The three most oft-repeated phrases I hear over any Thanksgiving celebration with my family are, in order:
“Pass the turkey, please.”
“Want another drink?”
Like any proud (Filipino) American family, we give thanks that we may eat well, drink well and tear up the local Counter-Strike server. While the older folks gather around the karaoke machine and croon the same ’80s pop tunes every year, my middle school-aged cousins cluster around our motley collection of PCs, and without fail, “Boom, headshot!” resounds throughout the house. This is because, from gamer geeks in the Netherlands to my 12-year-old cousin in California to my college roommates who got me hooked on the show three years ago, everyone watches Pure Pwnage.
Pure Pwnage (pronounced “ownage”) began as nothing more than a clip for Geoff Lapaire, a Canadian graduate student in physics, to test out some new video editing software. The clip in question wasn’t just any stock footage, however; it starred budding stand-up comedian and fellow hardcore gamer Jarett Cale, newly addicted to Command and Conquer: Generals – Zero Hour, and his exaggerated performance became the basis of one of the internet’s biggest independent media successes. Cale plays Jeremy, a capital-P Pro Gamer, and together with Lapaire as his brother Kyle, he leads the audience through a half-fantastic, half-realistic look at the life of a pro gamer. Now, four years and 16 episodes later, Pure Pwnage is a full-time enterprise with a worldwide fan base in the millions, an adoring online community and a flawless grasp of “gamer cool” that has won them the hearts and minds of the hardcore gaming audience. For better or for worse, Pure Pwnage has made Jeremy’s signature pelvic thrust the universal sign of total gaming domination.
So how do they do it? What could my young cousins and college roommates have in common with millions of others across the world?
“Inspiration for the show pretty much comes from our gaming experiences online and an exaggerated comedic twist on our own lives,” Geoff tells me. “There was no one else making TV shows with authentic gamer content. Because this niche existed, there was a lot to say and plenty of potential material. Creating the show was very natural because Jarett and I would have long discussions about C&C Zero Hour strategies, developments in the community, game design, industry news, etc.”
Jarett chimes in: “Having been a hardcore gamer my entire life, the characters in Pure Pwnage didn’t exactly require much research to develop. I’ve personally been a competitive RTS player, lost a few years of my life to an MMO addiction and have smashed a good number of keyboards due to lag in FPS games. Growing up, I was not-so-lovingly referred to as ‘Nintendo Boy’ in elementary school. A big part of my inspiration is to not only write a show whose content resonates among gamers worldwide, but one that empowers them and helps to make gaming something ‘cool.'”
None of this should surprise anyone who’s watched the show; their love for all things videogames exudes from every story point and aesthetic decision, from original songs like “I Feel Like Pwning Noobs” to the plethora of gaming-chic T-shirts available in the Noob Store that wouldn’t look out of place in an urban fashion boutique. This is no accident, of course; Pure Pwnage understands gamers not just because they are gamers, but also because they’re constantly in touch with them. Their forums are home to more than 20,000 users, public screenings regularly boast an attendance in the hundreds, and the dog-tag-carrying ranks of the Pure Pwnage Gamer Army grow daily. In true Web 2.0 fashion, Pure Pwnage is a conversation between producer and consumer, not a one-way street.
Even the shirts are a product of user involvement. “Regarding shirts, we sometimes use our audience and forum community as a sounding board,” Geoff explains to me. “We pay attention to the elements of the show that resonate in our community, and often that’s how a new shirt design comes about. A good example is the ‘Jeremy Silhouette,’ which has become one of our core icons. … It first made a short appearance in the beginning of Episode 4; soon after we were seeing it everywhere on the forums in avatars and autosigs.”
