When the Kong Off 1 began, few would have picked Eric Howard as a favorite. He was one among the majority of the lineup that most of the crowd had never heard of before, an unfamiliar face who would need to prove himself to them by showing that there were players other than Billy, Steve, and Hank who could play some serious Donkey Kong.
That he did.
On his very first full game, the Rhode Island owner of a computer repair business struck a chord of fear into the lineup with a massive 941,000, reaching the kill screen with a life to spare.
"The crowd only knew me as the guy sitting next to Steve Wiebe. Now they know me as the guy who got a kill screen while sitting beside Steve Wiebe," he told Examiner.com just after the game ended.
With an early and impressive lead score to go after, Howard set the tone, and defined the trajectory of the event.
Suddenly they had a ball game on their hands, and it became known to all that a simple low-pace kill screen wasn't going to cut it.
In Dean Saglio's words, "the bar was raised and everyone now was forced to point press their games if they wanted to try and win the event."
Ross Benziger, playing a few machines over, later congratulated Howard for "accomplishing exactly what every other competitor was hoping to do, set a score early and then get drunk."
Howard, whose first love is actually Popeye (and on which he holds the second highest score ever recorded), is the only competitor at the Kong Off 2 who has yet to score a million points on Donkey Kong. He was invited back based on his strong showing at the first event, and his obvious ability to bring the pain on demand.
He cites a lack of much practice as his weakness. His strength? "My haircut."
By beating Billy Mitchell and coming in behind only Hank Chien and Steve Wiebe, the message Howard sent at the first Kong Off was clear: don't underestimate the lesser-known players.
Howard's goal for the weekend is to break a million for the first time live and in person, thereby setting an early lead, and then head straight for the bar "to party with all the fans and my friends."
Not the most analytical of tournament strategies, but it sure seemed to work well last time.
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