Thumbs and other digits flew in a furious flurry over the game controllers, the clattering of the well-worn buttons and joysticks matching the volume of the low din of conversation humming throughout the Regency Room of downtown Greensboro’s Elm Street Center. Yet “button mashing” applied only literally to the skill exhibited by these gamers and belied the action flashing from the old television screens huddled in pods on the plywood tops of foldout tables.
Calling their advanced technique “button mashing” insults the intensive method behind the seeming madness. The characters they controlled — Fox McCloud, Jigglypuff, Princess Peach, Kirby — kicked, jabbed, slammed, threw, throttled, blocked, dodged, jumped and dove at nerve velocity across the floating stages.
These people weren’t playing games — they were sparring.
Most of the contenders amassed in the opulent chambers of the Elm Street Center engaged in rounds of “Super Smash Bros. Melee,” Nintendo’s 2001 blockbuster fighting game developed for the then-new Gamecube console. But tournaments for other games happened simultaneously: many iterations of the Mario Kart and Pokémon series, “GoldenEye 007” and even “Tetris Attack.” But these events swirled like tiny moons orbiting Jupiter. The gravity of Super FamiCon — the umbrella under which these gamers drew together, local amateurs and seasoned professionals alike — centered around “Melee.”
“It pulls people in with that surface layer of easiness,” Head Tournament Organizer Dylan McGrath said. “People think, Oh, it’s Fox, it’s Mario, it’s Samus — they know these guys. They grew up with them. It reels you in with that nostalgia, and once it has you… if you already play games like this and you’re into e-sports, this game is the game.”
Super FamiCon was the idea of fans, by fans, for fans of Nintendo, the video game company that produced some of the most well known and beloved characters and consoles of all time, from Mario to Pikachu, from the state-of-the-art Wii U console to the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Super FamiCon’s name was a portmanteau drawing from the Japanese name of the Super Nintendo: Super Famicom.
The convention, held Nov. 19-20, received no support from Nintendo or any of its branches or subsidiaries. It was a labor of love.
Joe Scott, owner of Geeksboro Coffeehouse Cinema, served as the convention’s executive director. The idea sprang to mind in late spring.
“We’ve hosted a lot of video game tournaments and events at Geeksboro, but the ones I noticed really connected with audiences the most were the ones related to Nintendo,” Scott said in an interview.
Steven Sedwick, one of the “Melee” tournament organizers, had hosted such events in both the underground cinema and coffeehouse proper of Geeksboro as cofounder of Gate City Smash, a bi-weekly “Melee” tournament.
“[Gate City Smash] was just something people wanted, so we filled the void that’d been nonexistent around here,” Sedwick said. “Setting this up is just an extension of that. The scene’s growing, and people still wanna come out and play these old-fashioned video games.”
Andrea Brent, president of UNCG’s gaming club and Super FamiCon’s associate marketing and coordination manager — “I wear a lot of hats,” she laughed — echoed Sedwick’s statements the night before the convention.
“We have to suit lots of needs for different kinds of gamers,” Brent said. “And first-time conventions, they’re a risk people take.”
A brisk breeze rustled leaves on the trees lining Elm Street on the morning of Nov. 19, scattering old golden petals down to the sidewalk and sending them skittering across the bricks outside the Elm Street Center.
The line waiting outside buzzed with chattering energy despite the blustery chill. They came from across the Southeast and up and down the East Coast, from Florida to Canada. Many dressed in plain clothes, but some already donned cosplay outfits. A couple rolled up as Mario and Luigi, complete with fake mustaches. Later, you could find a different pair of Mario and Luigi augmented by Wario, the occasional antagonist of the Mario Bros. Both men and women dressed as Link, the enormously popular playable elf of the Zelda series. Multiple Zeldas could be found here and there, but only rarely with her hero, who often seemed off on his own adventure, as usual.
Inside, dozens of vendors set up shop in the upper level of the Regency Room, surrounding the egg-shaped opening leading to the downstairs ballroom. They peddled vintage games and consoles, T-shirts, screenprints, ink drawings, buttons, stickers, plush toys, tote bags, commemorative lanyards, key chains, jewelry, bead art, crocheted Pokémon hats — practically any Nintendo-related, fan-made gear you could imagine, and then some. And as they waited for the tournaments in the lower level to officially begin, con-goers perused the dealers’ wares with the trained eyes of Moroccan bazaar traders.
Two inspected Gamers 4 Gamers’ selection of Game Boy cartridges, many labeled in Japanese.
“Best thing is, these are in English,” vendor Garrett Gomez told the pair. “You can actually tell what they’re saying!”
Elsewhere, vendor Carlson Stevens, a substitute teacher from the Washington, DC area who sells games at weekend cons, held court over a row of tables offering everything from the rare Neo Geo console to a bargain bin of imported cartridges.
“How much would you sell a Japanese ‘Banjo-Tooie’ for?” one guy asked.
“Ten bucks,” Stevens replied. “Maybe less if you take the whole bucket.”
Down the granite stairs lay the killing floor.
