Let me speak from experience – the “Wouldn’t it Be Funny” flights of fancy I entertain in my life have are awfully good at transforming into the “I Can’t Believe I’m About To”s of harsh reality. I’m referring to hearing about and subsequently deciding to compete in the World Series of Video Games.
The first time I’ve ever played Guitar Hero competitively, Brandon accompanied me. It was a small competition Victor tipped me off to at the USC Game Pipe, tucked high up and filled with engineering nerds. It was a standard face off/highest score advances deal, where I managed to walk away with first place and a good $130 worth of computer goods. Afterwards, Brandon, with his usual life loving guffaw slapped me on the back and told me “You ssssssmoked them!”
So not quite sure to think, I consulted Roadie Brandon, who has had his share of ridiculous things he’s done, everything from sneaking into Britney Spears’ backyard to plotting high revenge against Ryan Seacrest (it’s this kind of tenacity that got him the roadie position in the first place, I’d imagine).
“The only reason I’m even considering this, that I remotely think I have a chance against some of these guys is because they’re judging a lot based on showmanship,” I confessed to Brandon. He psshawed me: “You’ll do great.” He basically said that not only would he front a significant amount of the money, he’d put his roadie reputation on the line, and moreover, threatened if I didn’t do it, I’d be regretting it for the rest of my life. The guy has a lot of confidence in my ability to play this particular video game.
So I called Logan: “Logan, what do you think – should I go play Guitar Hero competitively?”
“Can you guess how I will tell you to decide this?” he asked, expectantly.
I thought for a moment. “Rent… The Wizard?”
“Exactly. Rent it and watch it until the last scene and then ask yourself: Do I want to be Fred Savage? Or better yet – get a group of your most trusted peers together and screen the Wizard for them, and during the last scene sort of offhandedly say ‘Hey, these kids are cool right?’ and see their response!”
He added darkly: “You know most people who do this kind of thing don’t go on in their careers in entertainment, except for Arnold Schwarzenegger.” After a pregnant pause, he concluded, “Now might be a good time to start using Freddy with a ‘y.’”
After calling a close circle of friends, and getting offered stake money from those with genuine faith in my abilities, it was clear that, shit, I might as well do it, even if just so I could say to my kids that one summer I played a video game competitively. While I was at it, I might as well start running and doing rock jumps, if just to add “…and I trained for it physically” to the previous statement.
I incurred a substantial risk in going – I would either prove all the haters right, or bring great shame to the Wong family. It is basically a LOSE-LOSE proposition. I started practicing moves, new crazy moves, impossible on real guitar, moves that would hopefully sway the judges towards my bombastic nature.
About three days into the practicing, I had a dawning realization – I’ve crossed the line: I’m a cyber athlete. I’m training to play a video game. Whatever shards of dignity I had pre-YYZ vid are now totally obliterated. There’s no turning back – only onwards marching into ignoble rock stardom.
I searched for “Eye of the Tiger” for my iPod to try and pump myself up, but all I got was the remix by DMX and Ice Cube, which really isn’t the same.
There are two kinds of nervous energy – the kind where you’re scared because you’re inadequately prepared, and the kind where you’re just anxious because you want to get something over with. The second kind is the kind keeping me up the night before my flight into Dallas, and of the two, it’s the better one to be keeping you up.
I got a fitful 3 hours of sleep post 4th of July and drove to the airport. Jimmy, as I got out and gave him the Wong Pound, offered only “just rock the hell out of them” and away I went.
I was stuck checking in behind a guy. Let me… describe him from the feet upwards. Teva sandals, standard northwest fare, then socks pulled up mid calf. Then REI shorts. A bright blue fanny pack where he had all his flight info. A backpack. Halfway up the backpack began the blonde ponytail which led me up to a tiny head and a shrill nasally voice. “I’m… sorry” he tried to explain to a ever more frustrated woman behind the counter “It won’t let me check in.”
“What time’s your flight?”
