Nearly 50 men and women stood packed in the back room of a hole-in-the-wall video game novelty store in Tempe. They endured the heat, sweat, stale air and rowdy atmosphere for a chance to play video games against each other in an organized tournament.
The grand prize for their dedication and patience? $100 and bragging rights. This is a glimpse of the highly competitive and fast growing video game tournament scene in Arizona. It is a digital aged sub-culture grown from the nerds and geeks through their beloved yet societally ridiculed past time: playing video games. The $100 prize this day may seem like a meager reward this day but it can range into the hundreds of thousands on a worldwide scale.
Now a non-gamer might ask themselves: Why waste time learning virtually worthless video game techniques instead of picking up life skills like talking to girls or not being a total social pariah as most gamers are made out to be? The query is an incredibly easy one to answer. The video game industry is booming. This isn’t just considering the publishers and developers, the companies that make and sell the games who raked in nearly $13 billion of revenue in 2013 and are expected to top that by the end of 2015. This is considering those who simply play the games.
Finnish Youtube celebrity, Felix “Pewdiepie” Kjellberg, makes $6 million dollars a year just by posting reaction videos of himself playing various horror video games such as Slenderman or Five Nights at Freddy’s.
If people can make tons of money for just playing games, what about the people who are actually good at them? That’s where the tournament scene comes into play. Tournaments are organized all around the world from your local Gamestop stores to the World Cup Stadium in Seoul, South Korea which held 40,000 fans for a League of Legends tournament along with an additional 32 million people watching via live streams on the internet.
Professional gamers can make a decent living through their dedication and perseverance. Parl ‘Lyn’ Joon has earned a total of $318,000 competing in 77 Warcraft III tournaments. America’s first prominent professional gamer, Jonathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel has earned $455,000 competing in a total of 36 first-person shooter tournaments. And the world’s highest paid professional gamer, Lee Jae Dong has accumulated $520,000 from competing in 52 StarCraft tournaments. So, video games, as it turns out, can be an incredibly lucrative alternative to other much more traditional and honorable career choices like becoming an engineer, lawyer or doctor. But only if you’re willing to dedicate your life to the game, that is.
It is not to say that everyone competing at The Gaming Zone is looking to become the next great pro gamer. After all, we can’t all be like professional Call of Duty player, Matt “Nadeshot” Haag who became world famous and now earns $1 million a year for being one of the best players of the best-selling first-person shooter. No, some are just looking for a good time playing their favorite game with friends. Although this isn’t enough for some gamers who also look for a challenge and validation when competing.
Saturday afternoon at The Gaming Zone, a video game novelty store which hosts multiple fighting game tournaments a week, became the tournament scene in essence. Inside, classic arcade cabinets of The Simpsons and Capcom vs SNK 2 are placed against the south wall waiting to eat up quarters like their retro ancestors, Pac-Man and Galaga, had done in the early 80s.
The tournament room lies in wait behind its shadowy arched entrance way, in deep contrast to the fluorescent brightness in the lobby. The gateway into this newly established nerdy sub-culture called for a five dollar entrance fee and it’s as if the simple transaction brought forth a thicker, hotter and pungent air with it.
There are so many young men and women in the room that getting from point A to point B without awkwardly rubbing up against someone’s back or letting out an obligated “excuse me” or “pardon me” is a task unto itself. LCD televisions hooked up to Xbox 360s attract everyone’s eyes away from the dimness in the room to the whirring colors on the screen. The room is loud. The combination of clacking controllers, rowdy player conversations and coordinators directing everyone through microphones can barely be contained in the room. Everyone scrambles about certain gaming stations as the coordinator designates each player by their rather unique handles:
“El Mocha Latte”
They all make their way to the various stations, plug in their controllers and begin playing.
The game that was on set for this particular heated afternoon is Ultra Street Fighter IV, a fighting game that hosts a cast of characters as diverse as the players in the room. The point of the game is to beat your opponent until he or she is knocked out by using a combination of attacks, grabs and blocks through offensive and defensive play styles.
Each competitor paid the five dollar entry fee which amounted to a $100 cash pot which will be split three ways proportionally between the first, second and third place winners. This is a humble offering considering the World of Warcraft Arena Global Invitational offered a grand prize of $105,000 last November.
Benny Camacho Jr. and Gabriel Ramirez are two of these tournament players seeking to win that $100 cash pot here in The Gaming Zone. Both come back to The Gaming Zone every other Saturday to compete, sometimes with their significant others for support. Both have played countless hours of Street Fighter to build up their techniques. But there is a major distinction between the two: their approach and attitudes towards the sport in which they have dedicated so much time of their life.
Benny stands in stoic concentration as he surveys his opponents’ moves and play styles, arms crossed in front of him. He stares almost coldly into the screen as if nothing else in the world matters to him but reading all of his opponents’ moves.
The coordinator calls him up to the station after about fifteen minutes.
“Grandmaster B head to station four!”
He sits down and unzips the black backpack he brought and pulls out a black, modded fight stick which might set back a dedicated gamer hundreds of dollars. The controller is big enough to fit in his lap and is configured to simulate the joystick used in old style arcade cabinets. He turns to his opponent, a young girl in faded blue jeans and a shirt. A glint of slight hesitation on her face. He quickly shakes her hand and turns his attention to the screen.
His player of choice is E. Honda, a Japanese sumo wrestler most known for his swift and brutal “Hundred Hand Slap” and the ability to torpedo his entire 300 pound frame of fat and muscle at his opponent from a distance. His opponent picks Chun-Li, a Chinese Interpol agent whose kicks can take out even the burliest of men.
It was a vicious assault on the part of Benny’s Honda and not long after it began, it was over with the giant red ‘KO’ letters covering the screen.
