I'll take care of your kids!

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Inside, Mitchell apparently has just won another battle with mom. "Yes!" he shouts victoriously, shoving the cell phone back into Josh's shirt pocket. "We're in!"

On the linked computer monitors, Mitchell's masked Seal Team 6 player trains the barrel of his Sig 550 on an unsuspecting German GSG9 soldier as he punches down on his computer's mouse, unleashing a deadly 30-round stream of slugs into his enemy. "Take that, bee-yatch!" he cackles.

The PC room is the skater park of the pocket-protector clique, a true revenge of the nerds. Pulsing with the sound of digital gunfire and relentless techno music, and cast in the neon hues of glowing monitors and eerie black light, the PC room looks like a junior high computer lab as redesigned by MTV. This is not your mother's Internet cafe. This is what Vans would look like if only the computer geeks could beat up the skater boys.

Even the sodas the young gamers drink are an extreme version of the refreshments they sip while typing up their homework on the family Dell. One of the most popular drinks is a highly caffeinated 10-ounce bombshell called Bawls. Sold in a cool blue ribbed bottle and packed in a case featuring screen shots from PlayStation 2 games under the slogan "Grab Your Bawls and Run Like Hell," Bawls transforms the computer nerd's old standby cola fix into something cool and forbidding.

"Bawls really is high-octane Mountain Dew," says the Florida-based company's president, Hoby Buppert. "It's just packed with caffeine. About triple that of Coca-Cola. But it's easy to drink, particularly at these LAN parties that start on Friday afternoon and end on Sunday. If anything, you can drink more Bawls than you should, because it doesn't have that heavy flavor so you don't realize how much caffeine you're ingesting."

A group of four 10-to-13-year-old boys given a few free samples at a north central Phoenix PC room snicker at the borderline-naughty slogan on the box and take turns reading the caution label on the bottle, "Warning: This product contains high levels of Caffeine," each with a more menacing inflection. Bawls is like everything connected with the PC room culture: It gives a cool and dangerous edge to something that would normally be considered pretty geeky.

Buppert believes the image makeover is long overdue. "People have this belief that computer gamers are all these pimply-faced 15-year-olds," he says. "And yeah, there are a lot of those guys playing, but computer gaming is much bigger than that now. It's bigger than most extreme sports. When people think extreme sports, they think snowboarding, or skateboarding, or surfing, or whatever. But computer gaming is bigger than all those."

CompUSA knows it. The nation's leading retailer of personal-computer-related products recently signed on as a sponsor of the Cyberathlete Professional League. CPL is an online tournament league with more than 90,000 registered gamers who compete in 25 different gaming divisions, playing games such as Counter-Strike, Battlefield 1942 and Unreal for online rankings -- and for cash at gargantuan LAN parties. The CPL Summer 2003 Event, scheduled to be held at the Hyatt Regency in Dallas on the last weekend in July, will feature the world's largest Counter-Strike World Championship with a take-home purse of $200,000. Spectator passes are already being sold for $20 per person.

"You can actually make a living at it, if you're good enough," says Lock Langdon, 23-year-old founder of LanCamp, the clan acknowledged by most local gamers as the city's largest with 50 registered members. "This guy who goes by the name Thresh pulled down, like, $55,000 gaming last year -- and he's only 20 or something."

No joke: Some of these geeks have already become sports stars. Johnathan Wendel, a hard-core gamer better known by his "call tag" (gaming screen name) Fatal1ty, was featured in March on an episode of MTV's True Life, which followed the then-21-year-old Kansas City gamer through practice, travel and competition in an Unreal Tournament championship, where Wendel ultimately took home the $10,000 first prize. Wendel is now the Tony Hawk of the Pentium crunchers, a professional gamer with his own company, Fatal1ty Inc., lucrative sponsorship deals and that rarest of all things in the PC gaming world: chicks.

Haters on gamers' message boards have flamed Wendel for bringing his girlfriend along on LAN tournaments as what they call "a lucky charm." The truth is, a lot of the diehards in the male-dominated PC gaming world would rather not have girls around while they're fragging counterterrorists or fiddling about in Starcraft spawning their Zergs.

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern