In the early days of video games, the machines themselves were a kind of social commons, with teenagers huddled in dimly lit arcades in the corner of American malls or around the Space Invaders game at the local 7-Eleven. However, the rise of Nintendo, PlayStation and Xbox, with better graphics and more advanced controls, drove video game players, or gamers, into their homes to play.
With that retreat, a gaming community was displaced.
For The Record
: An earlier version of this story described Streetfighter IV as being available on Playstation 2. It is in fact available on PS 3. Also, the casual gaming lounge was listed as being hosted by Get Your Tournament when it is actually being hosted by angrybananas.com.
"Some of my fondest memories are going to the arcade and meeting people, hanging out with people," said Carlos Lopez of angrybananas.com, a Los Angeles-based gaming website.
In a conscious return to social life, gamer and entrepreneur Bryan Marquez, 25, launched the Underground Tournament League (UGTL), giving gamers a renewed sense of place.
On Saturday, UGTL will hold its fifth official Streetfighter IV tournament at a warehouse just south of downtown L.A. Streetfighter IV is a popular video game, available on PlayStation 3 or Xbox, in which players battle each other in simulated hand-to-hand combat.
The event, equal parts party and competition, starts at 2 p.m. with a three-hour open bar (there's a $10 cover), a taco truck, DJs, artists and retailers, and it goes on until about 10 p.m., when a victor is crowned (and paid). There is also a separate $10 registration fee, from which the last UGTL winner was awarded $350. More people are expected to enter Saturday, and the pot will grow.
There's a lot going on," Marquez said. "There's music, there's art to look at -- I did it to make sure I appealed to everyone and to everyone's five senses." There will even be a casual gaming lounge hosted by gaming site angrybananas.com, where old-school games can be played on original Nintendo or Sega systems.
Breaking down barriers between the gaming community and the greater populace is one of the key goals of UGTL.
"Even in L.A., people think gaming is just for geeks," Lopez said, even though, according to a 2008 report by the Pew Research Center, 86% of teens use some type of video game console regularly. In other words, gamers are social creatures: "There's no point in playing online," Lopez complains, "because you can't see the person physically."
Video games are much more culturally relevant than is commonly believed, said Christopher Swain, professor of Interactive Media at USC. They are also increasingly becoming a spectator sport.
"Games are becoming more and more integrated into the community and culture," Swain said. "It makes sense to me that [UGTL] would happen -- to find a place and find a place as a social event."
Gaming competition is generally divided regionally, with Northern California and Southern California, the East Coast and Japan among the most active centers.
Streetfighter IV has become so popular because "you don't need to explain what's going on; you can just see who's winning," Alex Valle, one of Southern California's top gamers, said about Streetfighter IV tournaments. "You can hear the excitement of the players."
Just last month, Streetfighter IV was named 2009's Best Fighting Game at the Video Game Awards, partially because it has brought so many casual gamers back into the fray. UGTL is hoping to capitalize on that bridge.
"Our goal is to open it up to people, whether you're starting off or a professional player," Marquez said.
It's unlikely that the arcade scene, with players dropping four quarters into a machine for just a few minutes of playing time, will ever return, but the rise in gaming overall, as more and more people have access to consoles, computers, and even hand-held games, might ultimately do more for the gaming scene than arcades ever could.
"I wouldn't mind seeing an arcade revival," Lopez, of angrybananas.com, said wistfully, but he sees the upside. "Now the gaming scene is becoming more of an acceptable thing."
Underground Tournament League Streetfighter IV tournament Where: 3201 Maple Ave., Los Angeles
When: Saturday, 2-5 p.m. registration; 5-10 p.m. competition
Price: $10 cover and $10 registration to play, must be 18 or older.