Playing 'Wolfenstein' in Tripoli

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How video games are helping integrate Libyans back into the international community

RTR2Q7DJ-615.jpgPaul Hackett/Reuters

Last October, as Libya's congress was throwing out the then-prime minister-elect and the hunt continued for the killers of the American ambassador, around five dozen young men filed into a Tripoli theater for the country's first-ever open national qualifier tournament for the Electronic Sports World Cup (ESWC).

On the stage were four tables, each with a monitor and a Sony PlayStation. To one side stood a whiteboard with four charts like genealogical trees to organize matches. Six young men in dark jeans and black polo shirts were hurriedly setting everything up; it was the first time they had done anything like this, and they were behind schedule. A splitter cable had gone missing. The young men's shirts had the word "TESCA" -- which stands for Tripoli Electronic Sports Clubs Association -- written in silver-white on the right breast. One of them tested the microphone: "Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim" -- "In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate."

When one of the new guys discovered that Counterstrike was unavailable, he threw a tantrum. 'It says "tournament" and there's no Counterstrike?'

There are many ways to help bring countries like Libya out of isolation: trade, educational exchanges, and tourism, for example. There is the world of fine arts. And there is competitive online gaming. This notion is being pushed by two young Libyan gamers named Alameen A. Layas and Hassan Drebika, who founded TESCA and organized the tournament. "Most young people here don't have the opportunity to interact with other nationalities," says Layas, who is also a medical student. "Gaming can be a bridge."

He spent his boyhood in Tours, France, where his father was studying surgery, before returning to Libya when he was 12. He taught himself how to use a computer and began frequenting cybercafés. In time he became adept at games including Half-Life, Counterstrike, Soldier of Fortune, Wolfenstein, Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Quake, Doom, and World of Warcraft.

"Each café had a team, and they played one another at weekends," he says. "There were skilled players. But what they didn't realize was that, in Europe and America, gaming had been taken to the professional level."

In 2007, a Libyan expat in Greece -- whose name Layas and Drebika say they don't know -- arranged for Libyan gamers to compete in the ESWC. Invite-only qualifier matches were held in Tripoli, and Drebika was among those selected. Then the Libyans went to France and got clobbered. Their opponents were seasoned competitors, and many had sponsors, Drebika says. "They had much better internet connections in their countries, and much more experience. After what happened in France, I thought, 'We need to be a part of this'."

Around that time, Drebika met Layas and they started thinking about new ways to organize gaming in Libya. The government mouthed interest, but nothing came of it. Restrictions on associations suffocated hope for a national league. Only after Qaddafi was toppled in August 2011 could they start working.

There are a half-dozen or so big international gaming tournaments held regularly around the world. The ESWC, founded in 2003, is one of the biggest. Last fall, Layas and Drebika got approval from ESWC for Libyan players to compete in two games at the November 2012 competition: FIFA 13, a soccer game, and Starcraft II, a futuristic strategy game set in outer space. To choose contestants, they organized last October's qualifier matches in Tripoli.

Layas took the microphone, and the theater quieted. The angled glare of stage lights caught his slender form as he thanked everyone and explained the rules. Then play commenced. Before long, some new gamers appeared in the parking lot. They were looking for Counterstrike. Counterstrike is a popular first-person shooter game -- or FPS, in gamer lingo -- a genre of game that consists of charging around and blasting your opponents. It features in most tournaments, including the ESWC.

When one of the new guys discovered that Counterstrike was unavailable, he threw a tantrum. "It says right here, 'ESWC'," he yelled, waving a flyer for the qualifier tournament under Layas' nose. He had very short hair and muscly gorilla arms. "It says 'tournament' and there's no Counterstrike?"

Layas also snapped. "I've worked a year on this," he cried. "I've spent my own money!"

In reply, the Counterstriker leaned forward in a half-squat, held the flyer up, and slowly, deliberately tore it in half.

The ESWC hadn't approved Libyan players for Counterstrike. And it wouldn't have made sense. Gameplay moves fast, and even a split-second of lag can get you killed. Libyan Counterstrikers have trouble training online, unlike gamers in countries with fast internet. According to Saad Ksheer, the head of Libya's state telecoms company, most internet still passes through aging phone networks. Security problems and bureaucracy mean a wait of up to several years to expand wireless networks and lay fiber-optic cable.

Libyan gamers hope it will be sooner. At the Tripoli tournament, two of them qualified in FIFA for the ESWC: Hamza Mhani, from Tripoli, and Khalid Gheriany, from Benghazi. They waived a final face-off.

"It's not important," Mhani said. "We didn't play this to win. We played it to choose players to honor Libya." He is soft-spoken and unassuming. As the revolt spread in 2011, he became an anti-regime activist. Police arrested his father, which forced Mhani to surrender himself in exchange. He spent a month in jail before he was freed in the fall of Tripoli.

Mhani paused and clenched his hands together, then said, "I want to say that I'm not necessarily the best player in Libya. I'm not the best. Maybe luck was with me."

This past November, Mhani and Gheriany traveled to Paris along with Husien Zawi and Husam Elhaj Yousef, who qualified in Starcraft II, accompanied Layas, Drebika, and one or two other TESCA organizers. Images popped onto TESCA's Facebook page: the group in an airport; the tournament hall; gamers hunched over their consoles; handshakes after a match; hands clutching trophies. The Libyan players were all defeated, but their faces are smiling. From the start, there had been a feeling among them that simply to compete was to triumph.

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John Thorne, an American journalist based in Tunis, has covered North Africa since 2006.

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