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THE GAMING EXPERIENCE
A TRIO OF GAMERS HAVE GROWN A PASSION FOR VIDEO INTO A CYBERJOCKS PLAYGROUND

Think of Cyberjocks as a social club for geeks.

"A lot of people come here not just to play games but to socialize," said Aaron Kondziela of Cyberjocks, the computer gaming center on Sheridan Drive in Amherst. "There isn't a lot of opportunity for geeks to do things with people. Traditionally, geeks don't go to sporting events, hang out in malls and that kind of stuff. Here, they can play against and with other people."

That suits Christian Kranz, 23, just fine.

"Computer games are like cigarettes, you get addicted," said the University at Buffalo student. "You get so immersed in them that you get lost and play for hours without realizing it. Instead of spending all that time alone in a room with a computer, you go to Cyberjocks with human beings."

Because of the Internet connections, the gaming borders of Cyberjocks extends as far as its Web site at www.cyberjocks.com.

Teams of local gamers compete in tournaments with other teams across the country and the world. Also, the dark rooms with strobe lights, glistening monitors, techno game music and row after row of players, creates a distinct atmosphere, something akin to a disco/computer lab.

"I call it techno-frenzy; it's ambient cool," Kranz said. "Technology is changing all the time. For this generation getting together for an LAN party is like gathering with a bunch of friends for a fishing trip."

The non-geek translation of LAN (local area network) party is a group of computer players connecting to a main (computer) server for gaming. Everyday at Cyberjocks is kind of an LAN party. But Cyberjocks holds a designated LAN party every Friday night, from around 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. LAN parties originally began with people bringing their computer terminals (not laptops) to houses for all-night parties.

It was fun but can be a drag to lug around computer terminals and find a main server. So why not build a gaming center, where droves of geeks could play "Counter Strike," "Call of Duty," "Halo 2," "Painkiller," "Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-Earth" and "Worlds of Warcraft" to their hearts content?

Scott Turner, the founder of Cyberjocks, came up with that idea nearly a decade ago while inviting friends to play computer games in his basement. After opening a gaming center in Buffalo, Turner and his associates, Kondziela and Adam Randazzo, moved to Amherst about two years ago.

Today, Cyberjocks has an all-time high of 5,709 members who are registered as players. Their average age is 20. Each day about 50 to 200 gamers show up to play. The company employees eight people and it seems that Turner, 37; Randazzo, 24; and Kondziela, 28, never rest.

"Gaming is a lot of fun, but making it profitable as a business is hard work," Turner said.

That philosophy is the essential element of Cyberjocks' growth. The business is looking to expand, Randazzo said, and hopes to open a center in Florida in the next few months and another in Texas by the end of the year.

The Cyberjocks story is local example of combining technology and elbow grease to create a thriving business.

"People think all we do is play video games all day, but you have to approach this as a business," Randazzo said. "Since we opened, we hardly have time to play anymore."

Cyberjocks really took off when Turner hired Kondziela for technical help in the late '90s. He and Randazzo both worked on developing information systems and software for Adelphia Cable. Then they focused on building the technology infrastructure, information and building design for Cyberjocks in Amherst.

The project took years of planning and an investment of close to $300,000. The work is still going on. "It has been a long, ongoing process," Kondziela said. "We had to learn everything from scratch. We fell flat on our faces a number of times, but we kept getting back up."

One of the first steps was becoming parent friendly. Cyberjocks does not allow adult-rated games. Players under 17 must have signed permission slips from their parents.

"A lot of this stuff is so new that parents don't understand it," Randazzo said. "We have a responsibility to make parents feel their children will be safe. Parents have a right to know the kind of games available here."

What Cyberjocks sells is the gaming experience in a gaming environment. "People are starting to grasp the concept and it's getting bigger than ever," Randazzo said. "The look, the atmosphere and the face-to-face contact with other gamers are what makes this different than playing at home."

At this stage, the business challenge is "maintaining consistency," Kondziela said. "We don't want to do anything that will dilute Cyberjocks." That means keeping up with software, new games, technology and the gaming audience.

Expansion is another challenge. "We want to build our brand and operate franchises throughout the country," Kondziela added. "We think the model we have here will work in other cities. We can take care of the technology and the setup, we need someone to operate the business."

When asked to describe the Cyberjocks formula for success, Kondziela replied: "teamwork, strategic thinking, economics and a lot of laughs."

e-mail: aviolanti@buffnews.com