The First Rule Of Ping-Pong Club: Talk About Rockstar’s Table Tennis Game

Video game publisher hosts underground tournaments for NYC tastemakers.

NEW YORK — The people who publish “Grand Theft Auto” are pulling some new tricks to get people informed about a Ping-Pong game. And those tricks come with a tip: Don’t cross controllers with a man named Hollywood and expect to win.

Around the corner from New York’s Chinatown there’s a narrow doorway with a sticker of a Rockstar Games logo slapped next to the buzzer. On the second floor, the makers of “Grand Theft Auto” are showcasing their next title, a table tennis game that offers a glimpse at the future of “GTA” and stands up well as a game in its own right.

The second floor showcase room isn’t an office for Rockstar. It’s a 100-foot-long, high-ceiling apartment that belongs to a Dutch photographer. It’s mostly one big room, with a kitchen in the living area and a long empty glass tank elevated to eye level and big enough to hold a school of fish or one big snake. Rockstar has added three big-screen high-definition TVs and a trio of Xbox 360s.

For the past two months, Rockstar’s PR team has invited journalists, game store employees, hip-hop heads and whoever else they think can create buzz, to come in and play the game they officially call “Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis” (see “Rockstar Uses Xbox 360 Technology To Take Ping-Pong To The Next Level” ). Attendees play the game tournament-style; their names penciled in on paper posted on the mystery glass tank.

The affair is a bit different than what Rockstar does to roll out a “GTA” title. For those games, the company keeps its work under wraps from most game reporters until just days before release. For “Table Tennis” they’ll show the game to just about anyone, including people who call themselves Hollywood.

Hollywood is a party promoter in Manhattan. On Monday he showed up when the night was still in its pre-tournament, everyone’s-eating-Domino’s phase. Hollywood toyed with the game early and gained enough confidence to shout some tips: “Don’t pick the guy with the knee brace,” he said as two players tried to figure out which of the game’s 11 athletes they’d play. “He’s the Patrick Ewing of Ping-Pong.” Ewing, a former center for the Knicks, was a star player but was also known for never being able to win it all.

The tournament began around 9 p.m., and a photographer named Ito went down in the first round. Ito had never played the game before, which the Rockstar guys were hoping wouldn’t be an obstacle. The game’s controls are simple: The left control stick moves the player, while the right stick or the four main action buttons trigger topspin, backspin or spin to the right and left. The controller’s shoulder buttons allow for slightly modified shots. That’s it. In fact, the Rockstar reps said they’re hopeful that the game’s simplicity will make it a multi-player favorite, a perennial party game to be played online or, perhaps, in big loft apartments. Maybe it will be a dorm-room favorite like “Halo.” Maybe it will be “Pong.”

The glory for Ito’s conqueror was short-lived because Hollywood was his next opponent. Hollywood had never played the game before this night either, but one of the Rockstar reps who considers himself a sports-gaming expert said the guy was a phenom. His quick ascendancy was evidence that the game could indeed be quickly mastered. People who watched his first-round game came away impressed.

“He’s the Albert Pujols of gaming,” one of them said, referring to the St. Louis Cardinals slugger.

“You can score a point when he’s not looking,” another offered helplessly.

Someone called him the Hulk Hogan of gaming. Prayer-and-vitamins Hogan? Or aging-reality-show Hogan? Neither, his new admirers said: early ’90s bad-guy Hollywood Hogan.

Hollywood made for a good bad guy. The sun had set and the loft was lit only by candlelight and TV screens, but he was gaming in wraparound sunglasses. He was drinking what he called “man juice” (lots of vodka; very little orange juice). And he was talking trash with clinical precision: “My weak shot is a smokescreen for my powerful shots,” he instructed, before scoring another point. In a best-of-three match, he won by scores of 11-4 and 11-3, three of his lost points occurring when he hit the ball off the table. “I’m giving you points!” he exclaimed.

Whoever a player controls in the game, their character looks good. Rockstar had pushed the idea that its San Diego studio working on the game could benefit from the lack of characters needed onscreen by making each player look and move with utmost realism. They’ve made them look sharp, the flashiest effect being the way players’ shirts ripple like real fabric with each swing. Animations from one position to the next flow smoothly. The Rockstar reps explained that the game was running on RAGE, the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine. This is the graphics technology gamers are to expect from future Rockstar games, including the next “GTA.”

Graphics weren’t the issue in the semifinals of the night’s tournament — the fact that Hollywood might finally lose even a single game in one of these best-of-three matches was. He was playing a Web designer named Roya. She had chosen the guy with the knee brace and had discovered a vicious smash shot that Hollywood could barely handle. Hollywood took game one 11-4, but dropped game two 11-3. Maybe the knee brace wasn’t a liability after all.

But by game three he was winning 8-5 and pumping his fist. He won 11-7 and moved to the finals.

He was on his third cup of man juice by then, a factor that didn’t seem to slow him down much. He lost the middle game again and cut the trash talk in the second game. He rolled through the final game and made an unusual boast: “I’m the Achilles of Ping-Pong,” he said. Victorious, he hoisted cup number three in the air. His prize? Bragging rights.

That was it for Monday night. Rockstar will keep rolling these out. Tuesday was reserved for a group of rap producers and DJs. They hope the buzz will come from more than just the juice.

The game is due May 23 for Xbox 360 and retails for $40.