There are plenty of good reasons to preorder the Nintendo Switch (and some valid reasons not to), but there aren't many reasons to wait in line for a month for one. Yet Alex "Captain Nintendo Dude" Pekala has chosen to spend 30 days within the perimeter at NYC's Nintendo World store so he can be the first person in North America to procure Nintendo's peculiar piece of kit.
The question, of course, is why? Why wait four plus weeks in the shivering cold when you can simply preorder a Switch online? Why spend a full calendar month doing something you know is completely impractical? Why subject yourself to the obvious ridicule the whole enterprise will bring?
Our story begins in 1996 when a young man named Isaiah "Triforce" Johnson waited several hours to be the among the first few people to procure an N64 from an Electronics Boutique in the Manhattan Mall. Then only 20, Johnson found celebrating a Nintendo product launch with fellow fans to be a thoroughly profound experience.
"When I got there, I really enjoyed the camaraderie of standing out in front of the Electronics Boutique," he tells me over Skype from an Airbnb near the iconic Nintendo World store in Time Square. "You meet all these other gamers and you have all this great camaraderie because everyone is into video games. You talk about your last system you had, some of the best games you've played, some of the greatest experiences. It's a huge cultural sharing moment."
Waiting for days to celebrate a Nintendo product's launch became a hobby for the Jamaican-born Johnson. It wasn't until 2003, waiting for The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, that Johnson's pastime went from a casual passion into a competitive affair.
"I got there first. I stepped away to go get something to eat, because they said it's not open yet, and I came back and three other people were in front of me," Johnson recalls. "And the guy who got the first Wind Waker got a real parchment map of the Wind Waker world. And because I stepped away I missed that..." he trails off.
"From that point on, I was like 'Never again will I ever be second in line! [Even] if I have to stay there for days, weeks, a month!'"
And indeed he stayed true to his word. Johnson now holds a Guinness World Record for being first in line for the greatest number of Nintendo product launches. It may seem like a silly thing to be known for, but having a world record in anything earns one some well deserved pride.
But Johnson isn't exactly a young buck anymore. At 40, he's retired from the waiting game to live a slightly more ordinary life in Jamaica amongst his family and friends. He's engaged, trying to start a career in video production, and tipping past the midlife crisis. "I retired on the Wii U," he tells me. "I said 'This is it. I'm too old for this.' Not too old to play the video games, it's just that there are other things in my life that I have to focus on and I can't share that time to continue this particular tradition."
Hundreds of miles away, in a small town in Wisconsin, a 19-year-old Alex Pekala is finding his way in the world. College doesn't suit the young man, but he has aspirations outside academia. He wants to be a content creator on YouTube and turn his passion for Nintendo products into a living. So he takes the channel he began in 2011, where he brands himself "Captain Nintendo Dude", and hits the ground running.
"I had about a month of winter holiday break to just focus on YouTube. So I told myself after Christmas that in 2017 for seven days straight I'm going to upload videos," he tells me. "And my channel doubled in size! It went from about 50k to 100k. So I got to a point when I could quit my job at a little fast food restaurant. I could afford to live on my own. I could afford to be completely self-independent." One can't help but admire the entrepreneurial teenager's hustle.
Then he had a crazy idea, albeit one that sounds modest in retrospect: he decided he should fly to New York City, a place he'd never been before, and wait in line for a few days to celebrate the launch of the upcoming Nintendo Switch. It would be a grand old time, he figured. He could hang out with fans, experience the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple, and get some good video content to boot.
He never expected this endeavor would turn into what it did. "I just wanted to experience the line and everything. I fantasised about being first and how cool that would be, but didn't really think that would happen," he tells me. His goal was merely to be among the first five or 10. But number one? No way! It's not like he's Triforce Johnson or anything.
Not knowing the first thing about how to go about camping outside a store in New York without getting arrested, mugged or worse, Pekala sought counsel from one of his heroes, "the god of line-waiting", as he calls him: Triforce Johnson. So he emails Johnson, a man he'd long admired but never actually met, and asks for some pointers. He crosses his fingers that maybe Johnson will reply with a few sage sentences of advice. What he did not expect was for Johnson to want to speak to him on Skype. Suddenly, he was face to face (via video chat) with his hero.
"This guy to me is like a celebrity," Pekala tells me. "I was like 'Oh my god! My heart's pounding!' And then he calls and is like 'I've got a little proposition for you..."
