THE ESPORTS ISSUE
The week of August 16, 2015

Chasing game and glory at the Big Buck Hunter world championship

By Casey Bischel

Six days before the tournament, Derek Tower and Allyssa Friedman settled in for one of their last marathon practice sessions of Big Buck Hunter, the arcade game that lets people shoot large exotic animals all over the world. They were playing at the Pink Galleon, a large, pirate-themed billiard and game hall outside St. Louis. The tournament was in Minneapolis. Tower and Friedman had already bought their plane tickets, reserved a hotel room, and passed the grueling and expensive qualification process that determined their initial seeds.

All that remained, as they worked through their first drinks at 3pm on a dead Sunday afternoon last year, was to review strategy and think of what they would do with $20,000.

Tower, with buzzed blond hair and a medium build, puffed steam from a vaporizer, trying to wake his body after a long night out. He’d entered the $15,000 Big Buck World Championship and, if he won, wanted to buy his own Big Buck Hunter machine. Some elite players already had their own, giving them a distinct advantage. But in reality, Tower conceded, he’d probably get a new car. Friedman sipped her drink. Her black shirt riffed on the classic “I ♥ NY” design, but where the heart was supposed to be, a taxidermied deer head occupied its space. Friedman, who’d skipped the main event and entered the $5,000 Ladies Tourney, wanted to use the prize to pay off some credit card bills.

At the time, though, the money was actually the furthest thing from their minds. It could only distract them. And it wasn’t about money, anyway.

Tower entered his player information and found a game online. He settled naturally into a stance, drew the plastic gun to his face, and crouched over the sight. Six bucks ran across the screen. The farther away Tower shot them and the fewer bullets he used, the more points he earned, but he had to hit them through a skein of obstructions: boulders, trees, female game that were against the rules to shoot. After a slow start, Tower brought down most of the bucks effortlessly. Some barely managed to enter his view before he felled them. He even got a few by shooting inches off the screen, a trick he called, in honor of his initials, “D.T.-ing it.”

Friedman was next. She wasn’t as smooth as Tower, but she moved purposefully to meet the bucks. Getting into the game was hard, she said. At the beginning, she couldn’t tell the bucks from the cows, but she got over her frustration. More importantly, she got a lot better. She’d had a breakout year in 2012 when she placed fourth at the Ladies Tournament. Tower had been cheering so loudly for her that he lost his voice, and on the plane ride home from New York she had to order his drinks.

Tower checked his hand before taking up the small plastic shotgun again. Earlier, Friedman had smeared some rubber cement on the fleshy part of his thumb so he could experiment with a new shooting style. Instead of curling his thumb around the stock and firing with his index finger, he rested the gun on top of his hand. This way, he could avoid strain and feather the trigger with his middle finger. He estimated he fired and pumped 200 times per trek (each game, consisting of five sites, is called a “trek”).

Big Buck Hunter pervaded Tower’s life. It was his passion, and he wanted to finally win it all this year. A 33-year-old server at Syberg’s, a wings joint in a St. Louis suburb, he had started playing the game after work six years earlier. He quickly found other fans of the game, and with their support, he made Big Buck Hunter his thing and has been developing his skill ever since. Some people play sports, make model airplanes, write poetry, whatever. They have Big Buck Hunter.

By his own admission, Tower wasn’t good at much before discovering the game, but he seemed to hold a special gratitude for finding his niche. Buck Hunters across America called in to bars to buy one another drinks on birthdays, and once a year they all partied and played in person. In the short term, however, he had to focus on the task at hand. In less than a week in late October, he would have a chance to prove himself as the best in the world at something. It was the last intangible the game offered that he had yet to experience.

• • •

In 1999, Play Mechanix, a small game developer, was struggling to establish itself. Four years earlier, founder George Petro had left Midway, the illustrious publisher of Pac-Man and Mortal Kombat, to launch the company, but it was still doing contract work and hadn’t found its own hit title. Petro was at a turning point. He thought about going back to Midway, where he helped develop Terminator 2: Judgment Day on summers home from college at Indiana University. He took a weekend to mull over his decision.

