Every time Elon Musk’s dazzling transportation system of the future, the Hyperloop, gets a mention in the press, so does air hockey. Musk described the Hyperloop back in 2013 as “a cross between a Concorde, a rail gun, and an air hockey table” and that innocent description seems to make it into every article about the new technology. Lately that has been often, since two competing ventures recently filed for permits to make Hyperloop test tracks a reality.
So air hockey has been on my brain a little lately because of this and I wonder if it has been on others’ as well.
Twelve years ago I set out to make a film about air hockey and a small but passionate group of people that competed seriously at it. Although Way of the Puck was eventually released in 2010, the lion’s share of the photography was done between 2004 and 2006. In fact, a very early temp version of the documentary played at the Houston International Film Festival in 2006.
This was the year of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and Justin Timberlake’s “Sexyback.” The year of Dreamgirls and The Departed. The West Wing was still on the air. “SPARTA!”
A lifetime ago.
Thanks to the Hyperloop, however, I’ve gotten curious again about air hockey. What happened to all of those guys in Way of the Puck? Were they able to grow the sport at all? Or did they abandon their love air hockey for more practical things? It’s not the early 1970s anymore; it’s 2016! Is anything happening at all? Perhaps I should reengage with the strange universe of air hockey to see if anything interesting is still going on there…
Here at the Way of the Puck website we intend to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of that initial festival run by rolling out a limited series of air hockey-related articles, interviews, and posts over the coming year. We’ll publish an interview with the current world champion, a 16-year-old high school junior from Beaumont, Texas. We’ll put out a first-person account of a California player brought in to battle test an air hockey robot. We’ll see what’s happening on the manufacturing side of air hockey, if anything. We’ll look up our friends in Spain and Venezuela and explore whether air hockey interest has continued to spread internationally. And we’ll check in with some of the main characters from the movie to see where they are now: the Promoter, the Guru, the Ex-Champ, and the Entrepreneur.
And what’s up with this upstart AHPA? Is this a rival air hockey league or just another promotional body? Are they trying to secede from the air hockey Union? Never forget: Nobody respected the AFL in the beginning either.
Then again, people disrespected the USFL as well—and rightfully so.
Stay tuned. Air hockey still loves you.
Best air hockey scene in a movie, ever.
We have just passed the 10-year anniversary of the article “Air Time” written by Way of the Puck director Eric D. Anderson. The article was a direct result of that very first encounter with the air hockey community in Fremont, California at City Beach. Players Davis Lee Huynh, J. Hilton Reed, and Harvey Thornburg introduced Anderson to competitive air hockey, while informing him that the world championships were only a week away in Las Vegas. That evening was impactful enough to compel Anderson to head to Las Vegas with a camera crew to find out if there was an interesting movie in all of it. Hard to believe that was ten years ago!
The article was a follow-up with Huynh—then ranked a distant sixth in the world—and his mission to win a world championship. Huynh eventually did win two championships (in 2007 and 2010), but at the time his ambition seemed like pure fantasy.
Giant Robot magazine no longer exists so we scanned the article for all of you air hockey heads out there!
Billy Stubbs is a 39-year-old creative director based out of Chicago, Illinois. He started playing air hockey seriously in 1993 while living in Georgia, trekking up to Atlanta every weekend to play with eleven-time world champion Jesse Douty. After finishing 48th in his first national tournament, he decided he needed to practice even harder and dedicated himself to systematic, rapid improvement. The following year he placed fifth, a result that raised eyebrows, and in 1995 he came out of nowhere and rolled through a deep field—beating champions Tim Weissman, Jesse Douty, and Wil Upchurch en route to his first national championship. He was twenty years and six months old, the third youngest champion of all time. Although some predicted that youthful Stubbs’ disciplined, analytical approach would deliver him several championships in the 1990s, he went seventeen years without winning another one. In 2012, at the tender age of 37, he finally became world champion again, prevailing first in Las Vegas and later in Houston that year. He won his fourth world championship in 2014.
Stubbs plays an unflashy, rational style of air hockey—some call it “robotic”—which has earned him the nickname “The Machine.”
WOTP: It took you seventeen years to win another championship. What happened?
STUBBS: I think that after I won that first one I had a motivational lapse and didn’t take it as seriously. Maybe I took it for granted—being young and winning. And thinking I could win by just staying at the same skill level I was at. I went to tournaments the next few years and started dropping down to 7 and 8 finishes, not horrible but not contending either. And then some time passed where I didn’t play but once or twice a year and it really showed in my results. In the next seventeen years a lot of other good players came up as well.
WOTP: So what changed for you?
STUBBS: Well, in 2009 a couple of guys here in Chicago, Dan Meyer and Brian Quezada, came out of nowhere. These guys took air hockey really seriously and wanted to play all the time and learn. And I was happy to have them being so passionate and dragging me out to play two to three times a week. That was great. After playing regularly with them for a couple of years I made the decision that I was either going to quit air hockey or make a big push to be as good as I could be. I realized that I’d played this game recreationally for almost two decades and Father Time was kicking in. Also, just being in my late thirties gave me a reason to want to be healthier and be in better shape, and using air hockey as a tool for those things was perfect. So I lost 42 lbs in 2011. I got in great shape, started playing every day, had better practice players with Brian and Dan, and took the game more seriously.
WOTP: Did you have regular workouts? What was your plan?
STUBBS: What I did was model my training regimen—which is 5 days a week, 2.5 hours a day on the table, plus cross training and video study—after the U.S. Olympic table tennis team. I was looking at how pro tennis players and pro basketball players did it. And I took a big look at MLB players and table tennis players to see what their training regimens were like and what would happen if I applied that same training to air hockey. I think the one that worked best was the one I just described—the U.S. table tennis team regimen—and the results show.
