Right now, the iOS version of "Angry Birds Space" has 10,958,921 players. And the No. 1 player is Dan Guzman (his first name is Philip):
As of this writing, Guzman has a score of 32,809,824, better than anybody else to play the game. (Below, I explain how we verified this.)
So how does someone become the best player out of almost 11 million people? What does it take to pull this off?
I got in touch with Dan to ask him, and the answers were completely different from what I'd expected.
The world's best "Angry Birds Space" player isn't even that into video games
"I find it fascinating that anybody's fascinated by this," Guzman tells me. "It's never been that big of a deal to me."
I expected to talk to an obsessive who was deep into the arcana of Angry Birds Space. But while the game is definitely a hobby for Dan, it's by no means all-consuming.
A 49-year-old father of four, he's a sales manager in Wichita, Kansas, who mainly uses the game to decompress after a long day at work. "It was a perfect game for me — it's a good busy finger game, and it's just nice to have something that's mindless," he says.
Despite being one of the best gamers in the world, he's not even that into video games. As a teenager, he did dump all $123 of his first paycheck into an Asteroids arcade machine, but since then he rarely played games before the advent of the iPad and iPhone. The last computer game he finished was "Myst," and he has to get his kids to help him turn on the PS4 so he can watch a DVD.
He doesn't care a lot about the "Angry Birds" culture either, and doesn't really know anything about the elaborate "mythology" behind the birds. During our conversation, he never lapsed into complex terminology (birds were just called "birds," not "Bip bap bops," "Space bashers," or other names approved by the manufacturer, Rovio). He also hasn't yet been contacted by Rovio, even though he's the LeBron James of "Angry Birds Space."
That leads to the big question: how did a normal (and very pleasant) guy become the best "Angry Birds Space" player in the iPhone universe?
How Guzman became the best "Angry Birds" player in the world
Dan Guzman's tips for having the high score at "Angry Birds" don't revolve around what to do in one particular world, or the perfect angle to swing a bird. They're actually surprisingly universal, because getting a high score is about understanding the rules of the game.
First, and foremost, dedication is key. "I'm a completist," Guzman says. "I can't not finish the game." That's key in "Angry Birds Space," in which overall scores are cumulative based on a player's scores in many different levels. Though Guzman is rarely the top-scoring player on a particular level, he makes sure to play as many levels as possible, which puts him above the less comprehensive competition.
That's paired with his key attention to detail — while most of us stop paying attention after our bird has been slingshotted away, Guzman observes exactly what happens. Since scores are calculated not only by how many pigs are killed, but also by how many blocks are broken, that close observation is key. "You'll hit a level and you'll see a brick fall one way one time, and 9 out of 10 times it falls the other way. It's a lot of noticing how the things in the game move."
That attention isn't limited to the gameplay, however — it also includes noticing how the game is scored. Guzman broke down his overall score by examining the leaderboard for each level — and where he had a lower score, he replayed until he could improve. That, in turn, helps him gain a leg up in what he calls "a war of attrition."
He resists the idea that he's some kind of "Angry Birds Space" savant — he says optimizing his play is better than trying to find some visionary strategy. "The more you play," he says, "you can tell you hit one of those levels when you're maximizing it." That makes it easier to play very well in small chunks — "I can't sit down and do it for an hour," he says, "but a lot of little time is fine."
Finally, he gave some advice that sounded, to me, a lot like what Elon Musks's ex-wife said her husband had practiced: don't waste time reading forums or strategy guides. Just do it. "With 'Angry Birds,'" Guzman says, "never once have I looked for advice on a level. Never been on any forums. That was my sense of competitive pride. I just played it." Though there's a huge community for "Angry Birds Space" players, Guzman never tried it out.
Together, all those tips coalesced into a surprisingly simple lesson: a long grind is the best way to achieve something incredibly rare. Guzman is probably overly modest about his innate skills, but he sees his victory as a triumph of persistence. "It's a simple matter of repetition," he claims. "Patience and repetition, and optimizing."
What else makes the world's best "Angry Birds Space" player unique?
Guzman is a unique player in some ways — he has a competitive drive and an interest in completing every level perfectly. A lot of people wouldn't care about their score on a particular level, but he does. At the beginning of his "Angry Birds Space" odyssey, he even watched the transitional videos in the game, because he could earn achievements for watching them ("I maxed out the achievements a long time ago," he notes).
It's not obsession — just consistent, day-by-day gameplay, approached by a sharp, analytical mind. But his days journeying in space may be ending soon anyway. "Actually, ['Angry Birds Space'] probably isn't my go to game," he says. "I spend a lot more time on 'Madden Mobile.'"
"Madden" fans, if a worldwide mobile leaderboard ever comes, you've been warned.
* A note on how I verified that Guzman was, in fact, the top "Angry Birds Space" player. By becoming Guzman's friend on GameCenter, I was able to verify his score and achievements, but there were some things that still need to be clarified.
If you look on GameCenter right now, you may not see Guzman's avatar either. We think that's because Rovio and/or Apple updates the top all-time leaderboard to reflect people who've played that day (Rovio did not respond to our request for comment). However, as our screenshots show, Guzman has consistently held the top spot.
There's also the question of cheating. Cheating in mobile games is a constant battle for game developers. Players often use bots to get the highest score possible (usually for no other reason than to beat the system). In fact, Guzman suspects that's why he suddenly became the No. 1 player. "For a long time I was 42nd or 43rd; it was one of those deals where you could tell all the people in front of you had cheated," he says. "They must have weeded those people out."
Based on our conversation and the realistic nature of his scores, it seems extremely unlikely that he's using bots to get a high score.
One final caveat — "Angry Birds Space" doesn't have integrated leaderboards across platforms. So this championship is for iPhone wins alone. You can see a cross-platform leaderboard here (though it relies on user-entered data that we can't verify).