Petro thought about making a hunting game. Deer Hunter, a 1997 release, was selling quickly, and there were several other games like it. He tried out the idea on his small crew, and to his surprise, all but one person supported it. That guy later quit.

Some people play sports, make model airplanes, write poetry, whatever. They have Big Buck Hunter.

Play Mechanix unveiled the original Big Buck Hunter in 1999 at a bar in Aurora, Illinois, outside Chicago, where the company is based. The game was an instant success, and several incarnations followed, including 2006’s Big Buck Hunter Pro, which featured animals found in North America, and 2008’s Big Buck Safari, which highlighted African game. Although mostly seen as a peculiar bar fixture—”most people go out to play Big Buck and get drunk,” as Tower put it—its popularity had grown enough by 2008 that Play Mechanix hosted the game’s first tournament. It featured just 24 people.

There were already more than 10,000 machines in 2009. But in 2012, the game entered a new era with the release of Big Buck HD. Not only does the HD version offer a superior experience, but more importantly, Play Mechanix was now more connected to every machine online, allowing for remote updates and ensuring that the game would never age. The HD console’s almost endless versatility also allowed for the game’s first cross-promotion. For an extra $1, you could have your games narrated by the bearded protagonists of Duck Dynasty. But few—if any—aficionados have the time or money for that sort of frivolity. Tower said that if he had to squat down to put in a $1 bill each game, he’d ruin his knees. Twenties only.

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The HD machine’s setup also gives players incredibly detailed user accounts that they can use to pile up stats, including how many bucks they shot, how accurate they were, and what they needed to work on. The spigot of data lets Play Mechanix track usage like never before.

By the beginning of 2014, Derek Tower had played at 21 locations, and a few, at various times, had become second homes. He registered 10 hours at 28/65 Brewhouse in the suburb of Saint Charles, 40 hours at the Pink Galleon, nearly 70 at Hair of the Dog, another downtown bar, and almost 250 hours at Syberg’s.

In the U.S. last fall, there were around 1,800 HD machines, about 60 of which were scattered throughout Missouri. Minnesota, the most fervid state, had around 230, which was partly why Play Mechanix decided to hold the tournament there that year.

It’s not hard to see why anyone would get lost in this game when there is so much work that goes into making it. Just calculating the game’s physics—the bucks run on 3D paths called “splines”—is an incomprehensible trip, but before that comes design. Each type of animal (and tree and field and butt of fog) is crafted from the inside out, starting with the skeleton. Then, once programmers determine exteriors like shadows, fur, and reflection, they manipulate how they appear using shaders, the language spoken to the graphics processor. Shaders control everything: ambient occlusion, a fancy word for dimness; specular highlights, the shiny spots where light collects; and subsurface scattering, which dictates how light filters through objects. And it’s all processed more or less instantaneously by a Dell computer humming inside the arcade cabinet.

Today, you can find white papers and forums on everything relating to arcade games. Shortly after a game comes out, some new shader will blow people away and programmers everywhere will huddle up and dissect how it was done. After figuring it out, they’ll copy it, and a year later either they or the original programmers will give a conference on how they made the effect. One programmer at Play Mechanix told me with pride that he thinks Big Buck Hunter has some of the best water shaders out there.

• • •

Night fell, but from inside the windowless Pink Galleon it was impossible to tell. Behind us, the bar was filling up with locals. Members of a Sunday-night billiard league were assembling their cues. Next to us, a tall man shot a few rounds of arcade basketball.

Tower and Friedman got into a groove. They alternated playing single-player, for personal tests of accuracy and speed, and head-to-head, to simulate tournament play. When they played against each other, their guns swept across the screen like coordinated dancers. After every trek, they paused to shake out their hands and rest. Then they switched guns to practice shooting from both sides of the machine.

