EDITOR’S NOTE: Return with us to sunny Los Angeles, Calif., where Steven “Surprise” Uray picks up his tale of adventure at the World Cyber Games U.S. national final. When we left off, our hero was heading into battle, readying for his first match. Will he reach his dreams? Or will they be brutally crushed beneath the mouse-clicks of the world-class competition that awaits? There’s also more of Surprise’s astute and touching observations on gamers and the gaming culture they perpetuate. Readers, you may recognize yourself in the characters he describes. – Corkscrewblow
I began walking toward the convention center after breakfast. I remember it was a cool and cloudy morning and the walk from the hotel felt refreshing. I didn’t make it very far before I heard somebody yelling my name. I turned around to see my roommate, Judgepowr, eating at Starbucks with a few new kids, including Zero, Kifire and Sharp. They invited me to join them and, unable to think of a polite way to decline, I sat down.
Zero, a fresh-faced 16-year-old, introduced himself to me. He was tall, with black hair and blue eyes and he was the only gamer I met who seemed neither too skinny or too fat. He was from a rich family in North Carolina and also lived in England for 14 years. He talked excitedly about everything and gave off a very energetic vibe. There was a striking innocence about him that stood out above all his other personality traits. He had lived a sheltered life and didn’t really know much about the real world other than the little glimpses he’d seen of of Los Angeles. His combination of enthusiasm, curiosity, and naivety will doom him to be ripped off by somebody or another down his road, but his innate intelligence will only let it happen once.
Kifire was a short, talkative Jewish kid with glass. I wasn’t sure how well he was going to get along with Khufu and Sharp, considering they had been calling him a dirty Jew online for months, but evidently this didn’t carry over to their real-life meeting. We all walked down to the convention center early, hoping to get in some practice before the competition, but the expo was closed until 10 a.m., meaning we had to sit in a line for an hour and a half. Everybody else from C&C had met up with us by then, and we moved into the expo as one large group.
Sharp was one of my training partners for the game and somebody I figured I would be spending a lot of time with during the trip. He was known for talking shit to everybody except his select group of friends online, and I was curious to see how well he would get along with people when he had to deal with them face to face. He turned out to be a pretty shy Italian guy that perpetually wore sneakers and gym shorts. He looked ready to play, and I didn’t doubt for a second that he was going to do well in the tournament. His father, who worked for the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), had come along with him to the tournament, which naturally made me and Lazerflip a little nervous.
As we were entering the convention hall, the sound of bagpipes drifted into the cavernous room. Sure enough, four men dressed in Irish garb, playing the bagpipes, drums and horns were advancing toward the entrance. This was my first cue that the people who ran the expo held us all in serious contempt. Apparently the organizers thought that gamers would actually appreciate this and to my horror, a number of people were applauding loudly and cheering them on. No one seemed to be asking the question that was begging to be asked: what do Irish bagpipers and drummers have to do with video games?
Finally, we passed through the doors and I was met with an impressive barrage of noise and light. For as far as I could see, I was surrounded by booths, each promoting a certain game or gaming product. The attention-grabbing gimmicks employed at each booth ranged from the cool, like world record holder Steve Wiebe playing Donkey Kong, to the lewd — girls in very short skirts and tops trying to promote a game called Combat Arms — to the demeaning: some company trying to sell packets of trail mix called “Gamer Grub.”
It was as if the people behind “Gamer Grub” wanted you to think gamers needed a special kind of food. This was yet another shallow attempt to exploit gamers. The more I looked around, the more of this barely-concealed exploitation I saw. A busty blonde in her 20s was dressed as a sorceress – complete with a bikini — and gamers were lining up to try the energy drink she was selling just so they could make crappy attempts to flirt with her. Popularly known as booth babes, these smiling young women were clearly the weapon of choice for marketers at the tournament.
Our group fought its way through the walls of salesmen toward the back, where WCG had set up the competition space. I saw around 40 computers lined up along tables. Glossy black Samsung monitors were paired with red-and-gray Dell XPS laptops. Everything looked very organized, with cans of Dustoff placed neatly next to every station.
I began mentally preparing for my first opponent, Relativit. He was a very skinny Asian kid with dark hair, who sat hunched over his computer, staring at his monitor intently, his eyes literally four inches from the screen. I kept trying to make eye contact with him and talk with him a bit, but the more I looked in his eyes the harder he tried to look away; this got worse and worse until he wouldn’t even look in my general direction.
