Gamers 'smash' it in weekly Crystal Mall tournaments
Waterford — For a storefront containing nearly two dozen people, East Side Games in the Crystal Mall was strangely quiet one Thursday last month. The lights were dim, and only a few people milled about.
It was Smash tournament night, and the competitors were hyper-focused on the screens in front of them.
"The tournament stuff — that's the big draw. Those who want to try to get their feet wet with a competitive edge," said Charles Vandeworkeen of New London, 30, who competes at the almost year-old video gaming venue.
East Side's 36-year-old owner, James Hampton of New London, was multitasking: talking to participants, answering questions, managing registrations and facilitating the competition, all at the same time.
His fiancée, Cecil Carter, 34, moved around the space attending to minor details in the business that began as a social group in their apartment seven years ago.
The competitors spanned a couple of decades of ages and come from diverse backgrounds, but they all have at least two things in common: a competitive spirit and a passion for Nintendo's popular Super Smash Bros Ultimate, a multiplayer fighting game developed for the Nintendo Switch platform.
Pop Culture gave the world Howard Wolowitz on "The Big Bang Theory" as the stereotype of a gamer. With his bowl haircut and inept social skills, Howard perhaps matches the cultural perceptions of a "gamer" best — a man-child, still living with his mother, who has a small group of equally socially stunted friends who live for all things nerdy.
While stereotypes persist, they may no longer be a valid way to categorize gamers.
"The gaming culture is becoming our culture. We grew up with this," Hampton said. "Now that we're adults, we're running with it, and it becomes kind of part of us." He adds, "it's becoming part of the American fabric."
In fact, ESPN now shows gaming tournaments; Madison Square Garden has sold out for video game competitions; colleges now have electronic sports varsity sports programs, and more than 25 colleges and universities offer e-sports scholarships. Pew Research Center data show that half of Americans play video games, and 77% of males aged 18-30 play.
"It's more of like a label from the outside looking in, if you will," said Vandeworkeen, who has travelled throughout the country to compete, of the term "gamer."
And though competitive gaming may be a bit more niche, it has successfully found a home at East Side Games.
As one tournament bracket ended, the volume picked up, suddenly much more in keeping with the size of the crowd.
The tournament is double elimination and runs much like any bracket-based sports competition. The prizes are based on how many entries there are, but the lowest payout is never less than the $5 entry fee.
No one at this tournament is making a living at this, but there are people who do. Between gaming videos online and larger tournaments across the country and around the world, there are people who successfully monetize their passion for video games. In fact, this year, Smash World Tour is holding a 9-month long series of tournaments leading up to the Smash World Tour Championships in December which boast $250,000 in prizes.
Hampton and Carter talked about the genesis of East Side Games which began in 2015 with weekly tournaments in their apartment with friends because there was no local venue for competitive players.
"We knew that there wasn't a spot, and so we hosted 27 people at our apartment for a tournament," said Carter.
That quickly turned into smaller weekly tournaments, large quarterly tournaments, and accumulating all the equipment needed to host them.
In early 2020, Hampton took the plunge, opening two doors down from his current location. He held his first and only tournament there four days before the state shut down all non-essential businesses due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The mall allowed him to close without penalty to wait out the pandemic.
It was a big blow, but Carter said it showed Hampton it was possible.
"I think that was what he (Hampton) needed," Carter said, adding, "it was the fear of 'could he do it,'" that had stopped him.
In July 2021, Hampton reopened in his present location with the support of the community of players he had helped to grow.
Almost a year later, Hampton hosts two tournament nights each week. On Mondays, current versions of traditional fighting games like Mortal Kombat, Tekken and Street Fighter draw competitors, and on Thursdays, he hosts Smash Tournaments.
Sundays, East Side Games is open as more of a gaming cafe, he said. It is not a competitive day, and, instead, is a day for people to "come in, play, have fun."
Even on tournament nights, there is a social aspect for attendees. As the brackets eliminate players, more of the stations open for casual play where people can learn new tips, techniques and strategies from their former opponents and just play for fun.
"There's a little bit of escapism," concurred Hampton. "People come here for many different reasons."
He sais the venue gives competitive players a chance to test their skills and learn from other players, while providing a different type of social experience than online game play offers.
"You get the social experience," added Carter.
Many video games offer chat features that allow players to talk to each other all over the world, but Vandeworkeen said "it's different when you're in person. You get to talk to people who all have the same hobby; you get to bounce ideas off each other, maybe try and make new friends."
He added the important element is "the human interaction part of it."
The venue is only open three days a week, with limited hours, but it still earns enough to pay the bills and have a little left over to use for upgrades for the business. Hampton charges $10 for the entire day on Sundays or an evening during the week, and an additional $5 per bracket to play in the tournaments.
For those people new to competitive playing who are eliminated right off the bat, he also offers a complimentary amateur bracket.
"We don't want people to waste their money," said Carter.
Hampton isn't doing this to make a living. With a master's degree in cell and molecular biology and a certificate in bioinformatics, he earns his living as a clinical systems and software manager, and rolls everything East Side Games earns back into the business.
The business is expanding though, along with the popularity of gaming in America, and Hampton is excited about the future. He said he is always looking to provide a place for gamers to gather and says he is "open to organizing any gaming tournament if there is expressed interest."
East Side Games is also available to book for birthday parties and other private events, and some local youth programs have expressed interest in bringing groups to the venue. A tournament was held Sunday as a fundraiser for Inspiring Youth and Mentors, which included pizza, snacks, and beverages for the $15 entry fee.
"You're seeing (gaming) permeate more throughout the culture," Hampton said.