Whatever sport we went there for, trips to the local leisure centre often ended the same way: with a group of 12 and 13-year-olds gathered around the foyer’s Street Fighter II: Champion Edition cabinet. At the time it seemed unusual that a videogame would be in such an active environment, but as time’s passed and gaming’s become bigger than ever, it now seems apt that it was there in a sporting context.
The contemporary esports (electronic sports, obviously) scene is huge, and competition-level players of some titles – such as the online battle arena game League Of Legends – are deemed professional athletes in order to be legally allowed to compete in international tournaments.
The Evolution Championship Series, simply EVO to participants and fans, attracts thousands to its annual finals in Las Vegas, cheering on players with handles like Crazy DJT 88 and MIOMIMango while they go head-to-head on beat ‘em ups like Street Fighter IV, Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 and 2001’s GameCube classic Super Smash Bros Melee.
Sam Scaife (in the foreground)
The premier esports events of the US and the Far East can feel very distant to British players. Domestically, much of the fighting game community’s (FGC) infrastructure is comprised of isolated groups – "Versus Scotland", "Manchester Battle Arena" and Southampton’s "Triple Threat Tournament Series". These are among the more prominent outposts on these isles, but there are other, smaller gatherings.
“The first one we went to was in Yeovil, which was a fucking nightmare, in some working men’s club,” says Sam Scaife, co-founder of Brighton’s Fight Lab, whose "I Am Arcade" events run twice monthly at the city’s Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar. “We’d been going to Super Smash Bros Melee tournaments for a long time, but they never really offered the experience that we expected from competitive gaming. We wanted to do something better, and bring that experience into a socially acceptable space.”
Fighting game fans in the UK get positively evangelical about London’s Heart of Gaming – the "HoG", based on an industrial estate in Acton. But while the gamer mecca might be lined with a fine selection of FGC-approved titles, its out-of-the-way location and sterile decor can be a turn-off for the hardly hardcore. What Scaife and Fight Lab partner Robby Gee have achieved with I Am Arcade is a collision of the perfect space – a popular bar – and competitive gaming to suit both beginners and experts. And it’s this all-access, any-ability attitude that’s driving the event’s growth.
“We’re not in this for the money,” says Gee, a tournament gamer who ranks as one of the best Smash Bros players in the world. “This means a lot to the people who come, and a lot to me. I feel this event has a strong sense of community. It’s just different from the rest. The way that people talk about it, it feels like a nice thing to come to after work, to just chill. The atmosphere here isn’t like many other tournaments.”
I Am Arcade is running a series of knock-out events throughout 2014, on Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition and Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3, which will culminate in a final and a winner’s prize of £1,000. That’s a good enough incentive for the casual player to up their game, but it’s clear that the money isn’t on the minds of the Sticky Mike's regulars. It’s not mentioned, even once. Instead, there’s a real emphasis on the social side of the evening.
“When we first created I Am Arcade, the focus was on community building, and we try to be really inclusive,” says Scaife. “We don’t want to just play up to a stereotype of an adolescent gamer. We are in a bar. There’s less pressure here – and nobody judges anyone. We come for a good time. We have a DJ. The focus isn’t purely on the competitive aspect, although that is really important and we take it seriously. But a lot of it is more on being together, and helping each other to get better.”
Jake (left) and a friend
Jake, a quietly spoken attendee, is part of a noticeably mixed crowd, encompassing all manner of social stereotypes – from those who truly do look as if they’re rarely away from their consoles, to others who might not be your best friend after five pints of strong lager. There are a healthy number of girls here, too. All are treated equal, and that’s one of the driving forces behind Jake’s continued presence – and by coming in from Uckfield, the best part of 20 miles out of town, he’s certainly clear that the night offers something he can’t get from playing at home.
“Playing online, it’s just you and your TV screen,” he says. “It’s so sterile. Down here, there’s a crowd cheering you on. We are social animals, after all. Coming out here shows we’re not shut-ins. You look at some guys here, and they look hard. They’re big and bulky and they have tattoos. But we all love fighting games. So this breaks down the divisions between people who wouldn’t otherwise mix, and I think it shows what gamers are about today. Anyone can be a gamer.”
Jake has cystic fibrosis, meaning that most typically competitive, physical sports are off limits. “To have this competitive satisfaction, from this night, is really important,” he says. “I never got that before coming here. It’s amazing.”
The appeal of fighting games is simple: it’s one-on-one with plenty of opportunity for individual expression. Several players think of these games like chess, where there’s a great emphasis on predicting what an opponent’s next few moves will be, albeit at hyper speed.
“People pick a character and stay loyal to them,” says I Am Arcade regular Gaz. “I always play Street Fighter as Chun-Li. That’s the character I learned with and whose moves I know backwards.” Others have their own favourites: one guy wears a Spider-Man hoodie and plays Marvel vs Capcom with the web-slinger leading his team of three, while Jake plays Street Fighter as gentleman boxer Dudley. There’s flair on show, enough hype moments to get the gaggle of observers into the action – especially after a few beers.
Rick moved to Brighton from Peterborough, where there was no fighting game scene at all. He won I Am Arcade’s 2013 Street Fighter series. “Part of this, for me, is to come and meet likeminded people,” he says. “And fighting online just doesn’t compare. Offline is better – you get to talk to people and actually socialise. This is one of my hobbies, and it’s difficult to find people in the mainstream who are also into it.”
It’s odd, really, that social gaming like this isn’t a bigger deal in Britain, when it’s so huge overseas. We come together for our football matches, for our concerts and festivals. The UK is the biggest videogames market in Europe and the third largest globally, with 33 million active gamers. Profits in our domestic games industry have outstripped film since 2009. And yet there’s a persistent stigma attached to those admitting a love of gaming. Games are mainstream – look at the sales for Grand Theft Auto V and The Last of Us in 2013. And yet still the tags stick: geeks, dweebs and gamers have been labelled with derogatory terms forever. But maybe events like I Am Arcade are helping to turn that around.
“A lot of gaming innovations have come from Britain, but I do think that we’re perhaps a generation away, still, from this being a mainstream pursuit in the UK,” says Rick. “It’s not like you can just talk about games in a club – it’s sort of taboo. And if you talk about them quite a bit, it can become uncomfortable for people, because of the social stigma attached to being deeply into games. But I think this sort of event is excellent. This social side of gaming should be encouraged.”
His sentiments are echoed by whoever you speak to. Dan, a sporty looking guy with a half-sleeve tattoo, says: “I’ve met so many people here who I would never have run into in my day-to-day life. I’ve made some genuine friends, and I would never have run into these guys if we weren’t all into fighting games. You now see a lot of new people coming, and it’s rare that they don’t come back. People tend to have a really good time, and work their way in, becoming regulars. It’s a really good scene.”
Garhling looks totally different to Dan, wearing his long hair in a ponytail and playing on a personally modified stick, but he feels exactly the same: “There’s such a huge social element to these gaming communities – and not just in fighting games," he says. "This is such a great place to come, meet old friends and new ones.” Garhling doesn’t even have a functioning console at home – it’s exclusively here, with others, where he games.
“To witness people coming here and be part of it, that’s what it’s about,” says Gee. “We put everything we make back into this. I Am Arcade is a series that we want to build into a large event. This is a community that deserves to showcase its abilities.”
Right now, the exploits of the I Am Arcade crew are uploaded onto YouTube. But perhaps in the future – maybe a generation’s time, maybe sooner – we’ll start to see this kind of healthy competition, and its social qualities, embrace a much wider audience. The first rule of this fight club: tell all of your friends. The second: tell their friends, too.
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