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Beijing's newest sports hero is a 120-lb. gamer

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

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.

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