First-year video gamers win $100,000 playing Rock Band 2

Above: York’s GSpot Boyz get ready to perform at Dundas Square

It’s 8pm on Saturday, June 20, and Dundas Square is packed. Four first-year York students called the GSpot Boyz leap onto the mainstage and grab their pretend guitars, drums and mike. Shirtless and sprayed silver, they’re ready to perform the Red Hot Chili Peppers song, Give it Away, at the finale of a national Rock Band 2 video gaming competition for a chance to win $100,000.

Ramsey Aburaneh, who played the singer, remembers the shock. The last of four finalists to perform that evening, the group that had practised at home in the basement suddenly face a screaming audience of hundreds for the first time. They instantly forget all the little choreographic flourishes they’d practised hours and days to perfect. “We don’t remember anything,” says Aburaneh.

Then the music starts and they go into automatic pilot. Mimicking the Give It Away video, Aburaneh tears off Velcroed pants to gyrate in a skimpy Speedo, whips his hair extensions around and flings T-shirts into the crowd. Brandon Rowe is on drums, brother Ryan Rowe is on lead guitar and Malik Diaz-Mercurius is on bass guitar. “It is over in a flash,” says Aburaneh.

Left: GSpot Boyz jump when they hear they’ve won

The next 30 minutes are an eternity as the four wait for the score – based on judges’ decisions and Facebook votes. When the GSpot Boyz are declared the winners, York’s finest Rock Band 2 video gamers roar into liftoff – each $25,000 richer.

The four Stong residents had just won the AMP Energy $100,000 Rock Off!, a national competition sponsored by PepsiCo Beverages Canada as part of its AMP Your Game National Gaming Tour at 39 college and university campuses across the country last spring. All were avid video gamers and the Rowes were experienced Rock Band 2 players.

But their participation in the Rock Band 2 challenge started quite by accident. One day last spring, Pepsi had set up a number of video games in Stong College’s Complex 2 Cafeteria. Aburaneh had wandered in for lunch and gone over to say hello to the Rowe brothers, York Lions football players, and Diaz-Mercurius, on York’s basketball team, and another guy, who later dropped out. How about a friendly game of Rock Band 2? he asked. Sure, they said.

To play the game, band members have to press or hit coloured spots on their fake instruments to match coloured notations scrolling across a video screen. Hand-eye coordination is key.

A rep saw them playing and urged them to audition for a chance to compete in the AMP Energy challenge at York. They did, just for fun, says Aburaneh, performing Livin’ On A Prayer by Bon Jovi.

Right: GSpot Boyz win York title performing Journey’s Any Way You Want It

After they passed the audition (an event co-sponsored by york is U, York Food Services and its food services provider Aramark), they beat five other bands to take the York title. To win, a band had to get the most online votes. To win the York title and the semifinals against eight other bands, the GSpot Boyz – named by a pal – simply asked friends and family to vote for them. Then they got serious, realizing they had a chance of taking the $100,000 purse. So before the finals, they mounted a prolonged five-day campaign in the Student Centre and Vari Hall, asking friends and a lot of strangers to vote for them. It gave Aburaneh, a marketing student, some real experience in his field.

The effort paid off. They ended up among four finalists from across Canada. The others were Chemical Toilet from Bishop’s University, Tactical Hands from the University of Calgary and Meta Casa from the University of Winnipeg. Pepsi brought them all together June 20 for the final competition in Dundas Square to be judged by three people – Ian Thornley, lead singer of the Juno Award-nominated rock band Thornley, Rob Lind of the North by Northeast Music & Film Festival Saturday night headlining band The Sonics, and Nelson Triana, professional video gamer and captain of the AMP Energy Pro Team, North of 49 – as well as online voters.

Asked to submit three choices of songs to play at the finals, our GSpot Boyz gambled on Livin’ On A Prayer by Bon Jovi and began rehearsing. When they found out the judges wanted them to perform Give It Away by the Red Hot Chili Peppers instead, “our confidence went down,” says Aburaneh, until they discovered that song would be easier to play and could involve the audience. They had five days to prepare.

Left: The winners are overcome

Well, four days. One day they devoted to buying hair extensions, funky sunglasses, silver spray paint, confetti to fling at the audience, T-shirts to give away in keeping with the song’s title, Speedo bathing suits and Velcroed pants you could tear off. Their $200 investment turned out to be worth every penny and more.

Practising was tough because the Rowe brothers live in Hamilton, Aburaneh in Cambridge and Diaz-Mercurius in Brampton. They managed to rehearse three hours a day for four days. “It was sort of like preparing for Canadian Idol,” says Ryan, a saxophonist who found playing Rock Band 2 pretty easy.  

On the Thursday before the Saturday finals, an airport limousine picked them up in Cambridge and drove them to the Westin Harbour Castle on Toronto’s waterfront. In their rooms, they found guest bags full of goodies, including $200. On Friday, they were interviewed by gaming world writers and local media. On Saturday, a party bus picked up all four competing bands to take them to Dundas Square. The energy level was really high, says Brandon. “It was a super cool experience, especially getting that little glimpse into what it’s like to be a celebrity.” For every one of the 19- and 20-year-old GSpot Boyz, that was the highlight.

At Dundas Square, with no access to the game, they “went through the performance mentally,” says Aburaneh. Last to perform, the GSpot Boyz can hear, but not see, their rivals. Are they nervous? “Oh, yeah. As soon as we got out there and saw those hundreds of people, all the planning in our head goes out the side of our ears,” remembers Aburaneh. The small details – the little gestures and steps they meant to make here and there – disappeared, but not the important moves. “I was so super nervous,” says Brandon, who aims to be an English teacher. “But when I sat down I heard someone call my name and saw friends from York. They were so loud it took my nervousness away.” (Click here to see their performance.)

Five minutes later, it was over. Thirty minutes later, they were collectively $100,000 richer. “I tried my best to remember that moment forever,” says Aburaneh. “It was an indescribable moment.”

What will they do with the money, which they finally received this week? “It’s the only question people ask,” laughs Aburaneh. (Click here to hear what they all had to say.)

For all four, the money will help pay for their education at York. The money “takes a lot of pressure off our parents to pay for university,” Aburaneh says. “It’s a gift.” He also plans to invest some and blow some on “having fun” with friends.

If there is another AMP Energy Rock Off! next year, will they compete again? Oh, groans Aburaneh, “I’ll never play the game again. We played so many times, we need a break.” Brandon says he hasn’t touched the game since they won the competition. But never say never. Aburaneh admits “it’s a fun game.”

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer