By James “Fiend” Schneider
“I wasn’t known in Halo 1,” Fonzi explains through the Xbox Live headset. “Just becoming recognized is a lot of fun.” He’s so courteous. He comes across as such a nice and personable guy. He might know he’s sorta famous, especially to anyone following MLG, but he’s not a jerk about it.
“Some people really despise us just because we’re the new kids on the block, trying to prove something,”
A freshman at Santa Clara University, double-majoring in computer and mechanical engineering, Fonzi is pretty busy. As a big fan of trance music, he plays the synthesizer a lot. He messes around with cars, something he has an interest in, but not necessarily a knack for. And of course in the midst of all this, Fonzi dedicates about four to five hours a night to Halo 2.
Fonzi first got into videogames in fourth grade. He picked up a Sega Genesis and mastered Sonic the Hedgehog. As years passed, though, so did systems, and interests honed toward racing games and first-person-shooters. I asked him about competing on Grand Turismo 4, but he didn’t think he could hack it. When Xbox was first being announced, Fonzi, like many gamers, watched all the videos for Halo: Combat Evolved and got really excited.
He was a good, not elite player, who teamed with Foulacy, also from the Northern California area, along with a couple others. They played and won some local tournaments, but Fonzi notes, “I got into the tournament scene late.” His first taste of MLG action for Halo 1 was in San Francisco, and it was also his only entry in Halo 1. Let’s just say he was still a no name after that tournament.
Then came Halo 2, a more interesting and balanced game, according to Fonzi.
“A lot of people seem closed to the idea of getting rid of the old pistol,” Fonzi says. “I think Halo 1 was pretty imbalanced in that regard. It was pretty much just the pistol and everything focused around that. Playing Halo 2 it just seems like there are so many more possibilities each time you confront somebody. You could have the pea shooter and battle rifle. Or a sniper rifle if you can get away with it. It is much more balanced. Every weapon is versatile. You have a lot of options to engage people with.”
Thanks to Xbox Live and Matchmaking, Fonzi was able to find his current crew, which isn’t quite set even now. “If there was no Halo 2, I probably wouldn’t be able to find the people I team with now. It has pretty much opened up an entire worldwide community of players I can get a hold of. Halo 1 was pretty much my local friends. We weren’t too bad, but nowhere near the top.”
Many people knew him for his first place rank on Bungie.net’s Leaderboards, an area which has since been tarnished by cheaters. A lot of the players in Str8 Rippin achieved high profile status on those Leaderboards, which messed up some peoples set-in-stone top ten lists. Sad Panda Eh and Walka hail from Canada. What, you didn’t get that from the “Eh”? They played some custom games together and soon became part of Str8 Rippin’s NKOTB experience.
“Some people really despise us just because we’re the new kids on the block, trying to prove something,” Fonzi says. “We’re definitely talked about a lot in that regard, just because of the whole controversy.” This “whole controversy” surrounds not only Fonzi, who achieved a third place finish in the FFA at DC, but also his teammate for Houston, BlackJak, who was recently interviewed by Bungie.
“They view BlackJak as a matchmaking noob because he was at the top of so many matchmaking playlists,” he mentions. “I think they’ll be surprised in Houston, because he’s an incredible player.”
Looking at the custom game he has set up, Oddball on Lockout, I kid him, “Are you trying to get me to ask you about your victory over StK in that map and gametype fairly recently?” He shrugs it off, “We have beaten them a couple more times than that, not to brag.”
Fonzi doesn’t have to brag, so I’ll do it for him. His team’s performances, more-or-less out-of-the-blue serve as an inspiration to many gamers. In Halo 1 it was Zyos and the Ogres; they were untouchable. There were some others, but only a few excelled. In Halo 2, those players are still doing well with their teams finishing 2nd and 1st respectively, but now there’s Str8 Rippin. These are the underdogs that everyone roots for, because they weren’t Halo 1 gods.
Fonzi is also kept modest by playing with the best on a frequent, if not daily, basis. He may be quite near the top of the gaming world, but he still is improving. “When I first started getting invited into the Ogres’ custom games I was absolutely terrible,” Fonzi confides. “They’ve really helped me become a much better player. At this point they view themselves as a level above us, and I’d have to agree at least for the time being. So, they’ve been very willing to help us get better. I just hope that continues even if we become real competition for them.”
So if StK are a level above and pretty much universally regarded as such, what can Str8 Rippin prove throughout the other tournaments? Perhaps it’s that a team of matchmaking noobs might be better than, say, the illustrious Check Six: “I’m pretty excited about the team we have going to Houston. I’m pretty confident. It’s me, Foulacy, BlackJak and Sad Panda Eh. In terms of predictions, I think everyone would agree StK (will place) first. Maybe we can pull out a second. I don’t know who will be on Check Six’s team, but they will definitely be contenders.”
Not surprisingly, Fonzi sees pro-gaming as a growing sport, and MLG the industry forerunner. The way he describes it, it’s easy to see the parallels. “MLG San Fran… Capturing everything on VoD, streamed live online just like watching anything on TV, the audience, the two teams up on a stage, elevated, projector screens, all the details of some of the players, live commentators; the whole setup was just like a sport. I can definitely see it really opening up a lot more.”
Str8 Rippin is looking to secure a sponsor, which will make the tournaments a more lucrative proposition. They are in a very active dialogue with companies including Sprint, trying to make them realize how sport-like MLG is and how big it’s going to become.
For now, Str8 Rippin’s outlook as a squad is very similar to their game plan on the H2 battlefield: stay flexible. In the same way that they might need to change teammates, at least until Orlando when Fonzi and Foulacy will team with GhandiTheGreat and Vash, they hope to adapt to any situation. “Right now we come up with a general idea of where we want to be, and almost play it by ear, depending on the weapons we get,” Fonzi explains. “We have one person for sniper, but, the biggest thing is to be versatile. If the sniper dies you should be able to pick it up and snipe.”
After our chat, Fonzi was gracious enough to let me and some of my lucky MLG Forum buddies (lucky to know me and lucky to be on XBL at the time) have a chance to play with him, Foulacy, GandhiTheGreat, Defy and a few others. I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun in my life, especially dying so quickly. Being viciously, viciously, viciously and might I add viciously torn by these pros in MLG FFA for a couple games was quite an honor. And even in stomping us, they were nice about it. They didn’t call us noobs, they didn’t hump our corpses, they didn’t tell us to quit at life, or Halo 2. Foulacy even obsessed about a peculiar sticky, shrieking for a few minutes something to the order of “Karg, you are ridiculous.” They were professionals, which will go a long way in cementing pro-gaming as a legitimate sport. And that has me rooting for Str8 Rippin in Houston, ’cause I like this underdog.