Mongolia is not a country known for its football prowess. But 19-year-old Lkhagvasuren Byambasuren aims to win glory in the football world for his beloved mountainous nation.
He's been enlisted by his country to compete for a medal at the Second Asian Indoor Games (www.maigoc2007.com), an international multi-event sporting competition that includes hockey, swimming and cycling.
Byambasuren aims to win gold. He admits Mongolia hasn't been very good in the past, but that was on the football pitch. He, on the other hand, seeks national glory elsewhere: through the popular video game "FIFA 2007." That's because this year, for the first time, the Games will include an "electronic sports" category.
At a testing event in August, Byambasuren won gold, so he can lay some claim to being a front-runner. "I play for my country because the Mongolian real-life soccer team is not very successful," says Byambasuren. "I want to be the best player in Asia, or even in the world."
His ambition will surprise nobody who's been to Game Arena, an Internet café in Mongolia's frigid capital city Ulaanbaatar. This is where the nation's best video game players tend to congregate. Among them are Mongolia's two other representatives for the Games: 18-year-old Ganzorig Batbold, who will compete in the car-racing game "Need for Speed: Most Wanted," and 23-year-old Bilguun Chimedregzen, who aims for glory at "NBA Live 07." All three emerged victorious in national competitions held to find the best players.
This dream team will face formidable competition, though. Tsogt Sharavrentsen, the overseas manager of Mongolia's national e-sports program, is most concerned about competition from China and South Korea. Those players, he says, receive better training and are well-supported by both sponsors and their governments.
"In Mongolia it's very difficult because nobody understands e-sports," he says. "They think it's like a game."
The Olympic Council of Asia couldn't disagree more. A few years ago at a board meeting in Kuwait, it decided video games were serious enough to include in the event.
Video games require "a lot of careful thinking and reactions," explains Eric Chau, communications director for the Games organizing committee. Players might not display any physical skills, he says, but they must "apply a lot of techniques and mental abilities to win."
Of course, video game contests are not uncommon -- especially in Asia. Channel-surf in Seoul, for example, and you'll likely stumble upon video game action, complete with breathless commentators, on-screen maneuvering and close-ups of players' intent faces.
But it's rare for video games to be included as part of a multi-sport event -- Chau says it's the first time, as far as he knows -- and to be recognized by a sports governing body as weighty as the OCA. The council, recognized by the International Olympic Committee, includes the National Olympic Committees of 40-plus nations (http://tinyurl.com/ysleex).
So far, nine nations have signed up for the e-sports event. Others include India, Iran and Kyrgyzstan. (The Games are held October 26 to November 3.)
The OCA decided that the video games chosen should be versions of real sports. This criteria -- and a marketing tie-up -- led to the choices being "FIFA 07," "NBA Live 07" and "Need for Speed: Most Wanted." All the titles are from California-based game publisher Electronic Arts. The company's marketing muscle was a factor in the decision, Chau says, as was the popularity of the games themselves.
More important, he says, is what the event means for video games. "This is a very important moment. We are witnessing the development of e-sports. Its development has reached a different level than being merely a game to play with."
Inclusion of video games in the international Olympics might be unlikely -- at least any time soon. But at least the Asian event allows patriotic players such as Mongolia's dream team to bring glory to their nation.
"I want to win a gold medal," says Chimedregzen. Despite six years of playing NBA Live, though, he admits he'll need a lot more practice to win it. "I want to represent Mongolia through this game."