“Uh… 8:35 I think I’m going to Chicago then to Florida.” He sheepishly added, almost low enough so I couldn’t hear it, “I’m kind of excited it’s the first vacation I’m taking since I graduated from college.” If you could hear it, the eye rolls that followed from people around him probably sounded like a busy bowling alley.
After some consultation, she asked “Are you sure it isn’t with an affiliate airline, like American? They’re the only other ones who run a Chicago flight.”
He looked crestfallen. “Ohhh you’re right! I even… I even REMINDED MYSELF that I had to check in with them,” proving this point by pulling out a slip of paper from his bright fanny pack.
He stepped back, and I SWEAR TO GOD affected a deeper voice, pumped his arms into the air around him, and bellowed (seriously people) “Oh great lady behind the counter! You know all!”
This, I realized, is fate showing me that if I’m not careful here in Dallas, that is what I could become.
I slept on the flight and woke to hear that we were in a holding pattern while a rainstorm raged underneath. There’s flooding down in Texas, the shuttle driver told me. Texans it seems have two things going for them – a great deal of hospitality, and a great deal of pride that comes off as an endearing quality.
We pulled up to the Gaylord Texan, which is a massive sprawling hotel supercomplex complete with convention center and numerous shops and restaurants. Two issues immediately presented themselves.
1. I had a double room. I had two beds, which meant now I could finally do that thing where you jump between the beds in a hotel room without parental retribution, exponentially skyrocketing my chances of getting injured.
2. My Xbox which I brought for practice purposes started freezing – which is a sign it’s on the way out, which means my practice machine is pretty much essentially bricked.
I didn’t let that phase me as I went downstairs, and walked across a large covered atrium area into the convention center and signed up.
On one hand I was preparing for people to recognize me, but without the chains and the shirt, I slipped in anonymously, and added my name to the list of people up to go. I decided to start with Crazy on You by Heart, justifying it by dropping that I flew down from Seattle, so I had to represent my hometown. My routine had one killer “finishing move” that I have shamelessly stolen from the legendary Zuri Biringer, who pulled the same trick on a real guitar at a recital at the National Guitar Workshop, wherein he took off his sandal and used it to play the strings during his solo of Hot For Teacher.
I walked up there and gave it my all, a whole smorgasbord of moves, behind the backs, left handed playing, jumps, getting the crowd to clap along. I ended the final riff by flipping up my sandal and rocking it out – the crowd went nuts. I struck the rock pose and a group ran up and started bowing.
I 4 starred the song, which is usually an easy 5 star for me. The accuracy and difficulty judge game me 8s, and the style judge (the Simon Cowell type of the group) gave me a perfect 10, which was the first one i
n the open, and with a score of 26, put me at the top of the open, which meant the first hurdle – getting into the rounds of 32, was all but cleared.
I had that thing where your stomach hurts, post adrenaline rush. I walked over and grabbed a cup of water – I was parched and hoarse from shouting at the crowd. Not a bad start. People, earlier competitors, random people, started coming up and congratulating me.
Afterwards I was mobbed by CBS segment producers wanting to interview/do promos with me. While I was talking to them, a girl came up and took a picture with her cell phone with me. I flashed the horns and stuck my tongue out – she seemed to think it was a worthwhile picture.
They clipped a wireless mic on me and asked a few questions – I explained why I was there, how my friends staked me in the tournament, etc. Shot a few quick things, and demonstrated some rock moves. I was trying as hard as I could to put an entertaining image out there, but not something that could screw with me later. I demonstrated some rock moves on the spot, including the “Mom, I’m Sorry You Spent All That Money on Orthodontics” which is just playing with your teeth, but I like the snazzier name. Talked about my chains, the whole nine.
Incidentally, they’re going nuts with the Panasonic HVX here – it’s the only camera I’ve seen so far
The next day, I played Raw Dog, by the Last Vegas, with much deference to Mr. Brian Firenzi, who owns this song all the way through. I did my best to match up to his raw rockage, eschewing a single special move instead for heavy rock jumps, knee slides, and Elvis-esque wobbly knees. I high fived all the judges during a break, and ran into the crowd going nuts after the song was over.
