Inside California's Secret Arcades

Inside California's Secret Arcades

COVER STORY: With the arcade scene long since dead and buried, hobbyists are building private arcades of their own. We visited one.

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The anime fighting game dojo

One benefit to being a private club of sorts is that Myung can focus on much more niche games. Outside of Guilty Gear Xrd, one of Gamecenter's most popular games is the obscure fighter Under Night In-Birth, colloquially known as UNIEL among its fans. UNIEL is the spiritual successor to Melty Blood, itself known as "the most poverty of poverty games" in the fighting game community.

"Melty Blood is the game you shove into the hallway. It's the game that has its grand finals in the parking lot. It's become a meme for being the most poverty of poverty games. At Northwest Majors, they literally had the tournament outside, and the only free outlet they could find was by the trashcans," Kim laughs.

Games like UNIEL have found a home at Gamecenter in part because they jibe strongly with Kim's own interests. He was originally inspired to start his own arcade by a trip to one of Japan's arcades, colloquially known as game centers, which served as his business's namesake. He shrugs off the disdain that the fighting game community tends to have for pure anime fighters, "[Gamecenter was] anime fighter central. And to this day, I don't feel bad about that. It needs its own home, especially in the U.S. Street Fighter has plenty of homes. Everyday you can go somewhere in San Francisco and find Street Fighter. It's really hard to find places that play anime fighters; and even today, we are the premiere spot for anime fighters. We are the longest running event for anime fighters."

Gamecenter's unique focus has attracted a crowd that has had a hard time finding a home elsewhere. One of the venue's regulars is Filip "2GB Combo" Koperwas, who is one of the top UNIEL players in the country. Kim notes with obvious pride that Koperwas defeated the game's Japanese champion; and that when it was all over, his opponent admitted that Koperwas had played basically a perfect game.

He's not the only high-level competitive player who frequents Kim's spot. Regulars include GC Yoshi, who frequently places highly in events he attends, as well as top Guilty Gear Xrd players. "It's really cool to be able to say that if you come in here you will play against people on the U.S. champion level," Kim says.

Gamecenter Mk. III regular 2GB Combo is well-known in UNIEL circles.

Kim fosters Gamecenter's competitive scene with regular tournaments such as Caliburst and Dogfight, where the prizes are "guts and glory" and the chance to play against high-level competition. In some ways, it feels counterintuitive to run an event and keep it a secret, but Kim sees it as one of the key differences between his spot and the average tournament.

"It depends on your definition of success. A lot of time, a tournament organizer's definition of success is how much money in venue fees they can make. That is a very different definition of success than I have," Kim says. "For them, the more people who come, the better. And having high-performing players who come in regularly is a means to an end of getting as many people in the door as possible. I have a different definition. For me, it's basically fostering good players, making good players great players, and making the great players into world class players. That's my definition of success, and we succeed really well in terms of that."

The tournaments are run in part by Fred Lee, who Kim refers to as his 'right-hand guy.' According to Kim, "If I were to die, he would be the one to open this place up. He would become the new me." Like many Gamecenter regulars, Lee's former home is Sunnyvale Golfland - the legendary arcade known as the birthplace of EVO and the cradle of the fighting game community. It still exists, but only as a shell of its former self. When the Golfland scene died, Lee moved to the original Gamecenter, then followed Kim to the current space.

"It's really cool to be able to say that if you come in here you will play against people on the U.S. champion level."

Lee isn't alone - many of Kim's regulars are Golfland refugees. David Huynh, for instance, is a tournament organizer who has been involved with the competitive fighting game scene since the late '90s/early 00's. He was a regular at both the Milpitas and Sunnyvale Golflands. Of Kim's space he says, "I feel that having a reliable, consistent venue has done wonders for the NorCal anime fighting gaming community. I feel like I have seen the scene grow bigger and the average skill level increase because of it. I definitely feel like my game has improved because I had regular competition. Also, the scene has become much closer knit, so I have been able to build some great friendships and have had some pretty meaningful interactions with fellow members of the community. To me, Gamecenter is a comfortable place where I can mash as seriously as I want and hang out with friends in-between. From what I gather, our venue situation is different from other regional communities, many of which don't seem to have reliable spaces. I am thankful for what we have.

His comments are echoed by other fighting game fans who once called Golfland home. Gamecenter may not quite be a spiritual successor to that space, but Kim has been running successful events for several years now, and his venue has taken on a similar feel.

"I think [our tournament setup] works out really well for people. It rewires their motivations in a way to decouple their performance from financial gain," Kim says. "I think that's an important skill to learn: that playing your best and playing your hardest should be an intrinsic reward. If you need extrinsic monetary reward to play your best, it's not going to last very well. And because of that, I think we'll have some people who end up being lifetime competitors."


