Ben Eberle is what you'd call a YouTube-made celebrity. In the past year, the video of Ben slaying Guitar Hero II's "Psychobilly Freakout" on expert level has attracted more than 8 million hits. Its appeal is immediate: Ben's fingers flying across the color-coded buttons of his video game guitar, his back turned to the television screen, playing from memory while bobbing his head in true rock-star fashion.
Questions of the video's authenticity dominate the comments posted by disbelieving YouTube viewers. But the video's no fake. Nine-year-old Ben is a bona fide Guitar Hero expert, and he has the professional video game contract to prove it.
Ben is just one of many professional video game players in the nation, contracted by corporations or companies to do what they do best in front of large crowds. Ben's under contract with the National Video Game Association (NVGA), a grassroots organization for console-game enthusiasts looking to take their gaming experience outside of the home and into the competitive realm.
Since the NVGA formed three years ago, its members have worked to create a platform for console video gaming competition on a national scale. This weekend, May 22 through 25, Albuquerque plays host to the first annual Super Con, which includes the National Video Game Championships and the Game Design Workshop, at the Albuquerque Convention Center. Ben will compete for the title of National Champion in Guitar Hero, but you don't have to be a pro to take him on.
Albuquerque is no stranger to video game tournaments. The New Mexico chapter of the NVGA, X-topia, hosted regional tournaments for nearly 10 years before becoming a founding NVGA chapter three years ago. But taking the competition to a national level is what prompted X-topia leader Jason Montoya (from Albuquerque) to band together with Gregory Richardson (Colorado) and Morris Hunter (Texas) to form the NVGA, which has since expanded to include eight chapters across the nation.
"The best players seek out competition," Montoya says, and the NVGA plans to give those players the opportunity to find out who's the best Tekken, Guitar Hero or Halo master in the U.S. "There's the Super Bowl. The NHL has the Stanley Cup. There needs to be something like that for video games," he says. "So we want to create that in Albuquerque."
Open registration allows anyone to enter the National Video Game Championships, making the event different from other video game tournaments that often require qualifiers. "How would you like to be a basketball player and go to an NBA game where Kobe Bryant is playing and say, Hey man, I'm going to get on the court and test my skills. You can't do that," Montoya says. "But that's what's really unique about video games and the way we run tournaments. There could be a legendary player coming here, and you could say, You know what, I am going to get on the court with you. We're going to see where I stand, and even if I don't stand well, I'm going to have a helluva fun time."
The National Video Game Championships aren't just competitions. Gamers who want to play without the pressure of the tournament bracket can bring their own consoles to play pickup games in the BYOC room, Richardson says. There will be speakers, anime viewing and a Game Design Workshop to introduce video game fans to the industry behind their hobby. "We want to expose gamers to more than just playing video games," Richardson says. "Gaming is more than just pushing little buttons and playing on the TV for hours."
The Game Design Workshop and Challenge, hosted by the Rio Grande Chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), offers a hands-on workshop with local game professionals Luke Nihlen of 10th Artist (who, for full disclosure, is married to News Editor Marisa Demarco) and Jonathan Whetzel of Sandia National Labs. Participants will be broken into teams and taught aspects of game development such as choosing an interface and basic visual elements, Whetzel says. "This workshop is geared to those who love video games but are also curious about what goes into making them," he says. Then, teams will use a freeware program called Game Maker to create as much of their game as possible before pitching their idea to members of the IGD. The team with the best concept will win a minimum $100 cash prize.
Eric Renz-Whitmore, the program coordinator of UNM's ARTS Lab, worked with NVGA to merge the National Video Game Championships and the Game Design Workshop to form the basis of Super Con. "We're really hoping to grow the overall industry and these kinds of activities here," he says. "We're hoping to make this a successful event."
Ten years from now, Montoya hopes the number of competitors in the National Video Game Championships will grow from the anticipated 300 to 500 at this year's inaugural event to 10,000 or more. "I have a grand vision," he says. " E3, which used to be the big video game event, closed its doors. It used to pull 70,000 people. There is an opportunity for someone to fill in that gap, and I think Albuquerque can."
The National Video Game Championships run May 22 through 25 at the Albuquerque Convention Center. Registration is $20 in advance at www.nvgaonline.com/SuperCon or $30 at the door. Open gaming starts on Thursday, May 22, at 7 p.m., and runs 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday, May 23, and Saturday, May 24. Final tournament play will take place Sunday, May 25. For a full schedule, visit the NVGA’s website.
The Game Design Workshop and Challenge starts at noon on Saturday, May 24, at the Albuquerque Convention Center. Registration is $5 at www.nvgaonline.com/SuperCon.