published Saturday, June 28th, 2014

Gamers blitz Chattanooga Convention Center this weekend in digital battle

From left, Blake Beck, Jake May, Mike Russo and Brittany Rodrigue play Halo 4 at a gaming convention put on by Iron Gaming in an attempt to create an NCAA-like gaming league to feed into a larger gaming league on Friday at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
From left, Blake Beck, Jake May, Mike Russo and Brittany Rodrigue play Halo 4 at a gaming convention put on by Iron Gaming in an attempt to create an NCAA-like gaming league to feed into a larger gaming league on Friday at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
Photo by Erin O. Smith.
  • photo
    Christian Veth concentrates on playing Halo 4 at a gaming convention put on by Iron Gaming in an attempt to create an NCAA-like gaming league to feed into a larger gaming league on Friday at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
    Photo by Erin O. Smith.
    enlarge photo

If you go:

What: Iron Games Season One: Chattanooga

Where: Chattanooga Convention Center

Who: Gamers of all skill levels

When: Saturday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.

How much: $10 to watch, $15 to compete

Why: Gamers will be ranked based on skill level and will be placed pitted against those with similar skill levels.

Source: Iron Gaming at irongames.org

Josh Rineheart, better known as Wah Wah Walley, steps quickly to the left as a salvo of accurate gunfire glances off his blue helmet.

"Flank purple, flank purple," he shouts to his teammates, who call themselves the Goatbusters. "Don't push, don't push."

A second three-round burst arcs toward Rineheart. He heaves a grenade around the corner, a last-ditch effort to avoid the bullet-ridden fate that befell one of his comrades.

Rineheart's foe is Brittany Rodrigue, a Rhode Island native with dyed-red hair, a floral shirt and a fast trigger finger. Rodrigue is a member of Uprising, a four-person unit that has trained for months in preparation for the battle being waged today in Chattanooga.

"Push it, push it," she growls. "On the right!"

Rineheart, Rodrigue and their respective teammates are locked in combat within the virtual realm of Halo 4, a first-person shooter developed by 343 Industries for Microsoft's Xbox 360 console. The Halo franchise has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, generating billions for Microsoft and goading thousands of players into the world of professional gaming.

There's $2,000 in prize money at stake here for whoever comes out on top in this month's Halo 4 tournament in Chattanooga, with thousands of dollars more in store for the winners of a handful of other matches, featuring games like Titanfall and Call of Duty.

High above the Halo where competitors are seated in a row at center stage, a $1.2 million LED display stretches across 25 feet of the Chattanooga Convention Center and plays high-definition snippets of the action to the assembled spectators. Dozens of other gamers are spread out across the floor, plugged into 80 gaming consoles and 60 Alienware PCs.

Online, hundreds of viewers watch the live stream on Twitch.tv, a platform that allows gamers to watch each other compete live in a format similar to YouTube.

Welcome to the latest brainchild of Chattanooga entrepreneur Aaron Welch, founder of Quickcue and avid video gamer. It costs about $25,000 to put on a tournament like this in Chattanooga, complete with live commentary on each ongoing game streaming over the Internet through EPB's gigabit fiber.

Chattanooga is a natural fit for a videogame tournament, thanks to its high-speed heritage and easy accessibility for gamers all over the east cost. The Scenic City is the third stop on Welch's tournament tour across the U.S., which has also included stops in Toledo, Ohio and Atlanta.

The season finale at the Rooster Teeth Expo in Austin, Texas, will cost Welch $150,000, including a possible $10,000 prize for each game's winner. But thanks to sponsors who supply the PCs, consoles and other equipment in a bid to appeal to hardcore gamers, Welch stands to make money if attendance is high enough.

His company, Iron Gaming, has transformed from a downtown storefront for gamers to play each other into a traveling tournament with thousands of attendees across the country competing for prize money and international recognition.

Welch supplies the screens, machines, the pageantry and the technology that hold it all together. Gamers bring $10 to watch, $15 to play.

In return, Welch ranks each player using a new software program that he'll unveil in Austin on July 4, which will track players' play and certify them at one of five skill levels.

The gamers come from all over. Members of the Goatbusters hail from Maryland or Missouri, but they met online and practiced for a solid month before meeting in person in Chattanooga.

One of Rineheart's most high-profile teammates, onetime professional gamer Mike Russo, is easy to spot thanks to his distinctive panda bear hat and sports jersey adorned with sponsor advertisements. Though he lives in Orlando when he's not traveling the country to compete, the team has meshed so well that three of its members are preparing to move in together to create a "game house" in Rhode Island, once appropriate school arrangements have been made.

"It'll be great for us," Rodrigue said.

Behind the curtain that forms the backdrop for the fierce tournament action, Welch and his team of Iron Gaming pros are working with both hands to keep everything running smoothly.

Alex Kuhne, a production assistant for Iron Gaming, is trying to iron out the kinks with the company's broadcast equipment, while two other workers are managing what amounts to a miniature TV station. One gamer accidentally connected a console to the Internet, inadvertently updating that console's version of Call of Duty to one that's incompatible with the rest of the boxes.

That means that the team could be up most of the evening updating the rest of the consoles so they will run the latest build of the game, Kuhne said.

"Chattanooga is really the test run for the Rooster Teeth Expo," he said. "That's the season finale."

Back out front, the big screen broadcasts in vivid detail as Uprising ultimately falls to Rineheart and the Goatbusters, two games to one. But Rodrigue said afterward that though she may have lost the battle, she isn't giving up the fight. The games will continue today and Sunday until a winner is crowned.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or esmith@timesfreepress.com with tips and documents.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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