The “Jeremy Silhouette,” for the record, is a picture of – you guessed it – Jeremy’s silhouette thrusting his hips out into the air – a spiritual predecessor, if you will, to the notorious Halo 2 “teabagging” taunt. This is fairly indicative of Pure Pwnage‘s humor. A typical episode usually consists of genuine human drama wrapped up in the cultural trappings of gamer fandom (“The sun burns, Kyle. Kinda like the lava in Metroid.”) and a good chunk of adolescent humor. One particularly biting exchange between Jeremy and a non-gamer antagonist goes:
“You remind me of those geeks I used to beat the shit out of in high school.”
“You remind me of … gay.”
Like Geoff said: There was no one else making authentic gamer content.
I took a moment to ask Jarett about his newfound fame as a gamer celebrity. “It’s surreal. I’ve got to do constant reality checks, especially following live events where I’ve spent literally hours signing autographs. It’s all too easy to let it affect your ego, and it’s critical to stay grounded. By constantly interacting with our community, we can establish that we’re just normal guys, gamers like them, and that we’re building this all together. It’s an amazing opportunity to be able to inspire so many people around the world, but it’s a role that requires some responsibility. … I think the ‘Paris Hilton’ phenomenon is horrifying.”
Jeremy isn’t the only iconic character on Pure Pwnage, however. My personal favorite is the surly Chinese-Canadian cooking master Dawei “Dave” Lee, who recently debuted his own spin-off show, Pro at Cooking. I had a hard time imagining a cooking show succeeding with a hardcore gaming audience, but Jarett set me straight on that, too. “The idea for Pro at Cooking emerged a couple years back, but it wasn’t until last summer that we decided to push the project forward. However, the show wasn’t created just for the Pure Pwnage audience; it was created for a more general audience and partly as an experiment to see how well non-niche content can do on the internet right now. My mom thinks Dave is absolutely hilarious, and we’re confident she’s not the only non-gamer in the world to share that sentiment.” I, for one, am glad to hear that Asian Street Fighter II players with kitchen skills and tremendous muscles have crossover appeal with non-gaming audiences. That bodes well for my own cinematic career, anyway.
But if I’m here to uncover the secrets to their success, I shouldn’t omit their failures. I asked them about the ideas that didn’t pan out so well. Surprisingly, despite the shoestring budget that the PP guys are working with, they didn’t seem like they felt limited in the least. “There are a few ideas that we have shelved due to budget restrictions … a few epic scenes in particular that I was very excited to do, but we ended up not doing them because of the difficulty and cost,” Geoff admits – and considering his position as the film geek of the operation, I would be astonished if he hadn’t said something like that. “If we were to go all out and spend a lot of money on a scene, it would be cool, but that’s not why people watch the show. If people wanted to see big-budget effects, they would go see a Michael Bay movie.”
Jarett, on the other hand, mentions a pretty serious character re-write. “If we could do it all again, I’d probably make Jeremy a StarCraft player. Because the show started almost by accident, we didn’t have a long-term story or strategy in mind yet. We were simply creating a show for fun that was centered around what we were into at the time, and at that time we were hopelessly addicted to Zero Hour. Since then, the Zero Hour community has faded into near-oblivion, and I feel it makes the early episodes less accessible than they could be. On top of that, I rediscovered my love of StarCraft last year, and it’s now my RTS of choice – and the greatest RTS of all time. It’s always easier to be writing about something you’re into.”
That last sentence is the flame tank in my base, the no-scoped headshot that my cousins lord over me at the dinner table, the guard-broken Air Hyper Viper Beam, the “gg no re.” You don’t need to do a whole interview to figure out the mysterious origin of their gamer cool – it’s out in the open, plain as day. They write about stuff we’re into. Stories we want to hear, because they remind us that other people totally owned at Pong when we were, like, 2. Stories we want to hear, because they remind us that we are every bit as awesome in real life as we are when we play games – even if the real world doesn’t always think so. It’s obvious what Pure Pwnage fans have in common.
We love games.
Pat Miller is, coincidentally, also an Asian guy with big muscles, Street Fighter II skills, and a decent chili recipe of his own. He also writes a blog on race and video games called Token Minorities.