The hunting grounds in Big Buck Hunter, the deer-shooting arcade game, are not limited to the inside of a machine. Not for a player like Andy Lin. Lin—a fashion photographer with long, dangling hair, a wispy goatee, and a talent for advanced breathing techniques—will be competing in the national Big Buck Hunter championship at the Altman Building in New York City on Saturday*, for a top prize of $15,000.
It's an opportunity he's been stalking for four years now, with rivals in the Internet-connected game crossing state lines to thwart him. A casual player loses a game and buys his opponent a shot. When somebody beat Lin, he went up to Rochester and tried to find him.
But first, the in-game hunt: grab light-emitting gun, shoot at deer, do funny things with gun, talk about it while drinking whiskey. Every time $3 is fed into the machine, it launches a new "trek"—five scenes, each with three buck deer or other male beasts you're supposed to shoot, and three females you're supposed to avoid. Lin got tractor-beamed into the world of the game four years ago while working as a bartender at Mama's Bar, a creaky dive in the East Village with zebra-print couches and an intermittently opened connecting door to the neighboring fried-chicken joint.
Two years, countless ignored customers, and approximately $5,000 of gameplay later, his skills had developed to the point where he was regularly winning $500 purses from Big Buck for racking up top monthly high scores. He was in the ranks of real contenders, people who spend five-plus hours—sometimes 10 hours, in his case—shooting every day. In the regular world, he's best known for his Self-Portrait* Project, basically an advanced photo booth in which a camera fires through a two-way mirror to create "a remarkably honest visual archive." But he had constructed himself a minor cult of celebrity, both in the online Buck Hunter community and in the East Village and Williamsburg, where he hunted nightly. He'd acquired the nickname "Big Buck Ninja" ("Only because I'm Asian," he said) and was trotted out by the Big Buck marketing brass for interviews.
Yet someone was outshooting him. By a lot. At the top of the leaderboard for the East Region, which at that point stretched to Michigan, was someone named Michael Jastrzembski, posting scores thousands of points higher than anyone else's. While Lin was doing interviews and photoshoots with The New York Times and dude-blogs like Asylum, Michael Jastrzembski got no press. He didn't show up at the championships. Nobody had ever even seen Michael Jastrzembski.
In big-time Big Buck hunting, with five figures on the line, the ultimate prey isn't the virtual deer; it's the dude at the other end of the plastic gun. How easily the hunter becomes the hunted: Last year, Lin was sure he was going to Chicago for the championships. He was hovering around 10th in the standings for the East Region—one of four regions that funnel 12 players each to the championship based on their highest trek score. He didn't have, but also didn't think he needed, an overall score high enough to lock up one of 16 national wildcard slots, which count total points accumulated, instead of the trek-based scores reflected in the regional leaderboards. That's a bit like buying your way in (as well as a very smart way for Big Buck to generate tons of cash from hopeful hunters), but even established players sometimes need it as a safety net, one that Lin didn't have
And then, in September, three players from Minnesota, the de facto capital of Big Buck Hunter, got in a car and headed for to Cincinnati. They were good players, but the level of competition in their home state—where residents have experience shooting actual deer and where otherwise the cold keeps them indoors at bars—was prohibitive.
So they made the 12-hour trip—with a four-hour rapid crash at "this creeply hotel in Nowhere, Indiana," according to one of them, Nick Robbins—to the nearest East Region machine, in an Ohio bar that opened at 11 a.m. on Saturday. The setup was remarkably janky, Robbins said; the gun "didn't track right" and the game kept resetting in the middle of treks, erasing their scores. Locking down scores that should have taken hours took two days. They played from opening till the 2 a.m. close, then came back Sunday for the last day of qualifying and played until 3 p.m. All posted scores high enough to qualify as East Region finalists, knocking Lin off the leaderboard.
Lin caught wind of what had happened with only hours left, and determined he'd just pump money into a machine until his score was high enough once more. Only problem: Hurricane Irene was on its way, and panic had flooded the New York far more than the storm itself ever would. All the bars in the city with Buck Hunter machines were closed. He was out. One of those Minnesotans who drove to Cincinnati, Nick Robbins, ended up winning the championship and its $10,000 purse. Lin wouldn't get his shot at Robbins or the title in 2011.
And what of Jastrzembski? The Buck Hunter braintrust, based in Glen Ellyn, Ill, knows its players to an Orwellian degree thanks to the details collected at every machine. Someone there tipped Lin off: Those haunting scores had been posted at a bar named MacGregor's, in Rochester. Rochester happens to be Lin's hometown, which he visits every Labor Day.
So for the holiday in 2010, he hopped a train and looked up MacGregor's. Naturally, there were five of them. Lin weaved around town to hit the first four. No Buck Hunter, no Jastrzembski. Frustratedly brushing past a crew of exiting locals on the way into the fifth, he was sure he'd reached the end of a wasted trek. As he had at the four previous joints, he asked the bartender if he knew Jastrzembski.
This time, he got a different answer. Jastrzembski was there right now, in the back, playing Buck Hunter. Lin would be able to recognize him from his signature beverage order: a bottle of Labatt Blue and a rocks glass of Jagermeister neat, like classy people drink.
Lin wanted to see just what this mystery shooter was doing, and how he was doing it. How did Jastrzembski consistently post scores thousands of points higher than any of the other top players, who were generally separated by hundreds at most? With those ridiculous scores, why didn't he play in the championships?
But most of all, Lin wanted to challenge him. He was ready. He turned the corner in MacGregor's and saw an empty machine. Nothing was near it save an empty Labatt bottle and a rocks glass. Even when there's none left in the glass, you can smell Jager three MacGregor's away. His White Buck had escaped him.
