At the core of a live video-game competition is an intense contrast: the digital world in which victories and defeats accumulate, clashing with the analog world of spectator sport. For a child of the 1980s, such as myself, the climactic scene of The Wizard is the urtext for such events. And the criticisms levied at the film are no less pertinent to video-game competitions of today: Is watching people (most of whom you probably don’t know) play games against each other something to scream and wave your arms at? And can such an event amount to anything more than a multimedia commercial for the game itself?
Walking through the Chelsea neighborhood of downtown Manhattan, I come across a swath of camo-clad pedestrians emerging from a dimly lit building, or really, a wall of sound, reaching for cigarettes and fried root vegetables. This is the site of Big Buck Hunter’s Fifth-Annual Big Buck World Championship. A two-day-long event, I come to cover the second-annual Ladies’ Tournament portion of the proceedings.
Big Buck Hunter, born in 2000, is a shooting game that can be seen as an evolved offspring of one of the grizzled patriarchs of console gaming, Duck Hunt. The object of the game barely needs mention: Don’t shoot the cows, or the does, or the female incarnations of any animal. Shoot everything else. Though console gaming is king these days, the arcade version of BBH outguns the Wii and the cell phone versions, thanks to BBH’s symbiotic relationship with bar culture, where it’s a mainstay. (Aaron Matteson has given this phenomenon a more in-depth look on this site).
Thus what I find behind the glass doors of the Altman Building isn’t a surprise. The building’s 10,000-foot ground floor space has been converted to pupil-dilating pastiche: part bar, part shrine to hunting, part arcade, and part branding bazaar – not to mention swilling classics from the likes of Journey and Queens of Stone Age blasting overhead. Free-play Big Buck HD cabinets (the newest incarnation of the game, and the one which the competition is being held on) are perimetered with wood planks and adorned with taxidermied critters. Rows of imbibers perched on pub tables are flanked with lush, projected Big Buck environments; one can imagine many of them gazing upon the screens and reaching for plastic rifles that weren’t there. A free-play arcade with more varied offerings is tucked into the back, along with a VIP room that has the anachronistic attribute of cushioned seating. Up front is a kiosk selling all imaginable types of Big Buck memorabilia; from the “I [icon of a buck] NY” cozies clinging to beers all around the joint, to a T-shirt featuring the silhouette of a man committing the cardinal sin of BBH, captioned “D’OE!”
The mix of people is equally striking: I’m told there are large numbers of players hailing from the hunting-rich states of Michigan and Wisconsin, along with a devoted urban hipster set, biker leather, bandanas, a dollop of Southern twang, and even representatives of a significant cult following in Australia. The lighting is low, and the stimulation high.
Needless to say, as far as competition etiquette goes, Wimbledon this is not. (When you suggest drinking games tied to your product on your website, as BBH does, you are highly aware of the behavior patterns of your clientele.)
The overall effect is one both of general excitement and general confusion. I saunter over to the free-play machines, where a leather-jacket-clad young woman pulls up after nailing a buck square in the heart, asking if the garbled emcee voice had just called her name. When she doesn’t receive a satisfactory answer, she hands the gun over to a member of her posse (many of the contestants have one of these) and rushes over to the championship machines. Over there, said emcee is bravely narrating the progression of the 64-round tourney to a gathered crowd that is perpetually in flux, many of them gravitating back towards the open arcade, or to their own conversations, and in all cases towards the bar area: a long, wooden, well-staffed counter flowing with libations.
Those not fluent in Big Buck who are watching the championship competition have a few things working against them: first off, it’s often hard to know who is winning a certain stage of the game until it is complete (this is due to point modifiers based on what part of the body the animal is shot in, from what distance, and various other bonuses based on marksmanship and shooting streaks). This is somewhat offset by the distinguishing blotches of color that bloom whenever a bullet hits its target; if the lady you’re rooting for who has the green gun, and you’re seeing a lot of green, that will get you clapping your hands. In closer games, the people that are making noise are aficionados. This isn’t to say it isn’t interesting to watch, because it is; the game has a brisk pace, and has a way of automatically activating that gamer-empathy part of the brain where you can’t help but bull’s-eye with your mind. Like the other elements of the scene, though, this excitement is leavened with a degree of confusion, or at least uncertainty.
Another tension emerges when I consider the stakes of the gamers. The winner of the Ladies Tournament nabs a $5,000 check (endorsed by a mysterious benefactor named ‘Pappy’) — it’s real money that only augments the competitive spirit anybody who is participating in a championship event. After taking in a quarter-finals round, though, I’m struck by the losing player’s response; she turns to a posse member, says “That was so bad!” with a laugh, and heads to the bar. I wonder if the game remains simply a game to the participants, even when it’s suddenly framed as something more.
