Players arrived from both coasts to chase their polygonal dreams this weekend in the face of elite competition at Richfield Best Buy.
The site was one of eight Best Buy stores in the country to host qualifying rounds for the 2017 Nintendo World Championships. All ages were eligible to compete as they wore out their thumbs on Mario Kart 7 for the Nintendo 3DS.
With no limit to how many attempts a competitor could make in the all-ages contest, gamers lined up repeatedly in efforts to shave milliseconds in time trial competition.
“Some of these people have played 30, 40, 60 races. They’re just here all day, we’ve had people here all weekend,” said tournament producer Ed Murray.
In a competition divided by two age groups, the winner of the 12-and-under bracket couldn’t remember how many times he used the tournament’s designated character, Mario, to circle the Luigi’s Mansion track. “Countless,” said 8-year-old Steven Gordon, who flew in from Anaheim, California, with his mother just for the competition.
It became immediately clear the trip was worth it. Although the tournament was a blur, Steven could have stopped after his first try, he recounted, notching a winning time of 1:51:630 on his initial effort.
“I randomly just magically did a very good time,” Steven said.
Something went right, because with two qualifying rounds remaining, Steven’s performance was the best of tournament to-date, according to an unofficial fan-compiled scoring summary.
It’s helped that he’s played Mario Kart 7 for at least 4 years. And the game has occupied more of Steven’s attention in the lead-up to the World Championships.
“Ever since we found out about this competition, it’s been all about practice pretty non-stop for about three weeks,” said Steven’s mother, Stephanie Gordon.
The Richfield qualifying round was Steven’s second attempt to secure a trip to New York. The previous weekend, he competed close to home in Los Angeles, faring well enough that it seemed reasonable another week of practice could put him over the top.
“Once we found out that he was a pretty good contender, the decision was probably made,” Stephanie Gordon said. “We had faith in him, so we decided, you know, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Steven said he found the edge he needed the previous weekend in Los Angeles, where he got a tip from that round’s winner, whose time he would ultimately beat in Minneapolis. “He told me the strategy that got me that time,” said Gordon, not willing to divulge the tweak.
He wasn’t the only gamer taking a second try. That several competitors flew halfway across the country for one more chance to make the final round was all the evidence needed that the stakes were high inside the Richfield Best Buy this weekend.
The tension peaked as the clock wound down on Sunday, as players made their last gasps, and leaders ground out some extra races for good measure.
Kyle Stoeger took the lead with a little less than an hour left to play. The 19-year-old from Appleton, Wisconsin, would hold on for victory, as his 1:14:918 on the Bowser Castle course proved durable enough for the Minneapolis 13-and-older group, which was played with the character Bowser. Stoeger’s time was fast enough for fourth-place amongst all qualifying rounds.
Stoeger had suspected the four-hour drive would be worth it. “I was confident because I’ve been playing this for almost five years now,” he said.
He was dialed in last Sunday after a tune-up the day before. “Last night I played for probably like three hours straight,” Stoeger said minutes after registering his top time.
He’s got about a month to polish that gem of a run as he trains for New York. But before the championship round, the tournament will stop for qualifying rounds in Seattle and Miami.
Aside from Richfield, the host cities to-date were New York, the San Francisco Bay area, Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas.
It was in Chicago where the third-place finisher in Minneapolis’ 12-and-under bracket discovered he could compete on Mario Kart’s big stage. Oakley Knapp, 10, accompanied his older brother to the qualifying round there, where it turned out to be the younger sibling’s talents that stood out, despite a lack of practice, according to his father.
“We flew over from Michigan because we’re crazy,” Bob Knapp said. But it was a calculated move, considering how close Oakley came in Chicago.
As he gutted out some last-ditch attempts, it became clear what so easily could have been. His non-stop efforts got him the third-best score out of the six venues to host the tournament so far. Unfortunately for him, that was still only good enough for the third-best time in Richfield.
With a lineup filled with tournament-tested gamers, the local venue proved to be the toughest proving grounds yet in the 12-and-under age group.
“In hindsight,” Bob Knapp said, “I should have been in Dallas today.”
Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @RISunCurrent.