While Pekala was looking towards Johnson for some pro-tips, Johnson saw something else in the fledgling content creator the he never could have imagined: a protege. Johnson, who said he'd retire after the Wii U launch, didn't want his legacy to simply vanish. He saw Pekala as a gift: a successor who could carry his torch into the coming age.
"When the Switch was announced I must've gotten like 100 different messages from people asking 'Triforce, are you going to be the first in line?'" Johnson says. "And that's when I was like 'There's a huge void here! I won't be able to bring any closure and I won't be able to continue this. I need to be able to bring in another generation to continue this tradition. I need to find a fan who's just as enthusiastic, just as eccentric as I am.'
"This has to be something you love, that you're willing to do. You can't just be a moderate fan. I came across Alex and that's when we talked for a little bit and I was like 'you're the perfect guy for this!' His name is Captain Nintendo Dude!"
So Johnson made his own proposition: the two of them would wait for the Switch, together, for an entire month and the elder fan would teach the new kid the ropes.
To Pekala, this was a dream come true. It's just like the plot of every Zelda game: a young rural scamp discovers that a great destiny awaits them so they leave their home to venture out into the big, scary world.
For Pekala and Johnson, it's about the fans they meet on the way, and the friendships they make. That's not to say either party isn't privy to the backlash of their venture, especially Johnson who began his peculiar pastime roughly a decade before YouTube would be invented.
"I got a lot of negative feedback. The only positive feedback I got was from people at Nintendo World, but online it was all 'What are you doing? Why? You're crazy!'" Johnson recalls of his early years of line-waiting. But that's changed a lot with the advent of YouTube where being a fan morphed into a profession.
"In regards to Alex, I see a big difference here. With Alex, to YouTube fans, they're god-like. Those are some of the best Nintendo fans I've seen in quite some time. And they back him. His fans literally defend him and what he's doing. And it's not like a troll thing where everyone's just arguing or whatever. They bring up some great points in his defence.
"But more than anything, what I've learned over the years, especially in regards to this, is that we are no different from the people who line up for iPhones. We're no different than people who line up for Jordan's, Harry Potter books, Star Wars. We're no different from any of those people. And when you look at each of those particular products, you notice that each of them has a community. And there's a culture to that community. So those people completely understand where we're coming from. They may not understand that particular product or whatever it is that we're into, but they can understand the culture behind it because they do it with whatever products they particularly support. And that's why I call it a culture."
"Although we're slightly different, we all do the same things. The people who don't understand are the people who are outside of this particular culture because they live the life society subscribes to them. In a sense they kind of feel like in order to be accepted by society they must do what society does. And I think that blocks them out from really enjoying themselves. I like the launch party because I like to meet people like CND and I like to talk with him about video games. About how he grew up and shit. And I don't care if society doesn't like that."
"That's a key thing," Pekala adds. "I think if anyone wants to do something like this, you can't be afraid of backlash. You can't be afraid of judgment in the slightest. You really can't. Because this is crazy."
The difference now, at least in regards to pop culture, is that we value crazy over conformity. And Pekala has found a way to present his eccentricities as a feature rather than a flaw.
"I think overall that is the biggest reaction we're getting is 'You're crazy!' but it's what they say afterwards [that counts]," Pekala says. "It's like 'You're crazy, but you know what? More power to you! I'm going to be watching and supporting from the sidelines. Go for it!'
"And some people are like "No. You're stupid crazy! What are you doing? This is hurting you. You need to go back to college!' People are saying stuff like that in the comments, but it gets drowned out by the majority of positive feedback."
"I've even see people say 'You're wasting your time. Nothing's gonna happen,'" Johnson says. "Then when the launch happens it's like 10-15k people and it's a huge celebration, and you get the system, and you meet all those people, and all those friends, and all those experiences.
"At that point you know it's not that it's stupid. In a sense, they're just jealous because they can't share in that moment in what they love. They can't share in what we love, because it's alien to them, and they don't have their own version. I don't dislike these people. I don't think Alex dislikes these people. In a sense I kind of feel sorry for them because it's like they're imprisoning themselves from truly enjoying their own happiness because they're trying to meet the quota of society."
From an outside perspective it may seem like Johnson and Pekala live in their own little world. But what a world it is! Full of optimism, magic and adoration. Pekala and Johnson's crusade isn't about hardware acquisition or even brand loyalty, but rather about celebrating the joy these products have wrought in a way that's public, inclusive, and expressive. It's a passion that's brought two people separated by generation, ethnicity, and who grew up halfway across the world from one another, together. And surely that's video games at their very best.
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