Sitting on a set of steel bleachers with twenty other adults in something called the "Fan Cave," you start thinking about what's really important in life.
Money must be one of those things, or else none of us would be here, with a jib swinging above our heads, watching two kids play video games in some corporation's fetish-vision of a '70s rec room. One of these kids will win a million dollars; the other will have lost a video game game of baseball, except, instead of drinking a beer afterward and playing again, he'll have to fly back home.
It's safe to say that for most of us out of college, there will never be any great pressure to win a video game, or to win any sort of competition, really. In the heat of a weeknight soccer game or Madden with your girlfriend's/boyfriend's brother/sister, it might feel immensely, essentially important to win, but when you lose — and you will lose, some time or other — you'll forget about it soon enough.
Put a million dollars on that game, though, and you probably won't forget.
A million dollars is a symbolic amount of money. I'd rather lose going for a million and a half dollars, or two million dollars, honestly. A million dollars means something crucial, something intangible; when you make a million dollars, you're making the very minimum you can make to become a "millionaire," to enter a club that, though no longer terribly exclusive, remains one of the greatest honors American capitalism can bestow. (Even considering that taxes mean you aren't actually a millionaire. It doesn't matter. It's that word "million" next to your name, and screw Sean Parker if he disagrees.)
The final game in the MLB 2K12 Perfect Club competition started after serious delays, during which the two competitors, Charlie Bates — wearing a close-fitting Detroit Tigers jersey, with glasses and tan shoes — and Chris Gilmore — draped in an enormous Yankees shirt, cap low over his eyes, Jordans on his feet — sat calcified by the pressure of their impending game. Bates, the #1 seed, and Gilmore, the #3 seed, had both won two previous games to make it this far. To qualify in the first place, they'd pitched perfect games, Bates with the Royals' Danny Duffy, and Gilmore with the Toronto Blue Jays' Kyle Drabek.
Whatever the technical difficulties were that delayed first pitch, they delayed it about half an hour, and the residents of the Fan Cave, who are attempting to watch every MLB game in the 2012 season, kept calculating when they needed to leave to watch real baseball. I talked a little with Ashley Chavez, and she assured me that she hadn't lost her mind yet. The nine "cave dwellers" have watched about 500 baseball games so far, with just under 2,000 left to go.
Stocked with the six other Perfect Club finalists, their friends and significant others (I think), media, staff, and invited guests, the Cave had become a sort of makeshift stadium, and when the game finally kicked off, the crowd responded as one might expect a crowd to respond. They clapped and moaned as momentum swung; on called pitches at the edges of the strike zone, some even protested, as though there was an umpire to hear them. Through two innings, the game was tied 1-1, and we took a break, during which supermodel Kate Upton interviewed one of the finalists who had lost earlier.
They discussed what he would've done if he'd won the money, and it was canned as hell, in the unique way that bits being filmed for TV always are. Kate seemed game though, and gave herself the appropriate amount of grief when she flubbed a line, which happened often.
After the interludes, during which Bates and Gilmore would either sit stock still, staring straight ahead, or visit the bathroom, or be herded around by staff — there were three breaks through the nine-inning game — the game would resume. Gilmore seemed amazingly adept at running the basepaths and creating pickles until one of Bates' players would overthrow a baseman; at that point, the audience would usually ahhhhhh in sympathy. During the 4th inning, Bates had to take out ace Justin Verlander because of a pitch count tournament overseers had installed, based on how much Verlander and C.C. Sabathia threw in earlier tournament games. As soon as Verlander hit the showers, the game exploded: Gilmore, having notched three total runs against Verlander, scored six more in the 5th against the Tigers' bullpen. By the end of the 5th, Gilmore led 8-1, Bates was red as an apple and rubbing his hands on his pants, and the conclusion had become foregone. What I thought we'd be a somewhat torturous experience — have you ever watched two people play a baseball video game? — proved entertaining for those brief moments in between the pageantry when they were actually able to play. Turns out, put a million dollars on anything and it becomes entertaining.
"I had a lot of respect for the other contestants, and I didn't want to start freaking out in front of Charlie," Gilmore told me over the phone the next day. He said he hadn't slept much the night after winning, which is understandable: the 20-year-old community college student had just won a lot of money. He'll use the cash to buy his mom a nice Mother's Day gift and pay off his student loans.
After the game, Kate Upton presented Gilmore with an oversized check, because no million-dollar coronation ceremony is complete without an oversized check.
You couldn't really hear them talking in the Cave, either, but rest assured: it was as awkward as it seems on tape. The paradox of these moments, in which someone wins something tangible and that tangible thing does not appear, is that they seem like anticlimax — sure, you can give the guy an enormous red check, but the real weight of that cash infusion won't be felt for a while, until something that he previously couldn't have done becomes, in a moment, doable.
Meanwhile, I sort of lost track of Bates; I'm not sure where he went after the game ended. Other than moving slower than planned, the afternoon had been what 2K Sports and MLB expected — there was no talk of the reported foul play that had marred the contest, and when I asked Gilmore about it he said he hadn't changed his lineups, and that he didn't know of anyone who had. (When Kotaku writer Owen Good's source was told by finalist William Haff, "u really think that guy with 825 drabek against the red sox didnt do it?" he's talking about Gilmore. Of course, a hunch is not evidence, not by a long shot.)
And so, we have another reminder that there are infinite paths to riches, all equally ridiculous.