Sal's choice of song is stop, by Jane?s Addiction.
"Here we go!" He has short hair with lightning-bolt Zs over the ears, a red Guitar Hero T-shirt and playground shorts. His stare is blank, sucked into the screen in front of him, while the crowd roars at each breath of the song. "Hoo-rah!"
He looks down at his fans numbering in the hundreds - 200, 300 - as he rips it up to the ending: "Along with me. Along with TV."
And what's that? Are people singing along? This prodigy is pounding pudgy digits on plastic keys faster than the eye can see. At the finish, everyone's on their feet.
Sal is seven. He's playing Guitar Hero at the World Series Of Video Games, which set up shop at Fan Expo at the Metro Convention Centre August 24 to 26.
Guitar Hero is a rhythm game in which you play the role of a rock star by tapping out "notes" that run down the screen using a guitar-shaped controller. Hit the wrong button and you'll hear a feedback squawk. Hear it enough and you're booted from the stage.
For Sal, that isn't a problem. According to his dad, Sebastian, who's also here to compete, they play together all the time, but since Guitar Hero II, Dad "can't even touch him."
The World Series Of Video Games is one of a number of touring competitions that are taking games like Guitar Hero, World Of Warcraft and Quake 4 to the professional level. The winner of the Guitar Hero tournament wins $1,500 and gets flown to Los Angeles for the next round. The London and Sweden finals follow in November.
"The appeal of Guitar Hero is that it's kind of a spectacle," says Elliott Rudner, a wiry 24-year-old from Thornhill, one of the moderators of Guitar Hero fan site ScoreHero. "If you look at World Of Warcraft, there are people there, but Guitar Hero has the crowd. You know, it's rock and roll. They're putting on a show. A lot of gamers don't take it seriously, but it takes timing, dexterity, finger strength - it's everything."
Songs are played on a wide stage, blue bleachers for spectators, and huge flat screens display what's on-screen for the crowd to follow. Onstage, three judges - "the serious one," "the cute chick" and the "freaky dude" - rate the players on performance, difficulty and style. The Freaky Dude says to Sal, "You are the coolest kid I've ever known. I gotta give you a 10."
After his song, Sal watches others play, his fingers moving in time, ghosting their notes.
He's not the only one. There's a motley crew scoping the sitch; you can tell they came just for this. They wear jackets and hockey jerseys emblazoned with their Guitar Hero online handles and carry their own customized axes, er, controllers. For them, playing behind their heads, switching hands and Angus Young-style pogoing across the stage are a matter of course.
"It gets stepped up every event," says Zack Johnson, organizer of the console games division of the World Series Of Video Games. "In Dallas, Freddie did a backflip after his performance. In Louisville, a guy smashed his guitar when he was done. One guy showed up today with a propane tank strapped to his back; he was going to light off a blowtorch. The officials put a stop to that because it obviously violates the fire code. But the guys are bit creative, trying to step up their game."
Oh, yeah, the blowtorch. That happened. Play was delayed 20 minutes as the organizers tried to sort it out with the Convention Centre authorities. No dice. That dream ended with a squinty teen in a custom metal gauntlet and a hockey jersey reading "Mob Half-Jack" stomping away from the judges' table.
"He told a couple of us, and we thought maybe we should check on it," says Johnson. "But we didn't want him to get thrown out, because that's probably what would have happened. If people give us a heads-up ahead of time, we try to work with them a little."
So make no mistake, Guitar Hero is mega, and when Guitar Hero III lands later this fall, it will be even bigger. It's more than the next karaoke. It's just biding its time till it takes its place on television beside American Idol and Rock Star.
Meanwhile, back on the show floor, there's a freak 'fro in a day-glo orange T-shirt. He's a stomper, stamping hard, Raging Against the Machine. Onscreen, though, he's barely staying alive, his meter spiking into the red - "Now ya do what they told ya" - as he's pulling a guitar face and headbanging his 'fro for the cameras like he's on MTV.
"Fuck you! I won't do what you tell me!" But then the squeaks of defeat cut through the funk and the beat, the sound cuts out and the would-be rock star crashes hard. So it goes.