Also, I always have a three-month calendar of what I want to work on—regardless of whether a tournament is coming up or not. I think that the biggest difference is before a tournament the calendar gets a lot more granular. There’s a lot more detail on it because I’m making a bigger and more focused push. That’s the way I get my head around staying in air hockey—I give myself small milestones that are laid out weeks to months in advance.
WOTP: So you’re winning just because you’re outtraining everybody.
STUBBS: That’s exactly right! The reason I’m winning because I’m outtraining everybody! I think you see that in everything across life. The people who are successful are, by and large, not the people that have the natural talent. The people who are successful in business or sports or whatever are the people who put in long hours. Look at Roger Federer: He practices tennis eight hours a day on the court and video studies for two hours a day and he sleeps for twelve hours a day. So his life is tennis and you see that in the results. He is the greatest tennis player of all time.
WOTP: Applied toward air hockey, this approach seems both highly rational and totally crazy!
STUBBS: Yeah! When I was younger I loved playing air hockey but I was always aware of the public perception of it as a kid’s game—not something to be taken seriously. That was something that was always in the back of my mind, maybe on a subconscious level. But as I grew older I became more comfortable in my own skin and realized that air hockey makes me happy and I love playing it, so I’m going to make this push and I no longer care what anybody thinks. And I’m happy that I did it because it’s something that I’m really proud of.
WOTP: But how much of this good feeling is results based? If you were finishing in fifth or sixth place would you still train like this?
STUBBS: That would be really tough. I wouldn’t feel the same for sure, because I’d realize I was outpracticing everybody by a large margin. And if I’m still doing that and Danny [Hynes] is beating me when he plays once a week for an hour a day, it’d be tough to come to terms with!
WOTP: As a creative director and marketing expert do you have any opinions on how to increase involvement in the sport?
STUBBS: Right now we’re in such bad shape and I think it’s obvious. We need to improve our brand image; we need to get a website presence that is decent. We need to do a few other very basic blocking and tackling things—just very basic things that anybody else in business would do to help make their business grow. The problem is we just don’t have people willing to put in the time to do these things. These things take man-hours and we just don’t have people willing to put in that time.
I’ve said that if I win five tournaments I’m going to step away from playing fourteen hours a week. I’ll dial it down to about an hour a week and then I’m going to turn my attention more to marketing and promotion of the sport. So I’ll take those twenty hours a week that I’m dedicating to air hockey practice and flip them over to marketing and trying to help us grow. But right now I just don’t have time to practice and promote at the same time—that’s asking a lot of people.
WOTP: Do you ever feel any resentment? I mean, why does it have to be you who does this?
STUBBS: I don’t feel resentment because I haven’t done it yet either. I’ve never invested twenty hours a week into marketing air hockey, so how could I ask other people to do it too? No, not resentment, just disappointment.
WOTP: Any final comments?
STUBBS: Just get out there and try hard at something and take it seriously and get good at it. Simple story, you hear it all the time; people don’t do it. And I’m guilty of not doing it in my day job and other things in my life. But if you are committed to something you’ll see results.
Practice makes perfect. I heard it in band all the time when I was kid!
Billy has written dozens of insightful articles about air hockey tactics, mechanics, and training methodologies at his blog, Say AH. It’s a gold mine for anyone seriously interested in improving at air hockey.
Check it out at: http://billystubbs.wordpress.com
We are currently in the process of revamping the Way of the Puck website. Please excuse our mess! Regrettably, many things have happened in the interim, including no longer being represented on iTunes.
But we plan to bring more new content to the site, including an exclusive interview with World Champion Billy Stubbs, who sheds light on his obsessive training regimen and his obsessive collection of Kid Robot Dunny vinyl toys… Stay tuned!
During the editing of Way of the Puck I felt a nagging responsibility to be respectful of these players and their personal lives. My friends and associates felt no such compunction. At all. “Who cares what you said?” seemed to be the prevailing opinion. “Now you’re in post and you must make the best film possible. You have a responsibility to your audience to tell an open, engaging story.”
Was that right? Was I not getting to the guts of the story because I was pussyfooting around? Was I in danger of making a subjective, adoring “love letter” that just pitched softballs and probed nothing? Or was I doing all of the cheap things I promised not to do? Was I manipulating footage for easy laughs? Was I artificially pumping up conflict to create drama? Was I focusing on a disproportionate amount of “foolish” and “socially inept” players, or was I focusing on “unique” and “interesting” players and including them because boring, well-adjusted people make for unengaging cinema?
Way of the Puck is now available for purchase and rental at the iTunes Store. WOTP will be going live on the Xbox/Playstation platforms in a couple of weeks!
Way of the Puck will be showing on PBS in Washington State and British Columbia starting on Monday, October 24. Please encourage friends and family in the area to tune in! The rainy Northwest is a perfect environment for a perfect indoor sport like air hockey.
Way of the Puck will screen for two consecutive days at the Grassroots Gaming Expo, this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, in Ottumna, Iowa. Come to casually play video games, compete in tournaments, enjoy live music, and check out a host of other gaming documentaries…
Check out this link: http://www.grassrootsgamingexpo.com/2012-event/film/
“Cinema is an emotional medium first of all, and an intellectual one later. Movies have this effortless ability to forge an instant connection with the viewer and transport them to another place and another time, and this is what I find so compelling. We want to be transported. We want to be affected, to feel. It may seem strange for a documentary filmmaker to be speaking in these terms, but I think it’s important to remember that the viewers are going to respond first to an emotional connection with the material, even if it’s a documentary. Especially if it’s a documentary. You must forge this emotional bond with the viewer…otherwise you’re a failure. Then you’re about as interesting as an insurance seminar.”
There’s also a link at the bottom of the interview that connects to the entire uncut interview with Anderson. Check it out!!!