It was a typical sunny day on our TPHS campus when I was eavesdropping on students’ conversations while strolling about at lunchtime. It’s part of the job – to be the eyes and ears of important, if not clandestine, student exchanges. On this particular day, I couldn’t help but intrude on a conversation between a few students discussing my life’s greatest passion. No, not my children or my career in education, but the cutthroat sport of video gaming.
Fernando Stepensky and his friends did not balk at my intrusion into their conversation, but did exchange a sympathetic glance as I tossed out a few of my gamer nuggets. Clearly, they had not heard the rumors of Mr. Jaffe’s mad skills. Feeling a bit indignant that my reputation hadn’t preceded me, I jumped at Stepensky’s suggestion to participate in a gentleman’s challenge someday soon and walked away.
I hadn’t made it back into my office before Stepensky extended a smacking e-vite to battle. “Ok, when am I creaming you in MarioKart and Super Smash Bros on the Nintendo 64?”
My eyebrows rose at the brass of this grasshopper. “You have the hubris of a young man,” I responded. “You assume an old man has lost his skills. I accept your challenge.”
Like any fledgling player, Stepensky was eager to get in the last word — even if it was followed by a cutesy emoticon. He wrote “You pick the time, date and place and I’ll show you how to play Mario games correctly ;)”
There was no time to waste; I needed to find a highly-trained wingman to back me up on the challenge. I sifted through my TPHS staff, and interviewed only the best and brightest of gamers. Mike Santos, after passing a series of intense tests, stood out amongst the hundreds of applicants. He spoke fluidly in “gamersese” and submitted an impressive resume of video gaming wins and expertise. It was decided. Santos would be the Goose to my Maverick — that’s a “Top Gun” reference for my young readers.
On Friday, Feb. 6 at 1:00 p.m. in the journalism room, the challenge began. A quick glance around the room revealed a vintage Nintendo 64 — it was an advantage for the elder players to use their familiar technology, I suppose. On the wall, hoisted eight feet above the ground, was a true handicap for the recently myopic: a 32-inch TV.
Despite my years of experience, I was strangely nervous. I wondered if the time I took away from the remote controller to raise my young had taken a toll. Santos also appeared slightly twitchy. Had I picked the right man, or was his twitchiness attributable to his seven straight sleepless nights due to his newborn baby?
I began hedging. I felt compelled to reveal a recent injury. My fourth digit was paralyzed and droopy due to a football accident and was further exacerbated by the sub-par controller not being ergonomically correct.
Stepensky and Ilko were composed, albeit a touch overly-compassionate, to my woes. However, I was all too familiar with seasoned sand-baggers and their thirst for blood.
Let the games begin. Mario Kart was our first choice. I strategically selected Donkey Kong as my character in a psychological attempt to intimidate with the iconic and indomitably muscular digital ape.
I have no words to describe what happened next. Within the first five seconds I crashed into a wall and died. Horrified and afraid, I attempted to divert attention via irritation. I began to chatter incessantly. Santos gave me a long glare that begged for my composure. Stepensky and Ilko, not taking their eyes off of the TV screen, asked, “Mr. Jaffe, are you going to talk the whole time?” Before I could respond, I’d lost the first game. Devastation swept through my body.
It was then I remembered something Athene, who is ranked as the world’s best gamer, once told me — “to stay ahead of the game, you have to keep your head in the game.” And so, I dug deep.
Indeed, my old skills returned and my confidence soared. My Jedi reflexes were back as I rushed into second place.
With building confidence, we transitioned into Super Smash Brothers. Santos let out a cheer when we won the next match. At this point, I may have erupted into an embarrassingly childish — yet satisfying — victory dance. Buoyed by our previous win, I was confident we had it in the bag. Alas, fate smiled on youth and Ilko proved to be the best man, taking the title.
Feeling like the Devil Who Went to Georgia, I laid down my controller. Yes, I’d gotten a win, but accepting even one defeat had humbled me. How could this have happened? All my years of training, all the books I didn’t read, all the dates I didn’t go on — everything was wasted in this one cruel moment.
The competition ended, and it was time to go back to running the school. I looked back at the two boys only to catch a gleam in each of their eyes. I saw a bit of myself in them and thought: They’re so lucky.
by David Jaffe