It wouldn't be a stretch to say the U.S. championship for NHL 19 gaming was born in Columbus.
It's not just that Matthew Gutkoski, aka his gamer handle Top Shelf Cookie, is from Lewis Center, attends Ohio State and is a Blue Jackets fan.
It's that Gutkoski, who outlasted seven other foes to be crowned best in the nation last week, won his first-ever high-level tournament earlier this year when the Blue Jackets hosted their inaugural competition in the popular EA Sports NHL video game.
And the momentum gained from that victory at Nationwide Arena has helped turn Gutkoski from a good player into one who has proved he's among the best in the world.
"Honestly, in thinking back, once I qualified for the Jackets tournament and won it, it was like, 'I could really make a run this year,'" said Gutkoski, who now moves on to the international final of the NHL Gaming World Championship on June 18 in Las Vegas. "I got some confidence. You finally win a tournament and it's a huge morale boost and it gives you some confidence that you can beat anybody."
And that's exactly what Gutkoski did. The third-place finisher in the U.S. bracket a year ago, leaving him one spot away from being one of two players to move on to the international finals, Gutkoski left no doubt he was the best player in the country this time around, sweeping all three of his opponents in the eight-person bracket.
Each matchup was staged in a best-of-three format, with the first player to win two games moving on. Gutkoski, who played as the Blue Jackets in the game and drafted CBJ standouts Zach Werenski and Nick Foligno to his roster for the tournament, finished 6-0 and captured the championship matchup with a sweep of defending U.S. champion and NHL Gaming World Championship competitor John 'Johnwaynee' Casagranda.
Afterward, Casagranda said Gutkoski played the best he's ever seen him play, something the central Ohio native would agree with.
"It was a very odd feeling because once I got the first series under my belt when I moved on to the semifinals and right when I started playing that game, I did not think I was going to lose," said Gutkoski, who played high school hockey at Olentangy Orange and even helped the Pioneers capture the Blue Jackets Cup in 2015. "There was no doubt in my mind I was going to win, and that wasn't something that I've ever experienced before."
The belief that he'd win didn't even wane when Casagranda held a lead late in Game 2 of the final series. Gutkoski ended up tying the score with 23 seconds left and then won the game in overtime.
"I expected to score," Gutkoski said. "I just didn't know when it was going to happen. That feeling I had is something I've never experienced, and I hope I can feel it again come June 18."
Using a solid brand of puck possession and a lethal ability to set up one-timers that opposing goalies just can't stop, Gutkoski is one of six players who will vie for the world title in Las Vegas. With his win in the U.S. final, Gutkoski is through to the semifinals, while Casagranda will join the runner-up seeds in the Canadian and European brackets in a round robin, from which one person will move on to the semis.
The top overall seed is the defending champion, Finnish player Erik 'Eki' Tammenpää, while Gutkoski owns the No. 2 seed and will face third-seeded Canadian champion Karl 'Mg X Nuclear' Caslib in a semifinal. The other round-robin competitors are Canadian runner-up Matthew 'Yung Gren' Grenier and European second-place finisher Hannes 'Hansulinho' Kettunen of Finland.
Gutkoski also took home $5,000 for his U.S. title and is assured of at least that same amount in Vegas, with the chance to win $50,000 should be bring the world title home to central Ohio.
While the money is a nice consideration for the Ohio State marketing major, the fact that he's become a national champion is what it's all about.
"It's just a very surreal feeling that you are the best in the nation," Gutkoski said. "I've been playing the game over the years and you never really think -- you might be good at something and you'll keep playing and be above average or a very good player, but to be the best in the nation, it's an honor to hold that title and I'm almost at a loss for words."