Sitting in the glow of a television monitor, two young gamers compete against each other in "Super Smash Bros. 4." Beads of sweat form on the strangers' brows, and their grips tighten on their bulky GameCube controllers.
As Luigi annihilates Toon Link, knocking him off-screen in clever and fatal attack moves, the players make small talk. It is a bar, after all.
Every Tuesday and Thursday night, roughly 450 people crowd into a loft-like bar in San Francisco's SoMa District for "SF Game Night." Hosted by Showdown, an alternative entertainment production company, the semiweekly event rallies local gamers of all skill levels to come together for casual and competitive play and strengthen the city's gaming community.
I recently attended a SF Game Night to see why gamers flock here instead of staying on their couches to unwind with some video games.
After paying a $5 cover, bar-goers enter the "Bring Your Own Games" zone. Players sit around tables piled high with board games and trading card games, many of which were supplied by the local gaming store Gamescape. They cradle gaming-themed cocktails, like the "Power Up," a mix of Michter's Rye, orange ginger syrup, bitters, and wine-soaked cherry.
Games of "Cards Against Humanity," "Magic: The Gathering," and "Chinatown" (pictured above) are underway. Like pickup games on a basketball court, they were started spontaneously by a group of players who didn't know one another before settling at the table.
In a far corner of the room, "Rock Band" players supply an energetic soundtrack.
The main room hums with the electric sounds of an arcade and beer-pong balls bouncing on the floor (yes, there's something for everyone here). Regulars who have been coming since SF Game Night began in February 2014 mix with total newbies who hesitantly tagged along with friends.
The men outnumber the women about 10 to 1, which is not unusual in the gaming industry. The players all look to be in their 20s and 30s.
In one area, two players at a time compete in "Ultra Street Fighter IV," which is broadcast through Showdown's Twitch channel online and projected on massive screens hanging overhead. Only the best players volunteer to play on the stream, as it is watched by up to 10,000 people at once. No pressure.
Under the halo of the projection screens, players sit close on couches and in chairs with controllers in hand. Many bring them from home.
There's a "Super Smash Bros. 4" tournament every Tuesday, and every Thursday they play "Ultra Street Fighter IV." Recently as many as 70 gamers have entered the bracket, paying a buy-in of $5. The grand prize winner takes 70% of the pool; second place, 20%; third place, 10%.
Peter Hawrylow III, who goes by his gamertag "Rice," has placed in four of the last six "Super Smash Bros. 4" tournaments. The 21-year-old student says he takes home between $50 and $70 a week from SF Game Night. He has no desire to go professional though.
"I love playing the game, but I don't want it to be a job," Hawrylow says. "I just want to come here and play to have fun. That's why we're all here."
When CJ Scaduto cofounded Showdown years ago, he had this kind of customer in mind.
Growing up, he says, he drove his parents crazy by playing Xbox Live in the living room. The games were loud and obnoxious. He would later ask himself, "Why aren't we watching [video-game play] in a bar like a baseball or football game? So we can be loud and obnoxious there."
He scrounged up every console he owned and began approaching bars, promising to bring customers if the bar played live streams of gameplay on the TVs. Scaduto eventually partnered with the Folsom Street Foundry, where SF Game Night found a permanent home.
Scaduto lights up when he talks about his customers. He describes them as a bunch of cool, passionate guys looking for something to do after work that doesn't involve getting hammered and hitting on chicks.
"They believe in an alternative night of entertainment," Scaduto says. "Our goal is to create what we coined 'an extension of your living room.'"
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