It was around 9 p.m. on a recent Tuesday when the kid strolled into Java D'Lites, a Coral Springs Coffee Shop. With the shop buzzing over the night's event — South Florida's first legit Guitar Hero competition — the kid's entrance didn't get much attention.
Matt Lozano was just one of a dozen gamers, musicians, and gamer-musician hybrids who had flocked in for a chance to show how hard they could rock out on a mini plastic guitar control. The champion would receive a real guitar — a $600 Brownsville Les Paul.
The Guitar Hero tournament concept has swept across America in the past year. The website of Guitar Hero Organized Underground League (GHOUL), www.beaguitarhero.com, lists competitions from New York City to Dickson City, Pennsylvania, to Santa Rosa, California. Orlando gaming conventions have hosted multiple GH events, but only in the past two months have these competitive pseudoconcerts sprung up in coffee shops in South Florida.
Lozano, is pretty happy about this.
At 16, he's the shy, bangs-in-the-eyes type. He wears a loose, striped polo shirt over his bear-like build, and there's a deceptive self-confidence in that slow strut of his. He doesn't say much. Only the careful observer would notice his braces, and, in truth, probably nobody would pick up on his deeply competitive spirit.
But when his name is called, Lozano takes the mini plastic guitar in a deft hand, and begins the game. The other gamers' eyes open wider. This is no quiet wannabe. This is a pushbutton virtuoso.
Lozano's eyes fixed in deep concentration and his fingertips dancing like a concert pianist's over the red, blue, yellow, orange, and green plastic buttons, he has the coffeehouse stirring. "Damn," says Marc Brooks, another contestant who plays videogames for about eight hours a day. "Fast fingers."
Performing "My Curse" by Killswitch Engage — on the "expert" level — Lozano doesn't miss a note.
"I thought I was fast," says 27-year-old guitarist and tournament organizer Arthur Granquist. "But this kid is fast."
Oh, the excitement of being in the presence of a real Guitar Hero hero. Lozano brings a kind of star quality to the table.
You can see it in the involuntary outbursts from the crowd when Lozano completes a perfect solo. You can see it in the way heads shake in disbelief when people talk about his skills. Is this what it was like when people listened to, say, the guitar solos of Jimi Hendrix?
Let's be clear about this. When Lozano plays the plastic, he's not playing a real guitar. He does not make actual music. He shadows popular rock recordings, trying to match the guitar solos stroke by stroke, run by run, by following a video program of flowing lights coordinated with pushbuttons. The result is like — well, almost like — playing in a real band.
As Guitar Hero and other highly accessible music videogames have exploded in American culture, so has the acceptance, and perhaps even the worship, of the gaming lifestyle. High schools and colleges are trying to catch the wave by instituting and accrediting videogame design programs, and many parents, desperate for a way to convert the passions of their young gaming prodigies into lucrative careers, have chipped in with their own tentative approbation.
Whether or not giving make-believe performances a real legitimacy is possible, gamers have found themselves skyrocketed from bottom-dwelling geekdom to the upper echelon of the social totem poll.
"I wish I was in school now," says Village Voice videogame writer Chris Ward, who takes a jaundiced view of the Guitar Hero phenomenon. "Maybe I would get a date for my Super Mario prowess."
No lie. Just ask Matt Lozano how many cute girls dropped by his house the other night.
Not everybody loves them some Guitar Hero. In fact, plenty of musicians have turned their noses up at the game that gives every average kid with no talent and no dedication a chance to feel like a rock star.
Some real musicians disparage it as an advanced form of "air guitar" or Simon Says.
"I refuse to ever play it," says guitarist Jeff Nordstedt of the Milwaukees. In November, the New Jersey rock band launched a "living room tour," playing home gigs across the Northeast. At almost every show, he says, fans were asking to "jam" with the band. On plastic.
"We were in people's living rooms, and all they wanted to know was, 'Did we play Guitar Hero?' " Nordstedt says. So the band made a "no Guitar Hero allowed" announcement before each gig.
