Meet the new queens of the ''Halo'' tourney. The PMS Clan, laser-toting lasses, aim to take videogaming to the next level

With its family restaurants and cheesy Southwestern decor, the sprawling Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine seems more suited to Christian revelers and bridal parties than the 3,000-plus videogame junkies in town for this year’s Cyberathlete Professional League Summer Championships. Rather than roam the glass-domed Lone Star Atrium or visit the Old Hickory Wine Shoppe, most of the shaggy, underage registrees quickly retire to their rooms to practice Painkiller and run Counter-Strike strats. Others opt to spend all night in the Longhorn Exhibit Hall among the hanging Intel banners and ”Will Frag for Sex” T-shirts nodding off at their keyboards.

A bubbly blonde takes a break from strafing to celebrate with Johnathan ”Fatal1ty” Wendel — the Michael Jordan of professional gaming — in one of the hotel’s themed bars. Unlike her drinking partner, Amber Dalton doesn’t have a string of CPL victories, her own line of gaming products, or corporate partners like Creative paying her way. But this spring, when MTV invited her on a half-hour special to demonstrate the upcoming Xbox 360 gaming console, even Elijah Wood wanted to meet her. As the leader and cofounder of the PMS Clan, the world’s largest all-female gaming squad, the 29-year-old Dalton is a celebrity among hardcore competitive gamers.

”They treated us like rock stars,” she tells Wendel over cocktails. ”Wilmer Valderrama was like, ‘You’re not a gamer. You’re too hot to be a gamer.”’

Dalton drove in from San Antonio earlier today to lead ”her girls” in the CPL’s first ever Halo 2 tournament, where four-person teams face off on giant flat-screen monitors. Neither of Dalton’s two teams is favored to win. And even if they did, the $3,000 prize for Halo 2 champions is minimal compared with the larger rewards for more established PC games. Nevertheless, the PMS Clan’s mere presence is met with much buzz by the 95 percent male conventioneers. There are girls here — at a videogame tournament!

The lanky boys in long shorts and logo tees eagerly peer over one another’s shoulders in admiration and disbelief as women wage digital warfare. What they don’t realize is that these women are more than just eye candy. Their arrival means that the world of gaming is growing up — and that the rules are about to change.

It’s not like women don’t play videogames. According to the Entertainment Software Association, women make up more than 40 percent of the estimated 150 million Americans who admit to playing games on either PCs or consoles like Xbox and PlayStation 2. And as online gaming becomes increasingly popular, the number of female participants grows as well. But while 44 percent of online game players are female, you’re more likely to find those women looking over a hand of cribbage than lobbing a plasma grenade into a Halo melee. ”The vast majority of women who are playing games online are playing casual games,” says ESA senior vice president Carolyn Rauch, ”whether they’re downloadable Shockwave games or card, board, or puzzle games.”

Sports emulators, multiplayer role-players, and first-person shoot-’em-ups like the ones featured at this CPL event have been male-dominated arenas. Take Halo 2, the best-selling title that’s become an online sensation for Xbox Live, a sophisticated online network for connecting players around the world. For all its strengths as an immersive single-player experience, the game is even more popular as an online virtual battlefield for weapon-wielding, trash-talking dudes who jack into its cyberspace labyrinths with one intention: to ”frag” (shoot) and ”own” (conquer) all challengers.

Amber Dalton, though handy as hell with a battle rifle, is hardly the humiliate-your-opponent type. She’s so prim she skips over the sex scenes in romance novels; so self-conscious she’d rather borrow a friend’s contacts than wear unflattering glasses to a match. Yet thanks to her upbringing — she was raised with three sisters close in age, including her brash, outspoken twin, Amy Brady — she’s also fiercely competitive. The twins were no strangers to videogames, having been weaned on such ancient classics as Centipede and Pac-Man. But like most women, it was the men in their lives who got them reacquainted with gaming. ”It was my sister’s husband’s Xbox,” remembers Dalton. ”She brought it home for his birthday. First day he was at work, I was over at his house. We played for four days straight.”