Top spinners: For these 'bladers,' Beyblades are more than simple toys
By Ty Johnson
Published in News on July 29, 2012 1:50 AM
Armandi Benitez watches as he participates in a Beyblade battle during the Blader Jam 7.0 Tournament held at Tier Zero Gaming in Goldsboro.
Beyblader Howard Howell, right, participates in a Beyblade battle during the Blader Jam 7.0 Tournament held at Tier Zero Gaming in Goldsboro. Howell, an internationally ranked player, organizes tournaments in Goldsboro.
Howard Howell averts his gaze as his lime-green top spins in front of him.
He's competing in the finals of a Beyblade tournament he is hosting in downtown Goldsboro and he's losing -- not something he's accustomed to.
Howell, or Dark_Mousy, as he's known throughout the international Beyblading community, has been running around all afternoon setting up the tournament and entering statistics into the World Beyblade Organization database, but now he's locked in a final match for first place.
His Beyblade's tight spin begins to wobble a bit. It slows and eventually stops.
He picks up his top and the match is over. He has lost, but the Blader Jam 7.0 at Tier Zero Gaming in late June isn't the highest Beyblade stage in the land.
That stage, arguably, was in Toronto in May, where Howell didn't lose a match and emerged as the winner of the WBO Beyblade Crusade 2.
Howell, 23, is essentially the No. 1 Beyblader in North Carolina -- statistics from various tournaments are rarely up-to-date -- and has emerged as an ambassador of the Japanese game in Wayne County, organizing tournaments and helping beginners learn to play.
The game, launched by Japanese manufacturer Takara Tomy in 2000, is a modern reincarnation of Battling Tops, a game released in the late 1960s and re-released throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Players use ripcords to launch their Beyblades -- tops with customizable parts to allow for different attack styles -- into a playing stadium with the intent of either knocking out or outlasting their opponent.
The game attracted a cult following when it premiered, buoyed by a TV series launch of the same name, with Hasbro beginning to sell them internationally in 2002. The toy line became one of the most popular in the world until 2005, when production ceased.
Takara began manufacturing Beyblades again in 2008 and exposed a new generation to the game while offering an older generation of Beyblade enthusiasts an opportunity to dust off their tops and play again.
Brandon Bovia of Wilson heard about the tournament at Tier Zero, 223 A W. Walnut St., online and remembered how much fun he had playing when the toys first premiered.
"It's my first time playing in like three years," he said at the tournament. "It's still a fun game so I'm going to play it."
Bovia, 18, had played often when he was younger, using the plastic Beyblades that were popular then. Now he is using the metal series that have become the Beyblades of choice at tournaments and in recreational play.
Brian Riffle, 18, remembers playing against friends when he was younger, but said he now recognizes the applications of physics to the game. The combinations of weight, tips and other options that come along with the Beyblade phenomenon draw a direct connection to engineering.
"You've got all kinds of physics involved," said Riffle, also known as Axel Phantom, noting that understanding how each customization change affects the way the Beyblade spins requires a lot of know-how.
Devin Collins said it also requires an acute understanding of statistics -- a subject that greatly interests him.
Devin, 14, and his brother, Justin, 13, live in Princeton, and Devin, also known as Defstamina88, takes a lot of pride in studying combinations of axles, tips and weights to know what customs beat others.
"It does have some engineering behind it. I'm not interested in engineering itself, but am interested in the statistics," he said. "Knowing strategies and what beats what -- it requires a lot of learning."
Because Beybladers can't change their customizations mid-round, it's important to understand what options you have, the tendencies of other players and the capabilities of their Beyblades, making knowledge of the game just as important as a good, hard pull on the ripcord.
And it's knowledge that he's happy to share with his younger brother, also known as Smallfry, as the mentoring of new players is almost as much a part of the tournament as the first, second and third place prizes that await winners.
That allure makes the tournament a perfect Saturday getaway for the Stradlings, who live in Cary.
Kelly and Ryan brought their sons Jake, 9, and Evan, 6, to Tier Zero so they could have fun playing against others instead of their parents, and the older Beybladers are almost always willing to help the kids with their hobby.
"They're like 'Wow, that kid helped me with my Beyblade,'" she said.
It also lets the two root for each other instead of competing, although there doesn't seem to be any bad blood between the two.
Evan is quick to say his older brother is the better Blader, but Jake doesn't let the compliment go unreturned.
"You're pretty good, too, though," he said.
Attending tournaments gives the boys something they can both agree on, Mrs. Stradling said.
"They're having a blast. They haven't slept for a week," she said.
Their inclusion in the game speaks to its universal appeal to Beybladers of all ages and skill levels, but there is also a higher, immensely more competitive level of the game.
And that's why Howell isn't too worried about losing at his own tournament.
The wins and losses at each tournament all lead to points and rankings, but Howell's dominance in Toronto catapulted his rank well ahead of those at the Blader Jam.
The WBO, as the unofficial sanctioning body for Beyblades offers a ranking system, an online encyclopedia for all things Beyblade and online discussion forums on the hobby.
Howell discovered the WBO in May 2011 when he participated in his first tournament. He was impressed with the nature of those involved with the WBO and their easy acceptance of new players.
Because the WBO is a nonprofit and completely run by fans, there are no age restrictions like in the Hasbro competitions.
North Carolina is one of the most active areas in the world for the game, Howell said, although the biggest tournaments are held in Canada, like the one he competed in.
There was a little bit of a snag at customs when he flew in, he said, as he had to explain to Canadian officials what the metal spinning tops he had in tow were for.
"Explaining to customs in Canada that you're there to play a spinning top game will get you some looks," he said.
The tournament was held in collaboration with Anime North 2012, an annual fan-run anime convention held in Toronto, so there was no shortage of things to do leading up to the tournament, he said.
His win in the finals bumped his rankings up to international fame as he's in the top 30 in the world and top five in the United States.
And although he enjoys competing, he's also taken to hosting tournaments across the state and even in Virginia, helping other Bladers get started, promoting sportsmanship and offering tips and suggestions for those who enjoy the game.
But even as he mentors others, there's still an unspoken respect for Howell.
The Bladers around him may get the best of him every once and a while, but it's understood that it's only a matter of time before he'll be on top agai