They drove more than 700 miles, from Arab, Ala. All three of them packed their super-charged gaming PCs carefully into that small, red Honda Civic, then their blankets and pillows, a few snacks and energy drinks, a few extra cables, and some clean clothes. They said goodbye to their parents and left for Dallas around 11 p.m. Tuesday. They arrived about 10:30 Wednesday morning. It was a cramped ride — all three men are over 6 feet tall — but it could have been worse, they decided. And it was worth it — worth speeding through the warm August night and into the humid morning, knees jammed together, past truck stops and confusing two-way service roads and almost-catastrophic accidents — because they were finally going to experience QuakeCon, the largest LAN party in North America.
If you don’t know what a LAN (local area network) is, imagine a bunch of computer gamers, sitting at home, playing against (or with, depending on the game) each other over the internet. Now imagine all of those gamers in the same room, with their computers linked together directly by an ultra-high-speed connection. Every year, nearly 3,000 people from all over the world bring their own computers to one gigantic conference room in a hotel in Dallas and connect to the zero-lag network. Considered the Woodstock of gaming, the event is free, sponsored by Texas-based id Software, the company responsible for not only the games "Quake," " Doom," and "Wolfenstein 3D," but also, to a large extent, modern gaming culture itself.
Part of the event is a PC gaming tournament with more than $100,000 in prizes, but for most people that’s more of a sideshow. The main attraction is the bring-your-own-computer area, where gamers from far and wide can congregate, discuss what’s new in the gaming community, compare machines, and, of course, blast each other’s brains out. The motto of QuakeCon — which appears on thousands of T-shirts every year — is "peace, love, and rockets!"
Chris Flemons did most of the driving, because he owns the Civic. He has a round face, a buzz cut, a small ring piercing his bottom lip, and the laid back drawl you’d expect from a 26-year-old living in Alabama. His shaggy-haired blond friend is Lee King. And the lanky man with the scruff on his chin is named Jeremy Green — but the other guys just call him Bob.
For months they’d been talking about this, about what it’d be like to game for four straight days on a connection faster than anything they’d ever experienced. "There’s nothing that even compares to this anywhere near Alabama," Chris explained.
When they got to the hotel Wednesday morning, they were excited to learn they would be the second group in line. The event didn’t start until Thursday afternoon, but unless you paid $50 to reserve a spot ahead of time, it was first-come, first-serve. So they lugged their computers in, setting them down carefully on the soft, carpeted floor in the lobby outside the giant hall. They cracked open a few blue cans of BAWLS, the energy drink popular among gamers. (Bob made sure they brought a case with them in the car.) They took advantage of the hotel’s rather posh restrooms (full wooden doors on each stall), then folded their blankets and pillows into small nests and watched the organizers and vendors finish setting up. A team of id employees, AT&T technicians, and unpaid volunteers brought in server after server and ran endless miles of cable. It was loud and chaotic and terribly exciting. But the Alabama guys didn’t have a hotel room — the Hilton Anatole isn’t cheap — so they set up camp on the floor and tried to conserve their energy for the intense, mind-melting, teeth-grinding experience to come.
QuakeCon Video: Directed by Pablo Korona
The next morning the room was full of similarly bleary-eyed, disheveled, computer-toting young people. There were two lines: the one Chris and his friends were in — which was first-come-first-serve — and the Reserved line, for people who’d paid the extra $50 ahead of time. By lunchtime, both lines twisted back through the winding, Kubrickian hotel hallways and nobody seemed to be moving.
The Anatole is a four-star convention hotel, two separate towers decorated in an oriental theme — not the kind of place you’d expect to see thousands of greasy-faced videogame enthusiasts. While the gamers gathered on the west side of the hotel, there was a Mary Kay convention going on at the other end. On the walls in the wing where QuakeCon was held are large paintings of faceless Chinese masses and various deceased Chinese leaders. There’s an 8-foot Buddha in repose right next to the bar. A glass case near the concierge desk houses wooden figures from the Han Dynasty, which ended in 220 A.D., and glazed pottery from the Tang Dynasty, which ran from 618 to 907. And greeting QuakeCon guests just inside the front door were two immaculate life-size wooden elephants, hand-carved in Thailand from a pair of 12-foot Monkey Pod trees. The elephants were donated by a local real estate developer for the 1984 Republican National Convention, when the Anatole hosted both President Reagan and Vice-President Bush (in opposite towers).
