Once upon a time it was easy to spot a great athlete. They wore jerseys and stood on a field or a court somewhere. Now, the world’s best digital athletes, who play their games on a screen, hide in plain sight, including on New Hampshire's Seacoast.
Fury’s Publick House in Dover is an unassuming, worn-in kind of bar. It features dim lighting, cheap beer, a beat-up pool table in the back.
Behind the bar, Kylie Hodsdon serves drinks and chats with the regulars. She’s in her early thirties, with dark hair, a big smile, and a confident air.
She seems to know just about everybody who comes in to Fury’s.
But not everyone knows about her other life.
“People come up and talk to me that I don’t know and ask if I’m really number 2 in the world for ladies, and I’m like ‘yes I am’ and then I serve them their drinks.”
That number 2 ranking is for a game called Big Buck Hunter.
In case you haven’t been to a dive bar lately and aren’t familiar, allow me to run you through the finer points.
In Big Buck Hunter, players use plastic shotguns to shoot deer that gallop across a TV screen. The goal is to shoot the bucks before they get away, while avoiding the does. Hitting one by accident is known as cowing out.
If it sounds a little like actual hunting, it’s not.
“It’s absolutely crazy. It’s a ridiculously unrealistic game.”
That’s David Winn, a regular at the Fury’s Big Buck machine. He says the whole point is to not take it too seriously.
“It’s just a good distraction, you know. I mean you get so bogged down with work stuff, and you so bogged down with family stuff.”
Like pool tables and dart boards, Big Buck Hunter is a staple of many working class bars. That’s where Hodsdon says she got her start, after hours at a dive in the North Country.
“I remember being really, really, good and a bunch of really old drunk men being like ‘oh my god!’ That was probably 12, 13 years ago.”
A few years later Kylie met and married a guy named Ryan who, in a twist of fate, also happens to be really, really good at Big Buck Hunter.
“I don’t remember when I first started playing – just another thing where you see it at a bar and start doing it. And I was pretty good, but when we first met and started dating she was definitely better than me.”
There’s some good-natured ribbing about who is better today. But in any case, they’re both way better than most.
When they play Buck Hunter, the Hodsdon’s share a kind of focused intensity.
Just before each round, Ryan’s arms follow the same set of motions, like a basketball player settling in at the free throw line.
When Kylie raises the shotgun toward the screen, her big smile melts into a grim stare. A round of Big Buck happens fast, but they make it looks easy, even graceful.
The Hodsdons have long been used to being the best in the room at Big Buck.
But about five years ago, they found out there was a much, much bigger stage to play on: the annual Big Buck Hunter world championship.
Big Buck Hunters come from the world over to compete. From Wisconsin, Washington State, Brooklyn, even Australia.
Thousands of dollars in prize money is on the line.
“Oh we were crapping our pants the whole time. There’s a huge stage with all these people watching and you get up there and you’re like please don’t make a fool of myself, don’t make a fool of myself.
"Everybody’s got matching shirts and in uniforms and we just kinda showed up. We were the group of two from New Hampshire.”
The Hodsdons arrived on the global Big Buck scene as outsiders, but after they both finished in the top five, they left as the newest members of an elite group.
The Hodsdon’s may have proven themselves at the world championships, but back at Fury’s in Dover they play an even more important role – as stewards of the local Big Buck Hunter community.
“Oh, they’re like the king and queen of Buck Hunter.”
That’s Analise Stettner. She’s one of about a dozen people who play in a Big Buck Hunter league that the Hodsdon’s oversee.
“I was here with friends last week and I was waiting to play and Ryan was on the machine. And my friend looks over and was like ‘Damn, you’ve got some competition. Look at this guy!’ And I was like funny you should say that because he’s like, the best in the world.”
Each year, a group of regulars from Fury’s travels with the Hodsdons to the world championships to cheer them on. They even have matching bowling shirts.
Everyone at Fury’s is quick to point out how silly the whole thing is – the weeks of practicing, the cross-country travel, all for a video game. One Buck Hunter told me, people who take Big Buck seriously, don’t take life too seriously.
That may be true, but these Buck Hunters do seem to take each other seriously.