"He actually went offline!"
"Then why did this master take part in the first place?"
"Aren't racers supposed to give it their all until the finish line? How come he went offline before he crossed the finish line?"
Folks watching the live broadcast were a bit disappointed. They were thinking the three leaders would get into a discussion or, better yet, start trash talking. That would have made for more exciting viewing. Even an extra word would do.
"But that 180-degree turn at the end was so cool! This guy is truly a master. Who knows who he is? I'm offering 100 dollars for the answer. Please repost."
"One thousand for the answer. Anyone who knows what this dude is all about, contact me in private. I'm going to become his disciple."
"So no one is curious what the folks at 2S and BOOM are thinking?"
Regardless of what the folks tuning into the online discussion were thinking, the members of 2S and BOOM weren't in good moods. Anyone in the same position wouldn't feel great. The two clubs were hoping to build their exposure with a practice match before the official launch of the game, maybe act cool and interact with fans a bit, but lo and behold, someone had crashed their party.
Ke Zimo couldn't keep competing. All he could do was go offline. Meanwhile, it was impossible for Olaf, who was blocked, to continue as well, so he went offline soon as well.
After the end of the broadcast, journalists filed in a frenzy, as if they were high on crack. The fact that someone had crashed 2S and BOOM's party was big entertainment news. Someone had messed with Yanzhou's Big Five of gaming. This was bound to draw a lot of attention.
Some speculated the mystery rider was an amateur professional racer, while others said he was a professional gamer. Some wondered if he was someone who couldn't become a racer because of a physical disability and thus lived vicariously through racing games.
Several well-known racing teams in Yanzhou even took out ads offering top dollar to the mystery man who'd passed Ke Zimo and Olaf. Physical disability wasn't an issue. The mystery rider could join as a driving coach. His salary would be negotiable.
Folks in the racing industry kept probing each other to no avail. There was also all sorts of speculation in e-sports circles, which also led nowhere. The mystery rider wouldn't be identified unless FIery Bird decided to unmask him publicly.
Meanwhile, Ke Zimo was being grilled by his teammates.
"That fellow is definitely a professional. Either a professional driver, a professional gamer, or both," Ke Zimo said, wearing a sullen expression.
Anyone could tell that Ke Zimo was in a terrible mood. This was a direct slap in the face, not to mention on a live broadcast before an audience of tens of millions. Such a major face-losing event was a deadly blow to Ke Zimo, who had been confident he would win the race.
"I feel like he was targeting me," Ke Zimo said.
"Did you piss someone off?" Jabbar regretted the question as soon as it came out of his mouth. They all knew what kind of personality Ke Zimo had. There were plenty of people who took issue with Ke Zimo. Emboldened by his quick wit and gaming skills, this kid was way too obnoxious for his own good. He had sowed plenty of hatred. This time, he'd probably pissed off some big shot.
"If they had something against Ke Zimo, they could've just spoken out. There was no need to be so ruthless," another teammate mumbled.
Other teammates kept their mouths shut. They knew that words alone wouldn't ground Ke Zimo. Only concrete action was enough to deliver a rude awakening.
Regardless of what the club thought of the incident in private, they had to defend Ke Zimo in public. They were a team. Captain Xie He noticed that Ke Zimo was in bad emotional shape, so he signaled to the others to stop the line of questioning and then looked toward his deputy, Abu, who had just joined the group. "Have we figured out anything about his background yet?"
Abu shook his head. "Fiery Bird said he's a premium VIP customer who masked his profile. Out of respect for client privacy, they can't tell us anything."
Ke Zimo slammed his fist on the table in front of him. His eyes were bloodshot and he was panting. He was absolutely furious.
"It's OK. Next time I see him, I'll definitely be able to identify him," Ke Zimo said while grinding his teeth.
Xie He glared at him. "Ke Zimo, you're losing it."
"My apologies." Ke Zimo was on his best behavior in front of the captain. As obnoxious as he was, he didn't dare throw a tantrum in front of the captain and his deputy.
"This is a good thing for you," Xie He said. "Don't think that you're invincible just because you perform well in training. There are so many masters out there. This was a single-event contest for warm-up and publicity purposes. It has no impact on the official contest when the game is launched. Just treat this as a lesson. OK, let's meet in the conference room for a post-mortem."
The players who'd crashed in the race because they'd been distracted started getting jitters. They knew they would be singled out in the meeting.
All the leading e-sports clubs held meetings to analyze the practice race, and folks in the racing community seized the opportunity to gain exposure, offering expert advice on how to negotiate turns skillfully. Stuntmen kept repeating the seemingly impossible moves made by the mystery driver.
