With my game face on, the first match started. I don’t think that the competition could have picked a better game. I was familiar with this one. It wasn’t just a game that Dawn had and I had played with her many times, but it was also a game that I had in my previous world. I had played online competitively many times, and so as soon as I saw the familiar map, I took off. I ended up making 2nd on the first run. This was only because of the person who had beaten me one by a fraction of a second.
When the points were all factored in, I was already in the top ten, tied for second with several other players. I could hear Bethany, Avery, and the rest of the girls screaming out excitedly, and I grew encouraged that I could do this. The second round started, and this time we were on one of my favorite tracks. My favorite track from a familiar game was in the bag. I ended up scoring 1st.
My name ended up flying up to 1st place spot, tied with one other person. As people figured out who was tied for first place, the realization it was a boy quickly caused the crowds to become extremely vocal. There were too many voices to pick out any specific person, but I was pretty sure it was shock and surprise that a boy was winning. I received a glare from some really fat girl who was covered in acne. I realized she was in third place. The one I was tied with was a more regular-looking girl. As for the Pocket Rocket boy, he was in 10th place.
I didn’t have much more time than that, as the third match had already begun. The crowds quieted a bit more on this round, trying not to distract the gamers as they performed their respective matches. Since every match involved a random assortment of those we were racing against, every match could potentially be against the strongest players or the weakest players.
Damn it! I missed a hidden path. It would have given me a better time. It was fine. I still had done well in the first two rounds, so even if my score wasn’t as good, I still had a chance. I could still aim for the top three. That’s why I was shocked when I crossed the finish line and still ended up in first. My team went wild, and in fact, it was much more than my team. After winning in the top two the last three games, I had gotten the interest of many women in the audience, and they all started cheering me too.
It felt good to have so many people cheering me on, even though most of them didn’t know my name, but I still had an uneasy feeling. My time was worse on that third one than even on the one where I was second place, yet I had gotten first? Was I just lucky that I had gotten an easy match? I eventually just shrugged and accepted my good fortune. When I looked at the judge table, the celebrity was watching me with quite a bit of interest. It was at the level that I was receiving jealous looks from the fanatics around her table.
I was still tied in 1st with that girl, so I hadn’t won anything yet. The fourth match began, and I put my head back into the game. When I saw the map on my fourth game, I felt a bit disheartened. This map was always the map I struggled with the most. I had started well, but I didn’t feel as optimistic about this one. I still had to give it my all. It was inevitable that every map wasn’t going to be my favorite. In the end, I felt I raced as well as I could, but as I pulled in I was expecting third or fourth.
1st place! The crowds broke into a roar. I looked up at the board to see that my name was now in 1st, and the girl who had originally been in 1st had slipped to second. I also noticed that the other boy from Pocket Rockets had also managed to get up to 5th place.
I didn’t want to admit it, but since her screen was facing me, I had glanced at it. She had crashed out directly in that last match. She shouldn’t have been able to pull any better than the tenth place, and there was no way that she would have been in the top five. At that point, I eyed some of the people moving around behind the scenes. That had thrown me and the other boy a couple of looks. Were they deliberately putting us in an easier match? Were we not versing the girls?
Before I could dwell on it, the countdown for the final match was on. Although this was the final match that would have given me the first place, and everyone quieted down as they waited to see who the final victor would be, my heart wasn’t calm at all. It wasn’t because I was nervous either. It was true that a single wipeout would cause me to fall from my place at the top, and I should be nervous as hell, but I was mostly confused.
The match started, and I continued to drive. However, half of my brain was thinking about whether I was being given an easier match. Should I do my best and win the series? Would that be fair to that girl who was racing so well? I could just cause myself to crash right that moment. If I crashed, then one of two things would happen. Either, I’d fall in place properly, or the system would still give me 1st place, making the cheating obvious.
If I did it, and the first happened, then I’d be throwing away not just 1st place, but $500. I’d never know if they had cheated or not. I’d only be left with my suspicions. If the second happened, I’d be creating a lot of unnecessary trouble. Likely, all of that goodwill I had gained with the cheering crowd would dissipate. I knew this because I was seeing it from the other side. Had I been a guy in that audience, and some girl got on stage and kept getting first despite obvious mistakes, I would call her a cheater and a skank. I would assume she banged all of the judges to get her place, and she should suffer.
