When I pre-registered for PAX earlier this year, I did so without even knowing if I would attend. I did it in the hopes of being selected for the Omegathon.
The Omegathon is a video game competition among 20 gamers who are randomly selected from all those that pre-register. There are five elimination rounds conducted with predetermined games and a final round between the two remaining players. The culmination of the entire PAX conference is the last round of the Omegathon and the final game is always kept secret. Prizes are amazing – expensive custom PCs, a complete Nintendo Entertainment System with every game ever published, a Toyota Scion with an XBOX 360 thrown in for good measure, and this year, a trip to Tokyo and $5000. The final games for the first three Omegathons were Pong, Atari Combat, and Tetris, respectively. After seeing the 2005 crowd’s reaction to the Combat match, I knew I had to a least throw my name into the hat.
With 20,000 attendees last year, my odds of being selected as one of the 20 were slim. But if I were to be selected… Well then, that would have forced my hand. 1 in a 1000? I’d have to buy a plane ticket to Seattle.
The Omeganaut announcement came and went, and predictably, I wasn’t chosen. However, by that time I’d already committed to going. Turns out I was to become more involved in the Omegathon than if I’d been merely playing as a contestant.
Travis is the Chief Omegatech, and has been running the Omegathon for the last three years. His friends Jay and Dave have also been lending a hand, and they were all adept in corralling the Omeganauts. With the conference growing each year (PAX 2007 came in at just under 40,000!) Travis felt justified in bringing me on board as an additional Omegatech. This being my first Omegathon, the help I was able to give was small. Fortunately, I was given a task I could do: Document as much as I could with my camera.
The Omeganauts are treated like VIPs at PAX and, as such, they and their “plus ones” were allowed to skip past the lines and enter the convention center an hour ahead of everyone else. My first pictures are of the 40 of them gathered at the theater with Mike and Jerry, aka Gabe and Tycho, of Penny Arcade fame.
There was a good mix among the 20 contestants. Most of them might have had a geeky trait on display – a little shyness here, a little hard-to-pinpoint social awkwardness there – but by and large, it was a pleasantly diverse group. Five of the twenty were girls, which, considering the conference we were attending, was a good ratio. Some were obviously showboats, some projected a quiet calm. (And judging from a couple of the conversations I overheard, a few from both sexes were quite cute.) Almost all of them had embraced their inner gamer.
From the get-go, Travis and Jay took control of the show. They laid out the rules of the competition, when are where to meet, and herded everyone together for the group picture. The first match wasn’t for another few hours, but before Travis gave them leave to enjoy the convention, he had an announcement to make. Round 4’s game, which was to be Karaoke Revolution, would be replaced by something different. We knew it was going to be the unreleased Rock Band, and I suspect that once the Omeganauts discovered the playable version at Harmonics’ booth in the exhibition hall, they all knew it, too.
The first round of the Omegathon was a brutal game of Jenga. Originally, it was supposed to be Pac-Man… right up until someone pointed out that there are tutorials for perfect games, freely available on the internet. Jenga was an excellent choice for a substitute, though. We held four games, two at a time. Whoever had the misfortune of knocking over a tower was out of the competition.
It. Was. Intense. I can’t imagine what it was like for the contestants up on the stage. Minutes dragged into hours as some of the games seemed to go on forever. I would watch an Omeganaut ever so slowly extract a block from a wobbling tower, hold my breath as they placed it upon the top, and think to myself, There’s no way in hell that person will have to go again. And then I’d watch them go another round. And another. And another.
Despite the first round being scheduled up against Wil Wheaton’s keynote address – which depressed me greatly, as he was one of the big reasons I was interested in PAX – a massive crowd gathered to watch. Collective cringes and sighs accompanied every leaning tower. Congratulatory cheers resounded for each successful block extracted and placed.
Although it was a challenge not to take a flash photo at critical moments, I snapped some great photos. With the possible exception of Rock Band, there was no better Omegathon photo op.
By the end of the first round, we said goodbye to four Omeganauts. All the practice they must have put in during the previous months, and they didn’t even get to play a single video game. It hardly seemed fair. I expected to see tears. I expected some to storm away in a huff, never to be seen again.
Instead, one of the biggest surprises was seeing the camaraderie and sportsmanship on display among these Omeganauts. I heard some people voicing their disappointment, sure, but never a complaint. In fact, eliminated contestants were, more often than not, present at later competitions, cheering on their favorites and congratulating the winners. I have no idea how past Omegathons faired in comparison, but I was continually amazed at how these Omeganauts conducted themselves.
Round 2 was a Sony Playstation 3 game called Calling All Cars. It’s a frenetic, chaotic, and, after the eternity of Jenga, a gratifyingly short game. We set it up as a four-player split-screen and projected it up for everyone to see. Once again the audience was standing room only, and they made their presence known.
A couple of the Calling All Cars games were woefully lopsided (something like 17-1-0-0), but because it didn’t matter who won, only who lost – and who would be eliminated – games were nevertheless quite thrilling. At one point, everyone was rooting for the legally blind contestant, and when she finally eeked out a single point, raising her to third place, the crowd went batshit fucking loco! Calling All Cars was another inspired choice.
Immediately after the Calling All Cars round, we exercised the VIP rights of the Omeganauts and their plus ones by escorting them into the front two rows of the the Penny Arcade Make a Strip panel. Questions from the audience were asked, answers were given, Gabe and Tycho amused. The highlight was listening to 5000 people crack their knuckles at once.