In line, some people were laying down, with a lucky, exhausted few managing to sleep through the all-night rumblings of strangers. Some played drinking games. Two separate groups, hundreds of feet apart in line, were both playing intense games of flip cup — a pastime that requires not only chugging skills, but also post-consumption dexterity. Plenty of people were eating the $15 large pepperoni pizzas Pizza Hut was selling in the parking lot — and when the line got long enough, someone turned a discarded box into a sign reading WAIT-CON. There were lots of blankets, pillows, sleeping bags. A few people brought consoles and televisions and set them up along the walls to help pass the time. Some people did card tricks on top of the over-sized boxes and dollies carrying their computers, while others marched around showing off their matching clan T-shirts. One guy offered strangers passing him "free high-fives." Another guy argued that, if they were forced to fight by some sort of evil overlord, the Hulk could easily do away with Thor.
And, yes, there were costumes: everything from characters out of the game "Assassin’s Creed" to Mario’s dinosaur Yoshi to a husky man dressed as Santa Claus.
The CEO of id Software, Todd Hollenshead, is the gaming industry’s closest thing to a certified rock star. He mingled with fans in the line, his hair tied back in a ponytail that dangled in the direction of his designer jeans as he nodded along to each gripe about how ridiculous the wait was. He explained that the system was a little different this year, and that they were still working out the kinks.
That’s the goal. Once you start gaming, and you get in that zone, you can just go and go and go.
The event is staffed every year mostly by unpaid volunteers. They were the people checking everyone in, putting barcodes on each computer to ensure it couldn’t be switched or stolen, and inspecting every person and bag at the exit. There were also four or five busty young ladies walking around in QuakeCon gear, posing for pictures with anyone who asked — and a lot asked. The QuakeCon girls are not volunteers.
Because the reservation line was moving so slowly, the first-come-first-serve line didn’t move at all. So on Thursday afternoon, roughly 27 hours after they first got to Dallas, Chris and his friends were still in the same spot. Chris was the only one up and talking, taking sips from a flask someone brought him.
"I met that guy last night," he said as he gulped. "Nice dude."
Bob and Lee were half asleep, now trying to ignore the hundreds of people milling around them. In front of the Alabama contingent in line was 18-year-old Michael Wilnot, who’d flown in from Maryland with his father and 14-year-old cousin. As he talked, he gesticulated wildly, a result of the high doses of sugar and caffeine coursing through his body.
Chris explained that if anyone in his group really felt like sleeping, they would just go out to the car — disregarding completely the dangers of the 100-degree August heat.
"Honestly, we may just try and power through the whole weekend," he said. "That’s the goal. Once you start gaming, and you get in that zone, you can just go and go and go."
By 9 p.m. Thursday, both lines had been moving and were nearly gone. Chris and Bob and Lee had their computers set up in a row and they were just getting comfortable. They each had their respective screens and towers (Chris’s and Bob’s were both in markedly better condition than Lee’s). Bob also brought an external hard drive packed with gigs and gigs of movies and television shows and a separate laptop to play them—so they could watch and play at the same time. It was clear very early that gamers at QuakeCon consume digital stimulation the way guys at a frat party consume cold cans of beer: as much and as fast as possible. At the moment, the laptop was playing the movie "Phantom Menace." Michael, his cousin, and his father were set up across the table.
The bring-your-own-computer room was dark and cold. The open room spanned more than 25,000 square feet, with about 2,800 people divided among dozens of rows of computers. Some machines were tall, with bright insignia and customized cases. Some were compact, small enough to fit into a lunch pail. One kid sitting near the Alabama guys had converted his dad’s old backyard grill into a spectacular PC. Enough time sitting between warm super-charged gaming towers and most gamers were glistening in the pale glow of their monitors.
