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The Promise of eSports Bars: With Your Beer, a Shot at Fame

"It's really hard to find something that 100 million people have in common. For us, it's playing video games."

Facebook / AFK Gamer Lounge

Earlier this week, I posited that eSports deserve to be treated differently from “real” sports. To put it delicately, not everyone agreed with me, though as a fan of bon mots, I tip my hat to the anonymous heckler who called me a “withered nonagenarian.”

Anyway, here’s another reason to separate the two worlds: eSports bars are way cooler than sports bars. [Editor’s note: This may depend heavily on your definition of “cool.”]

I’ve previously written about one gaming-bar company, Showdown eSports, which twice a week converts San Francisco’s cavernous Folsom Street Foundry into a geeky nirvana. Now Showdown is opening shop in a San Jose for one night a week, just a few blocks from a newly opened competitor, the 18,000-square-foot AFK Gamer Lounge.

“It’s a culture that largely developed online, behind avatars and usernames,” AFK co-founder Kevin Wick said. “But the people who are part of it have a shared experience and a shared passion. It’s really hard to find something that 100 million people have in common. For us, it’s playing video games.”

These gaming bars were designed with the Bay Area’s techies in mind (“not only are they huge nerds, but they also have a lot of money,” Wick said of tech workers). But there may be some broader appeal in the carrot they dangle in front of fans of competitive gaming: You can come in a nobody and come out internet-famous.

Showdown co-founder C.J. Scaduto said local players of the 2001 Nintendo game Super Smash Bros. Melee have flocked to weekly tournaments in San Francisco, which draw an average of 60 to 80 players each and are broadcast live on Twitch. That popularity led to a recent tournament called “I’m Not Yelling!” — named after a drunken exclamation by a Smash pro on Showdown’s Twitch stream, broadcast by Showdown from Merritt College — that attracted some of the world’s best players and, at one point, 40,000 simultaneous online viewers.

“We’re fostering competition in the Bay Area that does not exist [otherwise],” Scaduto said. “You come for the atmosphere, and also to get practice in. At the same time, it gives them exposure, because they get to be on the stream.”

The winner of a different upcoming tournament, in Capcom’s Street Fighter IV, will get comped airfare to EVO, the year’s biggest fighting-game eSports tournament.

Meanwhile, AFK will play host to a Red Bull-sponsored tournament for the video game Dota 2 next week. The winning team will get a chance to compete in an even larger event the following day in San Francisco. AFK already sponsors one eSports team and can broadcast from any of the 65 gaming PCs in its basement.

“This used to be a wine cellar,” Wick said outside the room that houses its broadcasting technology. “It was a soundproofed, temperature-controlled room already, and we were like, ‘Hey, we don’t like wine. Let’s put in computer stuff!'”

Kevin Wick / AFK

The two game-bar companies are taking different approaches to the same idea, however. Showdown partners with existing bars, temporarily converting them into gaming destinations, while AFK thinks its proximity to both tech companies and San Jose State University will give it a steady and more permanent audience.

And what’s the next step? AFK is just getting started, but Wick said he hopes to grow the bar to a place where he can experiment with “skunkworks” gaming options like virtual reality. Showdown, meanwhile, is eyeing expansion: It’s experimenting with bringing games to a San Francisco nightclub on Fridays, and Scaduto said the company hopes to start partnering with bars in southern California by the end of the year.

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