Gamers are psyched for the chance to play online and win real-world prizes

Online, Thresh could kick the digitized booty of all who crossed his path. Offline, however, Thresh’s real-life alter ego, Dennis Fong, was losing ground with a more formidable opponent: his parents. ”They were totally against me playing these games so often,” says the 20-year-old Berkeley, Calif., Web-game reviewer. ”But when I drove home in a Ferrari, that sold them.”

When someone scores a cherry red 328 GTS at a computer game tournament, it’s hard not to be convinced. Fong won the $50,000 exoticar this summer in a Quake contest: John Carmack, the game’s cocreator and co-owner of id Software, gave away one of his Ferraris as a payback to fans. Clearly, multiplayer games like Quake, which allow groups of players to compete against each other in real time over the Internet, are shooting for the stars. Until now, these often violent worlds have been the domain of an international subculture of gamers who live and die every day online. But with the impending release of Quake II and a slew of other multiplayer titles this holiday season, the question is, Are we ready to join them?

The $4 billion computer and videogame business is banking on it, according to Seema Williams, an analyst for Forrester, a new-media research firm. ”This is absolutely the industry’s big thing,” she says. ”Everyone is making everything multiplayer.”

The reason is primal: Instead of battling a predictable computer, gamers get to duke it out with feisty human beings. Once they purchase or download a game, players compete over a local computer network or an Internet gaming service. In Quake II, like the original, this means teleporting into a three- dimensional space station, where players hunt each other down with rocket launchers and railguns. Imagine virtual paintball — to the death.

The problem on the Internet is that these deaths are often painfully slow. Limited bandwidth and traffic foul-ups create a lag. At best, it’s only a fleeting interruption in the animated splatter and screams. At worst, it’s like acting in a badly dubbed Japanese horror flick.

Like any other sport, multiplayer games have inspired team competition. With names like the Undead Smurfs and Unholy Alliance, thousands of Quake ”clans” from Boise, Idaho, to Moscow compete regularly over the Internet. In New York City, an Internet radio show called Quakecast covers the clan matches. Quakecast cohost Stephen Heaslip, a.k.a. Blue, says members are so devoted that hundreds of thousands woke up in the wee hours of an October Sunday morning to download a demo of Quake II. ”Without a doubt,” he says, the full release of Quake II ”is the most anticipated gaming moment in history.”

What they’re really anticipating is the opportunity to splatter up to 200 players at a time (the original supported only 32, at best). Asked to describe the improvements in the new version, id spokesperson Barrett Alexander admits that this edition is similar to the first, ”except there are more people to kill.”