Easter dinner was in full swing and the Gutkoskis, of Lewis Center, were enjoying the day.
Matt Gutkoski, however, had a slight issue. Time was ticking, there was an important hockey game he needed to play and the 20-year old Ohio State marketing student excused himself with an awkward explanation that included a video game in the basement.
Top Shelf Cookie full bio
"I was at Easter dinner and I was like, 'Hey guys, I'm really sorry, but I've got to leave right now,'" said Gutkoski, who became one of eight online competitors who qualified for the American regional in the 2018 NHL Gaming World Championships on Sunday at NBC Sports studio in Stamford, Conn. "It's hard to explain, because I was like, 'Hey, I'm going to play a video game.' It was like, 'Uh … OK.'"
It was no ordinary game or tournament.
This is the first NHL Gaming World Championships, which is designed to become an annual event. There is $100,000 in prize money to be distributed through the course of the tournament, and Gutkoski will attempt to get out of the U.S. regional by finishing in the top two. If he wins the regional, he'll get $5,000.
The top two finishers from U.S., Canadian and European regional fields will advance to Las Vegas, where they will conclude the tournament June 19 in the Esports Arena at Luxor Hotel and Casino.
NHL Gaming World Championship
The overall winner will receive $50,000 and likely get a chance to become a professional gamer, competing for prize money in similar online competitions throughout the year.
That's getting too far ahead, though. Gutkoski still needs to get out of the regional field to even get a chance to win the whole thing - and just getting this far was quite a challenge.
Playing under the handle, "Top Shelf Cookie," the former youth and Olentangy Orange high school hockey player reeled off 10 straight wins in online matchups, spread over two days during Easter weekend. He then won a three-game series, 2-1, to determine his seed placement at the regional.
"I think I wound up having to play a little bit more than 10 games to get to Connecticut," said Gutkoski, who will take his dad, Steve, with him. "It was definitely a grind, but it's paying off now. It was tough, though, because they split it up into two days. The first day, it was the day before Easter and the last day was on Easter."
That's when the awkward dinner conversation happened.
After excusing himself from the table, Gutkoski headed to the basement. He fired up his Xbox on a 37-inch flat-screen TV, which has an old speaker as a TV stand, and he won his way to Stamford, Conn.
"It was all online through the qualifying rounds," said Gutkoski, whose first hockey video game was Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey for a Nintendo 64. "Basically, they would match you up with an opponent and you'd have to invite them to an online game. Then, after the game, you take screenshots of your game results as evidence of who won the game. That's how you'd move on."
Gutkoski did that 10 straight times, which is no small feat for those who've ever played sports video games online.
"To punch your ticket to Connecticut, you couldn't lose in the first 10 games," he said. "It was all just [single-elimination] leading up to it, in a randomly-generated bracket. You have up to 1,024 people in one bracket, but I don't think my bracket had the full 1,024, probably because of Easter."
Apparently, not everybody's family was so forgiving.
"Once you got down to the lower number of opponents, when more was on the line, that's when they decided to make it best-of-3," Gutkoski said. "Once it was down to the final two, they made it a best-of-3 series, so then the winner went on to Connecticut from there. It took a little bit of pressure off, like, 'Alright, if the first game doesn't go well, it's not the end of the world.'"
It didn't matter.
Gutkoski swept the series, using the Tampa Bay Lightning as his primary team. Gutkoski's an avid Blue Jackets fan, whose dad has owned season tickets for three seasons, but he faced a tough call picking his teams.
"As much as I wanted to play as the Blue Jackets, I think it would probably put me at a little disadvantage," said Gutkoski, who will wear a Jackets home jersey at the regional with 'Top Shelf Cookie' on the nameplate, courtesy of the Blue Jackets. "The most common teams were Tampa Bay, Winnipeg, Washington and the Penguins. I usually picked Tampa, just because they didn't give the Blue Jackets enough love [in the game]."
One team was off-limits, though.
"There's no way I would even come close to using them," Gutkoski said of the Penguins. "That's not even in question."
Neither is the opportunity in front of him.
Should Gutkoski get on another roll, there's prize money at stake - along with some major bragging rights.
"My brothers are ecstatic about it," he said of younger brother Josh, 17, a junior hockey player at Olentangy Orange, and Evan, 22, a former Olentangy Orange player. "They're very happy for me and so is my dad, but I don't think my dad really understood that the tournament had this kind of potential."
He might not fully grasp it until the wheels of their airplane leave the runway, as they whisk off to Stamford for more video hockey games. It's all been a whirlwind for Gutkoski thus far, especially since beginning a summer internship this week.
"This was my goal at the beginning, just to get to this regional," he said. "Now that I'm here, I think I'm good enough that I can make a run for it. This whole thing has just been eye-opening. I'm not only excited for this but excited for NHL e-sports to grow in the future."