Years ago, before the world beat me down and left me a cynical shell of a man, I had dreams. I wanted to go places and do things. (What, you think I always wanted to become an alternative-weekly zombie?) But then I hit middle school, and I pretty much resigned myself to what I was sure would be a life of little money and menial employment (good guess, huh?). Sad, I know, but there it is.
Initially, I wanted to be a professional athlete. A baseball player. I was going to play shortstop for the Phillies. Except for one thing: I was awful. Detroit Tigers awful, or worse than that if there is such a thing. Early on, I abandoned the idea of baseball as a profession. I still played the sport, along with many others, but I stopped deluding myself about it leading to bigger and better things, mainly because my coaches would say things like, "Stop deluding yourself. You'll never go on to bigger and better things."
It was a hard thing for a kid to reconcile with at first, but there was always an escape that made me feel better: video games. In real life I was weak, but with a video-game controller in my hand I was a monster. I was especially good at sports games.
When there wasn't much going on (which was often, because neither I nor my buddies dated much before college), my boys and I would gather, order some pizzas and play Super Tecmo Bowl tournaments on Nintendo. (Later, when the games and the systems became more advanced, we graduated to John Madden tournaments on Sega Genesis or the original PlayStation.) I miss those days because, more often than not, I was crowned Super Ultimate Grand Champion of the World, the title bestowed upon the winner of the eight- or 16-man tourneys. My friends will tell you I won because I cheated, but they're just bitter because I punked 'em. Punk asses.
Sometime after college I stopped playing on the regular. These days I play now and then, maybe once a week--if that. I wish I played more. I wish I had never slowed down in the first place because I recently learned something that perhaps you already knew--there is money to be made playing video games. Gamers are everywhere, and so are the tournaments that placate their addictions.
I was kicking around the Internet when I stumbled upon a local outfit called "King of the Couch," an operation that organizes video-game tournaments in Dallas and Austin each month. Two friends, Chris Bowman and John Jinuntuya, started it three years ago, and it's been jamming ever since. The gatherings frequently attract in the neighborhood of 100 contestants to play Madden or NBA Live, and there have been a few that have reached nearly 300 participants. It's gotten big enough now that the duo is looking to expand to Washington, D.C., Denver, Houston and maybe Oklahoma City. The attraction? Well, the gamers play so often together that they're like a strange extended family, calling each other by their "handles," nicknames they use when playing video games--Booker T and Big Shaq, Q-Boy and Hitman and my personal favorite, Big Puddin'.
"We're all friends here," says Jinuntuya, 29, an ADT Security salesman by day. Bowman, 27, works for a railroad company. "But, like any sport, there's a lot of competition. We ask everyone to bring their own controllers. We learned that when, after the first few, we saw people throwing them. It can get heated."
And with good reason. The buy-ins for the Madden football tourneys are $45 for the All-Madden level (guys who are really, really good--known as having "stick," as in joystick) and $25 for the All-Pro level (supposedly casual players who are really ringers waiting to kick the asses of guys like me). A cool grand goes to the winner; $300 for second place; $100 for third and fourth, and free entry into the next tourney for places five through eight. Not bad, huh?
With dollar signs flashing in my eyes, and convinced I would win, I decided to play All-Pro in the last tourney, which was held at Don Pablo's in front of the Irving Mall. (Don Pablo's provided the arena, and GameStop hooked up the PlayStation2s and the games.) I'd heard that the guys who play at these things are crazy skilled, but how good could they really be, right? Still, just to loosen up a bit, I practiced the night before. The walk-through didn't go well. A friend came over to give me some human competition--always tougher than the computer. Unfortunately, my friend had never played before; plus my friend happened to be a girl, which was a lot like training for a marathon on the Marlboro Diet--a bad idea all around. (I mean, come on, everyone knows that girls can't play video games. They're good with dollies and Easy-Bake Ovens, but not video games...re-reading that last bit, I understand now why I dated so rarely before college.)
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A buddy of mine from the Dallas Observer, Matt, was supposed to play in the tourney. He didn't show. He called to tell me that he'd gotten lost, but I thought he was just making excuses. In retrospect, Matt's decision to stay away proved to be sound strategy. You can't get a black eye or a bloodied nose if you don't fight.
The first game I played in the double-elimination tournament was against a quiet guy wearing a Gonzaga hat. It started off well. I played the Titans; he played the Eagles. It pained me to play against my beloved Birds, but it didn't hurt nearly as bad as the outcome. I kicked off and tackled him on the one-yard line. I was feeling good...right up until he ran his first offensive play, which went 99 yards for a touchdown. It was downhill from there. He scored many, many points. I didn't. Thankfully there was a "skunk rule" in place (if either player is down by 28 points after the half, the game is mercifully called). Otherwise he could have beaten me by 100.
The second game pitted me against Charles, who reminded me of a softer Method Man--quick with the funny verbal insults/assaults, plus he had a mouthful of gold teeth. He played the Falcons; I went with the Eagles (if I was gonna lose, I was gonna lose with my boys). Charles was the polar opposite of the Gonzaga-hat guy in terms of temperament. Rather than win quietly, he let me hear about his success. Every time he scored--which was often--he made me watch the replay and listen to his commentary, which generally went something like this: "Oh, no, I didn't...Oh, no, I didn't...OH, YES, I DID!" It got so bad that I didn't even make it to the second half. With a minute remaining in the second quarter, and the score something like 150-7, I admitted defeat, tucked my tail between my legs and started toward the door. Charles watched me go, but I think he was upset.
"Come back, playa, come back," he hollered, sounding like a hipster version of the kid from Shane. "You gotta see this again. A one-handed interception! And I ran it back for a touchdown! Put that in your story! Oh, no, I didn't...OH, YES, I DID!"