Judging by how quickly their points piled up, it was clear that their talent was world-class, but the work they had to put in to qualify for the tournaments had been a slog, they said. The problem dates back years, to when one of the first Big Buck Hunter enthusiasts, an affable middle-aged guy named Steven Guenther, started recognizing old scores on certain levels. He began keeping detailed reports of every site, videotaped them, and eventually found that each one had exactly four ways of playing out. The news spread throughout the Big Buck Hunter community, and Guenther became a living legend. Today, he’s known as the godfather of the game.

Before Guenther, elites could rely on their superior reflexes and understanding of how the animals moved, but now players had to develop their memory, too. They trained themselves to instantly recognize how sites opened and leaned into the screen as bucks jumped out at familiar places. In light of this nearly permanent advantage, if ever there had been a time when a novice could have a lucky night and beat the local great, it vanished.

At first, it seemed to me that Guenther had taken the magic out of the Big Buck Hunter. Who would care to play something that never changed? But his discovery revolutionized the game by putting more emphasis on skill: When previously you couldn’t risk shooting blindly as a buck ran through a sliver of space crowded by female game, now someone could and would figure out how, which meant that you should, too.

Each of the four variations can have a different point value that ranks from A, the highest, to D, the lowest, though not every site is designed in a strict A-B-C-D hierarchy. For instance, one site might vary A-B-B-B while another might vary A-C-C-D. For Buck Hunters, though, the important thing is that you can’t choose what variation you get. Theoretically, if someone perfectly shot five D-level sites, that person’s total score could still be lower than someone else who perfectly shot five A-level.

This system obviously has huge implications for qualifying for the World Championship. During the five-week-long process, Play Mechanix ranked everyone based on their top 10 “scores” per animal. Each score consisted of two treks, meaning that each participant had to play at least 20 treks, or 100 sites per animal. For casual players, just reaching this minimum would be a feat in itself. For Buck Hunters, competing against their peers for the best seeds in the tournaments forced them to play far, far more. To make the cut, Friedman said, you need at least three A-level sites or a combination of at least two As and a great score on a “dangerous trophy,” a difficult mid-trek bonus animal. It costs at least $200 to get a good enough ranking to enter the World Championship, Tower said, though he thought he had spent maybe $500 in 2014 for a better seed. Friedman said she went through $100 for the Ladies Tournament. They spent a lot of time in bars.

Just calculating the game’s physics—the bucks run on 3D paths called “splines”—is an incomprehensible trip.

Thankfully for them, although the site orders were unpredictable, they were repeatable, which let them share the cost burden of qualification. They and other members of their team qualified on one animal per week. When they figured out a high point-yielding site order, they split up and perfected their individual attempts at different locations. The St. Louis team needed to register their 10 best scores then and there—the algorithm that determines the site orders changes daily.

Of course, this is all second nature to Buck Hunters. None of them bat an eye about getting this deep into the game. In fact, they need to, just to eke out a few more points and get a better seed. For Tower, ranked at a 17 seed heading into the World Championship, and Friedman, ranked 10 for the Ladies Tourney, it was all worth it.

• • •

Two hours before the Ladies Tourney, George Petro was busy directing the finishing touches  at the Pourhouse in Minneapolis. The host bar, a dark red den with leather couches and murals of old gangsters, occupied two stories divided by a mezzanine. On the first floor was a stage with four HD machines. Up above was a small, cordoned-off command center with a spot for the commentators, a camera for Internet broadcast, and a station that controlled the TVs on the guardrail and the large double-elimination bracket on the first floor. In every nook and cranny of both floors were Big Buck HD cabinets where players could keep their skills sharp.

Petro was understandably frazzled when he finally met me in front of the stage. The gray at his temples clashed with his hoodie and red street shoes, not to mention his white braces, making him look like the oldest and friendliest college kid in the room.

Petro gave me a tour, starting at the stage’s stairs. GET THE BUCK UP HERE, the steps said from the ground up. We went to the second floor past the control equipment and through the VIP lounge where players could get a free meal. In the back, a fake exterior door led out to a stairwell down to an unused patio and into a garage full of other Play Mechanix titles on freeplay. Back near the audience pit, a side door led past a merchandise booth and a water trough full of free cans of Old Milwaukee beer, another one of the day’s sponsors.