I’ve lost entire months of my life to this game.
Across the room, everyone settled in. Some brought their own camping chairs, and coolers packed with food. Some had special speakers; some had special head phones. A group of friends from Allen, Texas, removed their shirts and donned only professional wrestling style tights — in florescent colors and vibrant patterns. Between their computers was a stick of deodorant, a handful of 5-hour-energy drinks, and a box of oatmeal crème cookies. They were playing "League of Legends," and any time one of them lost a life in the game, he’d have to drop to the cement floor and loudly count off a set of 10 pushups.
"I’ve lost entire months of my life to this game," one of them explained as he showed a novice the basics of buying a sword.
"What the fuck are you doing, you fucking noob?" another said. "Not that sword. What are you thinking? Down. Down. Right. Right there. Good. Now you’re gonna need a shield."
They explained the point of the game like this: "If you have the most resources, you win," adding, "It’s a lot like life."
As they played, periodic voices made whoop sounds in the darkness. Out of nowhere, someone somewhere in the room would call out "Whoop!" And the others would respond in kind: "Whoop!" Then more: Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! It happens so often at QuakeCon, most people barely notice.
Maybe it was the booze, or the caffeine drinks, or lack of sleep, but walking around, staring at the modified cases, the extended, tri-fold monitors, the people who’d driven even farther than they did, the Alabama guys couldn’t help but feel a bit overwhelmed. They made a point to note every booth handing out free T-shirts or dog tags, or glowsticks. As they went outside together for a cigarette break, they overheard a self-described professional gamer doling out advice over beers, talking about how to work your way up the hierarchy of gaming clans.
There was once a LAN with about 350 people someone organized in Huntsville, Ala. not too far from their hometown. They talked about it for weeks, but that didn’t even compare to the size of this. Lee smiled, a little giddy as he looked around.
"You forget how many people there are out there just like you," he said.
As they walked back to their computers, there was a Whoop! coming at them from every direction. Whoop! Whoop!
Michael explained that it was a little like "the Wave" for gamers. "Someone starts it," he said. "Then it works its way back around."
He leaned his head back and unleashed a high-pitched Whoop! into the air. This Whoop!, however, failed to evoke a response. After a few awkward seconds, Bob, smiling, sent a Whoop! back, out of pity for his new friend.
"Luckily we have Bawls" he said. "Those sweet blue Bawls."
As the sun rose on Friday morning, it found at least one QuakeCon attendee passed out in the grass behind the hotel. Bob managed to sleep for a few hours in the hallway, not far from the bathrooms, but volunteers woke him up around 7:30 a.m. Chris and Lee were both hunched over, asleep at their computers, but the police officers roaming the BYOC area kept jostling them awake, mostly for their own safety, they were told. (That answer didn’t seem to make much sense, but neither did anything else after so little sleep.)
By now, they were forgetting which day of the week it was. Bob pointed out that he could count the hours of sleep he’d accumulated over the last three days on one hand. From his collection of movies, The Matrix flickered next to his monitor.
"Luckily we have BAWLS," he said. "Those sweet blue BAWLS." In gaming circles, there is no drink more ubiquitous. Extra carbonated and extra sweet, it comes in both cobalt blue bottles and 16oz. blue cans. It has roughly three times the caffeine content of Coke. After drinking them regularly for a few years, he explained, the caffeine doesn’t even affect him much. "It just levels me out now."
While the others were trying to sleep, Bob went out to the food trucks in the parking lot and bought himself a Vietnamese bbq sandwich. He looked at the thinly sliced beef, the cucumbers, and the strange colored cabbage.
"There’s definitely nothing like this where we’re from," he said.
Bob has been friends with Chris and Lee for more than a decade. They knew each other in school and started going to LAN parties at the only computer store in their hometown. It seemed to bring together the best parts of computer gaming and console gaming. They liked having all the accoutrements of a PC, but also being able to foster a competitive spirit that’s only possible when you’re breathing the same air. They’ve stayed close.
