She’s got game
A Waikele mom makes the cut for a joystick competition
MAKE some room, Kim Kim and Big Wiesy. There's another lady player from Honolulu headed for big-time gaming, and all she needs is a silly nickname. "Well!" said Natalie Choy, bouncing up and down on an inflatable stool -- she's one of those carb burners with excess energy and focus -- "When I was playing billiards professionally, they kept calling me the Dragon, or Dragon Lady. Or something like that." She made a face. "I never understood that."
So think of something. In a couple of weeks, Choy heads off to Hollywood to compete in the newly minted WorldWide Web Games, or W3Games. This ain't pocket change. One of the 75 finalists will rake in a $1 million grand prize, runners-up will make thousands, and the whole thing will be televised in December on the Game Show Network.
The finalists are coming from all over the world. Choy, according to the competition organizers, is the only one from Hawaii.
There's a good chance we'll need to hang a silly sports nickname on her in an upcoming headline. Drop that joystick or mouse and start scratching your head.
Contestants will go head to head in what are called "casual" games -- "Bejeweled 2," "Zuma" or "Solitaire" -- labeled "casual" because the player can start or stop playing at any time. The computer games are described as "easy to learn but difficult to master," and the industry is huge. Here are some stats from the Game Show Network:
» By late next tear the field is expected to gross $1.56 billion.
» More than 100 million Americans play these kinds of games, and most claim playing helps them unwind.
» More than two-thirds of those buying casual games are women over 40, doing it for at least nine hours a week.
» Online editions of these games are generating entrance fees closing in on $1 billion a year.
And so a couple of million offered in an annual competition is just priming the pump.
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
As a young mother, Natalie Choy finds online video games perfect for relaxing when the children go to sleep.
Which brings us back to Natalie Choy, bouncing up and down in her Waikele kitchen, zipping a computer mouse on the dining table. Nearing 30, she has two very young children -- Drey and Dylan -- a significant other who's often on the road, not much chance to continue playing pro billiards and not even much sleep, thanks to the demands of full-time motherhood. If there's a casual gamer profile, Choy meets all the criteria.
"I was six months pregnant, living in Canada, and there's not much you can do," explained Choy. "I was keeping in contact with friends via Hotmail on MSN, and this little games window kept popping up. I tried it, thanks to free trials, and I'd go on to play so much I'd actually buy the game. And then I'd play every level in one day. Ho! Waste of $19!
"And then, by then, I was back here in the islands. Saw a new pop-up box announcing the championships. I made the deposit, like $2.50 per game, and played, and ran up my score online. But then you can't play again until something like 1,600 other people have played it. I saw my average score had me in first place; went back a week later, still in first; week later, same. But since I couldn't play it again for awhile, I kind of totally forgot about it. I think my total entry fees added up to less than $20. Eh."
She moved on to new games, such as "Lingo" and "Tetrisphere."
"I've wigged out on video games ever since I was a kid. My folks had the only Atari in the neighborhood. 'Tetris'! 'Tomb Raider'! When 'Myst' came out, my school friends and I at Hawaii Baptist stayed up all night solving the puzzles."
A couple of weeks ago, Choy got a congratulatory e-mail from the tournament directors. She was one of 75 finalists worldwide.
"Of course, I thought it was junk mail. It was pages and pages of legal stuff. I sent it to my sister to read through -- she likes reading legal documents! -- and she said it looked real. They needed things signed and notarized. The bottom line ... they want to make sure the person going to the tournament is actually the person who qualified online. They want to make sure you are you."
The organizers have already made a fair investment in this. Each finalist is flown to Hollywood, set up in a hotel and given gifts. In exchange, in one long day on Sept. 9, they'll play three games each of "Zuma," "Bejeweled 2" and "Solitaire." Based on each players' three highest scores, half the field will be knocked out quickly. By the end of the day, only one will be left standing. Or slumped in front of a smoking computer.
"I thought there would be thousands of finalists, but no, only 75," said Choy. "There are pre-game events and parties, but what I really need to do is practice on their machines. It's going to be televised. Will there be big screens or what? That could throw you off. All they've asked us so far is if we want a left-hand or right-hand mouse."
At the moment, thanks to a laptop that consumed itself, she has to practice on "one old slow computer. It's my one getaway when the kids are asleep. I get into the zone. Yeah, like a Zen trance."
But the competition will be with bright lights and TV cameras. Pressure's on instead of off. Do you get stage fright?
"Nah," Choy shrugged. "I might not be the world's greatest, but I'm right up there with them."
Which game is your weakest?
"'Solitaire,' only because the luck factor is bigger. All you can do is play correctly; it has nothing to do with skill. 'Zuma' and 'Bejeweled' -- now those take real hand-eye coordination. I'm real strong there. If I can make the final 32, it'll be pretty even."
She was still bouncing, getting higher and higher. "Excited? Oh yeah! I wish it was, like, tomorrow!"