At one show in Rhode Island, there was an afterparty at a hotel where a locally renowned Guitar Hero wizard showed up. Nordstedt wasn't impressed, saying the dude just sat in the corner, twiddling his thumbs. Nordstedt says he's begun to feel that an important barrier has been broken down. "The gamists feel they've leveled the playing field when it comes to shredding the guitar," he says bitterly. "They're still far behind."
"You either love it or you hate it," Granquist says. But haters don't always stay that way. Granquist has heard plenty of musician friends badmouth the game, then change their tune after picking up the plastic.
As evidence of the game's ubiquity, a South Park episode called "Guitar Queer-O" aired November 7; 4 million viewers, many of them still chattering about the show, tuned in to make it the most-watched telecast of the year on Comedy Central, according to a network news release. At Java D'Lites, a tournament rarely passes without mention of the episode's magnificence.
"It's like, how Stan's dad tries to convince the kids that real guitar is also rockin', but then later he sneaks down in his underwear to play his son's game!" a Java D'Lites denizen says.
The response (again and again, in fact): "Real guitar is for old people!"
In the episode, characters Stan and Kyle become expert at the game, so much so that a mysterious talent agent shows up, signs them, and invites them to a sex and coke party. Funny, gamers say, because it's not so far from the truth. The glorification of Guitar Hero is very real.
Google Guitar Hero and a slew of YouTube clips pops up, some of which have been viewed more than 5 million times. The most popular tend to include young experts like Ben, an 8-year-old who can be viewed rockin' out to "Psychobilly Freak Out," one of the most difficult songs on GH II, and "Through the Fire and Flames," the hardest on III. Under his latest video (he's posted 25 in all), there is an ongoing debate that includes more than 35,000 comments on whether the kid is actually a robot. If he's not, well, that's just sad, some jealous viewers conclude.
"He officaly dosen have a life!!!!" writes JustWasBOred. [Sic.]
"And neither do you for posting on this video," answers AntonZZZiegler.
Becoming an expert takes time, though anyone who dedicates a few hours a day can improve rapidly. That's the whole point of the game, says one of its creators, Alex Rigopulous, who wanted to give people who lack discipline (and let's face it, that's most of us) the chance to feel like real rock stars.
To start the game, players choose from rock avatars such as "Lars Ümlaüt" and "Axel Steel." They select from guitar options like the Gibson Les Paul or the Gibson Flying V, and they choose a song. They can compete or work together to "beat" the song. Or a player can opt for "career mode," which involves performing a series of increasingly difficult songs at increasingly large venues, simulating the real path of a rising rock star.
As the game begins, a digitized world of rock stardom appears on the television screen, complete with worshiping video crowd. The rock avatars swing their instruments as lights flash and the song loads.
Then, on a virtual conveyer belt shaped like a guitar's fretted neck, color-coded pellets sail toward the gamer, eventually arriving in stationary hollow circles of the same color. That's when the player must hold down the button of the matching color on the neck of the guitar controller and simultaneously strum a toggle on the body. When the player's timing is on, notes played by real musicians are released. The magic of the game is that the gamer feels like he is responsible for the music.
Sound easy? When seas of red, green, yellow, orange, and blue notes are flying at gamers, many lose their cool. And of course, that's intentional.
Founders Rigopulous and Eran Egozy wanted the game to be challenging enough to keep the interest of players like Lozano but accessible to beginners and nongamers too. They were well-versed in the challenges of creating a game for the masses.
As grad students at MIT in the early 1990s, they started the Cambridge, Massachusetts,-based company Harmonix. In 1999, they began creating music videogames — The Axe: Titans of Classic Rock came first, then Frequency, then Amplitude. All were critical successes and allegedly fun, but they didn't stick around. Then the company partnered with Red Octane, another small company that specialized in accessories.
In 2005, the companies worked together on Guitar Hero, the first innovative rock game to come with a guitar as its controller. GH tapped into that widespread desire to become a rock star. Though it cost a relatively hefty $100 for the game, it crashed into pop culture faster than you can say "You rock!" (The game reminds players of this with each song conquered.)