In the years since high school, they’ve all struggled. Jobs have been hard to come by. Plus all three men have spent significant time in the hospital. One was in a motorcycle accident. One was in a car crash. And Bob’s forearms were burned down to the bone in a grease fire he was trying to put out. The computer store where they used to hang out has closed down and they don’t get together as often as they used to. Not long ago, Bob signed up for the Air Force, and he’ll be leaving soon. He’s nervous there won’t be many gamers there.
Why do they call him Bob, by the way? It’s because he used to weigh about 270 pounds and wear a long trench coat, a little like Silent Bob. One day, a friend’s mother remarked that he looked more like a "Bob" than a "Jeremy," and for some reason it stuck.
"I’ve been Bob ever since."
The case of BAWLS they brought in with them was more than half gone already. On every table in every direction, there were empty blue BAWLS cans. The drink itself has a slight yellow tint and a taste that sometimes makes the uninitiated cringe a bit. After two cans though, you feel like your eyeballs might be sticking out a few inches from your face. The drink is so popular here that a few years ago, it spawned a QuakeCon-sanctioned BAWLS chugging competition.
The returning champion was a man known simply by his gaming persona: KenCo12. He’s from Detroit, a big guy, with glasses and a goatee. Slung over his shoulder was a homemade championship belt: a weight-lifting belt painted blue and covered with promotional BAWLS stickers the company sent him. As a few competition regulars acknowledged him, he patted his blue status symbol and said to no one in particular, "Everyone’s gunning for the belt."
Though KenCo had been in the finals five times and won the competition twice, a few weeks before this year’s QuakeCon he had a serious jaw surgery, and he wasn’t sure if he was completely healed. "When I yawn sometimes, my jaw still shakes and quivers," he said.
Each contestant in the first round was to chug one entire can of ice cold BAWLS. The counting — and throbbing techno music — began when the contestant lifted the drink to his or her mouth and ended when the can was turned over empty. Any spilled BAWLS or unconsumed foamy remainder resulted in additional seconds added to your time and anyone who puked was automatically disqualified (but they were allowed to keep what they hadn’t finished in the free can of BAWLS).
Hundreds of people stopped and watched the spectacle on the stage. The chuggers went one at a time, with KenCo near the front of the crowd. His time, somewhere north of 13 seconds, was far from the best he could do.
"I sucked," he said. He was forced to sit back and hope his time would end up in the top 15 as more than 50 different people competed. Ordinarily, he explained, he can do it under 11 seconds. But the can was too cold.
"I’m kind of like the John Cena of BAWLS chugging," KenCo said, imagining himself a WWE-style wrestler. "Like Ric Flair, minus the women." He paused, thinking for a moment. "But maybe the QuakeCon girls will see what I can do with my mouth."
When the top 15 were finally announced, KenCo was 13th, but he looked relieved. In the next round, all the times were reset, wiped clean. To celebrate, he jumped on stage, lifted his blue belt over his head, and tried to look intimidating.
That evening, the Alabama guys walked to Denny’s. When they came back, their bodies nourished slightly, they felt like getting back to their "gamer roots." Bob put the Johnny Depp version of Alice in Wonderland on the player and clicked open "Diablo III." Lee felt like playing an old text-based game. Even Michael, still sitting across the table, felt inspired to go back to "Half-life," a game nearly as old as he is.
Near midnight, there was chanting coming from the center of the BYOC room. A few hundred feet away KenCo and some friends were gathered shirtless under a banner that announced the a2m clan. Gaming clans are like teams of players that play together — sometimes against each other, sometimes in tandem against other clans — in any number of multiplayer games. The a2m clan (the origins of the self-styled name are too filthy to recount here) is a group of 25 or so guys from all over the country, including KenCo. One of their clan traditions involves playing a round of shirtless "Quake." They were passing around a vaporizer that may or may not have been filled with marijuana and sipping from a 7-11 cup that may or may not have contained large quantities of Captain Morgan rum. Apparently the shirtless tradition is a few years old. Last year, a few a2m members explained, Todd Hollenshead was there when they started playing. They asked him if he wanted to play shirtless Quake and he said yes. So there they were, playing "Quake" at QuakeCon with no shirts on, right next to the man at the head of the company that created the game.
