There are typical teenage summer jobs, and then there’s Brian Dragotto’s summer job.
Dragotto, 19, of Mays Landing, raked in almost $300,000 over the past few months in an international video game contest, beating the 12 million others who downloaded “Turbo Racing League” and its supercharged snail.
But it wasn’t easy.
He arose at noon, ate, spent time with his girlfriend Alyssa Raymond, 17, of Mays Landing, and started racing at 5 p.m.
“I would play through the night,” he said. “I would sometimes stay up until 6 a.m.”
This wasn’t how Dragotto planned to spend his summer.
He returned from his freshman year at Marietta College in Ohio in early May, deciding to transfer to The College of New Jersey in the fall and pursue a finance degree. He wanted work, but local restaurants weren’t hiring.
Then he “saw the video game and said, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’”
“Turbo Racing League” is an app that works with a variety of tablets and smartphones. In the game, you’re a snail that races around a variety of tracks, boosting your speed while avoiding obstacles. Best time wins.
It’s a tie-in to the Dreamworks animated film “Turbo,” now in theaters. After a snail miraculously gets the power of super-speed, he helps his friends achieve their dreams before he reaches for his lifelong goal — winning the Indianapolis 500.
Dreamworks and Verizon released the game in May and set up the “$1,000,000 Shell-Out,” featuring eight weekly contests. Every week featured a different track. The top 10 finishers at the end of the week pocketed prizes between $1,000 and $25,000.
But the first-place winner got a little something extra: A July flight to Los Angeles and a chance to compete, prior to a screening of “Turbo,” for the grand prize: $250,000 and a 30-pound golden trophy embellished with a squinting snail.
Dragotto grew up around video games, but after recent years of playing large-scale online games such as “World of Warcraft,” he largely hung up his joystick. His friends, he said, thought he was wasting his time.
He downloaded the free app several weeks into the contest. He quickly realized the game played similar to other racing games: go straight, really fast, and memorize the jumps and bonuses.
He finished his first week in eighth place and won his first prize — $1,500. He was excited, but even his mom was unsure.
“I kept saying, ‘This is a scam,’” Kristine Patron, 50, said. “Then one of the first checks cleared. I got on board — I felt he could go to L.A.”
Soon, Dragotto began living like a hermit as he turned over wide swaths of his life to the game.
It paid off. He finished fifth, winning $2,500, and then second, winning $15,000. And then, after four weeks of playing, he finished first, winning $25,000 and a shot at the big prize.
Contest rules meant he couldn’t win any more weekly prizes, but he still played relentlessly to stay on top of his game. He befriended the other top winners, and learned why so many were in their late 20s. Dragotto said, “A lot of times these guys played (’90s-era racing game) Mario Kart all their lives.”
He and Raymond flew out to Los Angeles the day before the July 16 contest. They walked around, ate at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant and tried not to think about the contest, lest he get nervous and cause his hands to tremble.
“I wanted to downplay it and hope for the best,” he said.
At the contest, organizers brought Dragotto and the other seven contestants onstage, parked them in large, white, comfy chairs beneath a massive video screen and handed them new Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphones. A DJ was spinning, an announcer was shouting and about 450 people on hand for the screening were applauding.
Each contestant was guaranteed $10,000 just for getting there.
“It was completely different,” from playing in his living room, he said.
Still, he felt confident because he practiced on the device. Then the race began.
The contestants raced on versions of earlier courses that programmers modified by moving the bonuses around. “It was hard,” Dragotto said. But he stayed in as other contestants were eliminated.
Finally it was just him and another snail-racer. Each was guaranteed at least $100,000.
To calm himself, Dragotto said, “I decided I’m not playing for the money. I’m playing for the trophy.”
“I just sat down and played it,” Dragotto said.
When he put his joystick down, he had finished less than a half second ahead.
The rest of the day was filled with photos of him, his trophy, his giant check, and a free trip to Universal Studios. He said, “It was a fun day.”
Since then, Dragotto’s life has changed little. He still lives with his family and drives his 2001 Chevrolet Cavalier.
But now he is talking about stocks, bonds and other investments in his now-voluminous free time. He doesn’t have the nagging pressure of finances on his shoulders.
And the game? He’s barely played it since the big win.
“I haven’t touched it,” he said. “You’re just so sick of it.”
Contact Derek Harper:
Follow Derek Harper on Twitter @dnharper