After the wild and unexpected success of Guitar Hero — it picked up five Interactive Achievement Awards, including the coveted Outstanding Innovation in Gaming — Harmonix quickly released a sequel, Guitar Hero II, in 2006. Guitar III from Activision came out late last year, in time for the holidays. There was also Rock Band, a Harmonix game that includes a drum set, karaoke mic, a lead guitar, a backup guitar, and a bass. In 2007, sales of the Guitar Hero games exceeded $820 million in the United States — a record for a single franchise in any one year, says David Riley, a spokesman for the marketing research company NPD.
The one fly in the ointment has been a lawsuit. Members of the Romantics have sued the makers of GH II in Detroit, claiming that the remake of their song for the game sounded too much like the original. For the most part, though, musicians — some of whom admit to playing Guitar Hero on their tour buses — see that the exposure of having a song in the game might be lucrative. Even Metallica, of Napster-hating notoriety, has signed up.
Although the game has lifted the industry, the gamers themselves derive some of the benefits, fans of the game say. Guitar Hero has changed the way kids play videogames. Instead of parking in front of computers and televisions at home, they're out at coffee shops, socializing and waiting their turn to rock for their friends, challenging the gamers-as-nerd notion.
On a recent Sunday night, a white cotton bra soars over the marble countertop of Undergrounds Coffeehaus in Fort Lauderdale. It passes a giant painting of Pinocchio, who appears to have crushed Jiminy Cricket and started shooting heroin, then loses momentum somewhere between a shelf of yard-sale books and a decorative antique refrigerator door and touches down on its intended target — the dark-haired noggin of Lucila Hernandez.
Though she's concentrating hard, trying not to miss a single note of "Free Bird," she gives a fast smile and lets the undergarment stay put.
The tosser of the bra, Undergrounds owner Aileen Liptak, purchased it and two pairs of Hanes Her Way underwear earlier today for the amateur Guitar Hero competition. She also wears her blue Atari T-shirt and a painted blue star on her cheek for the third Undergrounds Guitar Hero competition. But the underwear-throwing, to give the performance a touch of glam, is a first.
Though Liptak put out the MySpace.com announcement a little late this week, the turnout tonight is pretty good. About a dozen people, who range in age from 17 to 35, have shown up. Many are tattooed and pierced and either making or hoping to make a living in music or art or something else that's equally tough to make a living at. This is pretty much how they roll at Undergrounds, an indie coffee shop that opened a little over a year ago and looks — with its blood-orange walls and baroque hipster décor — directly transplanted from Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
As usual, topics of discussion jump from the South Park episode to new songs that can be downloaded to ways the controller can be taken apart and customized. A few guys bring up how annoyed their girlfriends are getting about their passion for Guitar Hero.
Hernandez scoffs. She defies the misguided stereotype that girls aren't into the game. Tapping her fingernails on the buttons, she rarely misses notes on medium level and achieves star power at all the right times. Some might even say she's chicken for not attempting the hard level.
Did Brett Combs just say that? No way. He's the genial, ponytailed co-owner of the shop and Liptak's boyfriend, and he's a guitar player, piano player, and singer who's been in plenty of bands. At the moment, he's folded into a captain's chair and discussing why Guitar Hero beats Dance Dance Revolution, an earlier videogame that requires a player to dance.
"Guitar Hero is less embarrassing," he says. "People are much more self-conscious about dancing."
"And people like to rock," Liptak adds from across the shop.
"People do like to rock," Combs agrees. "The rocking out catches you by surprise. Suddenly, you're like, yeah, I'm Neil Young."
A couple of guys from the Java D'Lites competition, Joe Benak of Coconut Creek and John Linn (full disclosure: He's New Times' assistant calendar editor) have also come to rock. Though the talent isn't quite as cranked at Undergrounds, there's a palpable camaraderie. People cheer for one another. Everyone is showered in underwear and bras. In the end, everyone gets Blow Pops and prizes. There are few problems with boozed-up egos here, since Undergrounds has no liquor license.