The accuracy and difficulty judges both gave me 6s, which caused some heavy booing from the crowd (Raw Dog should be a little bit more than that). The style judge sort of shook his head, mumbling “This guy makes my job too easy,” and posted another perfect 10 on performance.
The score of 22 wasn’t fantastic, but it put me solidly in the upper tiers, which made my chances of getting to tomorrow pretty good. I was tired, and went up to the room, and took a shower.
A few performers later, this guy AlexMFL gets on and plays Carry On My Wayward Son, and rocks the fuck out on it. He got a solid 24 (3rd highest), and he and I got to talking afterwards about stuff – he too plays real guitar, flew from NY out here on his own, and subscribes to the rock the fuck out philosophy.
Anyway, the judges were apparently equally harsh on everyone, and several people outright failed out of this round as well, so while I was deciding to go to dinner solo at one of the nice restaurants in the hotel complex, I got a call from Brandon, who asked “Are you on the floor?”
“No, going to eat, why?”
“They’re announcing the 16 on the stage.”
“What?” I took off towards the convention center area. “What were the numbers like, I wasn’t watching.”
“I think you’re ok. Better hurry.”
I got to the door. A short guy stopped me. “Can’t go in there – we’re closing up.”
“Oh I just heard they’re doing the Guitar Hero thing – I think they want the 32 people competing in there.”
“I mean… I think. They’re going to call my name. I think they want…”
“Sorry. Can’t let anyone in.”
I learned after dinner that I was the only person of the 16 not there for the big CBS Top 16 Guitar Hero photo shoot. Stupid bouncer.
After dinner, I practice a little in Alex’s room (my Xbox being officially fucked now), and am pretty confident for tomorrow. I got some good stuff, some crazy moves, and it should be a lot of fun. The level of rock for this song is beyond anything I’ve done here so far, and hopefully the crowd will get behind me. Alex’s stuff is pretty incredible too, and I’m looking forward to his performance.
And as Brandon says “If the crowd loves you, you’re not going anywhere.”
That night was another nervous night, sweaty palms, visions of fucking colored buttons dancing in my head, fantasizing about nailing the solo, screwing up the solo, the same stuff on loop – what if I blow it and don’t make the round of 8? Are they going to think Push Push (Lady Lightning) is a hard enough song? What if I win?
First it was hoping to make the open 8, which I did easily. Then from there at least making the Top 16, which I did with a comfortable margin. Now it’s Top 8, and then anticipating throwing out YYZ, the ace in the hole, to at least hit Top 2. From there I don’t know. This is screwing my sleep schedule up, and I’m not liking it one bit.
I go extra on the gel in the hair today – I gotta go the distance, just in case. I head down at about 10:00 and the stage is clear. A big crane is set up, and CBS guys are running around running cable, checking audio, etc. A small taped sign on the TV says Guitar Hero is going to start a 1:00 PM.
Great – they told us 10:00 on the website.
I head into the back “player’s lounge” area, and sit around for a while. There’s six TV sets, three of them running Guitar Hero, and all are being dominated by various members from MoB and Pandemic practicing or just facing off. It’s always awkward to face off against these guys because they know the songs so much better than I do, and know exactly when to use star power and stuff like that, so I get tromped on the final score.
I get a call from Jen Noble, a former RA, who tells me she’s arrived, and I go out to meet her. She brings her camera, and seems excited. “This place is like Nerdcity,” I warn her, but she assures me she is well aware of the risks involved. The competition finally starts up for the 16 of us as she plants herself in one of the closer rows, camera at the ready. The crowd is pretty dense – much denser than any of the other performances. I’m going 7th, and let Jimmy and as many people as I can know via text message (the feed wouldn’t cover this round, at least).
