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It started in 1997 as a simple birthday party. Monty Peterson and his friends got together to celebrate by networking their computers and beating the crap out of each other inside some of their favorite video games, like Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear. In 2001, they decided to make their private event into a public one, and they invited anyone who wanted to come and game to what they called 36-Hour LAN Madness. The event was held outdoors, in the parking lot of RAM Technologies, and the players, computers, and network equipment sat gathered underneath a giant fireworks-booth style tent. The players would game, it would rain, things would occasionally start on fire, and port-a-potties were the only restrooms around. 

You've got to make sure everything's mapped out. You've got to know where all of your computers can be. Power's very critical. You've got to make sure you've got enough going.

Thirty-six-hour LAN Madness has come a long way since then. The event, now called AWOL LAN, upgraded venues in 2007 when it moved into one of Action City’s group use rooms. That first Action City LAN played host to 27 people and didn’t even fill half of the room the AWOL staff had rented out. Fast-forward to February 2011 and the AWOL LAN is packed, with 153 gamers and their computers spread out across six giant rows of tables. Seats for the LAN were sold out about two weeks in advance. 

The atmosphere when you enter that back room at Action City is slightly intense. It’s hot, even with a couple doors to the outside cracked open, and it definitely feels like there’re 150 or so people sitting in there. The lights are dimmed so that the players can pay attention to their monitors, which, along with some random flashy add-ons inside some players’ computer towers, provide most of the light in the room. The aisles are slightly difficult to maneuver through, with computer chairs on each side and the occasional pocket of wiring crossing underneath your feet, but if you ask nicely a gamer will take a second to slide their chair in so you can get by. 

There’s two big projection screens mounted on the walls, displaying action from some of the tournaments the AWOL staff is running. The staff is situated at the front of the room, their own massive computers looming large in front of them, but they’re glad to take the time to meet and talk with anyone at the event.

Monty and his crew don’t actually run the LAN anymore, having handed it off last year to some quite capable newcomers, but they still attend and play, just like they did at the beginning. The current AWOL staff is made up of six members, each of whom is just as comfortable going by his internet screen name as his real name. They’re led by Mike Koski, or Duck as he’s known on the AWOL web forums. Mike is AWOL’s PR guy and he runs all of the LAN’s tournament brackets. Phil Jordan, a.k.a. Lokie, is in charge of taking and uploading pictures and communicating with the staff at Action City. Vern Gibson, a.k.a. Twizted, actually moved from Kentucky to Eau Claire as a result of his involvement in the LAN. He’s in charge of registration and seating. Nate Peterson, a.k.a. Dirka, and Travis Paullin, a.k.a. Tar-V, keep their eyes on the network constantly, trying to make sure there aren’t any hiccups. Ben VanGoor, a.k.a. Jarhead, does whatever else needs to be done.

“(The staff is here) at eight in the morning before setting everything up,” says Mike. “You’ve got to make sure everything’s mapped out. You’ve got to know where all of your computers can be. Power’s very critical. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got enough going.”

“Our circuits could probably power a city block,” says Nate.

“Well,” says Travis, laughing, “not quite a block.”