Face-to-face LAN parties — local game gatherings, usually PC-focused — just aren't what they used to be in this modern, always connected age. Not even one of the biggest in the world can escape time. But the thousands of PC gamers who gather in Texas every summer are pushing off the inevitable as heroically as they can.
QuakeCon plays host to one of the largest LAN parties in the world, with thousands of gamers flocking to Dallas, Texas, every year to hang out in a hangar for three days straight, play games, and (hopefully) enjoy each others' company.
It's second only to DreamHack in Sweden in terms of pure size, but the two occupy a similar space, even as LAN parties become dinosaurs from a bygone era of gaming. Here's the thing, though: they're not fossils. Not yet.
(Pic by Owen "O1kenobi" Long via the official Quakecon Flickr)
It's mid-July, and I'm roaming QuakeCon's Bring Your Own Computer (BYOC, for short) area. It's nearly midnight. The perpetually darkened hangar — always awash in the faint glow of thousands of computer screens — is a bit quieter than usual, but not by much. Every couple minutes, someone whoops or shouts at the top of their lungs, and a chorus of similar chants surges through the sea of people and their machines. If dominoes screamed or shouted "Leeroy Jenkins" as they fell over, I imagine this is what it would sound like.
"Hey," I suddenly hear someone say over the din of humming machines, "do you drink?"
"You mean, like, alcohol?" I ask. "Or are you asking if I, as a general rule, consume liquids?"
"Let's say yes to both," I say before joining him and his small circle of friends. They're all playing games on custom-built PCs, one open-cased and hotrod red, another with lights that would look more at home in a Tron movie, and others still that favour function over form.
He takes a swig from a can of Bawls energy drink (a QuakeCon staple since time immemorial — at this point the drink is an official sponsor of the event) spiked with a less... wholesome beverage and then hands it to me. We get to talking, and the conversation quickly takes a turn for the mournful.
The BYOC is different than it used to be back in the day, he explains despite not looking particularly old himself. It's still big and full of preposterously nice PCs and people playing games, but everyone just kind of does their own thing now. It's not so much about being around people, interacting face-to-face. Even the perpetual whooping, the BYOC's own signature banshee wail, has died down. The culprit? Technology. Odd, for a show about bleeding-edge PC gaming.
"The first couple years I came here, that was back before the Internet worked well," he says with a look of fond remembrance in his eyes. "It was a true LAN. Everyone was interconnected [instead of playing with non-QuakeCon attendees via the Internet]. If you ran the servers, you had control of the con. You could be like, 'If you don't start whooping, don't start yelling silly shit, I'm gonna shut off the server in a couple minutes.' Everyone would start, and it wouldn't stop for a good ten or fifteen minutes. It was really fun."
People had to meet each other, talk, and joke in person. Otherwise, well, good luck getting anything to run or finding a local server to play on.
"It was good and bad because they used to have a lot of problems with Steam updates, people not being able to login and shit," he continues. "You'd have to go on a local chat channel and post that you had a phone hotspot or something. People would give you Bawls, pizza, stuff like that, just to get Steam working."
"That made it a lot more interesting. There was no Internet, so you had to talk to people to play games." His cousin, wide-eyed and enthusiastically boisterous, proceeds to tell me that he doesn't even really play games that much these days. For him, QuakeCon is all about the people and the culture. He's sad to see that withering, dissolving from a loud, fun-loving nation into a series of tiny islands.
It's a refrain I'll go on to hear frequently throughout the weekend.
Twenty or so people are gathered around a single PC. They're like a pack of kids on Christmas morning, practically frothing at the mouth to tear into that most colourful, paper-wrapped prize of all: high-calibre assault weaponry. Or as one giddy onlooker puts it, "knives and excitement."
An entire clan has pooled its resources to purchase $US400 worth of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive weapon cases. Each case is a sort of digital mystery box containing a prize, and until you open it, you won't know whether that prize is commonplace or rare.
"KNIFE, KNIFE, KNIFE, KNIFE," they all chant rhythmically each time they pop open a fresh crate, hoping beyond hope that they will win ultra-rare knives, just a few of which could justify the price of every crate. More than half-an-hour of crate cracking passes, but no dice. Some rare guns, sure, but no ultra-rare knives.