Planning the World Championship had taken Play Mechanix six months, Petro said. By now they knew what they were doing, but the company gets a lot of feedback from players so they are constantly evolving and trying out new things. It had never occurred to him that Big Buck Hunter could get this big. Now the gaming website Twitch, which has over 100 million viewers a month, was going to stream both tournaments on its front page. Close to 4pm, when the doors opened, Petro gathered his team by the first-floor bar. The bartender poured everyone a shot of Jameson whiskey. After a short speech, Petro—now wearing a flannel shirt and sneakers—toasted them on this latest tournament: “To number seven!”

The floor filled up with players. But Tower and Friedman’s St. Louis crew—who were wearing orange T-shirts with their names and the city’s 314 area code on the back—thought there should have been more. As in years past, the tournament introduced a few curveballs, so competitors in the World Championship who weren’t at the Ladies Tourney to learn about them would be at a disadvantage.

Each trek consists of five sites with different terrain where the animals are traditionally found. There are moose, white-tailed deer, elk, kudu, and wildebeest. Moose are large and slow, and the bucks’ large antlers make them stick out. They’re relatively easy to take down compared to the smaller kudu or, worse, the incessantly leaping white-tailed deer. At the World Championship, each knockout round consisted of one full trek, but each site had a different animal. The curveball was the addition of two new animals, which meant that competitors were now only 60 percent prepared.

“Better for us,” Tower said, looking at the sparse crowd. He and Friedman consulted each other. One of the bonuses was also new. Set on a train in the Wild West, it was trickier than usual: not only did you have to shoot the bad guys, you also had to spare the innocent rail travelers. The new format was almost an overload.

Friedman had to absorb all the changes right away, and she was getting nervous. “Once I’m out, I just get to get drunk,” she joked.

In the VIP lounge, an on-site DJ started things off with an instrumental version of Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” “Closer,” by Nine Inch Nails, with lyrics, came on next, teasing out fear and aggression. I felt sorry for those who, in less than five minutes, lost and were already headed to the Reload Bracket, where they’d have a chance to fight their way back.

Friedman’s turn came up quickly. Feeling self-defeated but ready, she climbed the stairs and met her opponent, Charysse Minder, a tall woman in a white Green Bay Packers pullover. Friedman started off shooting more bucks, but Minder was getting the distant ones and won the first three sites. Victory didn’t look promising.

“She was all up in my shit!” Friedman said after losing. The final score was close, 9850 to 9752, but Friedman thought Minder had been standing in her way. The Wild West bonus had come from the left as well, where Minder had been standing, giving her an advantage.

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In all, an early loss seemed almost inevitable. If Friedman had won, she would have had to go up against Sara Erlandson, the two-time Ladies champion. Losing by a little, though, was devastating, and Friedman didn’t recover from the setback in time for her next game. After the third site, she was 5,000 points behind, and there weren’t enough points remaining to stage a comeback. Tower, knowing it was a matter of time, stopped cheering.

“She was so huge!” Friedman said on the edge of the audience after the round. Tower hugged her and tried to console her. A minute later, she stormed off.

“She’s a mess,” Tower said. Being out so early was hard to take after placing fourth two years ago.

• • •

On the second day, the St. Louis crew showed up in green jerseys after lunch. Tower was wearing his lucky lion hat, a piece of winter gear with earflaps that he had bought from a street vendor during the 2013 World Championship in Chicago. Tower looked confident and loose, and because there were such long stretches between rounds, he had decided against the new shooting style using rubber cement.

At the World Championship, each knockout round consisted of one full trek, but each site had a different animal.

After an early scare, he won his first trek by 5,000 points. His second game was an unlikely blowout against a well-known player named Jeremy Bahmuller.