Even if the girl denied knowing it, and deliberately exposed it herself, I probably wouldn’t care. I’d still call her a cheater and a whore. That’s just the way riled-up gamers acted. When they loved you, they loved you, and when they felt betrayed, that love turned to hate a hundred times over.
Furthermore, I didn’t just have myself to worry about. There was the entire team I had come with. If these issues happened here, I might not be allowed to compete in the group competition, and then they would be short a player. They’d also have the reputation of a cheater to contend with. The girls would have to fast the rage of their peers. I couldn’t put my little sister through that. I had come to help her out, and that would only be causing her trouble.
The match ended, and 2nd place appeared on my screen. I had only been half paying attention, so my driving wasn’t at its best. Yet, I also hadn’t thrown the game off deliberately either. With two second places and three 1st places, I ended up with the highest points. The ordinary-looking girl who should have one got three second places and two 1st places, so it had been very close. The other boy from the Pocket Rockets had somehow scraped by in 3rd place.
The crowds went wild, and my teammates were jumping up and down excitedly. The announcer stood up and read off the top three who would all get prizes. The announcer made a point of stating that two boys had won this year and that it looked like it was the year of the gamer boy.
I stood up, and with a heavy face, I gave the crowd a respectful nod and joined the other contestants backstage. Someone came and specifically fetched the three winners and took us to another waiting room. This one was a bit fancier than the one our team was given, and it also had a snack table. The girl immediately ran to it, while the boy leaned back against the wall with his arms crossed, a condescending look on his face.
“You did alright.” He declared to me. “I almost beat you.”
I gave him a side-look. “Didn’t you feel like something was off?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked.
Our words seemed to catch the place of the girl too, who had tilted her head toward us even while still filling her plate.
“I don’t know how they were matching us up, but our matches were easier than everyone else’s. I think the first game was the only real one. After that, they paired us up with the worst of each match, so we only ever competed against the worst performing players.”
That was what I had ultimately predicted. It was the only way they could have done it without getting caught. We were still versing different players, but it was always the worse players of any match, so as long as we were even a little above average, we’d perform well.
“They helped us win?” The girl asked.
“No, not you… you should have been in the first place. They gave us boys a handicap.”
“Maybe they gave you a handicap, but I earned my score.” The boy responded snobbishly.
The girl only looked more confused, so I gave a sigh and stopped arguing my point. If I had wanted to out them, I had wasted the moment.
A man in a nice suit walked into the room. He gave the three of us smiles. The ordinary girl blushed under his look, while the boy from Pocket Rocket seemed to be checking him out.
“You are the top three of the individual matches. Two of you are in teams, while one of you registered solo.” he nodded at the girl, causing her to blush even more shyly. “I have your reward checks here.”
“There is no reward ceremony?” The girl asked in surprise.
“We found in a survey last year that most people didn’t want one. Since the winners were already known right away, they preferred to just get their prize and go.” He spoke as he handed each of us our cards.
“A $10 check? That’s it?” the boy had opened his envelope right away, and immediately gave a look of distaste.
“1st place is $500, 2nd is $100, and $10 for the 3rd.” He explained.
“Well, whatever. At least no one can say I’m not a gamer.” She said, pulling out the certificate, which was just printed out on normal printer paper.
The tournament might have been bigger than I guessed, but their budget certainly matched my expectations. With a sigh, I took my $500 check and turned away. The first two contestants walked out, but as I was about to leave, the man cleared his throat, causing me to look back at him.
“As the first-place contestant, you also have an additional award.”
“Oh?” I blinked and then nodded. “Okay. What is it?”
“I’ll show you.” The man seemed to give a mysterious smile as he turned and lead me out of this room.
I didn’t have to go far though until I was put into yet another room. This looked to be a changing room as well, but its size and quality exceeded the other rooms I had been inside by many times. The door closed, and I realized the man had left me there without saying what my award was. I was just about to open the door and see if I could catch him when I heard another door open. I looked up, only to see the judge from earlier, the so-called celebrity, walk in with a smile.
“Oh, hi?” I asked awkwardly.
Why did I have a feeling that I knew what my award was going to be?