Super FamiCon’s main events took place in the lower level of the Regency Room, but for now, a gray ribbon tied at the bottom of the staircase kept the rabid gamers out of the opulent lounge. Convention staffers like Sedwick and Brent scurried about, attempting to pin down final touches. The television screens crowding the masses of tables blankly reflected the light shimmering from crystal chandeliers.
A few moments after 10 a.m., McGrath, with his thick brown beard and gauges like bullseyes in his earlobes, galloped down the stairs.
“Ballroom is open!” McGrath bellowed as he bounded into the hall. “Ballroom is open! Let’s go, guys! If you are here for ‘Melee’ and you want this tournament to work, then help me get these systems running!”
Con-goers scrambled downstairs to assist, and the atmosphere in the ballroom quickly escalated to a frenzy.
Yet, even as more and more attendees filtered into the Regency Room — hundreds in the first day alone — the line outside kept growing into the afternoon.
Quiet corners became increasingly hard to find in the Elm Street Center, but as the day dragged along, Scott could be found in the upper foyer of the Empire Room, chowing on chips and guacamole from Crafted just down the block.
“It’s a bearpit down there,” he said, shaking his head and staring blankly 1,000 yards past the beige papered walls.
In the Empire Room, Daniel McMillan, proprietor of Lost Ark Video Games — Super FamiCon’s featured vendor and flagship sponsor — prepared to address some of the convention attendees who needed a quick break from the literal melee in the building’s bowels. His topic: collecting vintage games.
He threw a curveball to start.
“Here’s my thesis: I don’t think that anyone should collect video games,” McMillan said in his soft Tennessee drawl. “When we think about collecting, what we’re really doing and enjoying is the search for these items in our collection — the hunt is the thing. But when it comes to games, I think games are a very different thing than Precious Moments figures or antique salt shakers or whatever it is that you collect. Because, unlike a lot of things we collect, games have a purpose beyond simply existing on a shelf. We bought games so we could play them, and our quest to play games led to our collections.
“The quest is fun,” McMillan concluded, “but the game is the thing.”
McMillan’s argument may have struck some as strange at a classic gaming convention, even hypocritical coming from the owner of a vintage game store. But other vendors and gamers made similar statements about the exploding interest in classic video games.
“It’s a lot like vinyl,” vendor Carlson Stevens said. “The pendulum has swung so far digital that people yearn for something more physical. Cartridges have such an element… it’s almost like a piece of art. You can display it on a shelf, but play it, too.”
His daughter, funnily enough, isn’t into video games at all.
“She just thinks of them as currency,” Stevens said. “She’s into chess. We’re both old-school gamers to some degree.”
Josh Schwartz, who established Gamers 4 Gamers in Cullowhee six years ago, waxed psychological in his assessment.
“I always sell Ataris to guys in their fifties,” he said. “You know why? They lost them. Their parents sold them. And they want them back. They want to relive their childhoods. They all have a list of games in their heads, because they’re the games they played back in the day. It’s that simple.
“You don’t get many 10-year-olds saying, ‘Wow, can I play that NES?’” he added.
Yet some younger gamers do find fun in the systems before their time.
Convention manager Andrea Brent, who has played video games since she could hold a controller, counted “Contra,” “Double Dragon II,” “Bubble Bobble” and the original “Super Mario Bros.” as some of her favorite titles — all original NES games.
“People like me, we’re getting older, and we’re the most nostalgic generation,” Brent said. “[Millennials] saw things happen in a flash. We grew up really quickly. We went from our parents’ NES to PS4. Everything went so fast that we kind of missed out.”
By her own admission, she bought a Nintendo 64 to play with her brothers over Thanksgiving break.
“A bright blue N64 came in [at Lost Ark] and I thought, I have to have this!” Brent said.
Joe Scott, who conceived of Super FamiCon explicitly to honor Nintendo’s historic legacy, recognized Nintendo’s unique draw that lasts a lifetime.
“They make games that appeal to kids that are still appealing to adults, as well,” Scott said. “You grow up playing ‘Super Mario Bros.’ as a child, and you later play it as an adult, and it’s still fun. It’s never not fun.”
Throughout his panel, Dan McMillan drew on this eternal fun as a classic game’s raison d’être.
“In collecting games, we lose sight of why we started in the first place,” McMillan said. “For me — for everyone — you’re gonna be happier if you think, What do I wanna play, and why do I wanna play it?”
Since its debut 15 years ago, “Melee” — in which beloved Nintendo characters beat the crap out of each other — has become a spectator sport all its own.
Watching two “Melee” professionals duke it out on the main stage of the Regency Room provided all the amped-up excitement, intensity and dynamics of a prize fight. Dozens of players, on break from their own rounds, gathered around pairs of digital pugilists as their fights shone on a projector screen, cheering and jeering in support of their favorite fighters, all possessing singular noms de guerre: Sharkz, Kaeon, DruggedFox, EMG n0ne, $mike.
“Stack it up! Stack it up! Stack it up!” they chanted when players went on a hot streak, delivering devastating combos against their competitor, adding more and more damage to the poor soul before slamming them off the stage to certain, explosive doom.