In the third round, Tower defeated Lindsey Breckenridge, who was dating Matthew Garver, last year’s runner-up. They wore matching safari outfits and leather utility belts. Then the fourth round came and went, and Tower found himself in the quarterfinal. In the meantime, some of the other great players were struggling. Bahmuller was done. Past champion Chris Fream was Reloading. So was Trevor Gartner, 2013’s champion. When they faced each other, Gartner lost and Fream surged back. The tournament had entered the homestretch.

“I beat him all the time,” Tower said about his next rival before obliterating him. Tower fell into a good rhythm as the sly effortlessness of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” played in the background, and Friedman was almost beside herself, dizzy from screaming so hard. Tower, ascending to the semifinals, seemed almost unstoppable.

The crowd congratulated him on the floor. Among friends, a championship victory seemed almost preordained, and their mood was infectious. Then Garver, the only other undefeated player, came over.

“You take her out,” he said, referring to Breckenridge’s loss, “I take you out.” He was only half-joking.

Garver delivered on his promise with a punishing blow. He was taking each site with more and more bucks, and after the third site, Tower knew he was out. He stayed onstage and waited for Chris Fream, who had battled his way through the Reload Bracket and clinched a spot in the other semifinal. Both players were nervous. Suddenly aware that his baseball cap didn’t fit well, Fream removed it and put it back on just right, but the adjustment wasn’t enough. He ended the first site early by shooting a cow and just couldn’t come back. The locals chanted: “Three one four! Three one four!”

The DJ cued up “Eye of the Tiger” before the first final—a full “adventure,” or three treks in a row. The crowd cheered wildly for Tower, but he fell behind Garver by 2,000 points. On the second trek, he and Garver traded site victories, but then Garver, like Fream, “cowed out,” and Tower pulled ahead. Garver, down 6,000, slowly lost the adventure.

Momentum flowed toward Tower. Even the emcee, requesting “Shake Ya Tailfeather,” by Nelly, the St. Louis rapper, seemed to be on his side. During a short bathroom break, Tower danced onstage.

Both players, having lost once apiece, steeled themselves for the last battle. Tower jumped out to an early lead on the first trek. He topped Garver by more than 3,000 points, and in the bonus round, a low-point level at the end of treks, he shot 36 to 18. Breckenridge went onstage to offer her boyfriend some encouragement, but Tower could only extend his lead. By the third trek, he was up by 14,000. Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” came back on, and the whole crowd was cheering louder and louder.

There was nothing Garver could do in the third trek, and after the last buck was shot, he turned away from the machine, stuck his beer back into his mouth, and headed for the stairs where Friedman, who had been waiting with all of Tower’s supporters, finally rushed the stage. A step later, cannons of confetti and icy fog cascaded onto the crowd. For a few moments, it was impossible to see anything, and for minutes after, the air in the audience pit was so cold that people could see their breath. Later, I counted 15 pieces of green, orange, and camouflage strips of paper in my open jacket pockets.

Tower was hoisted into the air to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre.” When he came down, he pointed to the large TV where the bracket had been: CONGRATULATIONS DEREK TOWER 2014 WORLD CHAMPION.

• • •

After the awards ceremony, everyone headed to Cowboy Jack’s, a huge Western-themed bar down the street. Tower made the rounds from table to table and soaked up praise people hadn’t been able to give him at the Pourhouse. Near the counter, Garver and Breckenridge congratulated him again. Tower tried joking with them about Garver’s loss, but they weren’t in the mood.

“How does it feel to come in second again?” Tower asked.

“About the same as coming in first once,” Breckenridge said, but he didn’t hear her.

Tower grew intoxicated and emotional. He had been crying, and in an attempt to wipe away his tears, he had only spread them around his eyes. His breath was wretched. A little later, Petro dropped by to hang out with the players one last time, and he and Tower talked for a bit. They stood at roughly the same height. One was the creator of a game whose intricacies few knew anything about, and the other was the person who intuited them better than anyone. Tower tried to explain how much the game meant to him but couldn’t, and more tears started to well up. He and Petro hugged.

Then Tower said something I couldn’t hear. Petro replied: “Isn’t that how it should be?”

Illustrations by Tiffany Pai