Baang! You're Dead 

Clan leaders Ricky Menjivar and Vinh Bui are out for blood. Their battleground: Korean-style cybercafes across the East Bay. Their deadly game: Counter-Strike.

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You'd think that cheap home DSL might kill a place like CyberGlobe, but you'd be wrong. The allure of Counter-Strike is about social interaction and bragging rights. Francis and Angelo recognize this, and they've nurtured the culture that drives their livelihood with the deftness only small-business owners seem to manage. "DSL doesn't hurt us. Home PCs don't hurt us," says Angelo. "These guys come here so they can see the expression on the face of the guy they just beat, so they can stand up and taunt their opponents. They want to be able to sit next to their friend and work together."

The Hollowmen are feared at CyberGlobe. Originally a Quake II clan, they specialize in first-person-shooters of all kinds -- from Quake III to Unreal Tournament to Metroid Prime. But Counter-Strike is where the money is. In September, Vinh led his clan to a $500 prize in CyberGlobe's first tournament.

Vinh, also twenty years old, is a beefy Vietnamese-American guy currently attending Heald College. His best friend Sean, known around here as Spire, is a wafer-thin Filipino kid with long dexterous fingers and a slight lisp, possibly the result of his being bilingual. Vinh plays under the pseudonym Nikko, and when unaffiliated CyberGlobe players see him and clanmate Spire coming, they often bicker over who gets to be on their team.

Unlike the Triads, this clan is made up of quiet-but-deadly types who rule their turf benevolently and rarely taunt a foe unless provoked. It even took some badgering by Francis to convince Vinh to enter the tournament, but when the Hollowmen finally agreed to take part, they trounced the competition, reaching first place without losing a single round.

Vinh is soft-spoken, but when he's playing, the clan leader is like a force of nature. He rarely dies, and can shoot so accurately that he goes entire rounds without wasting a single bullet. He, too, is a god.

The Hollowmen and the Triads don't like one another. Each claims to be the best, and clan members invariably recall past competitions in which their boys prevailed five games to four. The Next Level scheduled a tournament this past November, when the opposing clans were prepared to settle their disputes once and for all. Unfortunately, the cafe's staff created a major software meltdown the night before the tournament, forcing cancellation of the competition two hours before it was set to start. Both clans were furious.

As a result of the blunder, Ricky decided to move the Triads' home base to CyberGlobe, a brazen challenge to the Hollowmen's dominion.

During a subsequent scrimmage, Ricky's kid brother AJ (cRONI-X) found himself facing off against Vinh. The Hollowmen leader mopped the floor with AJ for most of the game. Finally, AJ got off a good shot and dropped Vinh. The sixteen-year-old shouted triumphantly and zapped out the typical Counter-Strike barb to all involved: "Owned."

Vinh was livid. "I'd killed him, like, ten times that game, and he kills me one time, and he's all like 'owned,'" the elder player fumed. Vinh struck back with L337-speak: "I pulled up a console and bound 'j00 r 0\/\/n3|>' to a key on the keyboard. So, like, I could press J and it would say 'j00 r 0\/\/n3|>' to everyone. I pressed J like seventy times every time I killed AJ after that. He got all pissed. He's like, 'You Hollowmen are supposed to be professional, and you're like, 'Owned,' seventy times! That's not professional. Triads are professionals!'"

It wasn't too long, though, before the Hollowmen regained their turf. The bigger, flashier Next Level, which was started by a consortium of investors, had been lacking the mom-and-pop touch needed to cultivate loyalty among its young patrons. It was losing money as a result, and CyberGlobe's owners were able to cut a deal to buy the rival PC Baang. With Francis and Angelo now in charge of both venues, the Triads felt comfortable returning to their former haunt.

To celebrate their new acquisition, Francis and Angelo set up a second tournament at CyberGlobe, with $500 going to the winner. And as the big day approached, the clans came out of the woodwork.

Dangle some money and call their names, and they'll assemble like the street gangs in the old movie The Warriors. From Walnut Creek, Clan Drastic arrives -- mostly immigrants: German, Russian, Finnish, and Polish. From Oakland there's Weekend Warriors, but it's the clan's second stringers today, so they call themselves Weekday Warriors to compensate. From Dublin come the Cyberninjas. Hailing from Concord is Angelo's daughter's clan, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, all of them under fifteen. The Hollowmen and Triads show up to do battle, of course. And finally, from San Jose, lured by the scent of green, Clan Rival walks through the doors.

Ricky and his Triads are taken completely by surprise. They'd been preparing for a showdown with the Hollowmen -- a clean sweep through the other clans culminating in a final match against their ultimate enemy. They weren't expecting to play anyone of Rival's caliber.

The Hollowmen knew what was coming. The previous night, Vinh pulled a reporter aside, begging him not to tell Ricky, or anyone for that matter, that Rival was planning to register. Every player is required to pony up an $18 entrance fee, and if word got out that Rival was playing, the San Jose clan would have been the only one showing up.

The proceedings begin with a random drawing to select the first-round combatants. Clans will fight it out in two separate brackets, and the winners of each bracket will play for the money in the final match.

The tournament takes all day, from 10 a.m. Saturday to 2 a.m. Sunday. The Triads make quick work of their first opponent, Clan XE. The Hollowmen, surprisingly, fare poorly. They lose out to Drastic in the first round. Already, the competition is stiff.

Ricky paces around the CyberGlobe like a nervous tiger in a cage. He wears a black Metallica T-shirt, a black bandanna around his neck, and a dusty baseball cap over his slicked hair. This is his lucky outfit. He waits for the first-round results to see who the Triads will play next. Finally, Francis posts the winners and Ricky's heart sinks: Triads have drawn Rival in the second round.


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