They were passing around a vaporizer that may or may not have been filled with marijuana and sipping from a 7-11 cup that may or may not have contained large quantities of Captain Morgan rum.
"It’s one of the coolest memories we’ll ever have," said a New Mexico man who goes by "Cobalt,", recounting the previous year.
They tried calling him over again this year, but Hollenshead merely waved from the computer command center.
"Maybe he isn’t drunk enough yet," someone said.
The clan eventually initiated their game without him, splitting into two teams and playing a form of futuristic capture the flag. As they played, they yelled at each other. Sometimes it was vulgar and angry: "Fuck you, you piece of shit." Sometimes it was clever, like screaming "Don’t taze me, bro." And sometimes it was just strange: "Get out of the kitchen, ‘cause I’m making sandwiches." At some point, a few guys began singing a parody of the Carly Rae Jepsen song, "Call Me Maybe," changing to lyrics to "Frag Me Maybe."
Around 5 a.m., Chris and Lee went outside for a cigarette. When they came back, Bob was nowhere to be found. They figured he went off to the restroom, but when he never came back they began to worry a bit. They called his phone, but there was no answer. They walked up and down the nearby aisles. After a few minutes went by and there was still no sign of him, a bit of panic set in. They sat at their computers, wondering where he could have possibly disappeared to, when Lee noticed something under the table. At some point, Bob had crawled up next to the remaining BAWLS case and thrown a blanket over himself. Chris and Lee were relieved enough to pass out almost immediately.
Saturday morning was the quietest time of the weekend. The entire a2m clan was gone, their screens all dark. The Alabama guys were still asleep, too — the movies were finally off — and by now, fewer people were going around waking others up. When Bob and Lee eventually did wake up, they decided it was time for a shower.
They knew they weren’t going to get a room when they packed for Dallas, but they brought soap and shampoo with them anyway — "optimism," Lee called it. So when most people at QuakeCon were still asleep, those two snuck over to the hotel pool. They went into the locker rooms, and into the private shower stalls to enjoy a glorious hot shower and especially soft hotel towels. It was brief, but neither could remember any other shower in their lives feeling so good.
While that was going on, a few weary gamers stumbled out to the food trucks. While most people stared, squinting in the sunlight at the menus, a college kid from San Marcos, Texas, had a story to tell.
"So," he began, "I got pranked last night." He explained that a friend, "a real-life friend, like, someone I trust," asked to use his computer. He thought nothing of it and went for a walk. When he came back, all of the icons on his desktop had been switched to Internet Explorer (an especially unpopular program in this crowd) and his Facebook account had been changed. His settings had gone from private to the most public option, he had recently "liked" Chick-Fil-A, and according to his most recent status update, he really loved cock.
But, he explained, "They made the mistake of going to bed before me." He touched his backpack. "So I’ve got 30 gigs of RAM in here. They’re going to find it quite difficult to boot up a computer with no memory."
Despite the successful act of friendly retaliation, security was for the most part tight. Aside from someone trying to sneak a laptop out in a pizza box, the volunteers checking bags and watching the doors reported no major incidents.
KenCo managed to make it down to the stage for the second round of BAWLS chugging. He said he was hungover — "I polished off a bottle of Russian Standard," he said proudly — but he was feeling more confident. He explained that he had watched the tape of the first round, that he’d practiced, and that he was ready to take on all comers.
Once again, he was one of the earlier chuggers. When he got up on stage, he put his blue belt down on the table and spun his lanyard around so it would hang over his back. He opened the can, clutched it with both hands, and began to chug. Then, 11.4 seconds later, his can was upside down, empty. KenCo knew only the top three times would make the finals. He was so nervous, he had to go back to the stage after the next competitor to collect his belt.
