It's a small plastic thing, resembling a guitar in basic appearance only.
But Blake Peebles brings energy to the room when he slides the strap over his skinny shoulder and steps atop the wooden box that serves as a stage.
As the music begins, Blake quickly presses buttons on the guitar in time to a speed-metal tune blasting from the giant TV. It is an odd sensation, to watch a young man control the sounds of a rock song with a toy instrument, but this is "Guitar Hero," one of the most popular video game franchises in recent memory. Blake is one of the better players in the country.
Other than his fingers, Blake barely moves while playing. His feet are set in place and his eyes are locked on the screen as he peers through a mop of curly brown hair. Gaming for him is serious business. It's his job.
Among the prizes he's won playing "Guitar Hero" tournaments: gift certificates, gaming equipment and chicken sandwiches.
Blake is 16, resides in North Raleigh and lives to play video games. On this night, he's at the Fox and Hound in Raleigh's North Hills shopping district. It's the restaurant's regular Sunday "Guitar Hero" night, and Blake and his family have come to watch and play. His brother and sister are here, as are his mom and dad, an aunt and an uncle, some cousins and some friends.
But in the end, it's not the people related to Blake who confirm his plastic-guitar prowess. It's the group of 20-somethings sitting at a nearby table, who applaud when Blake finishes playing along to "Through the Fire and Flames," viewed as the game's toughest song.
"It's pretty sick," says Andrew Gambling, 27, who describes himself as a casual player. "He's talented."
Blake is appreciative of the applause and grins shyly when it is mentioned to him. But he's not very happy with his score.
"That's probably the worst I've ever done," he says, which seems impossible. The game moves at warp speed, so Blake's fingers do too.
This is not a competitive environment, so the score hardly matters. But his attitude about it underscores some Peebles family truisms: Blake is so dedicated to gaming that his parents let him quit school so he can better concentrate on it.
They pay for home tutors instead. Mom and Dad do this, even though there are very few people in this country who make their living playing competitive video games.
Blake very much would like to be one of them, but a boy cannot live on chicken sandwiches alone.
Blake is the middle child of Mike and Hunter Peebles. Tucker is 18, an honor-roll student who plays football for North Raleigh Christian Academy. Caramy is 13, a dancer with a congenital disorder that causes developmental disabilities.
Mike and Hunter do not believe in one-size-fits-all parenting.
That is not to say that it was an easy decision for them to let Blake leave school last September. They would have preferred that he stay in high school with his brother. But he bugged them until they let him quit.
"We couldn't take the complaining anymore," says Hunter. "He always told me that he thought school was a waste of time."
Blake never gravitated toward sports or drama or any of the other traditional school-based activities. Just gaming.
So they made a deal. Blake could leave school but would have to be tutored at home. In one respect, the arrangement is similar to what parents of gifted child athletes and actors have done for years.
In another, those careers can bring big money. Competitive gaming is still growing. Major League Gaming, one of the field's top sanctioning bodies, holds tournaments in cities across the country.
The company has more than 125 players signed to management deals. Top players can earn more than $80,000 a year, plus outside sponsorship money, says an MLG spokeswoman. The average pay is in the $20,000 to $30,000 range.
Blake has done well in local tournaments, including one held at a Chick-fil-A that earned him 52 combo meals. By his account, he has lost only once since "Guitar Hero III" was released late last year. Some of that time was spent playing online, against players from all over the world.
This is how he knows he's good. It wasn't that long ago that kids who excelled at some activity, say basketball, would only have to go to the next neighborhood to have their dreams crushed by some older, more accomplished player.
Today, on Xbox 360, players use the system's online component to compare scores with players all over the world. Blake, who goes by the online name "Dreminem," figures that he has top-10 scores on 20 or so of songs on "Guitar Hero III."
He guesses that he's probably one of the top 15 or 20 players in the country.
Blake so far has won about $1,000 in prizes in the months since he began competing in "Guitar Hero." His biggest challenge will come in mid-August, when father and son travel to California for the U.S. regionals of the World Cyber Games. Blake qualified to appear there after performing well online.
If Blakes wins the regional, it's on to the national championship. The best "Guitar Hero III" players there will earn the right to represent the U.S. at the world tournament in Germany.
Blake is happy with his success. Mom and Dad are happy with his grades. Since he's gone to the tutoring arrangement, she hasn't once had to tell him to do his homework, because he does it on his own. They got plenty of grief from family and friends about their decision at first, but they've also watched Blake, who is shy and disliked school, become a happier person.
Set up to play
Inside his upstairs bedroom, Blake's environment is set up specifically to make him a better gamer. There is a PlayStation 2, a Nintendo Wii and an Xbox 360. He also has a stack of plastic guitars, but no real ones. Blake doesn't play an actual guitar, a skill that doesn't really transfer to playing the virtual kind, anyway.
The frame for his bed is on the back porch, with the box springs and mattress on the bedroom floor. That puts his bed at a more comfortable level for sitting to play "Guitar Hero III" for extended periods. At the moment, he plays just a few hours a day, but that number will increase as the California competition nears.
Blake seems happy with his home school arrangement, as you would expect from a teenager who is allowed to stay up into the wee hours to play video games. Sometimes, when Mike heads to the gym before 5 a.m., his son is still playing video games. Blake calls it working "the late shift."
He didn't enjoy school, he says, and especially didn't like the rules associated with attending the Christian academy. Shaggy hair is more his style.
He's good at video games. "I wasn't really good at anything else that I liked."
His "Guitar Hero" skills certainly have impressed the local gaming community.
"He's amazing," says Mike Gibson, the good-natured owner of two local Play N Trade Video Games stores. "I can't have tournaments for that anymore. I might as well just give him the prize."
Blake dreams of making a living playing games, and scoring a contract with Major League Gaming.
But Terry Lindle, aka Terry15, knows how tough it can be to make it. Lindle, 23, lives in Illinois and has been a competitive gamer for about eight years. He won the national championship for "Halo 2" in 2005 and traveled to England earlier this year to compete in a world championship for the game "F.E.A.R."
Lindle came in sixth and won $4,500. He estimates that he has earned about $25,000 in his years of gaming.
"When you want to go somewhere with this gaming stuff, you've got to be in the top 1 percent," he says.
Lindle is impressed that Blake qualified for the tournament in California. But in gaming, coming in third or fourth doesn't mean much.
"You've got to win these major tournaments, otherwise you don't get noticed by advertisers and sponsors."
Lindle believes there's a future to competitive gaming, one in which more peopl
e can make more money. He points to Major League Gaming's recent deal with ESPN, which includes live-streaming tournaments on ESPN360.com.
Right now, Blake is concentrating on "Guitar Hero," working to get the "Dreminem" name out there. "Guitar Hero" isn't a big money game on the tournament circuit, as most of the cash goes to the people who play "Halo 3."
Blake is biding his time to the next big thing, so he can get ahead of the curve.
"The next big game that comes out, I'm just going to focus on that one," he says.
And why not? The guy is self-employed. He sets his own hours.