Stunt drivers could pull it off, although it was more difficult using vehicles from the Old Era. The captain of a stunt driving team posted footage showing off the moves of him and his teammates on Fiery Bird's practice platform. Even though they weren't riding the T-Rex model featured in the practice race, their footage still drew plenty of viewers.
Hands off handle bars, backward flips, stationary spinning off the backwheel, drifting—all these tricks were replicated, as was the mystery rider's now-famous move of sliding his motorbike through the gap between the fallen lamp post and the ground. Viewers got a great fix.
The captain of the stunt driving team, at the end of the video, said, "What you're seeing is edited footage. More often than not, these stunts took 10 or even 100 attempts to complete. Take this stunt, for example, and this one." He pointed at two screen caps. Threading the gap under the lamppost and the front-wheel slide plus 180-degree spin had both taken many attempts to stage successfully. "Completing those moves on that motorbike at that speed is no small feat. You've gotta be a professional stunt driver. To be perfectly frank, for professional drivers like us, we either focus on our stunts and technique or we strive for speed in competitive racing. People who can balance both aren't unheard of, but someone who can push the envelope on both fronts has got to be a gamer. No one is that crazy in real life. Otherwise they would have ended up in the hospital already. Repeated injuries take a severe toll on your body. So my take is that the mystery rider is a master gamer."
As a professional stunt driver, the captain had great credibility. Other professional stunt drivers and race drivers soon posted messages seconding his opinion. In no time, journalists had picked up on the consensus of the racing and stunt driving community—mystery man was a master gamer who excelled at racing games.
Only in a computer game could you walk away unscathed regardless of how many times you fell. No bones would be broken. Your life wouldn't be on the line.
But it was still unknown exactly which master gamer the mystery man was. This became one of the biggest puzzles ahead of the release of "Battle of the Century."
After the practice race, Fiery Bird released a highlight reel. Viewers who had picked the wrong camera view during the live broadcast and missed out could finally see how mystery man had clawed his way to the leading pack.
Watching the live broadcast was one thing. Taking in the highlights was a different story.
During the live broadcast, viewers were most concerned with ranking, crashes, and overtaking, but watching the edited highlights, admiring the shadows zipping by against an Old Era backdrop transported them back to that period in history, filling them with an excitement bred by the mixing of Old Era culture and the passion of race driving.
Race tracks, old forms of transportation from the Old Era—today's viewers couldn't fathom life in the Old Era, but watching the race helped them relate. Back then, there were people who shared our passion.
The Period of Destruction lasted 100 years, and it had been 500 years since the founding of the New Era. Some 600 years had gone by.
Had there also been a group of youngsters riding Old Era motorbikes, zipping down the same urban track 600 years ago?
No one stayed young forever, but there were always young people milling around.
After logging out of the game, Fang Zhao sat by a window to enjoy the breeze so he could calm down.
He saw the missed call on his bracelet and dialed back.
"Hey, Boss! Did you see the match between 2S and BOOM?" Zu Wen sounded excited. He was probably fresh from a discussion about the race.
"I did," Fang Zhao responded. Competing in the race counts, right?
"Hehehe, it felt really good seeing 2S and BOOM stumble. But we don't know who the mystery man who took down Ke Zimo and Olaf is. He must be pleased with himself right now, no?"
"What pleasure if there in bullying a few kids?" Fang Zhao said. He just wanted to teach them a lesson. He didn't feel cocky. Ke Zimo had a big mouth and needed a spanking. That's all that had been. Fang Zhao had already held back on account of Ke Zimo's young age. If he'd really wanted to go all out, he could've made Ke Zimo feel 10 times or even 100 times the pain.
"Bullying kids? That is to say the mystery man is a seasoned racing game player. Anyway, it felt good to watch Ke Zimo crash. Didn't he just mouth off in an interview two days ago? Now he has to eat his words. Right, I almost forgot to tell you. We just got word that Fiery Bird's Yanzhou branch has invited us to a press conference. I asked around. They're having a few press conferences before the official launch to launch new ads and related merchandise. In any case, we'll definitely be receiving gifts."
"When is it?" Fang Zhao asked.
"Two p.m. the day after tomorrow, dinner included."
"Who else will be attending besides us?"
"We are attending as members of the Polar Light project team. Apart from us, there will be folks from e-sports clubs and the media. Oh, 2S and BOOM will be attending."
"Got it. I'll be in the office in the morning that day and head over with you guys in the afternoon."