Prizes and league points are at stake in Soul Calibur competition. For more photos, click gallery, above.
Less than 50 yards away, Madison families are focused on avoiding gutter balls and picking up 7-10 splits. But here in a side room at Ten Pin Alley in Fitchburg, a big-ass virtual sword is all that stands between life and death. Prizes and some serious league points are at stake. Amber Barreras, 24, deftly mashes a couple of buttons on her PlayStation 3 controller, and her Greek warrior princess administers a last-second coup de grace to her opponent.
K.O. - she's on to the quarterfinals. "My heart was beating so fast," she says.
Such is the scene for Madison's Soul Calibur league. It's but one of several fanatically devoted videogame groups in our fair city.
Several times a month, between 20 and 30 gamers haul Vizio flatscreens, PlayStation 3s and specialized fighting sticks to Ten Pin or to Happy Wok, on the east side. They throw down in league tournaments with friends and rivals in Soul Calibur, a fighting game that's all about pulling off complex battle combos and blocks.
To them, this game is more than just a game - it's a social experience. More than one combatant describes the group as a "second family."
The MC of this button-mashing party zips around the room, delivering action-figure prizes and orders of cheese-drenched nachos to early-round winners. Resplendent in a yellow-banded fedora and shocking white glasses frames, he is Jimmy Wingelung Choi, a 29-year-old from Sun Prairie.
"What drew me to Soul Calibur was the competition," says Choi. "But this game also has a phenomenal storyline, with different characters and different strategies."
The group began in 2002, in what you'd have to call a classic location - Cyber Station, the old arcade at East Towne Mall. Barreras worked there; Choi and best pal "Mystic" Bill Kenney used to play there.
"I came for the atmosphere," Choi quips. "I got better due to peer pressure." The Soul Calibur II arcade-cabinet console they used to bang on occupies a place of honor in the corner of another league member's apartment, Caleb Goessling.
Tonight, the group is taking its first crack at the recently released Soul Calibur V, a new iteration that's added even more levels of strategy. Unlike some local videogame groups, this one sports at least a degree of gender diversity. There are five or six women among the crowd, and Barreras isn't the only one veteran players are hoping to avoid.
The league's grand prize is a new PlayStation 3, but several players, including Barreras, are looking to hone their combo chops for a trip to the EVO Championship Series, a national fighting-game tournament held annually in Vegas. Prizes there can run to thousands of dollars.
The combatants don't have much to say during the matches. There's no trash-talking, just grim stick-waggling and button-mashing. But afterwards, smiles, high-fives and hugs abound.
A couple of noobs drift in, awkwardly deflecting Choi's attempts to recruit them into this evening's event. They stay a few seconds to watch one of the matches. "We'd get murdered," one says, his jaw slackening a little at the speed at which one match wraps up. "We might get one hit in."
Prizes and league points are at stake in Soul Calibur competition. Choi, lower left: 'This game has a phenomenal storyline.'
In the basement of Tony Orenga's Fitchburg home, there's a sizable flatscreen TV showing the lush links of the AT&T Pebble Beach Classic.
And nobody is watching it.
Instead, 11 sets of eyes are glued on four ancient TV consoles, where some serious 8-bit football action is going down. It's Tecmo Super Bowl, a 20-year-old game that originally debuted on - wait for it - the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Over in the corner, teeny Tampa Bay Buccaneers flicker across the bright-green screen, pitched in battle against the Phoenix (not Arizona) Cardinals. "You can't put Tom Tupa in!" somebody yells.
Tonight's tourney, an elaborate, three-tiered, triple-elimination affair that features a Winners, Losers and Big Losers bracket, is one of the final tune-ups for this year's main event on March 3: Tecmo Bowl VIII: Muster's Last Stand, a 200-contestant national throwdown at the downtown tap Logan's Madtown. The ultimate prize is a whopping $1,000 - and some Joey Browner-sized national bragging rights. The prize for tonight's event is a little more modest - a bottle of champagne and $50. There is a waiting list to enter the tournament, but spectators are welcome.
The Madison Tecmo Super Bowl Tournament is the brainchild of the Holzbauer brothers, Josh, 30, and Chet, 32. Once a smaller event, it now draws people from across the country and, this year, even Saskatchewan, Canada. Josh, the very definition of happy-go-lucky, is Tecmo Bowl's face and spokesman. The smile never leaves his face, even when his brother is schooling him in a quarterfinal game in which nothing's going right. Chet's never won the Madison tournament, and he is hoping to get the monkey off his back this year.
