Midnight Gaming Championship
Derek Anderson, left, of Los Alamos, N.M., competes against Ian Estes of Ogden in the Midnight Gaming Championships. Estes won the competition.

Like many cell phone users, he stumbled into one of the fastest growing segments of the video game industry. Unlike anyone else, it made him a national champion.

Sixteen-year-old Ian Estes of Ogden originally went to the local qualifiers for the Midnight Gaming Championship to compete in "Super Smash Bros." on the XBox 360. But after being eliminated early, he was given the chance to play "Fast & Furious Fugitive" on a cell phone, primarily because nobody else was playing it.

Minutes later, he had recorded the fastest time and won a trip to Dallas for the national finals. Eventually, he would work his way to the championship against one other player, which was played on the tournament's main stage and broadcast on a big screen behind him.

"It was really nerve-racking, and everyone was watching us," he said. "But we just went at it."

Estes would win and supplement his free trip with a $3,000 check that he said he is saving for bigger things.

Prior to the tournament, Estes had played very few cell phone games. Instead, he preferred console games, especially on the XBox 360.

"It was pretty tough, because I had never really played a cell phone game before then, and I didn't even know many people who did," he said. He was surprised to discover that the game, however, "was pretty intense."

Throughout the world, cell phone games have become hugely popular, especially in the Asian markets. But in the United States, cell phone games are only now being discovered, even as developers have started to offer much more sophisticated — and expensive — options.

On average, a cell phone game costs less than $10, and according to wireless market research firm The NPD Group, the most downloaded games continue to be relatively low-fi and inexpensive choices like "Tetris," "Bejeweled," and "Texas Hold 'Em Poker." But there are games that are based on console or computer games, such as "Age of Empires" and "The Sims," which can top $20 and require a more sophisticated (read: expensive) phone.

Rising prices will probably not discourage cell phone users from purchasing the games, especially as platforms like the iPhone, Windows Mobile and possibly the new open source Google phone become more common.

According to a report by technology research firm Gartner, worldwide revenue from mobile games will rise by 50 percent this year alone, with $4.3 billion in earnings. That includes $1.7 billion from the Southeast Asian markets, which is almost triple what is earned in America.

"Given the ubiquity of mobile phones in many markets and the ease of game-play, mobile gaming is expected to reach more of the global population than has been the case for traditional PC and console gaming," said Tuong Huy Nguyen, senior research analyst at Gartner. "This will catapult mobile gaming revenue beyond that from mobile TV and adult content, but we still expect it to lag behind mobile music, since music is a more familiar form of entertainment."

As for mobile gaming competitions, they will also continue to grow in popularity. Michelle Moore, a spokesperson for the Midnight Gaming Championship, said that next year's tournament will include more qualifying sites and gaming options.

"It was such a success, and we received great reviews," she said. "This was our first year taking it national, and we're planning it to make it even bigger. From our perspective, any chance for a gamer to compete and win prizes is a good opportunity."

E-mail: [email protected]