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Season's Beatings: A Gamer's Story

Feature; Oct. 27, 2010; Channels: Video Games; By Kyle James Hovanec
Subtypes: Column
AKA Finding fun in the sea of competition

For fun or for sport? Ever since gaming became a more significant entertainment option, many have asked this question. Are video games made for fun, or are they made for competition? More important, can the two co-exist? A gamer who plays WoW for 40 hours can surely relax with some Wii Sports Resort, right?. The bigger question is if gamers compete for fun or simply to compete. Can a daily 6-hour-long practice regimen really be considered fun? Have the hardcore competitors forgotten about the essence of gaming to begin with? Do they still have fun?

Season’s Beatings, a fighting game tournament in Columbus, Ohio, was the perfect place to find some answers to these questions. There, some of the biggest fighting game competitors from the United States and Japan would compete for the title of winner. It was there that I would get the answer straight from the fighter's mouth. Are they having fun? Do they even play games for fun anymore?

As I approached the venue, I noticed a line of people waiting to get in the building, eager to sign up and start playing. Some had traveled only a few hours to get there, some from halfway across the country, and some from halfway across the world. For three days, this would be their digital dojo. During this time period, I would find the secret of the competitive gamer and discover if they still, after many hours of training and preparing, remembered to have fun playing.

For three days, in a small karaoke and bowling alley venue in Columbus, Ohio, gamers of all colors, creeds, and backgrounds came from all over the world to compete at their favorite digital hobby and prove their fighting mettle. For three days, the sounds of clicking plastic buttons, punches from TV screens, and cries of defeat and victory could be heard from the small venue. It was a digital Enter the Dragon, and I was about to talk to the digital Bruce Lee himself, Justin Wong.

Despite the chaos and punches and kicks being thrown all around him (figuratively), Justin was incredibly calm. Sitting on a leather couch with a fight stick in front of him, he casually leaned back as he talked about the tournament. He’s no stranger to tournaments; he previously won Evolution 2009 and Season’s Beatings IV from his rival in Japan, Daigo Umehara, so jitters aren’t exactly his thing. In fact, he was more concerned about having a good time than dominating his opponents. “I know a lot of the people who run Season’s Beating’s,” Wong said. “Compared to Evo, this has more fun tournaments, more hype, and it’s a better run community tournament. I’ve been a part of Season’s Beatings since it started, and I’ve seen it grow into what it is today.”

The interview ended as Justin was called to the front to begin playing Super Street Fighter IV, and I would have wished him good luck, but I knew he didn’t need it. He was calm, ready to have a good time, and doing what he is best at: playing fighting video games. As Red Balik once said, “The champion makes his own luck.”

As I made my way around the venue, gamers of all types crowded around TV sets, staring intently at the game taking place before them. Like an analyst watches the stock ticker or a poker player looking for a tell, each person was watching every move. It was chess played out in high-definition graphics. For every move a player made, a dozen counter moves were available. There’s no such thing as a casual match at Season’s Beatings. A player might go for a fun match, but the effort he puts in is anything but casual. No one wants to look like they’re unskilled or not up to par there. It's best to attend the event if you're skilled, even if you're there simply for fun; after all, some matches even involve money.

While popular, these monetary matches at Season’s Beatings are not officially listed on the flyer, website, or official PR announcements. This did not matter, as everyone knew money matches -- the equivalent to back alley poker tournaments -- were some of the biggest events to occur at Season’s Beatings -- unofficially. Some of the money lost wasn’t too significant -- $20 here; another $40 there -- it was all in the interest of having a good time. But it was the ones that exceeded most college kids' paychecks that were lost in a single match and which obviously mattered most. Two minutes was all it took for some to be very rich, very quickly, and others to lose it all. I witnessed a match unfold which looked noticeably more tense than the normal bouts. A few minutes later, one player was holding his head in his hands as his opponent danced around the TV. The beaten player handed the winner a wad of cash the size of a dinner roll. Whispers could be heard from the crowd: “I think he lost $2,000, man.” The beaten player mumbled to himself, “How the fuck am I going to get home now?” Fun for some, a costly defeat for others, and this has only been the first day; the official tournament wouldn’t even start for another 11 hours.

The next day was an early start: It was 11 a.m. when the doors opened. There were a ton of tournaments that had to be completed before the main events; the big players were ready to go. As the events began to take place, one man could be heard laughing over the crackle of fight sticks and TV fights -- quite a feat considering the tournament was so loud that one could see the walls and counter tops vibrating. The man walked off to talk to another player, slapped him on the back and said a few inaudible words. I approached, not entirely sure if I was interrupting something important. But he turned, smiled, and shook my hand. I asked for his name. He smiled again. “Juice Box,” he said.