I go off to an emptier part of the room and stretch out, concentrating on what I’m going to do for Push Push. I’m interrupted a few times by people who saw me yesterday, or recognize the Youtube video, including (finally, I should add) females that are older than 5 that want to take a picture with me.
The announcer introduces me and I jog on stage. The crowd, at this point, has I think already started to recognize my name, so they’re loud when I go up. I play Push Push (Lady Lightning) by Bang Camaro because it’s a great rocking out song and there’s a lot of space to do crazy stuff.
I punctuate this performance with as many rock jumps as I can handle, a few slides, and some two hand tapping stuff for good measure. My knees at this point are pretty chunked up, and I make a mental note to buy kneepads if I ever do this again. During the long break in the middle, I drop the guitar and run into the audience, trying to get the front row to help me do the wave and send it to the back rows. It kind of works, but time is almost up so I run back on stage, pick up the guitar and hold it out in front of me with my two hands in a weird balanced monkey-like pose, and play the next few notes by strumming with my feet. The crowd goes nuts at that, and I follow up with what I think is like the most metal move you could possibly do, which is headbutting the guitar and getting the notes out like that.
The next section has me head banging as hard as I can (glasses almost fall off and require a quick adjustment – the trials and tribulations of a myopic rock star are numerous), and finally here comes the solo – a long, tapped pattern that can be played one handed, but a single mistake in timing screws you up for a good portion of it. As there is no backing beat, and in Guitar Her
o the sound of the guitar is prerecorded and played when you get the note right, it’s very easy to drift in your timing gradually without noticing, and then before you know it you’re missing every note. This, as I was considering restlessly last night, would be disastrous.
I start the section and think, what the hell – I’m in Dallas. I flew here for a video game. Who cares? I raise my right hand far away from the safety of the strum bar, where it could punch in another note if a mistake were made and get me back on track, and form the rock horns as I concentrate on making use of every moment of my years of classical piano training in my left hand.
It goes – all’s good so far. The crowd is starting to stir. Half way – still flawless, now individuals are starting to be heard, lusty with anticipation as to what might follow, almost there now, past the fast section, still 100%, people are really cheering now, and the finally I nail the last chord with a wide sweep, and the crowd goes so loud I can’t even hear the game anymore. It was pretty epic – a lot of people, even the pro teams, have choked pretty hard on a lot of the big epic solo opportunities – “It’s one thing to play it here,” one of the guys from Pandemic quipped while I was watching them practice in their rooms, “but on stage it’s a whole ‘nother story.” They told me about fielding all kinds of insults from armchair guitar heroes, but the truth is, doing it on stage is a lot harder than in the comfort of your own home.
The ending comes – the windmills and headbutts are pulled out, and I draw the crowd up into a fervor as I hold the last note. Then I jump on the box on stage, and silence them all with one grand sweeping gesture (surprisingly it works, which is good because it means eyes are on me, rather than the game) as I launch into the ending, which is less than perfect, but I nail the big parts. Somehow, during all this, my strap falls off, and my gamer pass tag I have to wear around my neck breaks off too. I’m breathing hard after this one.
8 from the difficulty judge, a 6 from the new (and harsher) accuracy judge, and another 10 for performance. The score of 24, I’m told by people afterwards, is usually enough to get me into the top 8. The rest of the group goes, and Alex plays Dead! by My Chemical Romance. He’s laid out flat on his back, strumming, and going nuts. The judges reward him for it, granting him what would eventually be the #3 spot in the Top 8.
I would be going #4, which being right behind a similar player with similar style, puts him at a greater disadvantage, especially because for the Top 8 I’m planning on catering to everyone’s wishes and playing YYZ.
A lot of people expressed a little bit of healthy skepticism here about my ability to actually play like the way I do in that video, and some have even talked to me about it, demanding face to face the truth – did I really play it, or was it somehow faked? A lot of them think some elaborate AV setup was rigged so someone else was playing it behind the camera or something.
