"I'm going to KBBQ": The winningly weird story of Nintendo World Championships 2017

Thomas 'Ito' Gonda has Korean barbecue on his mind. It hasn't even been an hour since the baby-faced 21-year-old won the Nintendo World Championships 2017, narrowly seizing victory from 2015's returning champ John 'John Numbers' Goldberg. Gonda secured his very own golden Mario trophy after battling his way through a gauntlet of Nintendo games new and old. Even unreleased titles made an appearance - the final challenge in Super Mario Odyssey featured a fight against a never-before-seen boss resembling a crystalline Olmec head. Now we're backstage at the Manhattan Center in the heart of New York City, and I want to know what Gonda's post-victory soundbyte should be, akin to the classic "I'm going to Disney World!" uttered by every Super Bowl MVP. Gonda thinks for a moment, then softly exclaims "I'm going to KBBQ, baby!"

Of course, his actual first utterance after taking the tournament was much more heartfelt and profound. "This is incredible," Gonda told event host Andrea Rene. "You know, usually I'm the runner-up, or I never make it all the way - but today, I did." The entire ballroom erupted into jubilant roars and excited clapping; the underdog was now a champion. And the positive energy surging through the crowd was emblematic of the entire event. The audience's unmitigated fandom and sporting show of support for all the players onstage was infectious, on par with attending events like EVO or BlizzCon. 

This was the third Nintendo World Championships, bearing a retro-looking logo reminiscent of the original event in 1990 and its 25-year-anniversary revival at E3 2015. A total of 24 players - the youngest at age 8, the oldest at 33 - participated in the double-elimination tournament, which had a somewhat convoluted structure involving rounds with multiple games, a three-part finale, and comebacks from the Underground (a nicer way of saying 'losers bracket'). 

Over the course of nearly five hours, the Nintendo World Championships 2017 dropped players into a multitude of Nintendo titles cherry-picked from the company's historic collection of games, beloved and oft-forgotten alike. There were races for fastest level completion by way of shield surfing in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or the mine cart carnage of Donkey Kong Country Returns. Sometimes the battles were head-to-head, as in Arms or Splatoon 2. But the real magic was in the absurdly deep cuts, like point-scoring tongue-flicking in the DSiWare oddball Bird & Beans, or the little-known versus mode in Super Mario Bros. Deluxe for Game Boy Color, which pits Mario against Luigi in a race where both players see different versions of the same world. Hitting pink blocks in one perspective phases in barriers for the other player, so seemingly simple stages become cutthroat, back-and-forth battles for attrition. It's wild.

That obscure mode is what fueled the most intense moment for Gonda, and likely everyone in the audience: a neck-and-neck series of races against Cole G. that went all the way to the last game in a best-of-nine series. "I had never heard of that mode in my life," says Gonda. "I couldn't even figure out what the blocks did until, like, the second round." But Gonda fed off the excitement of the crowd, which was exceedingly hype all night. "It was a great feeling. I've [played on-stage] at EVO and GENESIS, but this was different... we're like, on a journey here, you know? Everyone's on stage, every game."

Never Meta Knight I didn't like 

"The only game she can still beat me at is Pikmin 2"

Eight of the contestant were invitees, including the crowd-favorite WWE wrestler Bayley and actor Asa Butterfield. Gonda was one of the remaining 16 players who took the top spot in local qualifiers hosted at Best Buy, clocking the fastest time in a Mario Kart 7 time trial. "I was very, very fortunate with Mario Kart 7," says Gonda. "I was a former Mario Kart 7 time trial champion." It's no coincidence that Gonda made it to the Championships finale: on top of being a Mario Kart 7 record-holder, he's also an accomplished Super Smash Bros. for Wii U competitor, making waves with his main Meta Knight.

It was Super Smash Bros. that made Gonda fall in love with games in the first place, playing the original Nintendo fighter on N64 against his older sister. "She enjoyed playing games a lot with me as a kid," says Gonda. "As far as I can remember, like my first memories, we had a Super Nintendo and N64. She used to be better than me at Smash when I was really little, so I tried to beat her - [and now] the only game she can still beat me at is Pikmin 2, I think." That sibling rivalry birthed a competitive spirit in Gonda that would carry him through every iteration of Smash Bros. over the years. "Everyone who I grew up with was really bad at Smash," laughs Gonda. "I just crushed them - and then when I was in high school, I played against competitive people, and they crushed me. Then I started playing a lot and I got really good at it. I really enjoyed it."

