“Man, corporate sponsorship is like steroids. It ruins everything.” So quoth an early-twenties guy in a giant banana-yellow curly wig attending the 2008 World Rock Paper Scissors Championships. Excuse us, the 2008 Yahoo! World Rock Paper Scissors Championships. Whatever else might be taken away from this event, Yahoo! really wants you to know that they were involved in it, with Yahoo! T-shirts, Yahoo! wristbands, and the Yahoo! logo stamped on just about everything (including your hand when you entered).
That guy was, of course, just being indie-righteous in the way that only an early twentysomething (or Henry Rollins) can be, but his metaphor wasn’t entirely wrong. Corporate sponsorship is like steroids: when you use it, you become more effective at what you’re trying to do, in certain ways. The tradeoff is that if you aren’t careful, your metaphorical testicles metaphorically shrink to the size of metaphorical peanuts. Metaphorically. The fact that Yahoo!, a company best known for buying companies and concepts made popular by other people and then advertising them and making them suck a bit, is now the chief sponsor of this event should not go unnoticed. And Yahoo! really, really wants to make sure you notice.
This year’s crowd at the Y!WRPSC was diverse, a mix of hipsters wearing outrageous costumes for ironic purpose and other people wearing outrageous costumes entirely unironically. (In order to tell the difference, you could just ask them what they think of Black Kids.) Also present: Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated, demonstrating the major media presence that Yahoo! can bring. (It is unsure whether or not anybody kicked Rick Reilly in the nuts over the course of the evening, but one can hope.)
The Throwdown Militia, taking a break from their second tour of duty in Afghanistan’s fabled “Silly Hat Provinces” to compete.
One would think that, considering the impressive amount of Steamwhistle beer floating around, these differences would dissolve in a haze of alcohol. And they did, but once people started getting really drunk (and it didn’t take long, with male topless stumble-dancing commencing around ten o’clock), a new faultline emerged: between the people just there to drink, have fun and get laid, and the people who took the concept of competitive rock-paper-scissors really, really seriously. No, not “seriously” in the sense of “in on the joke.” Think more of guys (and of course they were almost entirely guys) taking rock-paper-scissors to the level of college football. We’re talking about the three guys chanting “Ryan’s! Gonna Fuck-You-Up!” for ten minutes straight while everybody rolled their eyes. The member of “Team Smoot” angrily getting into a shouting match in the men’s room, trying to defend his team’s honour (“no, fuck you, Team Smoot is one of the oldest, most established teams in RPS and you’re gonna show it respect or you’re less of a man”) and threatening a fistfight. The guy yelling at the T-shirt vendor, for crissake. “Fuck you, I got Rock tattooed on my arm, that’s how much I care!” We are not making any of this up for the point of humourous exaggeration.
After she beat him, he sunk to his knees and cursed the existence of a vengeful God. Then he had a beer.
It’s a pity, because in past years the WRPSC has always been a lot of fun, and many of the participants this year were clearly in tune with that inspired spirit of childish play as adult virtue. Rain of Toronto’s “Team Rock” claimed that rock-paper-scissors is “a gaze into the random nature of the universe,” in the wonderful bullshit way that only somebody at an event like this can claim. His teammate Graham explained that, as a teacher, he uses his participation in the WRPSC to make his colleague, who teaches physical education, feel inadequate.
A large group of people from Philadelphia (including the wonderfully named “Team David Bowie’s Package”) came up, enthusiastically supporting Barack Obama (and making sure everybody knew it). “I’m young and I’m not stupid,” said one Philadelphian. “Why would I vote for anybody else?” However, they admitted that the best Obama T-shirts of the night all belonged to Canadians. The most impressive stupid hats, on the other hand, belonged to all and sundry. One Norwegian, Martin Grset, who spent $1000 on airfare to attend the championships, enthusiastically explained that he felt the assorted ridiculous hats gave some players a psychological advantage, then explained that rock-paper-scissors is “simple, but complex… it extends beyond the obvious, it becomes a mind game, you play the other person, not the numbers.”
Of course, Vegard Berg, the 2008 Norwegian RPS champion, disagreed with his countryman. “I am a lazy player, really. I figure, one-third of the time you win, one-third you lose, one-third you tie, and I am just lucky and I won a free trip to Toronto. It is a lovely city. Your country is very much like Norway.” “Random Rosey,” the Australian champion, concurred on all sentiments (well, except for Canada being like Norway). Yannick Dubois, from France by way of Montreal, said that “I go with my mind, and I hope it goes well. It goes well, and I advance. That is how it is.”
From the Japanese exchange student wanting to win the tournament so he could rename it the World Jan-Ken-Pon Championships (“we invented it, you know”), to the fiftysomething man decked out in dapper Burberry eliminated in his first round lamenting that rock-paper-scissors is “a young man’s game,” to the people pretending to stare at awe at the guy wearing a jean jacket with his throwing arm’s sleeve removed, there seemed to be no shortage of people willing and eager to embrace the essential absurdity of a world championships of rock-paper-scissors. The problem was that, as always, the assholes were louder—so loud that when Graham Walker, the big boss of the championships, announced that his brother couldn’t make it this year because his wife was giving birth, they booed. Not ironically, either, although we couldn’t ask them about Black Kids to be entirely sure.
Amazing as it might seem, the answer to this problem (and we heard enough other complaints about this sort of jerkish behaviour over the course of the night to convince us that this isn’t just our opinion) is to take away some of the money. A $10,000 grand prize is important enough that it induces people to act like assholes (or, at least, to act more like assholes than good manners might otherwise allow). The most fun people seemed to be having over the course of the night came in pursuit of the Eye-sponsored “Street RPS” championships, a less-organized, free-flowing event with a mere $1,000 payout: as people collected larger and larger wads of fake “RPS dollars,” they started displaying their mock bling festively. (Later in the evening, some people had so many fake dollars they needed boxes to carry them.)
The event shouldn’t be about money; it should be about fun and fellowship, and that’s not the same thing. For a start, “fellowship” sounds a lot dorkier, which is appropriate when discussing competitive rock-paper-scissors. (As a side bonus, a smaller payout would also reduce the need for all the Yahoo! crap all over the place, which would be a big win for all concerned, except for Stupid Crap Manufacturers Inc.)
Next year: Google shows up with baseball bats and shows people how this shit is done.
It’s not like there isn’t precedent: the World Air Guitar Championships, which are both bigger and older than the WRPSC, don’t give away huge cash payouts and never have. They’ll still be able to celebrate their notorious competitors, like Toronto’s Monica Martinez, the first winner of an all-girl final round. They’ll still be able to publicize the local rock-paper-scissors leagues, about which the Philadelphia contingent waxed with particular enthusiasm, both for the fun factor and the pick-up factor. (“It lets me flex the guns without making it obvious, you know?”) They’ll still be able to play rock-paper-scissors and pretend it’s a for-real sport.
Or, as one competitor put it: “This used to be about the rock, man. And also the paper and the scissors.”