I’m up again, and there’s more chanting. Since this is the Top 8, they’ve brought out the celebrity judges, most notably here Vince Neil from Mötley Crüe, who sits on stage beaming at the crowd.
Being in the middle of the pack isn’t too bad, because it means the crowd’ll be warmed up, and I’ll at least influence the performance scores of the people after me. However it means that no matter what, if I do well, it’ll rob Alex of his performance score because Vince Neil wouldn’t give the same score if he doesn’t actually get the crowd more pumped.
“What’s up, Dallas,” I shout as I get on stage. The host asks about the chains, as I’m taking them off, and I tell her that whatever they’re for, they’re coming off now, and deliver the warning I’m required by the surgeon general to give, in the event of the chain removal, warning small children, pregnant women, and people with heart conditions in the first four rows that it’s about to get heavy.
She asks my song, and I’m sure to pronounce it “Y Y Zed,” which I think confuses some people, and start it up, dropping the chains off stage. It starts, and I go nuts, doing the overhand flips as fast as I can muster them. I’m rushing a little bit and miss easy parts that I would hit no problem, but find my groove quickly. During the break sections in between chord solos, I 360 flip the guitar around my neck, cross over, and do the rock splits. Those freaking photographers better be getting this, I think, because my feet are killing me up here.
The end of the solo rolls along, which is similar to Push Push’s end, in that it’s a long string of fairly fast notes that can be riskily played one handed, but it’s a little shorter in YYZ, but about as difficult owing to the fact that the tempo feels slightly different compared to other sections, it’s an awkward hand position, and there’s no backing beat to help you out. This is like the magical section in YYZ, and also the section people are all looking for me to fuck up on.
I’ve played the song enough that I can “feel” when I’m about to nail it about halfway through, and I get that feeling, and get up on the stage box as I hit the last note to the roar of the crowd and proceed to conduct the music like it’s some kind of crazy rock opera.
My memory of my performances have been pretty hazy, because they’re basically a sweaty mess where most of the time I’m not even sure if I’m doing well or what. I remember seeing the judge’s table suddenly in front of me, and thinking it’s not too high, and there’s a granite looking type substance on top, which means it must be pretty sturdy, and before I know it, I’ve jumped on it, facing the crowd. I leap backwards off it, getting a good 7 or 8 feet of air and continue playing. This move apparently caused the greatest concern from the event staff, because crushing the judges legs under the table, while making for entertaining television, wasn’t conducive to the general atmosphere of a video game competition.
People are going nuts, and I’m playing up every cheesy note as much as I can. I end the song with a massive sideways wushu-esque leap, and hit the timing just right.
The difficulty judge (now that the cameras are rolling, they’re much more loquacious, embellishing their comments with asides to the viewers at home) gives me a Spinal Tap 11 for making the song more difficult than it is (noting it’s a 10, as he puts the score cards away, in case anyone didn’t get the reference or were confused that I somehow broke the scale). The accuracy judge notes that I have once again sacrificed accuracy for performance (I get 96% of the notes hit, though, I say – that’s still an A, and the crowd agrees), but he gives me a fair 7 for the low 5 star score I post. Vince Neil compliments me on working the crowd, and posts up a 10, which makes the crowd go crazy nuts.
The score is 27. That’s high. It places me tied with Priest, who performed Freebird earlier, nailing a number of the solos, and getting the crowd in a pretty deep frenzy.
Wulfe debuts his performance of Less Talk More Rokk. At the beginning of the song, I’m really bummed out that he goes into the crowd and has me hit the first note for him, because I was planning the exact same move, so I’ll have to modify it a bit, but can’t help but think anything I do will be seen as him as blatant rip off seeing as I’m right here.
The scores are in, and it’s going to be me and Priest in the finals. I am honestly more relieved that at least I’ll have enough cash from this to cover my expenses. He finds me and I tell him I’m going to play Less Talk More Rokk, and he tells me that he’s going to go with Jordan, which is a ballsy move that probably only he could pull off.
