This is risky.
If you're the guy with the Donkey Kong blog, people want to know how you're calling the Kong Off 2 (and will feel cheated if you don't!) But you never know who you might offend.
So at the risk of ruffling feathers, here is how I break down this year's lineup.
Rather than rank the players individually by predicted finishing place—which would be foolish when it comes to a game with this many short-term variables—I will separate them into three classes, four players in each class.
Note that this is not an estimation of each players skill, or of their long-term potential. These are simply my best guesses, based on the players' present experience, past performance, and the sum of the information I am privy to.
Hank Chien is the ultimate "gimme" for this category. The only player ever to have passed 1.1 million on an arcade machine (not counting Billy Mitchell rumors), regarded as possibly the most consistent "do it on demand" player, and the winner of last year's Kong Off. Does anything else need to be said? Hank's biggest obstacle is likely to be the psychological pressure of nearly all eyes being on him as the favorite. We'll see if he can fight through it.
Steve Wiebe's second-place showing at the first Kong Off speaks for itself. "Don't worry... Wiebe will put up 985," is a running joke among several of us. It's a score that Wiebe seems to like. First it was his world record submission in May, 2004. Then he performed 985,600 live at Funspot a year later (as seen in The King of Kong). His score at last year's Kong Off just before jetting out of town? He switched things up a little—986,900. The question is whether or not the Wiebe Standard will be good enough to win this year among a much stronger field. And like Billy Mitchell, there is some skepticism surrounding how prepared and practiced Wiebe will be for the tournament.
Dean Saglio is not fully comfortable on the arcade machine, which is a big handicap, but he's obviously too good a player not to place among the front-runners. Saglio, whose battle cry is "big, big, big!" will also have to fight the temptation to play at full-throttle, which pushes players into risky situations. Some would say that this is the exact problem that kept Ross Benziger, another player who has a hard time toning it down, from putting up a bigger score last year (and from showing the all-time leaderboard how good he actually is). Risky games end prematurely, rarely living to "cash in" on their pace. We know that Dean can ease back, and that he can make do with a joystick, but let's see how it plays out in practice.
Vincent Lemay is going into this riding the momentum of a huge recent score that puts him only behind Hank on the arcade platform, and a level of determination and confidence that rides the border of mania. Actually, it may be well over that border. Lemay made his big recent game look easy, and that sort of performance automatically bestows a psychological edge over the competition. Of course, this isn't direct competition, and one can never have that edge over the machine. Donkey Kong doesn't care how good you feel, and he'll never be intimidated.
Jeff Willms is in the second tier for two reasons: first, I have no idea (and he probably has no idea) how he will adapt to the live venue. Second, Willms tells me that he has literally never played on an arcade cabinet. He does, however, describe himself as "resistant to fatigue" from his days in long, drawn-out chess tournaments. He estimates his chances of winning at "22.3%". While I didn't actually see the work that went into this math, I'll be the last person to doubt that it's correct.
Ben Falls is going to show us his true power this year. I just have that feeling. He's "The Crusher" for a reason. Having said that, one must doubt whether a jack-of-all games can also be the master of the most contested one. Unlike each of the front-runners, Falls is not a Donkey Kong specialist, he just happens to be really good at it. Everyone should keep an eye on him regardless.
Mark Kiehl had a very strong 2012, and is now fourth on the all-time leaderboard. He might very well emerge as the big surprise this year. Kiehl is a veteran gamer and no stranger to playing (and setting records), amidst the chaos and noise of a live venue. However, while I think he is ultimately destined for a leaderboard score of over 1.1 million, he doesn't yet have as much Donkey Kong experience as my top picks.
Billy Mitchell is probably not a name you were expecting to see in the second tier. Why not a front-runner? It's not because he isn't that good, but because I subscribe to the feeling going around that Billy will be underprepared again, like he was at the first Kong Off. Unlike many of the other competitors, Billy has nothing left to prove, and doesn't seem particularly enthused to do so. We're worried that he'll show up dressed to the nines but playing his C-game, at the Kong Off more to put in an appearance than to seriously compete. Prove us wrong, Billy!
Kyle Goewert seems like the ultimate nice guy, and I'd love to see him defy the old cliché about nice guys and where they finish. However, I'm wary about his chances. Goewert has only played a single million-point game, it wasn't a huge million, and he came in next-to-last of the lineup at the first Kong Off. As I said from the outset, I have to go by results. Goewert is, nonetheless, a skilled and highly-acclaimed gamer, so I won't be too shocked if he gets a hold of a good score.
Eric Howard is the only player at the Kong Off 2 who has never played a million-point game, and in fact trails the field significantly in terms of personal best scores. However, he finished third at the first event (and was invited back for that reason), so he's a bit of an enigma. Howard seems to have the most relaxed attitude about the tournament, and Donkey Kong in general. I think he'd rather play Popeye. Not that there's anything wrong with that...
