Take 5: Arcade ace Danny Arbuckle before the 2016 Big Buck World Championships | SummitDaily.com

Take 5: Arcade ace Danny Arbuckle before the 2016 Big Buck World Championships

Interviewed by
Phil Lindeman
plindeman@summitdaily.com

Editor's note: For more about the Big Buck World Championship, including video from the 2015 event and Arbuckle's training routine in the Eric's arcade, see the sports section at http://www.summitdaily.com.

He's known these days as the Man In Black.

Almost exactly a year ago, 21-year-old Summit County native Danny Arbuckle traveled to the Hard Rock Hotel in Chicago for the 2015 Big Buck World Championship. (Yes, it's a thing.) For the occasion, he wore a suit of solid black — pants, coat and dress shirt, complete with Mafia-style bowler hat — and stood out in a room full of arcade junkies dressed in cargo shorts, homemade team jerseys and sweatpants, like a discarded scene from the bowling alley in "The Big Lebowski."

Arbuckle had qualified for the world championship once before in 2014. He'd just started working part-time as a busser for Downstairs At Eric's and traveled on a whim to Minneapolis that year with Chris Fadler and Geoff Watson, co-owners of the Eric's arcade. The three were blown away by the intense competition: Arbuckle placed 56th of 64 competitors, and he was the only player from Colorado to qualify. He still won $100 for playing an arcade game, but he wanted to do better in 2015 — much, much better.

"I have to be honest," Fadler said when I met with he, Watson and the Man In Black at the downtown Breckenridge arcade. "He's stone-cold when he gets in the zone."

Last hunting season, Arbuckle qualified again, flew to Chicago with Fadler and Watson, donned the suit and started climbing up the championship bracket. Like Call of Duty or most other organized video-game competitions — there are dozens — the Buck Hunter World Championship is run similar to a baseball or volleyball tournament, with head-to-head play and double-elimination winner's and loser's brackets to determine the king and queen. (Yes, there are men's and women's tourneys.)

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The Man In Black came out of nowhere to finish fifth overall — it was one of the biggest jumps in the championship's nine-year history — and earned $2,000 cash after losing to the eventual champion, Trevor Gartner, who took home the $15,000 grand prize.

That sleeper performance at the Hard Rock earned Arbuckle his nickname (given by the game designers themselves) and put him on the map as a master Buck Hunter. But Breck's Man In Black still wasn't of a satisfied mind. This year, he returns to the championship after spending about $350 in quarters to qualify — global Big Buck rankings are hosted by an online system that tracks tens of thousands of players on 2,000-plus machines — and his sights are set on one thing: the crown, plus a $20,000 grand prize.

Before his third trip to the championship this weekend, the Summit Daily met with Arbuckle and the arcade owners to talk about training in a basement bar on Main Street and the wide, weird world of near-professional Big Buck.

Summit Daily News: You were born and raised in Summit County. Did you grow up coming to Eric's?

DA: Yeah, I was always coming down here to play video games. I actually got a job playing video games: I play NBA Jamz and I told Chris, "If I can get the Grand Champion score on Jamz, you'll give me a job." And I did, so he did.

SDN: How long did it take to get the Jamz grand champ score?

DA: $200 in quarters. This was like three years ago, so recently. Getting good at it was more of a casual thing for me, but Buck Hunter was something everyone else was playing. There's a bartender and a server who played and I started challenging them to it. I figured I could earn my stripes that way.

SDN: How did you go from playing bartenders to qualifying for the world championship?

DA: After I beat everyone I could beat here, I decided it was time to get the high score for everything — beat all the local high scores. I started seeing the advertisements for the tournament that first year, when you only had to play for a month, and when I qualified I thought, "Cool. I'm now qualified for a video game."

SDN: How did it feel, then, to get worked so badly at your first championship?

DA: I was only 19, and if anything, this is a drinking party. I was young and just sat there thinking, "I can't drink." It becomes a community though. There are people who have been going for six years and they know each other really well. It was only a few games before and, now, it's getting much bigger. I think it really started to explode the first year I went.

SDN: After that first year, you were committed to training for the next championship. What did that look like?

DA: It's memorization. That is the big thing — knowing where the animals appear. There are also a lot of little things, like cocking and loading the gun. Before, I would cock, shoot, cock, shoot. Now, I can cock six or seven times and shoot six or seven times in a row. It's what everyone there does.

