A Celebration of Games
The mighty warriors who participate in the Bungie Pentathlon eschew mortal combat in favor of digital domination, but don't think for a second that the competition isn't serious business. We can't rule out some verbal slaps, long leaps of overconfidence, and yeah, maybe a little bit of hair pulling. Though the Winter Pentathlon is a day of entertainment and celebration, inside the studio walls, there's definitely an air of serious business wafting about. Or maybe the plumbing backed up. Either way, Grizzled Ancients Dave Dunn and Charlie "Chucky" Gough sat down and spoke a little about some of the silly and serious memories of Pentathlons past. Though neither man was willing or able to pin down the exact origins of competition, both had plenty to say about the enigmatic events they've participated in.
"It's really a celebration of games," Dunn said, "of how we make our living."
It's that celebratory concept that prompts Bungie not only to engage in friendly competition - to test the gaming mettle and prowess of the studio with bragging rights on the line - but also to memorialize the day with a State of the Union address and by knighting employees who reach their five and ten year service milestones.
"That's a ceremony that hasn't changed for a long time," Gough said, "and part of that tradition is to give five tee shirts with caricatures of the employee's own face on them."
Some of the tee shirts have gained collector's item status, the value often assigned by the horror and shock exhibited by the recipient over seeing their own visage so comically defiled on the heels of their tenure award. Embarrassment is often a valuable commodity.
The competitions, both the Winter and Summer Pentathlons, have always been broken down into five major events, with the Summer Pentathlon pitting competitors against each other in feats of physical strength - games like dodge ball, tug of war, and piggyback racing. There's even been pie eating competitions. "Crazy Race" contestants might have been found with their foreheads pressed against vertically planted baseball bats, rotating as fast as possible around the barrel before running off on an awkward slant, trying to race to a finish line without their sense of balance and equilibrium.
The Winter Pentathlon has always been about games. Halo has long been a mainstay, but plenty of other titles have gotten a good dose of studio love: Counterstrike, Warcraft III, Age of Empires, Virtua Tennis, and tons of others. There's even a Street Fighter event that goes by the unique and colloquial moniker, The Barrython.
Dunn mentions that some of the guys once chipped in to award The Barrython winner with a ticket to the Street Fighter National Championships in Las Vegas, Nevada. Much of the Pentathlon competition is about getting the last laugh: "Yeah, you beat me. Try your luck in Vegas, chump."
Spirit, Pageantry, and a Little Bit of Dirty Pool
Video games aren't the only events on the itinerary either. Plenty of boardgames, tabletops, and parlor style games also often make the list. Ping Pong and Spades have been staples. At the mention of the latter, Gough leans back in his chair and asks that a special note be made. "Jones and I," he says, "were unstoppable."
Dunn interjects. Some of the employees aren't so serious about the day's competitive aspects. "It's not always about a sense of self value or self worth," he offers.
One year, when the competition was being broken down by discipline rather than tenure, Dunn notes that Gough's dedicated Halo team was so steeped in the competitive spirit that they failed to notice that the art team had wrapped rubber bands around their giant "Duke" controllers and vacated the room, leaving Gough and company to wage war against a team of empty chairs. It wasn't until Dunn's team couldn't hold back their laughter that Gough's squad was clued into the hijinks and realized that they had been concentrating all of their fire on an unmanned squad. Gough just smiles. Dunn's tale has triggered another memory.
"There's a sort of spirit," he offers, "of winning by the letter of the rule." He recalls bringing cleats to the tug of war competition - a pair for him and for each man on his team. They dominated, but Gough is quick to point out that they didn't cheat. There wasn't a rule about the type of shoes you could slap on your feet. "Each team tries to play head games," he says. They jostle for position and seeding, play on perceived mental weaknesses, and talk heaps of trash in the week's leading up to the event.
"It's almost become a tradition to complain about game selection, rules, and cheating," Dunn says. But like the friendly back-and-forth between Dunn and Gough, it's always tongue and cheek. When someone is suspected of cheating, competitors will shout "put a star by my name,' Gough says through a grin, as if the record needs to be permanently altered to reflect the circumstances of an unfair loss.
Cup Stays Here
Another Pentathlon tradition revolves around The Cup, the trophy awarded to the day's winning team. The earliest version, Dunn mentions, "was something like a colander spray-painted gold.' There's a second version up for grabs today, a trophy handmade by Staten over a weekend. As early as 2000, it began to be stolen before it could be awarded to the victor.
That year the Oni team had flown into Chicago to participate in the Pentathlon. They lost. The trophy came back to California with them anyway.
"We put it on the webcam," Dunn says. Winning wasn't the only prize that could be culled from the Pentathlon. Soon enough it became tradition for losing teams to abscond with the trophy before it could be awarded to the winners. But at the beginning of the next year's Pentathlon, it always seemed to magically reappear.
Here and Now
The past is then and the future is now. Well, it's Friday anyway, and this year's Winter Pentathlon teams are busy practicing and concocting strategies in their spare time. They are gathering uniforms, pouring over set lists, and trying to figure out which squads will give them the most difficulty in any one given event. And they are planning on winning.
Dunn and Gough are confident about the Grizzled Ancient's prospects.
"Everyone in the studio is in on the joke," Dunn says, "the Grizzled Ancients don't change." Tenure has granted them a solidified roster of veterans. They're older. They're wiser. Though they are lighthearted, they're taking it seriously. Dunn remarks that they have luck on their side.
We'll see. Only one things is certain, Marty isn't strapping on a leotard this year: "I took one for the team but I’ll never wear spandex again." Everything else is up for grabs.
The Bungie Winter Pentathlon 2008 goes down this Friday. Keep your eyes on the site for coverage. Stay tuned. If you want to take a look back at last year's festivities while you wait, hit the links below.
Last Season's Winter Pentathlon Preview
Last Season's Winter Pentathlon Results