Hobocade and beyond

Kim isn't the only one running a private arcade space in California. When we were finished speaking, he put me in touch with Adam Karonika, who resides in nearby Sunnyvale. Karonika currently hosts a number of arcades in his home, all of them rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution, Pop'n Music, and Beatmania, as well as a number of classic consoles on large RGB monitors.

Karonika refers to his space as "Hobocade," and says the space got its start in a one-car garage that he rented in Dallas. He elaborated over email, "We chose the name 'Hobocade' because a lot of our home version setups were improvised to be as arcade-like as possible (standing height, large CRTs) with whatever materials we could find for cheap (often involving cardboard in some manner). I hosted regular meetups for some friends of mine, word of mouth spread, and next thing I knew I was hosting a crowd of 20-30 people every weekend who wanted to either play DDR and such or just hang out and see old and new friends."

When Karonika moved to California, he brought his cabinets and sought out a larger garage for his new space. He says he's still getting acclimated, but that he's been hosting monthly meetups. Unlike Kim, he doesn't host tournaments; but at his last meetup, he hosted a high score competition for Panel De Pon (better-known as Tetris Attack).

Though their spaces have differing focuses, Kim and Karonika share a similar outlook on what arcades should be about. "I feel that most people don't see arcades as more than a place to play games, and are missing out on the social aspect," Karonika wrote. "It's common to strike up a conversation with someone playing your game of choice, or someone who sets an impressive high score. While online gaming has somewhat bridged the gap in meeting fellow players, the in-person dynamic of occurrences like crowding around an intense game and kibbutzing with random strangers, or asking the guy who just got off the machine for advice on a particular tough spot for you, cannot be replicated."

This is a common refrain among arcade enthusiasts: the sense of community that a shared space offers is irreplaceable. Fighting game fans will tell you that you can get a read on your opponent just by how they're hitting the buttons on a shared cabinet. That social aspect gets lost when playing online.

Japan is traditionally cited as one of the last bastions of international arcade culture; but even there, independent arcades are only just now waking up to the need to emphasize community over technology. The ones that have managed to survive are hosting daily streams on Twitch and Niconico, opening up their spaces up for events, and running regular tournaments.

"[Mikado] had a tournament, I kid you not, they had a vending machine tournament. Georgia Coffee had a limited edition Gundam can; so everyone got together and tried to buy out the machine," Kim laughs.

In what remains of the arcade scene in the U.S., though, community tends to get lost. Novelty is still the name of the game here, with many venues now being bars first, and arcades second. Kim rails at the poorly-maintained machines in Brewcade - a San Francisco-based establishment that has a great beer selection, but tends to treat its cabinets as a secondary concern.

"While online gaming has somewhat bridged the gap in meeting fellow players, the in-person dynamic of occurrences like crowding around an intense game and kibbutzing with random strangers, or asking the guy who just got off the machine for advice on a particular tough spot for you, cannot be replicated."

"I wanted to scream when I went to [Brewcade]. I was just like, 'Can you please give me the keys so I can open up this thing and replace the button because I know exactly what's wrong with this,'" Kim grumbles. "It's tragic because some of the games they have are actually kind of hard to find. But they're so poorly maintained that the experience is just kind of degraded."

Karonika echoes Kim's frustration, "It's rare to see an American arcade that stays on top of maintaining its games. With a few exceptions, most arcades I know let games sit around half-working or worse and don't take complaints from their players seriously. To an extent that influences people like me to seek out our favorite cabinets because the ones out in arcades aren't in top shape, which is a shame because it's not that hard to keep things running well. You can generally chalk that up to laziness or ignorance or some combination of the two."

The arcades that keep their machines in good order - Portland's Ground Kontrol, for instance - are lionized by the community, but they are vanishingly rare in this day and age. And it's even rarer to find a venue like Arcade UFO in Austin, Texas, which is modeled after the sort of Japanese arcades that Gamecenter seeks to emulate. Many are opened by hobbyists like Kim, then ultimately disappear when the rent gets too high or the founders burn out. Southtown Arcade, a tiny arcade that I profiled alongside Kim's Gamecenter, is one such example.

With that, arcade enthusiasts like Kim and Karonika are abandoning the business side entirely; not just to foster a communtiy, but for the sake of the preservation of the form.

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Kat Bailey

Editor in Chief

Kat Bailey is a former freelance writer and contributor to publications including 1UP, IGN, GameSpot, GamesRadar, and EGM. Her fondest memories as a journalist are at GamePro, where she hosted RolePlayer's Realm and had legal access to the term "Protip." She is USgamer's resident mecha enthusiast, Pokemon Master, and Minnesota Vikings nut (skol).

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