Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Teen World of Warcraft expert with Asperger's becomes a YouTube sensation

From The Sun-Sentinel:

PARKLAND, Fla. — Ian Bates' passion for World of Warcraft, the online fantasy game, has propelled him into a fantasy of his own.

More than 3.5 million people worldwide have watched "The Red Shirt Guy," a YouTube video of the red-shirted, teenage Bates. He appears in a crowning moment of savviness at Blizzcon 2010, a gaming convention last month in Anaheim, Calif.

The clip shows Bates (pictured) lobbing a question at World of Warcraft designers that stumps them so completely, they have to admit a mistake: A character was omitted from a preview version of the video game's latest installment.

The popularity of The Red Shirt Guy from Parkland has led to mentions on late-night talk shows including ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" and TBS' "Lopez Tonight."

Blizzard Entertainment, the game's maker, has taken its gaffe in stride by rewarding Bates with its highest honor. He's already been added to the game, as a red-shirted character named Wildhammer Fact Checker.

In light of his Internet stardom, Bates, 17, the elder son of Ron Brewer, a co-host of WBGG-FM's Paul and Young Ron radio show, is weighing several options. Maybe he'll start his own fact-checking website. Or maybe he'll take up other websites' offers to write part-time for them.

"I still don't know exactly what I'm going to do with all this," he said.

Of one thing Bates is certain. He will donate the proceeds of his partnership with YouTube, which this month volunteered to start giving him a share of online ad revenue. He said an Asperger's syndrome foundation will get the money because he himself has a mild case of Asperger's, a type of autism.

On the radio last week, his father said the viral video may have caused his son to "hit the stratosphere," but his abrupt fame didn't change anything.

"I've always been proud of the kid, ever since he was a baby," Brewer said.

Bates, who has a younger brother, wants to be a paleontologist, a novelist, or both. The 11th-grader works hard at private school, volunteers at a library, and immerses himself in World of Warcraft, which he discovered at 13. It's the most popular online role-playing game in the world, with more than 12 million subscribers.

Shirts of all hues line his bedroom closet. But red, his favorite color, prevails, as evidenced by the red Tommy Hilfiger number that inspired his nickname (but so far, no recognition from the brand).

Bates acknowledges he's not "the most social" person, and he prefers to spend time alone, plowing through a book every few hours. Each unspools like a film in his head, he said, so he's "very engrossed in it, and [it] drowns out everything else."

On the six-hour flight Bates and his family took Oct. 21 from Fort Lauderdale to Blizzcon — the premier event for World of Warcraft fans — he read all 328 pages of "The Shattering," a novel and prelude to the expanded video game that will be released on Dec. 7.

As he read, Bates discovered a small inconsistency that bugged him. Even though the novel suggested a character named Falstad Wildhammer would exist in the game, Wildhammer was nowhere to be found in the preview, or beta, version he had seen.

Bates found the perfect opportunity to ask about what had bugged him the next day at Blizzcon, where two of the game's designers were taking questions.

Bates stood up, spoke into a microphone, and grew nervous as he heard speakers blaring his voice back at him over the din of the crowd. His question, geeky and obscure to anyone unfamiliar with the game, would be the appealing part of the YouTube video.

He said: "Hello, I just finished reading 'The Shattering' yesterday, and I noticed something. It said that Falstad Wildhammer was going to be on the Council of Three Hammers, but in the beta it's Kurdran Wildhammer, and Falstad is not in the game at all. What happened to him?"

One designer tried to say the character died, but Bates swiftly disabused him of that idea. The other designer smiled and said the error would be fixed, drawing big laughs and applause from the crowd.

Bates' mother, Rhenn Bates, said she didn't realize the significance of her son's question.

"It's like another language," she said. "You have to know so much."

On Oct. 23, an anonymous someone who had recorded Ian Bates' shining moment published it on YouTube.

Several bloggers and gaming websites called him a hero and a source of geek pride, saying it took guts to stand up in a crowded room and ask the question. Others used software to turn the teen's YouTube speech into song.

Back in Broward County, some of Bates' classmates gave him shout-outs for the popular video, noting they had barely heard him speak before. They asked for autographs, and he obliged.

On Oct. 29, Bates posted a separate video on YouTube revealing details about himself. It has drawn nearly one million views, prompting YouTube to send him e-mails requesting a partnership.

Concerned about the sudden attention, his parents checked with a lawyer, who endorsed the idea. Because the deal is still new, there's no way to gauge how much money will go to the Asperger's group, the family said.

On Oct. 30 the red-shirted character based on Bates premiered in the beta version of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, giving him the highest honor anyone who doesn't work at Blizzard can get. Wildhammer Fact Checker is a muscular-looking dwarf who's always at the side of the Falstad Wildhammer character.

"I never imagined I'd be one of them," the proud teen declared.