I didn’t want to be cruel and stopped, because at one point in my life, I had almost been like him. I knew what that felt like. When not playing the game, Relativit would put his head between his arms and close his eyes, withdrawing into himself and away from the world, presumably because he was afraid of being judged. It was too late for that, of course. He hadn’t learned a lesson that I learned long ago, which is that nobody can escape the judgment of others. I saw in Relativit an earlier version of myself, even though he’s older than I am now.Deep down, I sensed that he was a very nice person, a guy who handled his in-game skills better than Khufu or Sharp and never came off as arrogant as they did.
Almost half the keys were missing from Relativit’s keyboard, leaving the remaining keys set in a pattern that made sense only to him. He was rumored to have no job and didn’t attend school; apparently he sat at home playing the game all day long. When we played online, he usually destroyed me, but I’d practiced very hard and believed I had it in me to beat him. After meeting him in person, he looked so harmless that I remember thinking to myself, “I haven’t come this far to get beat by anybody like him.”
I decided on an aggressive play style, figuring that the intense environment, combined with the pressure Relativit had put on himself, would make him snap with a slight push from me. After setting up, I played a few warm-up games with Lazerflip. I was doing well initially, though I still felt off from drinking the night before. I wasn’t able to think clearly or move as fast as I wanted. The whole environment was throwing me off and it felt like I was playing an entirely different game from the one I practicing to play.
I was desperately trying to fight through all the mental fog and get back to the game I had understood so clearly just days before. When the time came for me to face Relativit, I had beaten Lazerflip enough times in casual play that I hadthe illusion of being ready to fight Relativit.
Unfortunately, I was way off. I lost 2-0 to Relativit, but I told myself this wasn’t a huge problem because he was my toughest opponent and I was still in the tournament, I just had to fight my way back. After beating me, Relativit furiously jammed the keys on his keyboard in what we were to later learn was some kind of victory signature or celebration. When he finally lost a match, he would return to his shell, not talking to anybody or even looking in anyone’s direction. After beating me, he walked over and I heard his voice for the first time, when he said “good game.”
The real match was next: I needed to beat Lazerflip to stay in the tournament. I was confident I could win, but a little shaken that I couldn’t even get in one win against Relativit. I tried to focus, but it was almost impossible. Somehow, at this crucial moment, all the noise and chaos of the convention hall was getting to me. Nearby, an announcer stood on the WCG stage, throwing away free gear to the crowd of gamers below. He made them chant “WCG!” as loudly as possible before he would toss the freebies to them. It was disgusting to how easily people gave up their dignity once the freebies were airborne. People pushed, pulled and jumped over each other for the smallest of prizes; in this case it was mostly packets of stale Gamer Grub.
All this ruckus seemed to converge on me, and I felt it impossible for me to concentrate and be creative in my play. I found myself slowing going through the motions, running through build orders and pumping out units as if I were on autopilot. I lost 2-0 to Lazerflip and knew my WCG was over.
I played some other games to determine my placing in my group, but I was uninspired and only won one game against lower-level players whom I normally ate alive. By the end of my games, I was completely broken and could barely keep it together. I closed my eyes and tried to rally myself to pack up my gear and make it to the door. I made a heroic effort, but it wasn’t happening. Every second I stayed there, I got closer to breaking down. A friendly referee I met earlier saw me lose and gave me a pat on the back. “At least you got to come here for free,” he said. This just proved how little he understood about why I and most of my competitors had come. I came to win, to prove to myself that I could succeed at something if I actually, really tried at it.
I packed up, seeing everything through hot, watery eyes, completely apathetic to everything and everyone. I ignored everyone’s attempts to talk to me and finally got everything in my backpack. I figured I would pick up the pieces with everybody later. I made for the nearest exit with my head down, just trying to keep the emotions from pouring out until I got through the exit.
Outside, I broke down in the loading dock behind the convention center. I was glad it was completely abandoned. Having invested so much time and effort into the game, knowing I had the potential to win, then getting dead last, felt like a horribly cruel joke. I’d been through some hard times and figured life owed me a win now. I started feeling truly depressed again for the first time in years; it was a cold sadness mixed with a strong apathy for life. I stood behind a wall, watching traffic flow through downtown LA, trying to accept my loss. I don’t remember exactly how long I was out there, but I remember my goal was simply to get back enough control to look normal to all my friends, who were by now starting to worry about where I’d gone.