Every hunter understands the virtue of patience, and George Petro knows it better than most. Petro founded the Play Mechanix studio in 1995, but his company’s first huge success wouldn’t come until the 2001 release of Big Buck Hunter, the deer-hunting game that is now ubiquitous in bars across the country. “We didn’t expect it to be so popular,” Petro said. “I’d made games for a long time. You never know what’s going to stick. We put the deer-hunting theme in that really resonated with a segment of America that wasn’t represented by arcade video games. I’d say we got lucky.”
The game, which has players shoot prize stags while avoiding killing does, became a watering-hole staple and spawned a variety of sequels. As the series has evolved, it has invited players to shoot plenty of other animals in a variety of virtual locations. When new editions enabled online play and tournaments, dedicated fans created their own Facebook page to connect with each other, and Petro took notice. “We started knowing the players and decided to get the players together to celebrate how much they love Buck Hunter,” he said.
The company held the first Big Buck World Championship in Chicago in 2008. Since then, the event, which draws players from around the country and Australia, has grown in popularity every year. More than 1,500 people competed to qualify for the 100 slots at the 2013 event, where $63,000 in prize money was on the line.
Held on Saturday at The Chop Shop, a combination butcher shop, restaurant, and event space in Chicago, the venue was packed with people crowding around the stage where competitors went head-to-head shooting everything from lions to fireworks to simple targets. Spectators watched the action from overhead balconies. The walls were lined with Buck Hunter machines, which were almost always occupied. Between rounds, a camouflage-clad emcee tried to pump up the crowd, though he was nearly unintelligible over the music and noise of the games. A giant screen displayed the standings in the double-elimination tournament, positioned right next to the Pappy’s Jug trophy, which bears the names of all the previous winners.
Play Mechanix doesn’t do much to market the event, so the spectators were mostly limited to serious Big Buck Hunter players like Marc Christopher of Chicago, who said he likes to drop by to watch every year with his friends. “I think we’re all too scared to participate in the competition,” Christopher said.
Many players brought huge groups of friends and family with them—many of whom were dressed in custom shirts sponsored by hometown businesses. Derks Naumann of Berkley, Michigan, was competing along with his two brothers, his sister, and his brothers’ girlfriends. Naumann’s mom came out for the affair, too, and the entire Naumann contingent wore matching turquoise T-shirts declaring in hot pink letters “We don’t doe out,” meaning they won’t end their turns by accidentally shooting a female deer. A few of them spiced up the uniform by wearing coyote-skin hats made from a trio of coyotes the family trapped on their Michigan farm. (The varmints had been harassing the Naumanns’ chickens.) One of the brothers wore a cowhide cape, another product of their farm. Set on 180 acres, the family also uses the Michigan land to hunt actual deer. “I just like killing things and eating them,” Naumann said. “Nobody wants mad cow disease.”
Naumann has been hunting since he was 14. He doesn’t drink when he’s handling real guns, but he’s happy to imbibe at the local bar while playing some Buck Hunter. In the days leading up to the tournament, he said he played four to five times a week, sometimes for six to eight hours at a time.
Celina Fugate of Portland, Oregon sat at a table in the restaurant portion of the space caring for her five-week-old, camouflage-clad daughter while her husband, Matt Peterson, competed inside. She said she’s also played Buck Hunter for a few years, and she competed in the prior night’s Ladies Tournament along with her friend Kelly DeForrest. When asked why they play, Fugute said she does it “to support our men.” DeForrest explained, “If not, you’re just sitting there.”
“Family comes first, and then the game” is the motto of Bryan Stooksbury of Powell, Tennessee, who missed the tournament last year due to a family obligation. He won more than $15,000 playing in online tournaments during 2013, he said, and was looking to add to his haul with some head-to-head matches. He said he plays five to six days a week at a local barbecue restaurant, where a friend introduced him to the game seven years ago. “I didn’t like getting beat, so I used to come there when he didn’t know to practice so I could beat him,” he said. Stooksbury soon surpassed his friend, and eventually, he couldn’t find anyone in the area to play him. “I was the best player in Tennessee. I just wanted to be the best in the game.”
Last year, that title went to Chris Fream of Minneapolis. He and his roommate, Mike Bryne, showed up in New York for the championship without a place to stay. Bryne won third place at the tournament after Fream eliminated him in the semi-final round, but he also met and started dating a “Buck Hunter girl,” a promoter dressed in skimpy camouflage gear. “We took a lot out of New York,” Fream said.
Fream and Bryne started playing together eight years ago when they were both working as bartenders in Minneapolis. “We would just stay at the bar to 3 or 4 a.m. drinking beers, playing [Big Buck Hunter] Safari,” Fream said. “I think what made us so good is playing against each other.”
Bryne said his new job as a sales rep for Tenth And Blake Beer Company keeps him from playing as much as he used to—and he admits that the online battle-arena game League Of Legends has been taking more of his time lately. But in the two months before the tournament, he warmed up by spending three to four nights a week at a dive bar a few blocks from his house. At Saturday’s competition, he was hung over from enjoying the open bar at the Ladies Tournament, and he sipped a cocktail to help calm him down between rounds. “It’s amazingly stressful and nerve-wracking,” Bryne said. “My first game, I was shaking. You’ve just, at the end of the day, got to remember it’s just a game.”