January 25, 2015

ASPEN, Colo. (AP) Big Air? Try Fast Thumbs.

Safe to say, the newest competition at the Winter X Games will not be at the Olympics anytime soon.

Its participants - some might prefer you call them athletes - may not know a ski from a snowboard and don't even have to have a heavy coat to win their gold medals.

These are the Gamers. Yes, being good on the Xbox can now earn a Winter X gold medal - and even more if things go really well.

Going for gold in a dimly lit tent on the edge of the X Games grounds this week are a few dozen players going at it in ''Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,'' an eGaming event ESPN executives added to the Winter X program as part of their constant quest to draw more young people into in the annual action-sports festival.

''We all grew up watching the X Games,'' said Matt Haag, known better to his millions of followers by his screen name, NaDeSHoT.

Haag won the gold medal in the debut of eGaming at the Summer X Games last year, where they played ''Call of Duty.''

''For us to be in a situation where we're going to be at the same event and competing for the same prizes those guys do, it was ridiculous,'' he said. ''A dream come true, to be honest.''

Haag, a video gamer since he was little, was working at McDonald's and going to community college five years ago, when a friend filled his head with the great possibilities that eGaming could present.

Instead of simply playing in contests for a few hundred bucks, Haag was one of the first to build a legit audience by streaming his games over the internet, drawing thousands of fans and the ensuing advertisers who want young eyeballs on their products. He currently has about 1.5 million subscribers on YouTube.

Major League Gaming, whose red-white-and-blue logo looks an awful lot like that of Major League Baseball, except with a controller in the middle instead of a baseball player, is among the companies that have mushroomed over the last few years.

Tickets to watch - not play - major eGaming events at the Staples Center and elsewhere sell out in minutes. The MLG website, for one, draws between 12 million and 15 million viewers in the average month. At the Winter X Games, where the gold medal was to be awarded Sunday, MLG co-founder Mike Sepso expected a minimum of 2 million people to watch the action online.

A few of the players, someday, might take their dream to college. Robert Morris University made a splash last year when it announced it would offer sports scholarships to students playing the video game ''League of Legends.''

Which leads to the obvious question: Are they really athletes? Answer: There's certainly a unique skill set needed to be good at these games, mainly involving supernaturally quick reflexes and great hand-eye coordination.

''Physically, there are things they can do that we can't do,'' said Sepso.

The snowboarders and skiers who literally risk their lives going for the same gold medals that these new guys can win playing video games don't have any problem with it.

''It benefits everybody,'' said Nick Goepper, who won his third gold in ski slopestyle Saturday. ''I can't see gaming taking away from ski slopestyle. It just gets more sponsors interested and all that, and that's good for everyone.''

Haag `s earnings have reached into seven figures. Getting rich playing video games? ''Insane,'' the 22-year-old called it, especially for someone who saw the alternative - his father, who has, for decades, worked as a carpenter.

But it is hard work. He spends as much or more time cultivating his fan base as he does playing the games. And truly, the prize money can come and go, but paying the bills depends on keeping people interested.

''It's multitasking,'' Haag said. ''You're always trying to balance. It's, being a good entertainer, being the best player and being the best team player you can be.''

He views eGaming's entry into the X Games a welcome opportunity to grab a bit more of a mainstream audience.

And the biggest names in these games, some of whom have watched their own sports grow from backcountry hobby to supersized spectacle, are welcoming the video kids right back.

''If adding something like this is going to help us come back here and do this every year, I'm all for it,'' said snowboarder Danny Davis, who won his second straight gold on the halfpipe Thursday night. ''If they want to give X Games gold away for arm wrestling, I'm all for it. I'll go watch that. Whatever works.''

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