber café after a dispute with the owner, and  people died, so many parents ask their children not to play video games.
"But young children have the right to their own kind of entertainment. With the development of the Internet and technology, if you force people away from these games, it's not realistic. People can play at home. So you have to lead them to play in a healthy way, so we have developed sports-type characteristics."
They've also developed a healthy backdrop for the likes of Mr. Su.
"My parents used to be against how much time I spent on video games," he says, signing an autograph and sending another fan home happy. "They thought it was taking away from my studies, but now, with my success, they are happy. They think it's going to be good for my future."