They seem to take it all in stride, though. I strike up conversation with one of the clan's founders, Victor Nguyen, and he tells me that originally it was just him and a few friends who went to high school together. Even the clan's name, Have You Ben Burched, is a pun from when its founders were just kids. Now they're out in the real world, working jobs and paying bills, but at least they have the BYOC as a place to come back to, if only for a few days each year.
"QuakeCon and our clan," he says, suddenly far more serious than the spectacle surrounding him, "are about the people."
They have collected quite a merry little band thanks to chance meetings at QuakeCons and things of the like, so to capture the memories they're filming a mini-documentary. Even as people whoop over weapon crates, a video camera hovers.
"This gathering of people, we're all pretty over-qualified," HYBB's Nguyen later explains. "We're all pretty under-employed. We're kinda brought together in that way. We have all these frustrations about what a normal life is supposed to be like. At the same time, we might want, like, a 'normal' life, but normal is arbitrary. We're trying to find what it is we want on our own."
"Me and a couple other members, we live together in a town home. That's how we prefer to live. If you gave us the opportunity to have significant others or girlfriends or something like that, guys like us don't work out super well in those situations. So you know, on one hand QuakeCon represents this three day celebration of arrested development, but maybe it's also, like, a triumph of the way we live."
"It's awesome," he chuckles. "And it's kind of depressing," he adds, voice souring into a resigned sigh on the last word.
But he doesn't have a chance to dwell on that for long. It's time to take a picture of the whole group, and shepherding an entire delirious, possibly inebriated clan in front of a burning bulb takes time, effort, and, um, a lot of shouting.
As soon as the shot is snapped, the pack scatters like just-struck bowling pins.
"We gotta get back to a Counter-Strike match!" one person shouts.
"Wait, you mean it's still going?" asks Nguyen, incredulous.
"Yeah, we just ran over here for the picture. The match is ranked!"
Now that's dedication, I think to myself. To what, I'm not sure. It's certainly some form of dedication, though.
"And we're winning!" he adds before dashing away.
"Oh, you should totally go talk to A2M," like, six different people tell me at various points. "They're crazy. Easily the craziest people at this whole thing."
Apparently they play Quake...without shirts.
I arrive at A2M's ("Always Too Manly," allegedly) 40-person BYOC empire to discover that they are not, in fact, shirtless. Somewhat disappointed, I ask all about what it's like to be shirtless, given that I haven't been shirtless since early that morning and have entirely forgotten what it was like.
I get stories.
Everbody's favourite touchstone is the time then-id-Software-CEO Todd Hollenshead came down at 2 AM to indulge in their shirtless Quake tradition with them. "But then we realised he was way, way more ripped than us," one member quips, "so we were like, 'No wait, put it back on! Put it back on!'"
They had fun with it, though. Apparently they always do. Some of A2M's members have been attending QuakeCon — taking up a bloc or two of the BYOC's glimmering cybercity — for 12 years. They love it. They love the games. They love the environment. They love each other.
They aren't quite as into what the BYOC has come to represent.
"Back in the day people didn't like World of Warcraft and stuff like that because those weren't LAN," explains one member, resplendent in a Bawls-can-adorned hat. "You weren't playing with people in the BYOC. Now it's kinda become more socially acceptable, and it's not that huge of a deal. But there are still diehards like us. We play Quake and Doom, because we can play DOTA 2 and LoL when we're at home. When we come here, we want to play with each other."
"The best memories come from being together with all your friends. Being in the BYOC and playing games is the icing on the cake, but the core of it is all of us being together and having a good time."
He tells me another tale, this time of an A2M member who managed to retroactively fund his entire trip out to QuakeCon by buying up case upon case of Bawls energy drink and re-selling it at a significant mark up late at night. Of course the BYOC would have a Bawls-based mini-economy. Of course it would.
Those sorts of strange, silly, only ever-so-slightly exploitative moments, though? That's the magic. That's what groups like A2M are fighting to preserve, even as time keeps on rocket-jumping into the future. "I think people are starting to see [how cool this stuff is], because LAN parties aren't big anymore," he continues. "When I started coming to this, there was a LAN party every other weekend nearby. Now there's no need to go to a LAN anymore because you've got fast Internet here. In a lot of ways that's been great, but why play those games when you can just sit at home and do the same thing?"