Benny is a veteran and the girl a relative newcomer but that didn’t stop him from going all out. “Everyone has the potential to win,” says Benny. ‘All it takes is one bad game and you’re down 0-1 and your opponent has enough confidence that she can beat you.” The key is to be ruthless because when it comes to tournaments, the only goal is to win.
Benny returns to his stoic position watching others play. His wife, a young woman, with long flowing black hair, would occasionally come from behind him, put her hand on his shoulder and give him a kiss on the cheek before returning to the lobby where her three kids sit between the narrow aisles. They play games on their portable Nintendo 3DS consoles as if imitating the same motions that their father had been doing for the last few hours.
It’s difficult trying to balance work and family life with a passion for video games. Benny tries to integrate his wife and kids into his hobby by making them as much a part of it as possible. “I’ve always said that everyone has their own passion and hobbies,” Benny said. “Mine just happens to be playing Street Fighter. Whereas some parents would take their kids to a softball game that they’re participating in, I bring mine to the local tournaments.”
Benny and his wife lived in Anchorage, Alaska before moving to Phoenix a few years back. Phoenix is a much different gaming scene than Anchorage and not just because of the drastic temperature difference, according to Benny. Anchorage is a much smaller gaming arena compared to the bustling one found in Phoenix. The close-knit feeling in Anchorage offered much more intimate relationships than that of Phoenix. The Phoenix scene offers a mix of older and newer players all determined and dedicated to their hobby. Benny accounts this to the fact that the Evolution Championship Series is held just around the corner, in Las Vegas, every year.
EVO (as it is simply referred as) is the crowned jewel of tournaments for gamers who focus their skills in the fighting game genre. Gamers proficient in games like Street Fighter, Killer Instinct or Super Smash Bros. Melee come from all over the world to Sin City to test their might against the best of the best. The tournament is sponsored by various gaming related companies like Microsoft and Nintendo with competitors sometimes bringing in their own sponsors for financial support. For most gamers, it’s a moment to prove themselves to their peers and the world. For Benny it isn’t just that, it’s a pleasant family road trip as well.
It’s finally time for another match. Benny heads over to station nine in the back of the room and meets Gabriel before sitting down and preparing for the match.
Gabriel has a lighter demeanor than Benny. He can be seen chatting away with his opponents before every match. He tries to lighten the mood but also read his opponents’ play styles through jokes and conversation.
His player of choice is Hugo, a tower of a man who would put Andre the Giant to shame. He focuses on overpowering grabs much like the iconic wrestler himself.
It is a much closer match than the last one. Gabriel is a fierce competitor and a fighting game veteran like Benny. They both need to go in close for quick kills but can’t seem to get the better of each other and the match is prolonged into a back and forth stalemate. The two men have their eyes fixed on their screen; a stern look on Benny’s face, a slight biting of the lip on Gabriel’s. Beads of sweat form on each of their heads. The intensity of each of them mixed with the humidity in the room summons beads of sweat from each of their foreheads. After a couple of missed grabs from Gabriel, Benny finds an opening and hits Gabriel with everything in Honda’s arsenal and the match is over.
The two shake hands and Gabriel tells him “good match!” Benny smiles and nods before zipping up his fight stick into his backpack.
Gabriel’s girlfriend, Monica Yac a slender Hispanic woman, sits next to him throughout the event. She enjoys being with Gabriel as much as possible although, Gabriel admits, she hates playing games with him because he never goes easy on her. After the match he stands up and kisses Monica on the lips.
He may have lost but unlike others losing isn’t the end of the world for him. “For me it’s all about the hype how it feels when everyone is reacting the same way,” Gabriel said as watched the next round of players begin to fight. “It’s like a playoff sports game without the ‘aggressive I’m going to punch someone’ attitude.”
Hours later, Jon Toy looks on just as the final match is about to begin. He is one of the major organizers for the event and for him, seeing everything come together so well after weeks of preparation provides a much needed sense of calm. It takes careful planning and responsibility to set up something as complicated as a gaming tournament.
First, a venue has to be secured, and one big enough to accommodate the estimated amount of people. Next, all of the tools necessary to run everything need to be set up. This includes monitors, consoles, AV equipment, microphones, webcams and the necessary software in order to live stream the event on the internet. Once the tools are gathered, the next big thing is promotion.
Social media plays a huge part in getting the word out to players about the different tournaments going on and to let them know when and where it will all take place. Throughout the week Jon, can easily be found on social media sites like Facebook posting information about upcoming tournaments to the SRK AZ group on Facebook. This group is designed to gather all the major players in the Arizona gaming scene and inform them about tournaments. It’s also a great place for the players to just discuss the games and coordinate individual meet-ups at each other’s homes for some practice.
Once everyone knows the tournament takes place, comes the tough part. “Then we run the actual event,” explained Toy. “Which, the whole process can be really stressful and hectic.”
Running around the crowded room making sure every wire is placed, every gaming console running correctly, and every player is where they need to be can take a toll especially when each tournament lasts about 6 or more hours.
The fruits of labor won’t be truly appreciated until the very last match sets in. The grand finals where the very best of the best of that day are pitted against each other to see who is declared champion and gets to leave with the cash pot. This is when Toy knows that everything has been worth it. The players still in attendance, including Benny and Gabriel, gather around the two remaining competitors. The commentators detail them in grueling play by play as the crowd begins to hoot and holler and pick sides.
The crowd erupts in exuberant roars whenever a player lands a decisive combo. The rambunctious cheers ride the room like waves in careful orchestration to the actions on the screen.
Everyone in the room is full of vigor and passion just by being a part of the tournament scene. They are all united under one banner, finally, as they eagerly await in anticipation for the day’s final K.O.