Maybe that's why Benak got his ass handed to him at the Java D'Lites tournament, he suggests. "The younger kids weren't old enough to drink," he says. "So they were better than us."
For Matt Lozano, being a Guitar Hero expert means people are constantly dropping by his house for pointers. On a recent Thursday, Nicole Micucci, a cute blond classmate in a magenta tank top, is perched on a couch in the Lozanos' family room for just that reason.
Since Guitar Hero became all the rage at school — a trend that Micucci credits to Lozano — she has been working on her skills and plans to buy the videogame fairly soon. "Everyone at my lunch table owns it," she says.
In the halls of Sheridan Hills Christian School, Lozano's red duffle bag is pretty much a fixture slung over his arm. Inside rests the black plastic guitar, about the size of a squash racket, adorned with stickers from In-N-Out Burger, Vans, and West Coast Choppers. He brings it everywhere. One teacher lets them play in class, Micucci says.
She recalls the time that the band instructor, Kevin Wright, let Lozano throw an after-school Guitar Hero party in the school's theater. Refreshments were served while Lozano and anyone brave enough to challenge him played on a big screen. Wright also let Lozano play the game at Wednesday-night summer youth group meetings at Sheridan Hills Baptist Church. When people watch him play, their contact lenses go dry, his fans say. Their eyes are that glued to the screen.
"Matt being so good and having that reputation has made the game more popular," says Wright, a pastor at the church. "Everyone wants to come and watch, and that leads to, 'Oh, I'll play...' "
Wright, who plays real guitar, has tried the game and finds it great fun. "From a musical standpoint, I think it's awesome," he says. "It's starting to get kids interested in spending time learning a musical instrument." Although he wants to avoid negativity, Wright admits he'd rather Lozano would spend a little less time playing Guitar Hero "and a little more time reading his Bible."
When the game is played in Lozano's absence, his name inevitably comes up.
One time in New York City, Micucci and her boyfriend were in the MTV store, where a few kids were playing Rock Band. Her boyfriend turned to her saying, "If Matt was here, these people would be like, 'Oh... my... God!' "
"Everyone is pretty much amazed by him," Micucci adds.
That includes his parents.
Robert and Lisa Lozano are originally from Orange County, California, but they moved to their stucco yellow Hollywood home in 1992, just after Hurricane Andrew hit. South Florida was the right time and place for their business, says Lisa Lozano, who with her husband runs an asbestos- and mold-removal business.
They have two sons — game whiz Matt and drummer Jacob, 13. Both play football, and they share a bedroom that's equipped with an HDTV, a keyboard, a drum set, and a variety of videogame consoles. The parents are strict about when the kids can play, but they encourage their children's passions. And they exude hipness.
Lisa Lozano, a petite, effervescent blond in dark-framed glasses, flew out to California twice last year to see Bright Eyes. She calls Matt "my vidiot" and makes fun of his real guitar, a red Jackson Flying V, which he bought after friends suggested those "magic hands" might be able to make real music.
"It's so '80s!" she says. "Um, hello, a Jackson Flying V? Are you serious? You're going out in public with that?"
Though she kids around, Lisa Lozano has a serious hope that her son can turn his rare talent into a career. She's been doing research on gaming programs, particularly at the University of Southern California, which recently added a videogame major. If only her son would get those grades up...
"A lot of schools are now jumping on the game design," she says. "But it's hard to see which ones will be accredited and able to give a good stable basis to have a career... I mean, he can't play the games for a career."
Robert Lozano, who loves AC/DC and attended the Warped Tour last year, is equally enthusiastic about his son's talents. "He practices more than the average person, and it's more intense," he says. "When he wraps his brain around it, he's focused for four hours. I don't want to embarrass him, but he'll damned near poop himself."
Lozano, who has picked up the Guitar Hero controller and is now dominating on expert without even looking at the screen, just shakes his head. He's used to this kind of humiliation, and it's clear that the teasing is balanced with respect.