The hardest part was finding someone to play with. There was a girl here who played with me almost every night we worked together, but she got fired like three weeks before the tournament. That was last year. This year, it was a struggle because no one wants to put in that work. It's a lot of work. That last day (of qualification) was stressful as hell.

SDN: Yes, you said you spent about $200 in one day to qualify this year. What else was stressful?

DA: It gets tiresome standing up. My legs got tired so I had to pull up a stool and sit down. Last year, I qualified for the skill base, but it was 31 (people), not 24 like it is this year. I knew I had to get into the wild card this time… I could see all these other guys across the country getting more and more points. Midnight rolled by and the game told me, "You can't play anymore." I like to say there are only two stressful days for Buck Hunter, and that's the last day of qualifying and the world championships.

SDN: This is your third year traveling to worlds. How do you hope things go?

DA: Obviously I want to get first. I want to beat Trevor Gartner. He's the one who beat me last year — he beat me first round — and he's the only multi-time champion. Last year, I think the moment got to me. Everyone wanted to start doing interviews with me, saying I had the biggest jump ever from one year to the next. They were like, "Where did this guy come from?" Plus, I was 20, and they were like, "This guy is 20 years old — he can't even drink yet. He has an unfair advantage."

SDN: You said that worlds has been getting bigger and bigger since 2014. What do you expect this year?

DA: It might be tougher, but it might not be. The wild card is bigger than ever before, and there are a lot of guys who have qualified who just didn't qualify this year. The wild card might bring in more youth. It's a pay-to-play sort of thing: I'm sure some guys spent $2,000 to get enough points. It just sucks for the skill-based players because there are only so many spots. I'm a wild card qualifier myself, so I'll be down at the bottom.

SDN: Chris says you're "stone-cold" when it's time to compete. Talk about nerves: Do they hit you when you're playing?

DA: Once we start, everything else drowns out. But the nerves leading up to it… (paused). It's like pacing back and forth. I stay most of the night in the practice area, where you can play and practice and stay fresh. It's friendly, but nerve-wracking. The main thing I have to remember is just keep breathing (mimed breathing). I do these breathing exercises to calm the nerves. If you're shaking, you're going to be inaccurate.

SDN: Do you get out into the field for hunting?

DA: No. Hunting in real life is very different than this. I've seen real-life hunters try to play this and they try to get that kill shot right away. That's not how this works. Sometimes, in the tournament, you don't get that immediate kill shot, and then someone can come in ana steal a kill. There are a lot of kill skills — you need three shots to put one down.

SDN: Does that fit into your strategy?

DA: Yes, and there is strategy, and it's hard to tell if you're not playing it. The larger the animal, the more points you get; the smaller, the less points. They added bighorn sheep this year and they'll get you hardly any points. I don't bother with them. Before, the year before, were Irish elk and those will get you a ton of points. There's also something called a doe-out: If someone gets a doe, their gun gets turned off, and then the other guy gets to hop in. That's when you can rack up points. Some people might also be switch hitters, going right-handed, then left-handed.

SDN: Are you a switch shooter?

DA: No, and it's because of the sighting. I'm just better with my right eye.

SDN: Other than playing the game, how else are you preparing?

DA: This year will be different. I've got family in Austin: my grandma is still there, my aunt is still there, then my family from Dillon will fly out. That is the pressure this year. I'm thinking, "Everyone bought tickets, they've already bought into it." I guess I don't feel as confident as last year because I didn't have someone to train with, but I know what to expect with the crowd and all the people. One of the (Big Buck) creators picked me to win — they have their own Twitch (live-streaming) program every Thursday — and in the first episode they said, "I pick Man In Black to win."

2016 Big Buck World Championships

What: The 9th world championships for Buck Hunter, an arcade game featuring big-game hunting targets and a plastic pump-action rifle, with a prize purse of $100,000

When: Friday and Saturday, Nov. 4-5

Where: The Belmont in Austin, Texas

Cost: $130 for VIP tickets

The 2016 world championship is open to 64 male competitors: 59 Americans, four Australians and one Canadian, with 24 ranked players and 40 “wild card” qualifiers (determined by points earned during the May to September Big Buck hunting season). The ladies’ championship is open to 32 competitors, and both events are open to females. Sponsors will stream both days of the championship live through Twitch at http://www.twitch.tv/bigbuckHD.

For more info about the championship, see http://www.bigbuckHD.com/world.

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