Legend has it that the original Tecmo Bowl was created by a small team of Japanese developers working off VHS tapes of actual NFL games. That likely explains the game's hilarious eccentricities. This is a game with an eight-play playbook. A game that hinges on 30-yard quarterback scrambles that lead to 90-yard touchdown bombs. A game in which an untimely turnover or a pixelated running back's ability to "popcorn" - i.e., bounce off defenders and keep moving forward - can often be the difference between legendary victory and ignominious defeat.
"The variability is huge," says James Thomas, 26, who works days as a scientist at a product analysis lab. "You can play the same teams multiple times and get different results. Someone who's not very good could beat a seasoned player."
Part of what brings this crew together on a regular basis is that they all played Tecmo Bowl as kids. "The nostalgia factor is huge," says Josh Holzbauer. "But this game is deceptively simple. There's a lot of gamesmanship."
The matches follow an interesting format, designed to thwart players from always opting for one of Tecmo Bowl's killer teams (think the Montana-Rice 49ers and Dan Marino's Dolphins). The winner of a coin-flip suggests a match-up, and the loser picks his team first. It adds yet another level of chess-like strategy to the proceedings, and, tonight, some offbeat matches. (New Orleans? Really?)
A reporter asks the obvious question: why not fast-forward to balling on the high-def fields of Electronics Arts' megapopular Madden series of football videogames?
Holzbauer's answer is surprisingly thoughtful. "So much of Madden is about the online," he says. "With Tecmo Bowl, you've gotta get everyone together. There's a lot of noise. It's an event."
As if to rubber-stamp the sentiment, Adam "Garbage" Gauthier, the undisputed speed-mashing king of this group, picks that precise moment to score a Jets' touchdown. He names a wide receiver of early-1980s Badger squads when he howls, "TOOOOOOONNNN!"
On a Thursday night in February, the sound of 12 thumbs frantically mashing Wavebird controllers isn't enough to disturb the tranquil study vibe on the second floor of Union South. Not that the owners of said thumbs likely would care if it did. These UW students are united in singular purpose: dumping damage on their opponents in a rousing round of Super Smash Bros. Melee, a 2001 fighting game on the Nintendo Gamecube.
Unlike Soul Calibur V, in which moments of sword-clashing action are punctuated by deliberate stalks and careful approaches, Super Smash Bros. is like a combat ballet on triple fast-forward, with classic Nintendo characters like Star Fox, Princess Peach and Jigglypuff leaping, twirling, pummeling and plummeting at rates that make ADD seem like Zen meditation by comparison.
This Smash Bros. group is one of only two official UW-sanctioned videogame clubs (there's another one for the PC-based real-time strategy game Starcraft 2). Two years ago, it was on life support, with a roster of only five or six members. Now, thanks to the recruiting efforts of Sam Bruning, a 21-year-old senior majoring in actuarial science, the group's big enough to field weekly Thursday night Smashfests, and local tournaments every other month (the next one's coming up in a few weeks).
The group has also taken its place among other regional Smash Bros. groups. And it's all about Smash Bros. Melee, not Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the 2009 Wii update.
"Melee doesn't look like much to a spectator," admits Bruning. "But that guy over there? He just hit, like, 10 buttons at once."
Tonight, the group's members are playing two-on-two teams, four players to a console. That's unusual, says Jake Fyfe, a 19-year-old computer science major.
"If not for this group, they'd all be playing one-on-one," he notes. "The best way to learn is to go one-on-one versus somebody who's better than you. It's immediate feedback."
Most of these guys - it's all guys - played the game as kids. ("Everyone grows up with Nintendo games," notes Bruning.) They honed their mad skillz by beating neighborhood friends, and are now ready to take it to the next level, whether that's matching up against better players or practicing for tournaments. A small percentage of the UW group is open to non-students, but this is mainly a campus affair.
As they discuss the nuance and appeal of their favorite game, the enthusiasm in Fyfe and Bruning's voices is infectious. To them, Smash Bros. isn't mindless party-game entertainment, but an ever-shifting metagame puzzle to be constantly unraveled.
They come for the fun and friendship, but they're also like NFL coordinators, dissecting such game techniques as wave-dashing and moonwalking the way Dom Capers tries to dissect a Tampa-2 defense. And because the strategy's always evolving, the connections and friendly rivalries these gamers have found here remain strong as well.
Says Bruning, "This game's never gonna die."
Madison Tecmo Super Bowl Tournament VIII
Logan's Madtown, Saturday March 3, 10 am