Before the advent of the Internet, there were video games. Before cell phones and e-mail connected us with friends far and near, the earliest gamers flocked to arcades to play the latest Atari masterpiece with their peers. With a series of zeros and ones, some applied mathematics and some sweet hardware, a subculture was born.
The stereotype of the gamer is as cliché as that of the high school football jock, the preppy girl and the band geek. Tucked away in his den of solitude, the gamer sits in front of his television screen for hours, never bathing, rarely eating, with no hint of a social life. (The gamer is always a he.) He has dark circles behind his thick glasses, and is surrounded by piles of crushed Mountain Dew cans and microwaveable food wrappers. In some cases, the gamer might be a smart cookie, sweeping up top grades in math and science only to have his teachers and parents mourn the waste of such an intellect to virtual reality.
The average gamer isn’t what he used to be. He isn't even necessarily a he. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 75 percent of heads of households play video games, and just a little under half are women. Seventy-nine percent of gamers participate in a sport of some kind, 93 percent stay up-to-date with current events and 47 percent play their game of choice with friends. Football jocks are now gamers, too, as are the preppy girls and the band geeks and the teachers who scolded the wayward geniuses. Let’s be honest: Chances are you're a gamer yourself.
Forget baseball—video games are quickly becoming America’s new pastime. When the Xbox 360 was released in November of last year, demand was so high the release has been ranked alongside Tickle Me Elmo, Cabbage Patch Kids and Star Wars Episode I as one of the biggest marketing sensations of all time. What video gaming needs to truly become America's new pastime is an official arena for competition, and Albuquerque’s Jason Montoya is hoping to provide just that.
Montoya says he got into video games for the same reasons any kid in America does—because they're fun and even more fun with others. “There’s a point where I got in my life where playing the game just to play it, while it’s fun … it’s kind of lonely when it’s just you and the game,” he says. Plus, he says, no matter what the event—gaming or otherwise—people are naturally competitive. For Montoya, Tekken and other fighting games became his competitive medium.
It started with local challenges at the Putt Putt Arcade, before the Xbox and the GameCube brought the option of mobility. As the monthly challenges went on, more and more people started to show up. Some would win, some would lose, but the game would go on. Montoya says video games really bring out the competitive spirit in many people. “When I’ve seen a player who’s taken his ability to that level of competitiveness-
Driven by his desire to compete and the demand for competition, Montoya started to plan tournaments and other events for console gaming. With the Internet, many PC gamers, and later Xbox live gamers, could play people around the world, but something major is missing when playing Halo 2 with a guy from New Jersey—the human element. No challenger to thank, no victor to congratulate, the interaction of playing a video game with another person can be lost while playing over the Internet.
Over the years, Montoya has been working to provide a forum in which console gamers can compete. Partnering with other gaming enthusiasts in Texas and Colorado, Montoya has launched the National Video Gaming Association (NVGA) in the hope of providing league-style play all over the nation, with large events for gamers to attend with cash prizes, a place to record tournament history and an opportunity for gamers to mingle. The NVGA’s next major event will be held at the the UNM SUB Ballroom this weekend, June 17-18, hosting tournaments in Capcom vs. SNK 2, Street Fighter III, Dead or Alive, Dance Dance Revolution and pretty much anything else people want to play.
Montoya calls himself a prototype gamer. He’s been around since the beginning--he’s been playing in the arcades of Albuquerque since Pong, and will challenge anyone at his game of choice: Tekken. He’s one of the best, the elite, a man to beat.
Garrett Tapia came into the world of gaming just as Montoya did—playing at home because it was fun and his mother let him. Tapia says he always thought video games were something you played alone, but after watching a Mortal Kombat match at an arcade in California he realized it was something more.
Tapia says he met Montoya playing Tekken Tag. “We always idolized him,” he says. Then Tekken 4 came out, it put Tapia, Montoya and all the other gamers on the same level, and Tapia became one of the big gamers to beat.
Montoya is still the Tekken master, but Tapia has the skills in Soul Caliber. After playing at a few national tournaments, Tapia is currently ranked fourth in the nation in Soul Caliber III and will be competing for the title at the Soul Caliber Nationals in July. In the tournament setting, Tapia not only has to be the best player with the fastest skills, he will also have to overcome the jeering crowd and the pressure of national competition.
Beyond the console, a whole other kind of gaming culture exists in the Duke City—the LAN party. Although the Internet provides a place for gamers to play from various parts of the world, the human element is still missing. In order to play the games they love with personal interaction, gamers get together, each bringing their own PC and hooking up over a local area network (LAN).
Jason Rose’s first LAN party was at his house. He put the word out that he was hosting the event and 26 gamers he’d never met showed up. The next month, 44 showed up. Pretty soon, the events had to be moved into conference rooms at hotels. He eventually created Pure Adrenaline Gaming to help him host regular LAN parties. This weekend, Rose is hosting a 130 PC event, in conjunction with the NVGA event, at Intel for 36 hours of nonstop gaming.
“The gamers have a choice. They can go home and sleep, they can leave their stuff there … but the whole event will never close,” he says. All the proceeds for the event will go to benefit the United Way of Central New Mexico.
Over the years, Rose has seen the perception of gamers change. “Computer geeks aren’t like what they use to be,” he says. “When I was going to school, you were actually a geek. The computer world is almost like dealing with cars--modding them up, fixing them up.” He’s been trying to run a LAN party every quarter, but originally his idea was to open a LAN center in Albuquerque.
There are a number of LAN centers that host PC and console gaming around Albuquerque, providing hardcore gamers a place to hone their skills or giving the casual gamer a place to play new games on better equipment than they have at home. Kerry Bruce started his LAN center, Gamer’s Underground, out of his computer consulting business about a year ago. After an evening of Halo with his adult church group, he realized how much fun playing video games with others can be. He fixed up some computers and opened three nights a week from 6 p.m. to midnight for people to play over his network.
At the time, he says, Gamer’s was the only LAN center in town. Today, Gamer’s and Server Syde feed the LAN-loving masses on the Westside, and in the Heights Ninja Monkey offers a range of console and computer games, and Rising Edge hosts anime viewings and Magic: The Gathering tournaments in addition to PC gaming. Ninja Monkey just opened its doors a little over a month ago, owned and operated by two gamers from Texas looking to open a business they enjoy in a market that can sustain such an endeavor. The centers provide the gaming atmosphere the arcade once did—personal interaction, the latest games and a place to hang out after school. Many major cities around the world have LAN centers as popular as coffee shops, but it still isn’t clear if Burque’s gaming addition is as large as its one for caffeine.
Bruce's life-long relationship with video gaming started with Pong. He used to spend hours with his friends inputing the binary code into his Commodore before paddling a virtual ball around the screen.
"Back then, [gaming] was kind of introverted ... it was just you and the computer," Bruce says. "Gaming nowadays is more a social thing. Your typical gamer is not the computer geek that sits in the back, that wears the sunglasses and the [pocket] protectors .... The stereotypical computer geek, we still exist, we still play games, we still work on computers, we still do a bunch of cool stuff, but it doesn't apply to all gamers any longer."