Several other contestants put up solid times after him. There was an 11.7, then a 10.8. One guy had a 12.1, but spewed into the garbage can on stage. There was a 12.4, a 13.8, and then a few around 14. When they announced the top three times, KenCo was the last name called.
As the room woke up through the day (mostly well after noon), everyone seemed much more at-home in the BYOC area. Michael put on his green super hero costume from the movie "Kickass". A few people started projecting episodes of "Big Bang Theory" on one of the hotel walls. Some guys couldn’t help it anymore, and began watching porn at their computers. There are more female gamers than ever, but there still aren’t a lot at places like QuakeCon. There are some, but most of them are girlfriends who agreed to tag along. And perhaps it’s just as well, because by this far into the event, there was a distinct odor emanating from the BYOC area, an unsettling bouquet smelling something of socks, dried sausage, and stale beer.
By now, the Alabama guys were in serious pain. The exhaustion had crept into their bones, their joints, the middle of their backs. They talked about how much their eyes hurt. So they decided they were going to try to beat the check-out line. It had taken so long checking everyone in they couldn’t bear the thought of waiting in a line like that again. They’d leave sometime after midnight, they explained, and stop at a cheap motel a few hours out of town, somewhere they could afford two beds and an extended nap.
First though, they decided they wanted to get the most out of their last few hours at QuakeCon. They headed to the Saturday night party in the main ballroom. There were free beer and appetizers served to people in free T-shirts, by people wearing tuxedos. There were more cans of BAWLS and more T-shirts tossed to the crowd.
Saturday night was the final round of competition in the videogame tournament, for which event organizers handed out more than $100,000 in prizes. But first came the finals in the BAWLS chugging challenge.
One of the three named finalists didn’t show, leaving just KenCo and a man who goes by Cosmic Cow who wore a University of Oklahoma sweatshirt. A few minutes before the contest, KenCo was nervous, pacing back and forth by his friends. Judges announced that the rules would be different for the final round. In this round, the two contestants had to pour two shots of BAWLS each. Then they were to take a shot, chug the can, and take the other shot.
When he was called to the stage, KenCo tried to calm himself. He was hoping the finals might require chugging two cans — he figures the more chugging required, the more the rules favor him. In his turn, KenCo acquitted himself admirably, pounding both shots and the can of cold BAWLS in 12 seconds flat.
Up next was Cosmic Cow. Before shooting the BAWLS, he yelled to the crowd: "Boomer Sooner!" He carefully poured the shots, then lined them all up. He dropped both shots and the cold can in just about 11 seconds, but when he flipped his can over, there was foam. The judges added two seconds to his time, making KenCo the champion once again.
Both men were invited backstage for a stack of prizes that included keyboards, headsets, mother boards, and hundreds of dollars worth of swag. KenCo couldn’t stop grinning as the models handed him his winnings.
As midnight came and went, Saturday turned into Sunday and there was another round of shirtless "Quake" in the a2m section. Chris, Bob, and Lee forced themselves to begin the process of unplugging and packing up. They exchanged numbers with Michael, and they all promised to come back again next year. They’ll do it better next year too, Chris explained. They’ll bring more people, and they’ll chip in together to get a room — with a shower. Bob promised he’d find a way to make it work with the Air Force, no matter what it takes.
They got a cart from the hotel concierge, and began loading their towers, monitors, pillows and blankets. Together, they’d collected about 15 new T-shirts, too. After checking out of the BYOC area, they passed two Mary Kay women in the lobby and loaded their stuff into the car. As the red Civic pulled out of the hotel parking lot, Lee and Bob both leaned out of the window to wave goodbye to QuakeCon and all their new friends. Then they drove away, back into the darkness.
Michael J. Mooney is a staff writer at D Magazine. He also writes for GQ, Outside, and Grantland. He is a graduate of the Mayborn School of Journalism, and is on the advisory committee of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.