This post is part of a longform project I’m serializing exclusively in my newsletter, Disruptor. It’s a follow-up to my first book, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Built an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, and it’s called Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future. You can find the table of contents, as it unfolds, here. To follow along, please subscribe below. Thanks!
This story of mine originally appeared as “Kid Rock” in Blender magazine, March 26th, 2009
Blake Peebles flops onto his bed in his royal-blue bedroom at 2 A.M., as his raven-haired mom, Hunter, comes to his door. “Can I dim the light for you, honey?” she asks with a warm smile.
Blake, a skinny 16-year-old with shaggy brown hair and translucent braces, is barefoot in baggy shorts and an overlarge red T-shirt. Words bubble slowly from the side of his mouth like comic-book speech balloons. “Yeah,” he mumbles, as his mom darkens the room. But she’s not putting him night-night. She’s helping him to better see the video game he’s playing: Guitar Hero III.
With a stone-cold stare, Blake selects the game’s most feared track, U.K. shredders DragonForce’s “Through the Fire and Flames,” a speed-metal explosion known reverently among gamers only by its acronym: “TTFAF.” Over the next eight minutes, a ridiculous 3,772 notes whiz by in a bone-crushing, finger-fucking downpour of Skittle-colored pain. Clutching his plastic guitar, Blake answers each spray of falling discs with lightning-fast taps of the matching multicolored buttons. As his left hand spider strikes the rainbow keys, his right deftly double-flicks the strum bar. Most players would be ecstatic just to finish “TTFAF.” Blake scores 750,000—and several times he wasn’t even looking at the screen.
Blake is a professional Guitar Hero player. He has dedicated his life to the franchise, which has become a pop-culture phenomenon and raked in more than $1 billion in North American retail sales since debuting in late 2005. Tonight he is practicing for a Guitar Hero III tournament being held 10 hours from now in his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina.
Training is a family affair in this well-appointed suburban home. Tucker—Blake’s crew-cut 18-year-old jock brother, best friend and coach—is sparring with him. Though Blake is soft-spoken, his ego is palpable as he tosses a wry post-“TTFAF” glance at his brother. After Tucker screws up his own game, he moans, “God, I hate it when I do that!” “And I love it!” Blake cracks. The boys’ stocky dad, Mike, a successful real-estate developer and local basketball coach, strides into the room with a black playbook tucked under his arm. The binder is stuffed with Star Power charts—intricate graphs detailing game strategy—downloaded from the Internet.
As the presence of the playbook indicates, Blake is dead serious about Guitar Hero. Last year, in a development the envy of teenage nerds everywhere, he dropped out of his private Christian school to stay home and thoroughly master the game—with his parents’ blessing. “We know this isn’t the traditional path,” Mike says. “But one life doesn’t fit all.”
Blake spends most of his time alone in his bedroom, which has been transformed into a gamer’s gym. There are a half dozen consoles and a jumble of plastic guitars. His bed is set on the floor at optimal TV-viewing height.
Typically, Blake awakes at noon, checks Facebook, nibbles on a Pop-Tart, then warms up with a couple hours of game play. His parents hired a home-schooling tutor but, after deeming it too pricey, enrolled Blake in an online high school called The MorningStar Academy instead. Blake spends three hours a day clicking through classwork and IMing teachers, then he’s back to the Xbox 360 for another 10 hours. He still plays the occasional shooter like Gears of War 2 but devotes most of his time to Guitar Hero. He usually puts down his ax at around 5 a.m., just as his dad is getting up for work.
His dedication is paying off. Though Guitar Hero has no unified ranking system, Blake is considered one of the best players in the world. Online, he has held top-five spots in each of Guitar Hero III’s most difficult songs, and he has finished first in all but two tourneys. In October, he beat out 5,000 players to land a Top 10 debut at the national finals of the World Cyber Games, which WCG exec Aaron Smolick describes as the “Olympics” of video games.
Smolick sees the sport growing into something like pro skateboarding. But he admits these are still the Dogtown years of cybersports. “It’s a hobby, and only a handful of pro guys make six figures,” he says. “Players shouldn’t drop out of school to do this, but that’s up to them.”
Right now, success on the Guitar Hero circuit is measured in bragging rights, not cash. In 2008, Blake won about $2,500, a dozen game systems and a year’s supply of Chick-fil-A sandwiches. “It’s still way more than he’d ever make mowing lawns,” defends his dad. Mike eagerly shows off a PowerPoint presentation that he and Blake have prepared. The first slide, titled “Blake Peebles Promotions: Guitar Hero Phenom,” includes a wistful photo of Blake posing in a T-shirt with the slogan THE VACATION NEVER ENDS. The plan is built around parlaying Blake’s unlikely fame into the more lucrative first-person-shooter circuit of games such as Halo 2 and Counter-Strike. One player, Johnathan Wendel, better known as Fatal1ty, has earned more than $500,000 in this scene.
Movie producers are interested in Blake’s story, and talk shows and potential sponsors are calling. A soda company wanted Blake to endorse its beverage, but backed out after learning he has diabetes. “We told them it’s only Type 1 diabetes,” recalls his dad, bitterly. “Blake can have sugar!”
While Blake’s mastery of the plastic ax is notable, it pales in comparison to one of the most amazing feats in all of teenage history: convincing your parents to let you drop out of school to stay home and play video games.
