I had been running the Champions Arcade in Glen Burnie, Maryland’s Marley Station Mall for maybe half a year, spending my evenings fixing broken machines, counting tickets and playing way too much on my employer’s dime.
Over those six months I managed to assemble an impressive team of gamers as staff, guys who spent their work time earning cash to go buy the latest Nintendo carts and their off hours hustling Street Fighter matches for cash down at University of Maryland College Park or the shady bars on Baltimore’s infamous Baltimore Street.
We hung out together inside and outside the arcade. I was the group’s official bait when they went to play for cash. I sucked and still suck at Street Fighter, but they’d let me beat them match after match until a sizable crowd gathered and they managed to find folks willing to play for money. Then they’d come in and win all the cash they could.
It finally dawned on me one day that maybe it was worth doing something a bit more legitimate with Street Fighter: A tournament.
So I called up the local arcade cabinet reseller to get in touch with Capcom. I finally tracked someone down in California who seemed completely disinterested in the idea of a tournament for Street Fighter II. So I did it on my own.
It was strictly word of mouth. Because we all played Street Fighter II so much, our arcade’s machines were some of the best maintained, so we often attracted players from around the state. They told their friends and by the night of the tournament our mall arcade was so packed you couldn’t step inside it.
We held the tournament on a big screen machine, people crowding around the players as I announced the seeding. The audience sat on the ground, climbed up on top of other machines, some stacked up so high they broke the neon lights that ran around the wall nearly touching the ceiling.
The prize was a bag of tokens good at only our arcade, but that’s now why they came. They came for the glory. The chance to prove they were the best. And they came from Delaware, from New York, New Jersey, from Pennsylvania.
The evening is a blur now, nearly 20 years later, all I remember of it is the deafening roar of the crowds as we made our way closer and closer to a final match. The noise was so concerning to mall management, that police showed up at one point. The winner is long lost to my memory.
What I do recall is that sense of acceptance. I’ve never before felt such a strong sense of belonging, of being in a place filled with people so like-minded, so similar, before or since.
When I sometimes think back to the days before arcades fell, these are the moments I remember. No amount of online support, of voice chat, of video will ever replicate this experience.
Those of you who dismiss the death of arcades, or worse, dismiss what they stood for, never quite experienced that moment of gaming zen. And sadly, now you never will.
Above a scene from the 1992 Marley Station Street Fighter II Tournament.