One of A2M's most well-known members, a QuakeCon longtimer who goes by the handle "Fade," explains to me that he's trying to do something about that. He's trying to build his own Jurassic Park for the dinosaur that is LAN. FadeCon, as it's known, hosted its first event earlier this year, in March. The goal? To make something more akin to "the way QuakeCon started." Smaller, more interconnected — a 100-or-so-person Bawls-chugging family.
"You can hang out and have a beer. It's community, which is what we all liked about this in the first place."
QuakeCon has a longstanding tradition of whooping. Every so often, everyone just starts to holler in chorus. Why did the whooping start? I have to know.
I make a habit of asking everyone I talk to. Where? How? When? What does it mean?
Many scratch their heads and tell me that's just the way it's always been, at least for as long as they can remember. One of them attempts to do so, only to be drowned out by a sudden, hangar-wide whoop explosion. A sonic tsunami sweeps him away. I assume he is dead.
Nearly ready to give up, I turn my blinding interrogation lamp (read: phone flashlight) on one last person, a longtime BYOC veteran, who manages to provide me with the most compelling tale I've heard — whether it's the true origin or not.
"There is a sign somewhere in the hotel that says, 'When the alarm goes off, a light will flash and go whoop-whoop.' That's what started it. People saw that and thought it was funny."
"Other times someone will start singing 'The stars in the night are big and bright,' and everyone else will finish with 'deep in the heart of Texas,'" he adds with a laugh.
I'm tempted to try it myself.
Fade has been bringing his son to QuakeCon since he was far, far too young to play Quake.
"My first LAN ever was QuakeCon," Fade says, smiling proudly. "I've been going every year pretty much since it started. And as my son's grown up, he's gotten more and more into video games. Being like dad. He's been steadily staying for more and more of it each year, and now he stays for the whole thing."
"Yeah, [it's a great bonding thing], and he's really good. He kicks all of our butts. I used to be that good, but not anymore. Of course he's not drinking so that probably helps."
It's not that there aren't any women in the BYOC.
It's just that there aren't very many.
I speak to a few, all of whom say they feel massively outnumbered, but it's sort of par for the course. It's always been this way. Classic shooters like Quake and Doom certainly took aim at dudes first and foremost, so it makes a certain amount of sense.
There's no getting around it: the BYOC is pretty bro-tacular. A carnival of fist bumps and "your mum" jokes. A safari through a jungle crudely drawn phallic imagery.
But it's 2014. Times have changed, and the BYOC is evolving — not always gracefully, but then, no event this popular ever changes gracefully. Doors are opening. Slowly.
One woman I encounter, named Jenna Ruter, agrees, noting that things were pretty dire previously (a few years ago she only saw "maybe ten" women the entire time she was in the BYOC), but they're a little better this year. She even brought her little sister along, to share her love of gaming, this place, and its people.
"We built her a PC and she even won some stuff," says Ruter. "She used to make comments about nerds, and now she's excited to become one."
They brought along other out-of-state friends as well. When I ask why they have so many people in tow, Ruter's little sister replies, without missing a beat: "because it's so awesome."
And she means it. When Ruter insists that her sister — still definitely a young kid — goes to bed before the BYOC gets too, er, strange, her sister fires back with an impassioned, "I went to bed at 5 in the morning!" That's later than I stayed up.
A man dressed up as The Flash casually saunters past me. I can't stop myself from staring because, you know, The Flash.
Immediately behind me, a man then screams into his PC, at the top of his lungs, "GOING TOO HARD. CAN'T GET HIM."
All of this happens in about five seconds.
One week before QuakeCon, I attended GaymerX. The two conferences absolutely, positively could not be more different. GaymerX, I wrote, was disarmingly sexy (at least, by game convention standards) — not to mention crazy diverse. QuakeCon and its BYOC are so patently un-sexy that there's an unmistakable charm to them, a calling card that couldn't possibly belong to anybody else.
The BYOC's fingerprint is perpetually stained with Dorito dust and pizza grease. People stay up all night for days on end, don't shower, and eat snack food that probably cuts years off their lifespan. A faint patina of body odor and energy drink residue hangs on the air. It's a mess.
And it's great. As I wander the BYOC, I feel QuakeCon's pulse, and that, at the very least, is one thing it has in common with GaymerX, even if everything else is totally different. Passion. People are so happy to be here, nestled among this collection of memories once again, making new ones all the while.
Time will pass, things will change, but one way or another, the LAN will live on.
Picture: Jim Cooke