His gaming abilities became clear at just 18 months, when he defeated Super Mario 3. At age 3, he conquered Aladdin on Super Nintendo. By 4, Zelda was toast. And Matt didn't mind helping others either. Desperate to advance in Zelda, Lisa Lozano's father used to call up her toddler and say, "Matt, how do I beat this level?"
Matt first picked up a plastic guitar controller a year and a half ago at his friend Michael Boyett's house. He was instantly drawn to it, and he persuaded his mom to buy the game. Six hours later, he had defeated it. On expert level.
But there was still plenty of fun to be had. Lozano went back and practiced each song until he could "five-star" it, or obtain a very high score by missing very few notes. He did that with each successive version of the game, and he acquired new songs for the Xbox as they became available.
The greatest challenge of any of the games, Buckethead's Jordan, took him two weeks to five-star. "I was staying up all night over spring break," he says. There are highly trafficked videos of Lozano five-starring Jordan on his MySpace page.
In the first week of the Java D'Lites tournament, Lozano dominated, easily making it to the next week's finals. For his final song, Lozano chose his favorite, Killswitch Engage's "Curse," and performed it almost flawlessly. Some rapt onlookers burst into cheers after the solos. Others clasped hands over their mouths.
After nailing the final notes, Lozano performed a single headbang. Two strangers from the crowd got up and hugged him. And the grand prize, a Brownsville Les Paul, was his.
If only there were more tournaments like this one.
As New Times leaves the bubbly Lozano household, two more cute high school girls show up at the Guitar Hero's house.
They want lessons too.
The next time Lozano struts into Java D'Lites for a tournament, every disheveled head in the place whips around. Dog Fish IPAs clink down on the marble counter. Knuckles get cracked. "That's the one," somebody whispers.
Lozano, in a striped polo, is escorted by his dad and his friend Boyett, who introduced him to the game. Boyett has decided to enter the tournament just for fun.
The organizers, James Olsen and Arthur Grandquist, raise their eyebrows, then give the nod. They knew Lozano would show. And that's why the rules of this week's tournament will have to change.
Rather than everybody playing on the same level, which would clearly give the competition to Lozano, there will be handicaps. Lozano will play on expert, but his challenger can play on beginner. This means accuracy will be the most important factor.
Still, there's no denying that Lozano is the best in the house. When he plays "Stricken" by Disturbed in the opening jam session at expert level, he misses just five notes.
"I actually scared a couple of kids away," he says. "They left because they didn't want to compete against me."
Boyett and Lozano, who opened a tab and drank Monster energy drinks, found this hilarious.
In the faceoff round, Boyett found himself facing Marc Brooks — the eight-hour-a-day gamer. Brooks played on expert level. Boyett played on easy.
Miraculously, Boyett missed zero notes and defeated Brooks. It might have had something to do with the more sensitive Xbox controller that Lozano loaned Boyett, Lozano said.
Maybe lending Boyett his best controller wasn't such a good idea. Boyett made it all the way to the finals, where he faced, yes, Matt Lozano, his friend, the ultimate guitar hero.
They played three songs. "Raining Blood" by Slayer. Then "One" by Metallica. The last song was Lozano's choice, and he selected "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." He had been practicing it, and he knew that Boyett had never seen it because it couldn't be downloaded on the Wii.
But on easy level, Boyett was able to complete the song missing just three notes. Lozano missed a lot. And just like that, the Guitar Hero was unseated.
Boyett won $100.
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"It felt pretty good," Boyett says.
"It was the best day of his life," Lozano jokes.
Though clearly better than anybody in South Florida, Lozano says he isn't ready for national competitions. When he compares his scores to those on Scorehero.com, where all the masters post their personal bests, he finds he's better than only about 90 percent of the people out there. He's seen a guy with the moniker IamChrisForLife who "looks like he's in his 28s."
When Lozano watches IamChrisForLife play "Dragon Force," the hardest song on Guitar Hero III, he can't believe his eyes. "Like, when I would get 400,000, he would actually double my score and get like 860,000. This guy is crazy good. That's someday where I hope I would be."