Source: Nintendo of America

Smash is also what gave Gonda his namesake handle of 'Ito'. "It's kind of stupid, but it was originally I-T-O-I, like, 'I see eye to eye with you,'" says Gonda. "I shortened it 'cause I got tired of inputting the tag during Smash tournaments. I'm like, 'You know what? I can make this shorter,' so I just made it 'eye-to' instead of 'eye-to-eye'." Gonda's known as a character specialist for his commitment to Meta Knight, who was notoriously overpowered in Super Smash Bros. Brawl but got taken down a few pegs on Wii U. "Everyone wrote him off 'cause he got nerfed very heavily from Brawl," says Gonda. "But I was like, 'You know what? There's probably some hidden potential in there.' So I stuck with him and tried to learn everything, so I could have a hidden character that people wouldn't be prepared for."

Taking a victory cap 

The enthusiasm from the crowd at the Nintendo World Championships 2017 was truly something special. "Everyone was really positive. You know, at fighting game tournaments, it's like, 'BOOOO!' 'You suck!' 'He's getting bodied!'" laughs Gonda. There were no such jeers or snide outbursts here; it seemed like there wasn't a drop of cynicism in the entire building. Earlier that day, Nintendo of America's Bill Trinen told me "We want people who want to be here." You could feel the deep-set fandom and love for all things Nintendo in the air, whether the crowd was cracking up at an introductory video from Reggie Fils-Aime or in frenzied excitement at the reveal of each game, as iconic sound effects kicked off each stage of the tournament in a masterstroke of hype-building. 

"To actually win something of importance and worth is very satisfying"

Whenever one player was straggling behind the others - colliding with a pedestrian moose during their downhill Breath of the Wild surf, or repeatedly getting clipped by the Diggernaut boss in Metroid: Samus Returns - they suddenly became a star, as the audience encouraged them with supportive shouts and earnest applause. Ausdyn C., aka 'Gooperman' from the 12-and-younger qualifiers, seemed to speak for the room during an adorable interview, saying "I'm having the best time of my life here." From the crowd below to the commentator's desk on high, where members of the Nintendo Treehouse team joined esports anchor Jordan Kent (who has one of the most winning smiles I've ever seen in my life), all the enthusiasm felt wholly genuine.  

Source: Nintendo of America

As the tournament drew to a close, the audience was increasingly on Gonda's side. He clawed his way out of the Stage 5 Underground, becoming the new face of Wario in a close series of Mario Party 2 minigames, only to fall behind behind during a Super Mario Maker race for the first wave of the finals. It looked like John Numbers was set to become the first two-time winner of the Nintendo World Championships, but after Numbers pulled one too many prideful outbursts onstage, the crowd seemed to turn in favor of crowning of a new champion. Powered up by the onlookers' energy, Gonda came to grips with tricky Cappy-based mechanics in the Super Mario Odyssey grand finals, inching out the ultimate victory by capturing a boss' giant fist with Mario's cap and making the boss hit himself for the final blow.

Now that the Nintendo World Championships 2017 is all over, Gonda reiterates what he said to Rene: "I'm usually the runner up in many events - you know, Smash tournaments or VGC events - so to actually win something of importance and worth is very satisfying." The golden Mario trophy is quite the showpiece, but perhaps Nintendo could give a broke college student like Gonda some kind of console hook-up later down the line. "I don't own a Switch. I'm trying to pay rent, man," he laughs. "I can't afford it with all these KBBQ [trips]; I go to Denny's a lot as well. Food is killin' me. I gotta pay bills." 

I ask Gonda what his family will think of his historic win. "My dad never really liked me playing video games at all," says Gonda, "but my mom would be pretty hype, and my sister would love it." Hey, I say - your dad never won any golden Mario trophy, did he now? Gonda pauses. "You know, I never thought of it that way," he says with a chuckle.