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A February AWOL LAN event at Action City packed in 153 gamers for a weekend-long computer gaming tournament. Hard to believe this started with a birthday party in a parking lot.
 
A February AWOL LAN event at Action City packed in 153 gamers for a weekend-long computer gaming tournament. Hard to believe this started with a birthday party in a parking lot.

The AWOL staff doesn’t actually get to play much during the LAN, what with everything they have to do, but they don’t mind. For them, providing a place for gamers to hunker down from Friday morning to Saturday night is a labor of love.

“We all talk all year on the forums,” says Nate, “and we get to meet these guys here twice a year. We’ve been trying, since we upgraded venues, to make it even more about the players.”

That approach seems to be working so far. The AWOL group has a real sense of community to it, a Cheers-like vibe where everybody knows your name. Like Nate said, the attendees chat all year on AWOL’s website forums. In addition, a lot of the gamers come to the LAN as clans, premade groups who often get together for their own smaller LAN parties but like the bigger playing field and larger amount of time afforded to them by the AWOL LAN. 

Dan Wald is a part of UW-Stout’s PONG student group, which hosts their own LAN events throughout the academic year. When I came across Dan near the end of the AWOL LAN he was, in his own words, awake-ish. “I’ve been playing a lot of MinecraftLeague of Legends, some Starcraft,” says Dan, “I just came here to get away from stuff, and it’s a good way to get together with people.” 

Dan and the PONG group took up about 10 spots at AWOL, near the front of the third and fourth row of computers. They had just finished a game of League of Legends, a team-based game where your group of heroes fights another team’s group of heroes and tries to overrun their base. Dan had lost, a result of one of his teammates being given a character he didn’t want due to an internet hiccup. “It’s still been really fun though,” says Dan. “It’s another AWOL LAN.” 

We all talk all year on the forums and we get to meet these guys here twice a year. We've been trying, since we upgraded venues, to make it even more about the players.

Dan realizes that the clan-based atmosphere might seem off-putting for more casual gamers who want to step into the LAN, but he says that they shouldn’t worry about it. “If you’re near a group you’ll join in with them,” he says. “You’ll start to cheer with them and yell at those guys across the room that they yell at.”

A few aisles, many discarded soda cups, a couple conked out gamers, and a bunch of potato chip bags later, I came across Dan Rosenburg and Burgy Goodburger. After a bunch of time spent playing team games like Defense of the Ancients, another hero-based game, and CounterStrike: Source, a first-person shooter, they were unwinding with some straight-up button mashing in Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Burgy was getting his butt kicked, but he kept on pleading with Dan to give him just one more game. I stayed for a few rounds and didn’t see Burgy win a single one, although it didn’t really bother him a bit. An hour or so later, I came by and asked Dan if Burgy had gotten any better after I left. “Well,” said Dan, “he didn’t win.”

Right about then the lights came up, and the staff announced that it was time for the LAN’s prize giveaway. Everyone at the LAN received a ticket just for attending, and more tickets could be earned through participation and victories in the various staff sponsored video game tournaments that had been held throughout the previous 30-odd hours. The prizes ranged from Subway gift certificates to “zombie-rated” power supplies to the grand-daddy, a 42-inch TV which was bound to become some lucky gamer’s new computer monitor. The prize giveaway was a joyous affair. The gamers cheered each other on, and the staff knew the name of most every winner. Phil snapped a boatload of pictures to post on AWOL’s website, and there was a small celebration when the staff realized that they had given away most of their t-shirts to people that they would actually fit. As it came time to announce the winner of the TV, Phil and Vern pulled up the Rocky theme, and Mike started the random number generator that would choose the lucky gamer. The crowd cheered when number 53 was highlighted on the big screen, and of course, the staff knew the winner by name instantly. That’s the kind of ship they run at AWOL.

After the prize giveaway, the AWOL LAN began to wind down. As people left, they stopped by to thank the staff for another great LAN party, and many of them signed up to reserve their seat for the next 36-hour session of gaming in August. “The best moment,” says Phil, “is when someone takes the time at the end to come up to you and say thank you and shake your hand. That just makes all the problems and conflicts that we deal with worth it. We’ve got a great group of players here.”

The man behind it all, Monty Peterson, is just a simple player himself now, but he feels that the group he handed the LAN off to is doing a spectacular job with what he started. Meanwhile, he and the group of friends he started the LAN with are simply enjoying getting back to gaming. “I’ll be back to play again in August,” he says. “It was a lot of work when we were doing it, and it’s still a lot of work for them. But they’ve done a great job here this year.”