Dave McCrary and I seem to have some things in common, one of which is that we are both what I would call "zone sensitive." Things need to be just right, both in our brains and in our surroundings, for us to play as well as we are capable of playing. I can tell by the way he talks about it that he, like me, struggles with being "tuned to the right frequency." If there's a way to control that particular dial, I haven't found it. McCrary's Kong Off 1 was a bust score-wise (one of the reasons why I have to put him in this tier), but by no means is he a weak player. It's all a matter of whether he can find the right flow.
Shaun Boyd (listed last only because somebody has to be), is among my underdog picks largely because I know too little about his play to feel safe putting him higher. What I know from tracking his progress in a Twin Galaxies journal thread is that he leapt from a score in the mid-700s directly to 1,037,000 in a game that he described in that thread as "very lucky." I'm not going to use the "f" word, because you don't get over a million on a fluke, but it's a place he's only been once. However, I also get the feeling that he's one of the hungriest to prove himself, and given the relatively high number of views on his player profile, seems to have a lot of friends in his court.
WildcardsWildcards are absolutely worth talking about as a collective, and there's going to be some truly strong and underestimated competitition coming from those machines.
However, each individual wildcard competitor is playing with a massive disadvantage that has nothing to do with his or her level of experience or personal best score: they have to share the machine. Any one player won't get nearly as much time to put up their best as the the players on dedicated machines. I would pick even Chien as a longshot to win the tournament if he were on a wildcard!
Make no mistake though, as a group these players will be a factor, and a force to be reckoned with. Ben Mazowita, a wildcard at the first Kong Off, managed to take 8th place with a very respectable 817,800, beating four of the "dedicated" players. Something like that could easily happen again.
In fact, knowing the skills of some of this year's wildcard competitors, I'm going to predict that a wildcard will take one of the top 5 spots.
My Pick to Win
Brace yourselves. My choice is not the most obvious.
I'm not going with Hank.
I'm not going with Dean either.
Nor Steve. Or Billy.
My man to take it all is Canada's hero, the Shirtless Wonder, Vincent Lemay!
Why? Because everything seems to be in the right place for Vincent psychologically, he's in peak shape at the game, and because there is no question about his ability to (comfortably and sustainably) play at a nearly Chien-level pace on an arcade machine, whereas that can't be said of anyone else but Billy Mitchell. Saglio may be the ultimate on MAME, but this isn't MAME.
So why not Chien? Simple: the psychological burden of expectation. Hank is humble enough to know that there are players who can beat him, and if his weekend gets off to a slow start (or someone else's to a big one), it's going to hang over him in a way that it won't hang over anybody else, and make the game that much more difficult. It's everyone else's tournament to win, but Chien's to lose.
Other Things To Consider
- Leaderboard spots don't tell the whole story when it comes to skill and experience. There's a big difference between a player who has scored a million points once, giving their absolute best effort in the process, and one who has done it so many times that it's barely notable anymore.
- Related to the above, what's risky and difficult for some players isn't so much for others. 1,050,000 pace, for example, is beyond some players' comfort zones, but well within others', even when all players are technically able to play at that pace. In assessing his own chances, Dean Saglio put it this way: "I am capable of generating more pace than nearly all other competitors and will likely be able to play a scaled back, lower risk game that can still outpace most of the other players' all out games."
- The MAME-oriented players (Saglio and Willms) really do play at a disadvantage. It seems that the more refined a player's keyboard game is, the harder a time he has adjusting to arcade controls. (I personally had no problem making the transition, but that's because I'm a point-dumping slob.) Truly elite play is precise, and sensitive to subtle physics. On a keyboard, input is direct and movement is instantaneous. It's either/or. A joystick is more mechanical, and actually has to move from one place to another, with a neutral point inbetween. It's a fraction of a second, but it makes a difference. Some moves are simply harder, perhaps not even physically possible, on arcade-style controls. Saglio and Willms will have to remind themselves not to do those things.
- The public misperceives Chien's chances. The Kong Off 2 is far from the auto-win for him that so many are making it out to be. The problem with Donkey Kong is that the public's attention goes almost exclusively to whoever holds the number-one spot. They don't realize that when Hank is hammering away at the top score, beating it five times in row, it's not a lonely ego-trip by a guy playing totally in his own league, it's a genuine hustle because there are half a dozen other players chasing right behind him, arms outstretched, only a few tiny steps behind wrapping their fingers around the record!
In any case, one thing I can say for sure is that all twelve of the featured players (and probably most of the wildcards) are better Donkey Kong players than I am, so take my assessment with a grain of salt. I wish them all good luck.