Looking back, Lin's almost certain that one of the locals he brushed past on his way in was Jastrzembski. How'd he escape? Had Buck Hunter corporate told Jastrzembski that Lin was coming? Was he tipped off by the bartender with one of those secret under-counter switches a teller hits when the bank robbers show up? Were the Labatt and Jager a plant, a blue and black herring to allow Jastrzembski precious seconds to slip out the back and flee? And why would he flee, with his mastery of the game? Was he just in the men's room for a really, really long time?
To this day, Lin has never seen Michael Jastrzembski, or met anybody who has. His named hasn't popped up on a machine since Lin went to Rochester. Google searches turn up a bunch of old Big Buck leaderboards with him at or near the top (most with Derho and Lin right around him), a news item on his exceedingly rare exact tie for first place in a Big Buck Hunter Pro National Tourney "Double Header" from 2009, and most fun of all, a police report about his getting charged with a DWI, which describes how he fled the scene, presumably to ditch his plastic gun, and was subsequently apprehended. You can guess what the cops smelled on his breath.
None of this stops Lin from repeatedly predicting that his performance in this year's championship will be like Jeremy Lin's breakout at Madison Square Garden. They do have the same last name, at least.
He brought out the bravado on the phone the day after I'd first met him at Good Co. in Williamsburg, the home base he shares with 2010 champion Alex DerHohannesian and two handfuls of other top players. For most people, Good Co. is a bar you're not supposed to be inside. The interior of the dark brick box seems to be mainly a storage space for fixie bikes, left there by people on their way to the main attraction: a long, vibrant outdoor space under lights strung on latticework.
The indoors, on a Wednesday night, was for a few very tired-looking patrons sitting at the bar and the hunters rotating in and out of shooting position at the latest iteration of Big Buck, a cash-vacuum with a giant HD monitor and a pair of wood-grain-patterned pump-action plastic shotguns. Besides Lin and DerHohannesian—a bearded music producer and voice actor, who just moved to Brooklyn from the Upper West Side—there was Drew Mikluscak, who works in marketing, and a tall, muscled guy named Michael Scott, who wore a tank top, broke into sets of pushups at random, and said he owed his video-game shooting skills to having hunted men, in the military.
Elite-level Big Buck play demands perfection. If a casual hunter hits a female animal by mistake, it means the round is over and your friends call you stupid. For the crew at Good Co., hitting a female means the whole trek is a washout, doomed to a non-qualifying score. They have to hit bucks—the biggest ones, using the fewest shots, from as far away as possible, to maximize the point value. On top of that are bonuses for shooting other kinds of critters scampering by (meerkats, bobcats, whatever) and Trophy Animal bonuses for big cats and grizzly bears.
Lin preaches that distance and accuracy are foremost, never to be sacrificed for critter-hunting. Minutes after that, he blasts a few stray warthogs. Maybe it was the right tactical move in the situation. Maybe he doesn't like warthogs. Regardless, he ended up in the fifth spot in the East, while DerHohannesian placed seventh. Scott and Mikluscak had been in the top 12, got nudged out, and punched their tickets with wild cards.
Among the players they'll face, headed to New York to hunt virtual deer, is Travis Pastrana—the moto god, NASCAR upstart, and all-around X Games darling. He finished eighth and 12th in the past two championships, wearing hunting camo and protective eyewear, just in case. This year, he was traveling around doing dangerous things with motorized vehicles through most of qualifying season, and then had shoulder surgery a week before the deadline.
Unable to cock the gun efficiently with his left arm, he went home to Maryland to what he calls The Gathering Spot, his own house, which is equipped with a full-time bartender and a Big Buck HD. For four days, from 3 p.m. till sunup, he ignored the concept of perfection and "was just one-arming it, shooting whatever bucks I could to try to get my score up." He racked up enough points to land the 14th wildcard spot.
Robbins, the border-hopping Minnesotan, did most of his shooting at a Buffalo Wild Wings in the Twin Cities—with a detour to Sioux Falls, S.D., to get a qualifying slot in the West Region too, although he claims it was "really more so some of the other guys in my group could have a shot." And help them it did— while Robbins had no problem locking up the second slot in the North without the need for any shenanigans, the two players he made the trip with both qualified in the much weaker West.
When I ask him if he thinks such maneuvers are shady, Robbins responds that what's unfair is that there are qualifying regions at all, and that he wouldn't have to resort to such measures if he didn't just happen to live in such a competitive state. Big-Big Buck has done what they can to defray the potency of the Minnesotans' shooting by tightening up the region to just four states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. This way, players in the surrounding states that were previously overpowered by the Minnesotans' skill now have a fighting chance...until four guys from Minneapolis drive to their bar, of course.
Besides the out-of-state competition, Lin and his crew will face a shift in gameplay. Players can get their qualifying scores in single-player mode, but the championship itself is played in Shootout Mode, with two players shooting for the same bucks simultaneously. Robbins said he prefers playing head-to-head. "Single player can be like watching golf," he said.
Meanwhile, Lin laments things as seemingly minor as the game setup itself—he personally calibrated the light guns at Good Co., and doesn't quite seem to trust whoever'll be handling the same duties at the Championship. For all his successes and nicknames and modest fame, Lin still needs a championship, as well as some revenge against Robbins for swiping his slot 12 months ago. On top of that, in a bit of a magical twist, three players from Rochester are qualified for the Championships. Maybe they know Michael Jastrzembski. If not, MacGregor's will always be there next Labor Day.
The 2012 Big Buck World Championship is in the Altman Building in New York. Tickets are available here.
Ben Robinson is co-founder of college hoops blog TheKingsburyFactor.com, executive editor at Thrillist, and Evil Mastermind of BatchSlap.com. He still wants to go to Space Camp