Last week, more than a million users flooded Xbox Live to play Modern Warfare 2. Here's something just as impressive: In January, nearly 300 gamers will meet in person to play a game released in 2000.
Though one is obviously dwarfed by the comparison, both figures are impressive in their own right. And both speak to the health of their form of multiplayer gaming. For console games like Modern Warfare 2, multiplayer's meteoric growth is commonly understood. But for LAN parties, still playing games like Counter-Strike, their resilience and persistence are most frequently seen among college-age gamers on campus.
"If anything, I think it's growing" says Nathan Etzell, a senior at Oregon State University, whose 300-member OSU Gaming organization has a prewired, 30-person LAN room at the bottom of a dormitory where at least two large parties are held per term. In January, his club will meet the University of Oregon in the second "Civil War LAN," a gaming tournament named after the schools' football rivalry.
But there is a sense that the PC LAN party — like fraternity parties, all-nighters, streaking, whatever — are something whose time and place comes on a college campus. Out in the cold hard world, PC LAN and direct server support in new titles is dwindling in favor of console multiplayer and proprietary hosting services. Most notably, StarCraft II will not support LAN gaming as it shifts to Blizzard's Battle.net. And dedicated servers are out under Modern Warfare 2, which is now running multiplayer with a combination of Steam and the recently created IW.net for Modern Warfare 2. Both sequels' predecessors had a strong history in dedicated servers and LAN gaming, leaving some gamers feeling betrayed, and some LAN enthusiasts feeling marginalized.
LAN gaming is not gone from the off-campus civilian world. But annual convention hall events with big budgets, entry fees, prizes and sponsorships are different creatures from six people linking up to play Warcraft III. While the former will definitely still happen after you graduate, the latter is less likely. Those six-people sessions are most likely made among fellow gamers, who are likely to find each other in a class, or perusing a bulletin board in a student union.
"Their age group usually involves a lot of what PC gamers are," says Keegan Gormley, whose Big City Gaming in downtown Eugene, Ore. offers constant system-linked gaming and monthly tournaments. "They're mostly college-age students who, in their spare time, enjoy playing a game like Counter-Strike, or another game they've played for a long time."
The players in his $5-an-hour "stadium," — eight consoles connected to high definition, Major League Gaming-standard panel monitors - are largely middle- and high-schoolers, Gormley said. Younger kids are less likely to LAN, he said, because of the accessibility of consoles and the desirability of their most current games.
"There's much more deep-rooting in PC gaming," Gormley said. "Someone who gets into a game on the PC can end up playing it for years," he said. "On consoles, I've seen people drop Halo for Call of Duty, then drop Call of Duty for Flashpoint. For PC gamers, mostly, it's whatever they originally clicked on and killed with."
And that helps explain the persistence of LAN gaming. The standbys of a LAN party are usually real-time strategy games such as StarCraft, or WarCraft III, then shooters such as Counter-Strike, Team Fortress 2 and Unreal Tournament. TF2 is the most recent of these, releasing in 2007, with others having roots going back to the late 1990s. There's a reason for this.
"It's what people are good at," said Patrick Chinn, one of the University of Oregon organizers for the Civil War LAN, which will be held Jan. 22-23. "One reason people want to play an older game like Counter-Strike is because they've played it a long time and they've gotten good at it. We've done tournaments for games that are brand new, and there'll be some attendance, but they're not as well played."
Plus, by this point, the support histories for the games have either controlled for or patched out of existence most means of cheating. "The tactics in a game like Counter Strike have become so refined that there's no real dick move you can pull," says Dylan Leeds, a senior majoring in digital art at Oregon. And for whatever in-game legislation doesn't cover, LAN gaming offers another control: Being physically in the presence of your opponent. It cuts down on ragequits and unsporting behavior.
"You're more likely to respect someone if you know you're going to see interact with them after the game," he said.
And that speaks to another quality of LAN gaming that, unlike its numbers, can't be replicated or really improved: the human contact of it all.
"If you're playing online by yourself, the hype's really not there," said Josh Bothun, an Oregon senior majoring in computer science and music technology. "It's like you have to intentionally create it for yourself, but you get a completely different experience when people are around you."
LAN parties have an anecdotal culture that just can't be replicated by solitary multiplayer gaming. Often stretching 24 hours or more, they're salted with tales of inside jokes and hyper-caffeination. At major tournaments in the civilian world, bragging about casemods and your rig are their own sideshow, similar to a custom-car show.
"It's more about community," says Gormley, the game store owner. "It's being able to shoulder-shove the person you just killed. It's less about yelling at someone over a mic, and more about actually giving that person the evil eye.
"It gets so elitist online, sometimes," he continued. "It seems like a lot of people don't want to play online console games because they don't get the game in its first week, don't level up their character in time, and then they feel like they can't compete."
It might be easy to assume that anything other than gaming over the Internet, as opposed to a LAN or WAN, is redundant, a relic, or headed for obscurity. But system-linked games bring something to the room that proprietary multiplayer services can't: One's friends.
To use an apt college metaphor: "It's like drinking online versus drinking with friends," Chinn said. "Drinking a couple of beers and IMing with friends is not nearly as much fun as actually drinking with your friends."