As in boxing, money changed hands between the spectators, bets called out like at an auction.
“I got a buck on n0ne; anyone like Mike?”
“I’ll give you $5 is you win this, man! Five bucks! Think about it!”
“If anyone wants to take this, this guy’s got $20 on Sammy.”
One anonymous spectator said, “If ‘Melee’ is our favorite game, our second is betting on matches.”
The mainstage tournament streamed over Twitch.tv on the RecursionGG channel, so “Melee” fans across the country and the globe could witness famous fighters duke it out in real time.
“Fans follow their favorite players just like they would boxers, picking them because they’re from their state or town,” McGrath said in an interview before finals commenced. “The same way boxers and fighters have appeal, ‘Melee’ players have the same deal.”
“Melee” attracts all kinds.
Colin Green, known as SS Colbol, traveled from Orlando, Fla. to participate.
“[McGrath] offered to fly me out, put me in a hotel, pay for my registration and all that,” he said. “I love North Carolina, so I said, ‘Yeah, I wanna come.’”
Green has played “Melee” since its release and played the original 1999 N64 title before then, nearly always as Fox. One of the top Florida players, Green has competed in “Melee” tournaments for nearly 11 years; he and McGrath knew each other from previous events. He plays professionally, augmenting his income working part-time in a college textbook store.
“I just try to go to as many events as I can, trying to get better and better,” Green said. “If I get good enough, I might get picked up by a bigger sponsor.”
Though he views “Melee” as work, he still finds joy in it. But playing on a pro circuit strains the pleasure.
“People thinking I’m good and high expectations for myself means instead of purely playing for fun, there’s always going to be that pressure to perform,” Green admitted. “I wish it wasn’t there, but you can’t make it go away.”
In an early round, Green played against Ian Datta, aka Clementine, a precocious 13-year-old Chapel Hill native who began playing “Melee” at age 4 and started competing two years ago.
“He reminds me of me at that age,” Green said of Datta.
“He actually beat us in doubles,” McGrath added.
Datta is a slight, shy, androgynous kid, almost excessively intelligent, who specializes as Captain Falcon from “F-Zero” — the power-hitter of “Super Smash Bros.” characters.
“I play the best when I’m having fun or I’m styling on my opponent, when everyone else in the crowd is having fun,” Datta said. “He’s like a luchador. When he’s doing well, he looks like he’s one of the best characters.”
Datta, who has four older brothers, had to sneak in his playing time as a child.
“We only had two controllers, so instead of switching off every round, they would tell me to shut up and go upstairs,” Datta said. “I’d wake up very early in the morning — 1, 4 o’clock in the morning — and just play ‘Melee’ by myself in the basement. I’d close all the doors, put towels under the door so they wouldn’t hear the clacking of the controller.
“I did get caught by my mom once, and she got mad at me, sent me off to bed, but I still just did it anyway,” Datta laughed.
No matter how peeved his mother got, Datta’s parents encourage his playing.
“They trust me enough to just drop me off at a tournament and know I can have fun and not waste their hard-earned money,” Datta said.
While prodigious, Datta wouldn’t consider playing professionally. But he believes “Melee” has enduring appeal and has launched into the realm of a modern classic thanks to its technical intricacy.
“There’s always a different thing you can do,” Datta said. “After 15 years of this game being out, people still find different things to do with it. In ‘Street Fighter,’ there’s set combos you always know will work, but in ‘Melee,’ there’s some things you can be creative with and play your own style.
“It’s like a book that you read or a toy that you played with that will be fun until you die,” Datta added.
Green didn’t mince words.
“‘Melee’ is, hands-down, my favorite game of all time,” he said. “Once I found ‘Melee,’ I was done.”
In its inaugural year, Super FamiCon far exceeded its expectations.
“I was really aiming for 500 people, and we doubled that,” Scott said. “It’s hard to be sure, but I know we tipped over 1,000 by the end of Day Two. We didn’t have a ticker to count everyone, but that’s something we’ll make sure we do next year.”
Scott has already booked the Elm Street Center for Super FamiCon 2017 for the same weekend. He imagines “a bigger convention with more vendors, more guests, more tournaments, more hype.”
Placing the convention venue in the Elm Street Center — lodged in the aorta of town — fulfilled another purpose.
“Just looking at the changes to the cultural landscape of downtown Greensboro, I didn’t see a big push for inclusion,” Scott said. “A lot of the businesses there are all being built for the same clientele.”
The convention might have been a gamble, but Scott and the others felt Greensboro benefitted from Super FamiCon and will in future years.
“I wanted to make an event that would bring people downtown who would not have gone downtown otherwise,” Scott said, “and I think we succeeded.”
Super FamiCon drew people not just from the suburbs, though. Gamers from across the country came for the convention, expanding Scott’s original scope and potentially establishing Super FamiCon as an attractive draw for Greensboro in the future.
“Best first year for a tournament, yes or no?” Dylan McGrath asked the crowd during “Melee” finals.
The spectators agreed with him.
“Who’s coming back next year?” he asked.
The volume of cheers should leave little worry for Super FamiCon 2017.
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