You could say Steven Sobe knows when to go out on top. When you've made your living playing video games on a tournament circuit, it's certainly a sense that will serve you well.
Five years ago, Sobe, now 36, was the three-time defending national champion in Golden Tee — the bar and bowling-alley golf simulator that's one of the last arcade cabinets in America people are willing to drive somewhere to play. He parlayed his notoriety into a stable gig as a consultant and goodwill ambassador for the game's maker, Incredible Technologies, giving up his eligibility in the lucrative tournaments they sponsored.
And just two months ago, Sobe shook hands with his colleagues at IT and said goodbye, to return, more or less, to where his career began - as the owner of the restaurant in Mount Airy, NC where he first played the game.
"It is neat to be back here playing Golden Tee with someone again. When I left here, I never thought I'd be back — and I never assumed I'd be back at Backstreet Pavilion again," Sobe said, of the restaurant his parents owned for a time, and where he first learned the nuances of Golden Tee's notorious trackball, and how to make it pay off for him.
Sobe's parents owned the business in its first incarnation during the late 1990s, when its name and Mount Airy—which is literally the Mayberry of Andy Griffith lore—dominated nationwide Golden Tee leaderboards alongside establishments from Houston and the Chicago suburbs.
At one time, 10 Backstreet golfers made the national Golden Tee finals in Las Vegas, out of a field of 64. From his first tournament in 1997 through his third national title, Sobe won somewhere around $US150,000 — not a living by itself, but a very nice supplement to his income.
"We had 10 really good, world-class players around that time," Sobe said. "Some have moved on, some are still around here. Some of the guys have come back around, we're going to give it another shot and see if we can do well again in the tournaments."
But over his five years with Incredible Technologies, Sobe had been somewhat out of practice. He still played the game nearly every day, but by now it was a job, and not something that he sought out in his spare time. Officially a products and services rep for IT, Sobe's job involved flying to Golden Tee locations, playing against local competitors, giving virtual golf lessons, playtesting new course designs, the works. He was even giving in-game golf advice with the press of a HELP button. He just wasn't playing in the types of events where he'd made his name, and he missed that.
"In the world of Golden Tee, the live events are really where it's at," Sobe said. "A lot of players can play well by themselves at their machine, but when you get to a live tournament, nerves become a factor, and the pressure's on."
So when his father called earlier this year to say the old Backstreet Pavilion building, which had different tenants since the family shuttered the business in 2002, was now vacant again, Sobe saw it as an opportunity to reconnect with his roots, in more ways than one.
"One day, Dad called me in Chicago and said ‘the Backstreet Building is vacant again'. We got into a discussion and he asked, ‘Do you want to do this all over again?'" Sobe said. "It was a good opportunity for me, looking into the future, and to have something for myself. And I can play Golden Tee again. I missed it. I missed playing at a high competitive level.
"For the last five years, I still played it, it was my job after all," Sobe said. "But I'd be lying to you if I said I'd be going out and playing Golden Tee when i didn't have to. In some regards I didn't want to play Golden Tee. I wasn't at the top of my game, and I wasn't putting in the work I needed to be there."
Golden Tee is a different game now — of course, it's a different game every time it's played, notorious for changing pin placements, tee box locations and environmental effects when IT updates all machines in the network at midnight. But opportunities to win real money in its online mode are more plentiful — including nine-hole scrambles and daily tournament events. The games's 2010 model can be attached to any size monitor, now, rather than fixed to an arcade cabinet. When Backstreet's new machine arrives, Sobe will hook it to a 42-inch panel so that everyone can see the action.
"You can make a lot more money now in Golden Tee than you could five years ago," Sobe said. The purse payouts may be smaller but there are more paying events than ever. "If you can shoot even par, you can play for money, playing against people at your own skill level."
For Sobe, taking over the mantle of a family business brings him full circle in another way. His father, Larry, serviced amusement machines for some 30 years, Sobe said, often taking him on overnight jobs. "I've been around gaming all my life," he said. "I can remember times when Dad would have to go cover pool tables at a bowling alley, and he'd bring me along. He'd say, ‘Bring a pillow, you're going to be sleeping on a pool table." No way, Steven would say, and he'd play Donkey Kong or Galaga all night on free credits, at no time then or later ever thinking he'd be standing at an arcade cabinet for a living.
"By no means did I ever think I'd get to where I did with Golden Tee, nor did I really try, it just kind of happened," Sobe said. "Everything lined up and went that way for me, and I'm very thankful for the opportunity. I got to do great things and meet interesting people, and do a lot of interesting things.
"But now I'm seeing if we can get us back on the map, and seeing if I still have it," Sobe said. "A lot of these guys around here, they still want to beat me. I'm anxious to get back at it."
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears every Saturday.