Melinda and Scott Van Hoomissen have never been hunting. But when it comes to virtual venison, their skills are legendary.
The Vancouver couple, who have six kids, are heading to the Big Buck Hunter video game world championships this weekend in New York City.
The game, played in bars, on consoles and even cellphones throughout the world, is a fast-paced shooter where players compete to have the cleanest, quickest kills of virtual animals. And if the couple play well, they could return to Clark County with international bragging rights and a chunk of the $50,000 prize money.
"You don't just play this game and go to the world championship unless you're a little bit touched," Scott Van Hoomissen said with a grin. "But this game, it touches that competitive part of you. There's just something it nails."
Players square off against each other over a virtual network — so the Van Hoomissens play regularly against people from the U.S. and Europe, they said.
Most days you'll find the pair, who both work for the Department of Homeland Security, getting in a little practice at Jake's Bar & Grill, 4602 N.E. St. Johns Road — when the kids are in school and their work schedules allow, anyway. The bar has the spiffy new HD version of the game, which has given the Van Hoomissens a competitive edge in training, they said.
"There's one other machine like this in Portland, but it has a larger screen and there's actually a little bit of a lag," Melinda Van Hoomissen said. "This one, it's faster. It's great practice for the championships. Besides, it's right around the corner from our house."
Scott Van Hoomissen, 55, has been playing longer than his wife, but Melinda Van Hoomissen, 38, has become the better player. He ranks 10th in the West region. She's ranked fourth, and she's in first place heading into the ladies tournament, which has a $5,000 prize.
"If she won the world championship, I would be so proud of her," Scott Van Hoomissen said, sipping a drink between practice rounds at the bar. "I'd be more proud of that than if I won. She's my best friend."
She's also fiercely competitive. Going into the final rankings for the championships, another player managed to beat her out of first place by a few points.
"She flipped out," Scott Van Hoomissen said. "She's like 'There's no way. I'm going to Jake's.'"
That day, the last day to solidify the rankings, Melinda Van Hoomissen called her boss at DHS and asked if she could come in late.
"He said, 'You better go take care of business,'" she said with a laugh. "He also said 'You better win.'"
The result? She played for five hours straight, got back into first place and then went into work to finish her shift.
"That day when we were trying to get back to first place the whole bar was watching, jumping and screaming for us," Melinda Van Hoomissen said.
The pair have gotten their friends, co-workers and others at the bar interested in their progress with Big Buck Hunter. They also tutor folks in how to play better, said Mark Burden, 30, one of their DHS co-workers.
"Most of my enjoyment comes from just watching these two absolutely smoke people online," Burden said. "Over time, playing the game with them has helped us develop our friendship. It's something we can all go out and do."
The couple's youngest son, Max, 7, is also a bit of a ringer.
"I play at home, and I can see my name and everything on the computer," Max said.
He can't compete in the tournament, which is for those 18 and older, or play at the bar, which has a separate area for families and kids. But at home, where they have an older version of the machine, Max is a force to be reckoned with, Burden said.
"It's really fun when we all go over there and new people show up," Burden said. "Max just destroys them."
George Petro, president of Play Mechanix, which makes Big Buck Hunter, said he's enjoyed watching the camaraderie that has grown from players competing in the championships every year.
The company started the championships five years ago in Chicago but decided to move them to New York City this year to try to draw more publicity, Petro said.
"We felt like the event was great to have in Chicago, but there's not a lot of press here," Petro said. "We thought New York would be a great place to raise our profile."
The Van Hoomissens have both gone to the championships for the past three years. Scott Van Hoomissen also went to the one four years ago.
Neither has won so far.
"Last year, I choked really bad," Melinda Van Hoomissen said. "People were putting money on me and I felt more pressure."
This time, though, she's ready, she said.
Petro said he really enjoys spending time with the Van Hoomissens and the other players who come for the 64-player championship.
"They're a great couple and they have a great story," Petro said. "That many kids and they still play and have fun? That's terrific."
The company has about 40,000 machines in bars around the country, with about 500 of the new HD versions.
"There's a community that's developed because our office is connected to machines all over the nation," Petro said. "We see these players show up and compete each year, and a lot of friendships have developed out of that."
If the couple win, they say they'll spend the money to build a new deck. But if they get the grand $15,000 prize, well, young Max may end up playing on a fancy new HD version of the game at their house.
"We'll set aside $5,000 for that," Scott Van Hoomissen said with a wink.
Petro said he'd be pulling for them. Well, sort of.
"I'll do some cheering for Scott and Melinda," he said. "But I have to cheer for everyone equally."
People can follow the Van Hoomissens' progress through the tournament on Twitter at //www.facebook.com/OfficialBigBuckHunter.