Nick Robbins, the 2011 World Champion, tells me that excessive gamesmanship is rarely practiced between players on tournament machines — something that is somewhat surprising to me, considering some of the macho underpinnings and loose-lipped tendencies the game and its culture suggest. He also laughs off the suggestion that, in the Big Buck Hunter world, he could be considered an athlete; he emphasizes the fact that he works in IT in Minneapolis, and that this just happened to be a game he got into playing when out for drinks with his buddies. (He has no interest in playing other games at the level he plays BBH at.) I get the sense that most players view the experience more as having fun and competing at a high level, as opposed to being a defining aspect of their personality.
When the finals roll around, the emcee lets forth a telling series of commands to the now-congealed crowd: “Pay attention! Yell! Scream! Drink!” The matchup is between Melinda Van Hoomissen — the #1 seed in the tournament and the #1 ranked woman in the world — and Sara Erlandson — the #2 seed and reigning champion of the inaugural Ladies Tournament held last year. The lion’s share of attendees congeal around the machine, and I find myself watching the enlarged screen situated on top of the actual cabinet for the first time of the evening. Watching two of the best competitors in any activity face off against each other is riveting, and this is certainly the case here; bucks are picked off through cow screens with aplomb, and bursts of color appear before my mind recognizes it as a potential target. Sara has just taken the first round of the finals when the emcee announces that there are technical difficulties with the machine; as both competitors sip beverages on the perimeter of the fray, the news comes around that the match would have to be restarted.
“At first when they told us that . . . I was hesitant to agree with that since I had won the first game fair and square,” Sara would tell me later. “But then I realized that ultimately Buck Hunter is a computer game and unexplained technical difficulties do occur. Throwing my drink in someone’s face wasn’t going to fix it, so I took it with a grain of salt and moved on.”
Turns out poise is a defining element of digital warriors, as well as analog ones. Unrattled, Sara continues her sharpshooting when the game resumes, winning the round and retaining the Ladies Championship title only she has ever held.
Sara, in addition to the check for five grand, gets her name engraved on The Jugs of Destiny — a trophy shaped exactly how you imagine it’s shaped. She accepts her award in the short camo-print dress she’s worn for the entire competition, which is a nod to the scantily-clad Big Buck Girls that smile and writhe throughout the game’s loading sections. Hoisting her award, she unites the two seemingly-contrasting images BBH offers of women: the huntress, or the entrants in this tourney, six of whom will also play in the next day’s World Championship; and the eye candy, or the high-hemlined vixens that also walk the Altman Building floor, as promotions workers for BBH. Sara tells me later that she is not bothered in the least by this contradiction: “Women have always played a hypersexualized role in gaming, so why not translate that to a bar arcade game in the hopes of attracting more players?” (The two promo workers I spoke to, on the reverse angle, told me they like the game but only play it occasionally; they readily admitted to being less than stellar at it.) She adds, “I think it’s worked out pretty good for them so far.”
Yes, there is a pervasive sense that all the hullabaloo is for the purpose of pushing the BBH brand, and that this purpose is being acted on from the merchandise salesman (one of whom also creates digital environments for the game) all the way up through the winners of the tournaments themselves. But I came to see that beneath all that, this event held the very noble purpose of bringing together a community of far-flung, passionate people. Sara describes the high-tier BBH players as “outstanding individuals [who are] are quite alike . . . in general we’re successful, hard workers with full-time jobs, and love to cut loose on the weekends.” I see them as the type of people you’d (not surprisingly) love to sit down and have a beer with; Nick Robbins, the 2011 champion, playfully taunted me about the importance of the wedding I had to attend in lieu of the 2012 main event. (He would only accept my excuse if a) it was my own wedding, or b) I would cut myself for whoever’s getting married.) I was told a story about a man from Australia who competed in 2011 but couldn’t qualify for this year’s tournament in his home country, because the new HD cabinet had yet to be released there; in response, he took a two-month vacation to the US in order to play enough to qualify, staying with friends around the country he had met through Big Buck. I was even told of a top male player who teared up when he introduced his girlfriend to one of the elite female sharpshooters. Comparing this event to a professional sports game, I found, is like comparing one’s high-school reunion to Prince William’s wedding; in doing so, one would be missing the point entirely.
As I prepare to leave the Altman Building, I reflect further upon my conversation with Nick. I had told him that I usually play a few rounds of BBH if I’m at a bar that has it, but tell him I’ve never done two-player, head-to-head. He, in turn, had told me that one-player is like “watching golf” (after confirming with me that, no, I do not enjoy watching golf). On my way out, I look over to the free-play machines to my right. Should I give it a whirl? I end up leaving without crossing the divide between spectator and gamer. Better that I find a buddy a little more on my level, knock a few down, and see if I can’t give myself a little something to cheer for.
About the Author:
Drew is the guy who comes over and demands you play Mario Tennis with him. He is also a playwright, couch-surfing traveler, and sometime Internet-writer for such conglomerates as MTV Networks and Village Voice Media.
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