Gamers from around the world descended on Terminal 5 in Manhattan this weekend for the finals of the Virgin Gaming $1 Million EA Sports Challenge Series. A rigorous qualifying process – or a $400 buy-in to bypass qualifying – brought nearly 1,000 people together for a long day and night of high-stakes gaming. The winners of each of the three game tournaments (FIFA 12, NHL 12, and Madden 12) would take home six-figure cash. Talk about pressure.
The guys running the show, Billy Levy and Zack Zeldon, were thrilled as they surveyed the scene. From the start of the tournament – which had people lined up outside, down the street, and nearly to the river before the doors opened up – to its conclusion a dozen hours later, Billy and Zack seemed exhausted by the enormous work that went into it yet gratified by the payoff. After all, as the founders of Virgin Gaming, it was the culmination of years of effort.
“100,000 people played in this tournament online, and it was narrowed down to the final 896 which were here today,” Levy told us as we relaxed backstage before the championship matches began. “Zack and I played in the Madden Challenge every year since 2002, so for us it’s a dream come true to get to reinvent it and offer it using our own platform that we built. It’s surreal to me; I’m pinching myself.”
“It’s kind of like we’re rewarding the gamers with a big ‘Thank You’,” Zack said, describing the event. “We want to give back to them. They’ve done so much for us, and now here’s this amazing Challenge Series million-dollar event. It’s a great atmosphere out there; the players have their friends behind them, cheering them on. It’s just great.”
Others shared in their excitement, including a young man from England named Adam Winster who’d flown over from the UK specifically for this event. Just 19 and worn out from playing 8 pressure-packed FIFA matches, he overcame a 1-0 deficit to win the final match of the FIFA 12 tournament 2-1 – and take home more than $167,000.
“This is the biggest tournament there’s ever been by far,” Adam told us just minutes after winning the championship match. “To win it is an amazing feeling. I still can’t believe it. I was exhausted all day, like I always get at tournaments like this. It’s a long day, but once you start the game it’s fine. You just start concentrating on playing.”
Slumped in his chair with a satisfied grin and tired eyes, he contemplated his future while lamenting about his inability to hit the NYC club scene.
“I can’t believe it’s 21 to go out in America,” he said. “It’s so disappointing. I’m sure we’ll find something to do, because I won’t be able to sleep. But then I get on the plane and go back home tomorrow. I haven’t even thought about what I’m going to do with the money, either; it’s such a massive sum.”
Meanwhile, a 22-year old named John Grasso managed to score a late power-play goal to capture the NHL 12 championship. The feat got him a fat check for $70,000, a nice reward for a grueling 7-game journey through the day – but his night was not over yet.
“I’m taking the bus right home tonight”, said Grasso, decked out head-to-toe in Bruins gear. “I didn’t get a hotel or anything.”
As the loser of the coin toss to determine home ice, he’d been put at a distinct disadvantage in the game.
“Being the away team means you have to go down-screen twice,” he said. “When you’re playing online, you always go in the up direction. Going in the down direction changes your whole game. When you shoot going down, it’s the opposite direction. I actually know a couple of kids who didn’t come because they didn’t want to have to go in that direction.”
While the Challenge finals were clearly successful, Billy and Zack aren’t resting on their laurels. Not by a long shot. The ink on the large checks hadn’t even dried before they talked about their future plans – and how excited they are for them.
“After tonight, all Zack and I are talking about is August,” said Billy. “When all the new games come out, it’s iteration two now that we’ve had all this time as partners to make it even better. What we’re doing now, we’re just scratching the surface of where it’s going to be. User-generated tournaments, Friends leagues, and a whole bunch of stuff I can’t talk about yet – it’s going to be amazing.”
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