Eric Albino, aka Juice Box, has a very simple reason for playing fighting games: to win.  “I’m very competitive -- that’s why I started playing games. I simply want to be the best,” he said. When asked about the community of fighting games, he said it consists of a small number of people. “Despite our size, we’re very competitive. Everyone wants to be the best,”  he added.

The day was almost over as I sat down and reviewed my notes, and I was beginning to think that I wasn’t any closer in finding a solid, over-arching opinion on whether games were more fun than competitive -- or a clear answer to my other questions. Worried that I wouldn’t even have a solid story in the end, I took another walk around the tournament in some attempt to add something to the story, when I notice a tall, skinny Asian guy talking to another player. Curiosity and awe overtook me as I approached. I could tell at this point that this was Daigo Umehara, the most famous fighting game player from Japan, the “God of Gaming,” standing only a few feet away from me. I asked if I could have a moment of his time to talk about the tournament, and the gentlemen next to him spoke up. “I’m his translator. Anything you want to ask him has to go through me,” he said. Umehara leaned over and said something in his ear. “Daigo wants to go talk outside, where it’s quiet,” the man said. The two headed for the exit, and I followed closely behind. I was about to talk to the Beast. This day was turning out to be better than I had thought.

This would mark Umehara’s second time at Season’s Beatings. His previous visit saw him competing with his American rival Justin Wong, and ultimately losing in the winner’s bracket final to him. Umehara, like Wong, came to Season’s Beatings to have fun. “There’s about 10 to 15 people I recognize. I had a lot of fun last year,” he said. “It’s smaller than bigger tournaments like Evo, but it has more unique exhibitions and events." When asked about what he liked the most about the fighting game community and his favorite fighting game, Umehara smiled and started talking a mile a minute, the words spilling out faster than his translator could handle. After a short pause, the translator slowly began to speak. “I don’t want to miss any info," he said.

Umehara loves the fighting game community because of the people. “It’s very friendly, very easy to make friends. There is a lot I like about it,” he said. When asked about his favorite fighting game, Super Street Fighter IV was his answer. “I like it not only for gameplay, but for other reasons as well. It's had the biggest influence on my life so far. The gameplay isn’t the best I’ve ever played, but just the experience it has brought me, the people I have met because of it, and the opportunity it's opened up for me through sponsorships and deals. It’s the experience that’s made it memorable for me,” Umehara said.

It was at this point we were discovered. A few other tournament players recognized Daigo, and soon he was surrounded by eager fans wanting to take pictures and get autographs. The day was about to end soon -- only one more day of the tournament remained.

The final day of the tournament was chaotic as the final brackets were underway, and all of the participants knocked out of the tournament were able to watch the finalists. The excitement was at its peak, as the biggest names of the tournament were competing for the title of winner of this year's Season’s Beatings. People who were formally rivals, as well as best friends who came together to watch the tournament, sat next to each other or stood all the way at the back of the venue, some on the tips of their toes just to see the action unfolding. It was here that I got to talk to Jonathan Spottswood or “J Spot.” He came to the tournament, along with a group of his friends, to compete. Spottswood was eliminated the day before and was now enjoying the final day.  The room was getting stuffy; he was already tired from being in the venue all day. “Let’s go talk outside, man. I’ll buy you a beer,” he said. 

We both went outside to sit down at a table, far away from the tournament where only the faint sound of cheers and yells could be heard. Spottswood was happy to be there. “I love it. I love everything about it. It’s the fighting game spirit; it’s everyone playing with everyone and having a good time and being competitive at the same time,” he said. When asked about whether games fulfill more of a competitive edge or an entertainment edge, he said, “Games are always competitive. Since I was a kid, playing with my family, it’s always been about beating them, being competitive with them. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun in the process. It’s all about the moments with your friends and family, competing, but still having fun. It’s all about the fun in the end.”

Spottswood left to go back inside, and I stayed behind, finishing my beer. I didn’t see the rest of the tournament. I didn’t see who won, and I didn’t need to. I found the answers I was looking for. Why we play games; why we feel the need to compete; and why they mean so much to us. Games allow us to meet people, play with people, and they allow us to escape. In the regular world, the participants were nursing home attendants, IT specialists, and arcade managers. Here, even for just one weekend, they got to be fighting dynamos, celebrities, and stars among their peers.

For one weekend, in a small karaoke venue in Columbus, Ohio, people escaped, lost money, fought, and had a good time. Their hobby was alive and well. The competition was as strong as ever, but the fun had not gone away.    

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