Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
During October break, Alex Lerner ’09 had planned to stay on campus, not doing anything in particular. But after getting a phone call from someone he barely knew, instead he bought an $800 ticket onto a plane that left three hours later for L.A. Why? There was a Guitar Hero tournament at the E for All Expo, and Alex was about to win it.
Over the summer, Alex “had no idea that this was a thing,” that major Guitar Hero tournaments even existed. He had been playing with his friends for quite a while, though, and they liked to do performances rather than just play. They built a stage and invented their own tricks. So when a friend showed him a YouTube video of a competition where judging was based on performance skill, not just technical ability to play the notes, Alex was thrilled.
This video was from the first-ever Guitar Hero competition at the World Series of Video Games. Alex saw it about a week before the next event in that series, outside of Dallas. He bought a plane ticket down and competed.
On the first day of the event, he was “the big star,” because he was doing very well but had never even heard of these competitions before. CBS Sports and “all these video game people [he] had never heard of” were there, talking to him. It was, he said, an exhilarating experience.
Eventually, in the competition among the final eight, Alex placed first; after that, though, he “kind of choked” and ended tied for fourth place. Alex went back home and practiced. “For a while,” he said, “I was sure I was going to drop out of school and become a professional video game player.” Surprisingly, his father was “very supportive” of this tentative decision.
A month later, shortly before classes resumed, Alex went to the next event, in Toronto. He again did well, ending up in second place overall. The next event was planned to be at the E for All Expo in Los Angeles over October break; unfortunately, though, the World Series of Video Games “ran out of money” and announced in September that it would be coming to an end.
Alex’s signature move, playing with his feet while signing an autograph.
He was “really sad” about this for a while, but then he got that call from someone against whom he had competed in Dallas and Toronto. Target had decided to sponsor a Guitar Hero competition, whose judges included Motley Crüe member Vince Neil. Alex flew out on almost no notice.
He “really pulled it out” this time, breaking out his new signature move, playing with his feet while signing autographs. He ended up winning first place, a prize of $8,000, which more than made up for his expensive airfare. The New York Times even printed a shot of him right after his winning performance.
Alex was featured on the Swarthmore homepage for winning this tournament, but when people congratulated him, he had mixed feelings. “Yeah, I won, and that’s awesome,” he said, “but I’m also kind of like, ‘this sucks,’ you know?…I kind of want to say, ‘Yeah, but I also like to dance.’” He has decided now that although he’s “very glad” he didn’t drop out of school, “everyone gets to be the best at something, and this is my thing.”
Alex, a math/economics major, was the singer and rhythm guitarist for a band called Stereotones during high school. (He didn’t know anything about guitar beforehand, and was told he needed to “play one chord through the whole song” for some of the band’s material.) The band played some shows in Manhattan; coincidentally, their first gig outside of New York was at Bryn Mawr. Since then, he has also picked up the drums and the guitar, “but none of them well”; he says that his longtime experience with the violin has probably been more useful in Guitar Hero than any of those instruments.
What lies in Alex’s future? Although he doesn’t really plan to continue with tournaments, if one came up he would “love to go.” The last time was “three days in L.A. getting free stuff”; he even ended up featured on the TVs in Target electronics stores and GameStops for a while.
Harmonix, the company who made Guitar Hero, also recently released a game called Rock Band, which features bass, drums, and vocals in addition to guitar. The friend who had told him about the E for All Expo played in the finals for a Rock Band tournament on MTV’s popular music request show TRL; even though “it kind of sucks and I feel bad about it,” Alex says that he couldn’t miss his “shot to be on TRL.”
Meanwhile, Alex has been getting “out of practice” with Guitar Hero. He’s been spending his time playing Rock Band instead.