WATERFORD — For a storefront of nearly two dozen people, East Side Games at Crystal Mall was strangely quiet on a Thursday last month. The lights were dim and few people were walking about.
It was Smash tournament night and the contestants were hyper focused on the screens in front of them.
“The tournament stuff – that’s the big attraction. Those who want to try and get their feet wet with a competitive edge,” said New Londoner Charles Vandeworkeen, 30, who competes at the nearly year-old video game venue.
The East Side’s 32-year-old owner, James Hampton from New London, was able to multitask: speaking to participants, answering questions, managing registrations and moderating the competition – all at the same time.
His fiancee, Cecil Carter, 34, moved around the room tending to minor details in the business, which started as a social group in their apartment seven years ago.
The competitors are several decades old and come from different 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 via “The Big Bang Theory” as a gamer cliché. With his rounded haircut and inept social skills, Howard perhaps best fits the cultural perception of a “gamer” — a male child who still lives with his mother and has a small group of equally socially stunted friends who live for all things nerdy .
While stereotypes remain, they may no longer be a valid way to categorize gamers.
“Gaming culture is becoming our culture. We grew up with it,” Hampton said. “Now that we’re adults, we run with it and it kind of becomes a part of us.” He adds, “It becomes part of the American fabric.”
In fact, ESPN is now showing gaming tournaments; Madison Square Garden sells out for video game competitions; Colleges now have e-sports college sports programs, and more than 25 colleges and universities offer e-sports scholarships. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that half of Americans play video games and 77% of men ages 18-30.
“It’s more like an outside-in label, if you will,” said Vandeworkeen, who has traveled across the country to compete, of the term gamer.
And while competitive gaming is more of a niche, it has successfully found a home at East Side Games.
As one tournament group ended, the volume increased, suddenly much more in line with the size of the crowd.
The tournament is a double-elimination tournament and is run similar to any bracket-based sports competition. Prizes are based on the number of entries, but the lowest payout is never less than the $5 entry fee.
Nobody at this tournament makes a living from it, but there are people who do. Between gaming videos online and larger tournaments across the country and around the world, there are people who are successfully monetizing their passion for video games. In fact, this year the Smash World Tour is hosting a 9-month tournament series leading up to the Smash World Tour Championships in December, boasting $250,000 in prizes.
Hampton and Carter spoke about the genesis of the East Side Games, which began in 2015 with weekly tournaments at their apartment with friends because there was no local venue for competitive players.
“We knew there wasn’t room, so we put 27 people in our apartment for a tournament,” Carter said.
This quickly grew into smaller weekly tournaments, large quarterly tournaments, and the accumulation of all the gear needed to host them.
In early 2020, Hampton took the plunge and opened two doors down from its 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’s what he (Hampton) needed,” Carter said, adding, “It was the ‘might he do it’ fear” that had stopped him.
In July 2021, Hampton reopened in its current location with the support of the gaming community he helped build.
Almost a year later, Hampton hosts two tournament nights each week. On Mondays, updated versions of traditional fighting games like Mortal Kombat, Tekken, and Street Fighter attract competitors, and on Thursdays it hosts Smash tournaments.
On Sundays, East Side Games is open more like a gaming cafe, he said. It’s not a competition day, it’s a day for people to “come in, play, have fun”.
There is also a social aspect for the participants on tournament evenings. As the brackets eliminate players, more stations open up for casual play where people can learn new tips, techniques, and strategies from their former opponents and just play for fun.
“There’s a bit of escapism,” Hampton agreed. “People come here for many different reasons.”
He says the venue gives competitive gamers a chance to test their skills and learn from other gamers, while also offering a different type of social experience than online gaming offerings.
“You get the social experience,” Carter added.
Many video games offer chat features that allow players to talk to each other around the world, but Vandeworkeen said, “It’s different when you’re in person. You can talk to people who all have the same hobby; You can exchange ideas from each other, maybe try to make new friends.”
He added that the important element is “the human interaction part”.
The venue is only open three days a week with limited hours, but still earns enough to pay the bills and have a little left over to use for business upgrades. Hampton charges $10 for the whole day on Sundays or an evening during the week plus an additional $5 per bracket to enter the tournaments.
He also offers a free amateur bracket for those who are new to competitive sports and will be eliminated immediately.
“We don’t want people to waste their money,” Carter said.
Carter doesn’t do this to make a living. With a Master’s degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology and a certificate in Bioinformatics, he makes a living as a clinical systems and software manager and pours everything East Side Games earns back into the business.
However, the business is expanding, along with the gaming’s popularity in America, and Hampton is excited about the future. He said he’s always keen to provide players with a place to congregate and said he’s “open to organizing gaming tournaments if interest is expressed”.
East Side Games can also be booked 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 on Sunday as a fundraiser for Inspiring Youth and Mentors, which included pizza, snacks and drinks for the $15 entry fee.
“You see how (gaming) is permeating the entire culture,” Hampton said.