Blake felt out of place growing up in Tar Heel country, where boys are expected to play sports—the more the better. On top of that, life at home was tough. His 13-year-old sister was born with Kabuki syndrome, a rare condition that leaves her mentally and physically challenged. She’s prone to seizures, and at one point, Blake’s dad donated a kidney to keep her alive. With two working parents and his sister’s constant need for care, Blake and Tucker were often left to another guardian. “The video game was like a babysitter for them,” Mike says, casting down his eyes.
Video games had Blake at Halo. “I was better than anyone right away,” he says. “And I realized I loved doing this.” He and his pals started holding all-night game sessions every Saturday, and Blake came to life with the camaraderie. He even scored a girlfriend, thanks to his increased confidence.
Blake didn’t care much about movies or TV. All he wanted to do was game. By eighth grade, he began getting into trouble at school, partly because he was going unchallenged. Blake, who tested three grades ahead of his class, would finish math work quickly and spend the rest of class cracking fart jokes with his friends. His grades slipped. Detentions followed.
But his own health issues soon made him take his life more seriously. At 14, he was diagnosed with diabetes; he now walks around with a tube sticking in his stomach that feeds him insulin from a small device in his pocket. That same year, on Halloween, he stepped out of the bushes to cross the street when a car hit him head-on at 50 mph. When told he is lucky to have survived, he’s typically deadpan: “It wasn’t luck; it was skill.”
Stuck at home recuperating, Blake honed his skills at Halo 2, becoming a formidable killer online. He took a nickname, Dreminem, after his two favorite hip-hop artists. When he got his paws on Guitar Hero II, he found he had an even greater natural talent. “I got to expert level in one hour,” Blake says.
Guitar Hero turned him on to rock. He discovered Guns N’ Roses and Red Hot Chili Peppers, and saw his first concert, by former GNR axman Buckethead, after becoming a fan throughGH. “Oh, my God, it was, like, crazy!” he gushes. “You see his fingers up close in real life and they’re moving so fast and so precise. Everything he does sounds perfect!”
Blake began slaying the competition at the equivalent of neighborhood b-ball courts: local game-store tourneys. Soon, he told his parents, “School’s a waste of time. I want to be a professional gamer.”
“Yeah, you and every other kid,” his dad replied. But after sufficient nagging, his parents reconsidered. Hunter had always dreamed of being a dancer, and proved her doubting father wrong by opening her own studio, which she runs to this day. As a basketball coach, Mike prided himself on encouraging his players. “Here I am telling these other kids to go and find your passion,” Mike recalls. “But I’m not listening to my own son, just because his passion isn’t mine.” So Mike told Blake, “Show me your game plan.”
Blake hit the Web with an academic fervor, reading up on pro-gaming leagues, the industry, the sponsorships, the future. He typed up a business plan, tallying potential tournament prize money and highlighting successful players like Fatal1ty. His parents wanted Blake to have a fallback vocation, like video-game development, but let their son have a shot at it. “Most people think we’re insane,” admits Mike, who has sparred with message-boards critics calling the Peebles everything from “losers” to “assholes.” “The online stuff was rough,” Mike says. “I went back and forth with people for a while, but Blake doesn’t care what people think. He was always the levelheaded one.”
“Blake, come downstairs, we gotta roll,” calls Mike from the kitchen the morning of the tourney. Blake, who was up until 3 a.m. practicing, ambles downstairs clutching his signature baby-blue ax. He hits the road on only Pop-Tarts and insulin.
As Blake strides confidently into the Play N Trade store in a nearby strip mall, it’s clear his reputation precedes him. The crowd—a couple dozen people, mainly teens, mostly dudes—immediately takes notice. Blake smiles slyly.
“Oh, shit, if he’s playing, I’m out of here,” mutters one kid. Blake offers an apologetic shrug. “Hello, shatterer of my dreams,” cracks Blake’s local rival, Richard “D!ck” Dingee, a doughy 23-year-old corrections officer wearing a tuxedo T-shirt, a pentagram necklace and an Avenged Sevenfold cap.
The previous month, as his competitors know, Blake stunned Guitar Hero elders by besting 21-year-old favorite Michael “Priest” Holmes at the WCG USA National Final tournament in Los Angeles. “Blake seems pretty composed, so he doesn’t make many mistakes,” says Holmes. “And he’s only 16. That kid’s going to be one of the best players ever.” In the end, Blake finished in the top 10; he was knocked out of the competition by a 20-year-old student named Thomas “Witwix” Burke, who went on to take home the grand prize of $3,000, a digital camera and a trip to Germany.
Today, Blake takes out Dingee in the first round, then offs three other slack-jawed victims. In the finals, the ref calls out “TTFAF,” and the audience actually gasps. Blake will win this one easily, taking home the new Guitar Hero World Tour. The consolation prize is a chocolate-chip cookie. Before the face-off, Blake’s opponent, lanky 26-year-old Andres “Shinobiac” Colon, jokes, “Can I have my cookie now?” When “TTFAF” unleashes its flurry of discs, Colon fumbles and the score meter quickly swings in Blake’s direction.
Earlier, Blake confided that life as a star gamer isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be: “It stops being fun anymore, and it starts to get boring.” Plus, he misses the social life at school, and having a girlfriend—she broke up with him for playing too much Guitar Hero. He hints that he might go back for senior year, so he can have one last shot at a normal kid’s life.
But he’s not a normal kid anymore. He’s a guitar hero for real. And, like any pro, he knows when to put on a show. With the crowd of geeks fawning over him, Blake takes his eyes off the game mid-song. Fingers blurring over his guitar, he stares up at the ceiling as the candy-colored discs rain down onscreen. And he doesn’t miss a note.