NEW YORK CITY -- The West Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea is known for art galleries, high fashion and miniature poodles, but on Saturday afternoon, the famous Altman Building was overtaken by camouflage, Old Milwaukee, Lynyrd Skynyrd and half-drunk virtual hunters.
The Big Buck Hunter World Championships brought in the world’s 64 best arcade shooters in a double-elimination tournament of the deer-hunting game often found in the dark corners of bars next to the pool tables and dart boards. The game was front and center on Saturday, though, with the winner – Chris Fream of Minneapolis -- taking home $15,000 in prize money.
It was the Super Bowl of Big Buck Hunter, the culmination of a year’s worth of 3 a.m. nights drinking beer and shooting deer. Players came from as far as Australia; one group of 20-somethings took an RV to New York all the way from Detroit. To the folks who commit a considerable chunk of their free time to playing the world’s foremost hunting arcade game, it doesn’t get any bigger than the world championships.
To get there, it took more than a plane ticket or RV rental to NYC. The best players spend up to 30 hours per week pumping their rifles toward frolicking deer (not the female deer, though -- shoot one of those and your gun stops working), and memorizing all of the different game algorithms. Every Big Buck machine in the world is connected, and the highest-rated players in each region earn an invite to the event.
Once at the world championships, it’s more than just casual play over some beers -- it’s six hours of non-stop, competitive action. After winning the final match, a sweat-drenched Fream exhaled, happy to win and happy he could finally give his left arm a break.
Among the field of 64 participants was X Games icon and NASCAR Nationwide series driver Travis Pastrana, who’s been sidelined with a shoulder injury and got a special OK from his doctor last week to participate in the event.
Pastrana got into Big Buck Hunter a few years ago when he and his buddies would play the game at parties. Pastrana’s Rally teammate, Dave Mirra, then purchased a machine as a gift to Pastrana, making Pastrana one of the few personal owners of a Big Buck machine (they are only sold for commercial use).
Pastrana finished sixth in the Big Buck Hunter World Championships last year, but after not playing the game for nearly two months with the injury, he stumbled into a 48th-place finish on Saturday.
Nevertheless, he loves Big Buck Hunter and makes the world championships a priority if it doesn’t conflict with his racing schedule.
“There are a lot of accountants, a lot of lawyers, and a lot of drunks, too, but drunks that are really smart,” said Pastrana, when asked why he loves the event so much. “You have to be a decent aim but you have to be very smart on what you shoot and what you don’t. Really, it’s a chess game.”
No one knows that better than Sara Erlandson, of Beldenville, Wisc., who won the women’s tournament on Friday night and finished fourth in men’s competition on Saturday.
“Once we learned you could make money at it -- a lot of money -- we decided to do it competitively,” Erlandson said of her and her husband, who own a bar in Wisconsin that features the game. “You have to play a lot. We play at least 20, 25 hours per week, sometimes more. But other than that, we grew up with video games and a lot of that sort of translates.”
The event included a dozen Big Buck machines, an open arcade with other video games made by Raw Thrills, a food truck, and an open bar that all contributed to the wild, biker-bar style atmosphere -- right in the middle of one of New York City’s most posh areas.