Continuing our longest Omegathon tour of duty by far, we departed the PA panel and went directly into the preparations for the Quake III deathmatch. Unfortunately, of all the matches we oversaw, this was the closest to a disaster.
Despite us stopping by earlier in the day with our list of needs, the enforcers at the PC Freeplay theater were not ready for us. While the Omeganauts were up and running on their PCs fairly quickly, we struggled to make accommodations for the spectators. When we arrived, they were setting up a 32″-or-so widescreen monitor on a table. For 100 people to watch? Are you kidding? I scrambled, borrowed a large white tablecloth from the Bawls counter, and went to hang it on the wall as a make-shift projection screen. That’s when another enforcer decided to rigidly adhere to the convention center’s policy of not attaching anything to the walls. In the end, our spectators were forced to crane their necks to look at an image on the ceiling, while the “awesome Quake announcer” ignored our instructions and focused his commentary on the irrelevant fight for first place. What really mattered were the bottom four who were about to be eliminated.
After a few more frustrations with server restarts, the match was underway. Fifteen minutes later, it was over, and every one of us Omegatechs were sad to see the remaining three women players sent packing. Quake has been the bane of estrogen in past Omegathons; this year was no exception.
We had a short break for dinner, then it was time to get ready for the “secret” Rock Band round. The theater was locked down and enforcers tried to bar my way until I mentioned that I was an Omegatech. Two Harmonics guys showed up at the same time, and I ended up escorting them and their hand-labeled XBOX 360 DVD-R to the stage. While they busied themselves setting up the equipment, Jerry, Tycho himself, introduced himself to me and asked me if I could help him out with something… but that’ll be typed up in a future post.
The remaining eight Omeganauts were escorted into the theater and their Rock Band tasks were revealed. Mike, Kara, Jerry, and Khoo would kick off the night’s concerts with Rock Band’s version of Wanted: Dead or Alive and then the two teams, consisting each of a singer, guitarist, bassist, and drummer, would compete against each other performing Radiohead’s Creep. One chance to practice, one chance to change roles, and then they were on-stage in front of 5000 people. Highest score wins; everybody on the losing band is sent home.
Boy, did I envy those guys. Stage fright be damned, I would have loved to grab a guitar controller and jam on that stage! Screaming fans, concert lighting, smoke machine, the works. Talk about your once-in-a-lifetime experience. Even the four who were eliminated were on an emotional high after their performance.
The penultimate Omegathon round took place on Sunday afternoon. I didn’t get much of a chance to enjoy it. The game was Puzzle Quest, and though it was obvious there were a few fans in the audience, most people, myself included, struggled to figure out the Bejeweled-like interface. By the end, I was finally getting the hang of the rules, but I was nowhere near knowledgeable enough to join in with the few anticipatory gasps and groans. Besides, by then I was focused on the deadline for Tycho’s project. I left halfway through the last match to get some work done on my laptop.
The final round of the Omegathon was the culmination of the entire weekend and it was epic. I’d overheard Gabe telling someone that the Omegathon is always trying to be the ending of the video game-centric movie, The Wizard. I know the movie he’s talking about. I’ve never actually seen it, but I can easily imagine the Hollywoodesque showdown.
I can’t imagine it being better than the crowd that night at PAX. Remember, the first three Omegathons concluded with classic console game: Pong, Combat, and Tetris. Everyone was betting on titles like Frogger or Street Fighter II. No one expected Halo 3.
Except me. I’d been in on the secret for a couple weeks because I was helping out with the visuals. Once again, that’s a story for another time.
At any rate, The Final Countdown played out over the loudspeakers and Gabe and Tycho came out on stage to introduce the final two Omeganauts. And then… technical difficulties. Travis came out on stage, pulled them aside, and whispered something to them. Gabe and Tycho addressed the audience again, stalling for time… and then all the light in the room went out.
It was all staged.
From behind the curtain, the Minibosses were lying in wait. They began playing sparse notes on cue. On the two giant projection screens, blue static accompanied a disembodied voice: I have defied Gods and Demons.
Certainly some fans knew right away what we were telegraphing, but when the last bit of spoken dialog played – This is the way the world ends – and the curtains flew open to reveal the Minibosses, and the Omegathon logo, Bungee logo, and finally the Halo “3” logo appeared on the big screens, the rest of the crowd went ballistic. The Minibosses played the rest of the song to a chanting crowd (Na-na-na-naaa! Na-na-na-naaa!) and when Gabe and Tycho came back out on stage, even they seemed awed. “How awesome was that?!” says Gabe. “Holy SHIT!”
It felt good. It felt real good. My work as an Omegatech was officially over and I sat back to enjoy the show. Our sightlines to the projection screens weren’t the best (we right up front next to the stage), but the accompanying Halo 3 audio sure made an impression. Machine guns, plasma cannons, lasers… you didn’t just hear those weapons, you felt their bass rattle your soul. Accalon and MNC Dover went at each other over two rounds and the crowd cheered them on (and the game itself) the entire time. I can’t imagine The Wizard being any better than that.
(To be continued…)
For what it’s worth, I’ve had a great time reading others’ account of the Omegathon:
Weekend Gamer – Brian Lusky’s (aka The Reverend) blog
The Omega-Blog – Chelsea Stark’s (aka Chelseabot) blog
Monday Night Crew – Ben Gray’s (aka MNC Dover) blog
Kiko’s Omegathon Photos – (I’ve got such a photographer crush on Kiko. His gear, his composition, his all access pass… sigh.)