Jose Martinez can barely keep his eyes open as the chill of an evening wind hits him again. It's 11:57 p.m., and he's been standing, sitting and lying outside the Galleria Best Buy since late Monday night. The 16-year-old, a home schooler, has skipped this week's classes and spent four grueling nights outside the store, nourished only by a couple of bags of marshmallows and four bottles of water that he brought along. (Best Buy employees have allowed him to use their restrooms.) He's been such a fixture that the guy standing immediately behind him originally thought he was a "homeless dude" when he first showed up. It's been a tad nerve-racking hanging outside with more than $600 on his person, but Jose is pretty sure no one will find the cash in the "secret pocket" in his big tan jacket.
He's hungry and a little delirious, but his work has paid off: Jose is the very first person in line to buy the Sony PlayStation 3. Over the last four days, dozens of gamers -- and shrewd businesspeople -- have camped out, literally, behind him. They've created a sort of gaming shantytown in the parking lot, replete with big camping tents, folding chairs and a lot of garbage and crap. People stand in line, hands in pockets, looking like refugees or victims of a natural disaster -- tired, crumpled and a little soiled.
Hope came 57 minutes ago, when a Best Buy manager came out and issued tickets to the first 100 or so people in line, which would grant them entry into the store and access to the PS3s. It was like a scene straight out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
It's midnight. The doors open and a burly Best Buy employee addresses the crowd: "Good morning! Here's how this is gonna work: We're going ten at a time, we're gonna get you all through the store and get you rung up, and bring up the next ten. Let's get the first ten!"
Game on! The line of weary hopefuls erupts in hoots. As the Best Buy doors -- manned by staffers and several HPD officers -- open, Jose walks in rubbing his eyes and taking in the warmth of the heater. He and the other nine shoppers are led through a maze of roped-off sections that lead to PS3 games, controllers and cables. The maze ends at the checkout stands. Flanked by newspaper and TV cameras, Jose walks up, shows the cashier his ticket, and is handed the PS3 box. Finally, it's his chance to buy a game system that's currently going for $2,000 on eBay. This day will see a man standing in line in Putnam, Connecticut getting shot by would-be PS3 thieves, and people in Lexington, Kentucky getting nailed by BB guns as they stand in line. There will be near riots.
But not here, and not now. Jose calmly reaches into his pocket. He digs deep, shoots everyone a quizzical look, and digs again.
Where's his cash?
There's a battle right now over who's building the biggest, baddest video game home console. In a week, Nintendo will release the Wii, its new system. But hardcore gamers know it's all about Sony vs. Microsoft, and Sony's PlayStation 3 is the "oh yeah!?" to Microsoft's Xbox 360. The difference between the two schools can be likened to that between Macs and PCs. Mac and Sony users understand that they spend more on these products' look, brand and image, while PC and Microsoft types are more utilitarian (these folks don't mind carrying around a generic mp3 player or laptop). And then there's the games. Sony's titles run the gamut, while Xbox has become the platform for first-person shooters. (Many an Xbox owner will admit to buying the machine solely to play shoot-em-ups such as Gears of War, and the I Ching of shooters, Halo.)
"Sony has created this Ferrari of gaming," says Sam Kennedy, editor in chief of 1Up.com, the foremost game content and community Internet portal and the daily content provider for Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine. "This is the mother of all gaming consoles, but its potential won't be seen for a while. It won't be until spring or even fall of next year that games will come out to show off the technology." So why in all that's good 'n' sane would anyone buy one for $10,000, as seen on eBay? "Sony's saying you're buying 'potential,'" says Kennedy. "But there's enough out to satisfy gamers right now. People who're buying it now are probably buying it for bragging rights, to say they had it first."
Or, what's more disappointing to Kennedy's crowd, they're buying it just to resell. This new trend is best described as scalping for video games. "I've never seen it quite as bad as this," he says. "People realize there's a lot of potential to make a lot of money here. You've got the fact that Sony's releasing fewer units than anticipated. Plus, this is the follow-up to the best-selling console of all time."
And so, out come the entrepreneurs. "We walked by the lines outside stores yesterday here in San Francisco," he says. "There wasn't the camaraderie between the people in line. A lot of people didn't care at all; they were just there to make money. I hope game console makers can figure out a way to get it to their loyal fans, but at the same time, this is pure marketing for them.
And why not make money? A 20-gig PS3 system retails for $499; the 60-gig goes for $599. Ali Croft, spokesperson for eBay, says that as of mid-afternoon of the opening day, 792 PS3s had sold for an average $2,700 apiece. Clayton Coward, a manager at the Sugar Land Gamestop, says a "good number" of people who came in and bought his PS3s happily told him they were going straight to eBay. "And with the profit they're making," he says, "I can't really blame them."
It's been a tense few seconds, as Jose shoves his hand down his "secret pocket." His face has gone from quizzical to panicked. Finally, he lights up, and pulls a wad of hundred dollar bills from the side of his jacket. The TV and newspaper cameras fix on him as the cheery cashier gives him his total: "Six-forty-nine, forty-nine, baby," she says. He peers at the "$649.49" on the register screen and doles out the Benjamins -- one, two, three -- six total, plus some twenties for tax.
"You're supposed to be happy," she says.
"Yeah," he mumbles, exhausted.
Meanwhile, as they lead shoppers past displays of pricey component cables, extra controllers and games, the Best Buy staffers are getting miffed. No one's picking them up. That only means one thing: "They're gonna sell 'em on eBay," says a customer service rep, who asks not to be named. To him and his coworkers, this breaks the gaming principle. "Man, what about the people who're waiting in line outside and who want to buy the system and play it? They don't get to, but these people get to go home and sell 'em on eBay? Ain't right." None of the shoppers at the checkout stands are willing to comment as to whether or not they're keeping or selling their units, but it's pretty obvious. "That's cool," says the rep, "they got a surprise coming."
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He's referring to news that eBay and Sony inked a deal saying that no PS3s can be sold on eBay. But so far that's been nothing but a rumor. eBay's Croft says that there are certain restrictions in place: People can't list PS3s if they don't have them (this apparently was epidemic when the Xbox 360 was released). They must include a photo of the receipt, accept Paypal, have a 98 percent feedback rating and sell only one console per account. But other than that, they can sell away, and that's what Lyndon Hughes, a 22-year-old UH student who's been standing in line for 31 hours here at Best Buy, is planning to do. "I've been checking the prices on eBay, and I'm sure I can get a really good price," he says. "I'm pretty excited about the European market," he adds, sounding like a day trader. "I'm planning to sell it for at least $1,800 over there."
Jose slowly walks past the registers towards the door. He does the Best Buy ritual at the door, getting his receipt checked by a staffer, and walks out, his eyes again barely open. As he emerges, he's again mobbed by TV cameras, and his fellow line mates outside cheer him on and regard him in awe. "The dude's like a star, man," says one guy, eyeing the TV cameras.
Jose barely notices. "Yeah man, I'm gonna come back Saturday and buy Resistance," he says of his favorite PlayStation game. "But right now, dude, I'm gonna go home and go to sleep."