Because my in-game score was lower than his, I’m up first, and invi
te a little girl who I saw way up at front on the stage with me. “Do you wanna hit the first note?” I ask, the back of mind making a bizarre analogy to baseball’s first pitch that I didn’t notice before. She nods sheepishly as I bring her up with me. She nervously extends an index finger onto the strum bar and when the notes come, she presses it, and nails it. The crowd goes nuts and I high five her and help her off the stage.
Then I launch into the robot, which should delight television audiences across the country at how ridiculous and stupid I look. LTMR consists of long strings hammer on/pull of sections, where the strum bar doesn’t need to be hit to play every note – only that your finger is on the button with the right timing, and that you didn’t miss the previous note. Most people play this one handed, so I spice it up a little bit by playing it with two hands, and push the envelope by playing it with two hands and inverting my left hand while the right hand is covering the buttons. I came up with the idea while messing around in LA once at Fire Island – Fish coming in and shaking his head, mumbling “You’re crazy, Freddie.”
I’m not getting the accuracy I should be getting (frankly I didn’t practice this song as hard), but I’m nailing some pretty long runs while doing the two hand tapping/inversion. Viewing a recording of the live feed later, I realize that it looks a lot like I’m just pawing at the guitar with my hands willy nilly and yet somehow am nailing strings of notes, which believe me, is a lot cooler than it feels.
To be honest this performance isn’t as epic or intense as the others, because the song is fairly technically demanding and I haven’t memorized it. I end it with a flourish, do a backflip (upside down in the air, I decide I’m getting a little old for this flipping stuff) and pull out my grand finale rock star move.
I always thought it would be cool in a concert for the guitarist to do this, but it’d never happen because there’s too much danger of someone really getting hurt. I pull out the Sharpie I brought from home, and sign the guitar, after writing my motto across it (“Never stop rocking”) I hop over to the judges and tell them I’m giving the guitar to the audience – they didn’t have to sign it, but since the first two did, Vince Neil kinda had to. I raise the guitar up to the rock gods, kiss it, and throw it into the audience, where the crowd dives for it.
Later on they did find the guy who got it, and got a quick video segment with us both. He said he was fine, to my relief. Someone who almost got it said he let go of it because he was afraid it might break, which is a good thing. Thankfully nobody got hurt in the stunt which was one of the things that was keeping me up at night.
8 from the difficulty judge, a 7 from the accuracy, and another 10 from ol’ Vinnie, which makes every single performance I did here a 10, which is pretty rad. So is having my style validated by Vince Neil.
Priest goes up and I shake his hand and wish him good luck. He rocks through Jordan, and although he destroyed a few sections of the solo gloriously, gets a 9 from the difficulty judge (which is frankly a shit score for what is the hardest song in the game), a 7 from the accuracy, and an 8 from Vinnie, meaning I won by a single point. I jump up on stage, and crowd surf, which is actually a lot of fun and recommend it to anyone who is in a situation where a crowd of people are willing to touch their junk and all other parts of their body.
So basically, that’s how I won the World Series of Video Games in Dallas.
Afterwards it was a blitzkrieg of release forms, autographs, photo ops with just about everyone, interviews, and tv promos. Vince Neil seems like a cool dude. The accuracy judge, who is incredible at the game, gives me warm congratulations. My voice is shot. It goes like this for about 2 hours straight, and Jen and Alex patiently wait for me in the lobby bar to take a shower, before we all go out for dinner on me.
I talk a while with Priest and Kov and a few of the other Pandemic players later on that night.
“You know what I hate?” Priest tells me, “When people at parties are like ‘Hey are you that Guitar Hero guy?’ and I have to be like ‘Yeah I guess. I’m OK.’”
This is coming from one of the best technical players in the world. “Are you serious? You get that too?” I ask.
“Yeah doesn’t it suck? Also people are always oh yeah typical the Asian guy is good at a rhythm game” he grumbles.
“I know how you feel,” I tell him.