On Oct. 8 to 9 of 2013, I attended the Blizzcon convention in Anaheim, an event that celebrates the pedigree of loyal gamers worldwide who forgo girlfriends, vitamin-D-rich skin and career advancement to attend to their computer monitors.
At least, that is what I expected when I made the 400-mile drive down the spine of California with my 13-year-old brother, Michael. Michael has played World Of Warcraft for four years; he developed his in-game dexterity around the same time he learned the state-sanctioned fable of Squanto and the fun-loving pilgrims.
When I ask Michael how he stacks up among the competition, he shows an uncharacteristic degree of reserve. “I am OK I guess,” he says, with the statistical claim, “18th in the nation.” I am 21 and, despite a brief interval of obsession with Smash Brothers when I was 10, have never played video games with any frequency.
The Anaheim Ritz-Carlton shares a wall with the convention center, and, unlike at the hotel’s satellites elsewhere, the staff has learned to adapt its hospitality services to each three-day influx of clientele. While Michael and I check in at the concierge desk, three pear-shaped men walk by with all-great-things-to-say about the Warlock mixed drink — by the looks of the dregs in their plastic cups, a whiskey sour temporarily rebranded. By the elevators, two middle-aged men with the complexion of werewolves engage in acrimonious debate over the use of spirit-totems in end-game battles while an Indian hotel employee passes around fliers for a computer raffle. Despite their online hostilities, the gamers commune like long-lost friends, collectivizing their epic journeys born from basements nationwide.
If Darwinian evolution still vetted the human race as it did in Neanderthal days, most of the Blizzcon attendees would surely be dead. As Michael and I entered the complex, three phenotypes emerged with stereotypical frequency: the boney white male with the pallor of a leukemia patient, the triple-chinned Yetti and the grisly 50+ male.1 Vastly outnumbered but still noticeably represented were females, clocking in by your reporter’s estimate at 8 percent. With a few extremely important exceptions,2 most had the physique of melting snowmen. (Your reporter would like to note at this juncture that the above description was his best shot at providing an accurate demographic account of the Blizzcon convention. Your reporter has done demographic surveys, written on the consequences of group identity formation in Guiana, clasped bigoted old men’s hands together in symbolic displays of acceptance. What was so phenomenal was that the attendants of Blizzcon — a sufficient N of 30,000 with randomized regional distribution — adhered so strongly to the perceived stereotype. Their hair was consistently greasy. Their jeans were baggy and ripped. Their Gladwellian investment of 10,000 hours had paired rather obviously with 10,000 other soft drinks, microwave Taquitos, and Fritoles that nestled in various cavities of their abdomens.) As we navigated through a cluster of hanging chins to the main stage, your reporter felt the uncomfortable sense that he was a lizard, frozen among an army of ants, hoping to blend in with the terrain.
Like all games, Blizzard Entertainment products foster deep-seated rivalry, and, while gamers usually experience the emotional landscape of elation, suffering and frustration from the privacy of their industry-grade chairs3, the event elicits nothing short of medieval chaos. At 20-minute intervals, teams of three step onto the stage, briefly regard their opponents and take their seats at opposite tables. An attractive brunette with an Austrian accent MCs as blue floodlights carve across the audience and a haze of fog descends from above. Prior to each virtual battle, three suited commentators provide wildly complex predictions in a language that barely qualifies as English.4 “You know, we sometime forget that equipment changes in competitive play can have a dramatic effect on these players’ performance,” one says to another. ‘The monitors might be tilted incorrectly, lighting is different and let’s keep in mind, Paul, these players can’t use their custom casting plug-ins or third-party scripts.”
As the avatars shuffle around the screen, shooting brilliant purple lightning bolts from their crotches, I wonder why this event attracts Blizzard fans from around the globe. The competitors on display are from Europe and Asia, respectively, their nationalities further parsed into Swedish, French, Belgian, South Korean and Japanese. The man sitting next to me has the characteristic twang of an Aussie, and stage left is a phalanx of stripe-shirted Italians sporting green Einsteinian wigs. But most of these fans could have watched the game from their homes, live-telecasted, spooning up Nutella with their index fingers. Unlike in soccer or basketball, the screen is the beginning and the end of the viewing experience. Ten thousand fans sit with Buddhist poise, fixated on a flurry of lights; a sudden burst of enthusiasm rises as a health bar drops precariously low. And when one health bar does finally collapse and the rest of the team members are summarily executed, there are no jocular fuck yous thrown around, no incendiary quips thrown out to strangers. It’s as if the players feel some sense of comfort, a sense of irrefutable, standing-in-front-of-them assuredness, to know equally passionate players exist. After all, a man looks up at the stars and begins to wonder.
1. As I was later to learn, the older demographic of fans at Blizzcon were by far the most fanatical. Many of these men were the loyalists of Snake, Tetris and Pong when those games were little more than compositions of black rectangles on a glaring six-inch screen. They were the Wozniak generation of hackers and programmers who upheld binary over God. If you ever find yourself debating game strategies with one of these guys, prepare to be usurped; he can calculate the flat buff percentage of a PVP exchange faster than a donkey can buck.↩
2. While their numbers lingered at six to eight, an extremely attractive group of women attended Blizzcon, all in the costumes of mythic in-game characters. Their breastplates were revealing, their wigs a Rapunzel-length platinum blond. What little polyurethane fabric clothed them extended only centimeters past the hip. In the midst of constant paparazzi fanfare and their all-too-eager efforts to pose for the camera, one might be duped into thinking these women are actual fans of the game. In reality, they are paid to be there, at a rate of $150 an hour. Blizzcon is a multimillion dollar event sponsored by a multibillion dollar entertainment giant, and for pennies on the dollar, these women provide their reclusive audience a union of in-game fantasy and real-world lust. They support the entirely implausible premise that, just maybe, the gamer could realize the heroism and steely physique of his avatar if he only cut Cheetos and Rockstar energy drinks from his dietary staples list.↩
3. An entire niche market of specialty chairs has paralleled the advent of the computer gaming since the mid-’70s, advertising maximal comfort, lumbar support and in-chair VGA/Audio/Red-Yellow-White input capabilities. This is all to avoid the potentially horrific scenario where one might recline too far back, reach the headphone cables maximal extension and receive an unexpected whiplash right as you attempt a critical execution in your MMORPG.↩
4. An extremely abbreviated list of terms and phrases overheard from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Oct. 9: Shamans, Warlocks, Mages, Mage-Lock-Sham combos, ‘landing CC correctly’, interrupt bar, burst damage, shadow priests, ‘Gotta be conservative with your icicles’, LOSing, dotting, dot-rotting, ‘cool-down conservation’, 15 percent flat damage buffing, Multi-Classing, Rage-Disbanding, Cross-CCing, Hodging, ‘Hand of Purity’, playing shockwave, dispelling UA, ‘Using boxes to shockwave punish’, ‘Getting caught in a sheep, free-casting, ‘running spirit totem’, ‘mobbing through a pack of orbs’, MMORPG, L2P, MP5NC.↩
Peter Gunn is a senior at UC Berkeley.
Contact the Weekender editors at [email protected]