How the pandemic is smashing locals

By Matt Thibault

Josh Maston always remembers a face.

Maston is the former owner of the Forge, a small shop that catered to card games like Magic: The Gathering and computer gaming in Richmond, Virginia. The Forge typically saw around 2,400 customers over the course of a year, and Maston would always recognize them, from regulars to out-of-towners.

“To this day, anybody that walked through the Forge, if they walked up to me, although I might not remember your name now, I always remember the face,” Maston said.

Maston took over the Forge in 2017, where it was initially focused on both anime products and gaming. He said he focused more on the gaming side of everything and scrapped the anime side when he became the owner. He also took the helm of the Anvil series, a popular tournament series hosted at the Forge, which started in 2015.

The Anvil series was well known for the game Super Smash Bros., where dozens of people bunched up shoulder to shoulder came together to compete and build friendships with other people who loved the game. The meetups fostered a community that Maston called the “most loyal” crowd that came through the Forge, and Maston feels a special connection to them.

“I am ingrained in the community, and vice versa, the community is ingrained in me,” Maston said.

Maston said he could expect to make about $12,000 to $13,000 per month at the Forge. His revenue came from mostly the Magic: The Gathering side, which was about $6,000, and gaming rentals, which ran about $5,000. Smash brought in about $1,000, or about a twelfth of his monthly revenue — a necessary chunk.

Then the pandemic hit.

At first, Maston tried to let Smash continue. He attempted to limit the number of tables in the store and put social distancing measures in place.

“I tried really hard to spread people out,” Maston said.

But that wasn’t enough. The death knell came on March 15, when Virginia governor Ralph Northam announced a mandate on social distancing and banned gatherings of more than 10 people, making the Anvil series impossible to run. Maston was unable to make operating costs and forced to shut down the store. The prominent tournament was effectively shuttered.

“If I couldn’t hold my overnighters, a lot of my staple events, there was just no way to maintain status quo,” Maston said.

Maston didn’t apply for a small business loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, nor from other outlets. He said the loan wasn’t even an option due to the sudden and immense financial strain brought on by the pandemic.

He said he cried a lot while he fought with his decision.

Maston’s story isn’t an isolated one, and his industry isn’t the only one hit hard. Sixth months in, the pandemic is still wreaking havoc on the world, and many businesses are feeling the financial stress.

A poll published in April by the Small Business Majority, an advocacy organization specifically for small businesses and owners, reported that 43% of respondents said the economic crisis had a “severe negative impact” on their business. The poll also revealed that 72% of polled businesses had to reduce their employees salaries and hours, with 40% of them permanently laying off employees. Almost half of the surveyed owners closed or planned to close their business immediately or within two months of the survey.

Esports have largely been able to escape battered, but resilient. Games such as League of Legends, Call of Duty and others are able to hold their matches virtually, allowing them to continue as normal despite some hurdles. Many mainstream esports are also funded by companies that create them, allowing for some cushion in the face of banned in-person events and other issues.

But Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is in a strange spot. While many online tournaments have risen up to take the place of in-person events for different games, the Smash player base is largely unhappy with the game’s online services, which are widely known to be laggy and have noticeable input delay.

Smash esports are also not funded by Nintendo, the parent company of Super Smash Bros., leaving much of the Smash esports scene in a grassroots state. In January, Nintendo president Shuntaro Furukawa gave an interview to Nikkei, a prominent publication, in Japanese, which was then translated by Kotaku. The interview delved, in part, about Nintendo’s hesitance to fund the competitive scene.

Furukawa said Nintendo wants its products to be enjoyed by as many people as possible. Kotaku inferred that this could constitute a reluctance to create a divide between the casual and competitive scenes.

The scene is funded and organized in large part by community members. It’s carried by players, tournament organizers (TOs) who create the brackets and run the overall tournaments, commentators, volunteers and venue owners like Maston.

Community members are worried about the effects of the pandemic on the Smash community. While many say the community and competitive scene as a whole will survive the effects of the pandemic, they worry about the immediate effects on the venues and small businesses that make their “locals,” or local tournaments, home. Across the country, local venues are being forced to turn to donations through places like GoFundMe, look for alternative ways to make money, or close outright, unable to make costs.

For the players themselves, they’re seeing a decrease in the locations they can compete, and if some dry up in rural areas, players may be forced to go elsewhere to find their competitive fix when the pandemic ends, or be unable to access a local place to play at all. For an esport that is so community-driven, the results could become devastating.

A Close-Knit, Grassroots Community

Joseph “Seagull Joe” Raucher has been around Smash tournaments for a long time.

He’s been playing since 2008, in the first year of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the Smash iteration for the Nintendo Wii. He’s been a highly-ranked player in the Maryland and Virginia (MD/VA) region, since 2011, and is currently ranked No. 4.

A professional Smash Ultimate player sponsored by the Game Gym in Rockville, Raucher has been around long enough to remember the beginning of the booming local scene. At that point, before locals were common, he said weekday tournaments were “unheard of,” and the number of entrants he’d see didn’t come close to some of today’s tournaments. Raucher would sometimes travel to New Jersey and Pennsylvania in order to play in more tournaments.

Raucher was a part of the generation that followed up from Brawl and transitioned to Project M, a mod of Brawl that was intended to make the game play more like its predecessor, Super Smash Bros. Melee for the Nintendo Gamecube. Melee is regarded as a highly technical, punishing game for beginners that still maintains cult popularity today.

Raucher said locals began to explode in 2014, and Project M was the first to really take advantage of that. Soon after, locals were “everywhere” and Raucher said every scene began to hold locals every day of the week, not just restricted to weekends.

Seagull Joe (middle) plays a competitor at a FLEX tournament last October at the Game Gym in Rockville, Maryland. The Game Gym hosted a local every other Friday before the pandemic.

Soon, venues became as legendary as the players who played there. In the MD/VA region, the premiere local is at Xanadu Games, situated on the racetrack in Laurel, Maryland. Xanadu hosts major tournaments such as Glitch and Pound, and it streams its Tuesday and Friday Smash Ultimate tournaments on its Twitch and YouTube at VGBootCamp. Players on the Panda Global Rankings (PGR), a system that ranks the top 50 Super Smash Bros. Ultimate players in the world, go to different locals to keep sharp.

Ezra “Samsora” Morris is one of those players. Morris is a professional player sponsored by eUnited and is currently ranked No. 2 on the PGR. Morris credits locals for getting him in the competitive scene, and he doesn’t think he’d be where he is today without them.

“A local is a humongous place just to gather, and it grows the scene. There’s always new people going to locals, and if they like locals, maybe they like majors, and then you could tell your friends ‘oh, come to this local with me’ and that’s how it grows the scene,” Morris said.

He also says the competitive aspect is only one big part of locals — being social is also a huge part.

“I think that’s what locals are there for — to make relationships so you can enjoy the game, because it’s always more fun to play Smash with other people than by yourself online,” Morris said.

Morris’s words echo a widely held opinion of the community that Smash Ultimate’s online play is abysmal and, at times, unplayable. Morris isn’t playing as much Smash as he normally would, taking the time to step back from the service. In April, the Smash Community stormed Twitter with #FixUltimateOnline, venting about the input delay, game freezes, poor connections and other issues endemic to the service. Another player, Bryan “python” Burrowes, said he made his entire friend group from locals.

“There wouldn’t be a Smash scene without locals. Online in every Smash game ever has been terrible. It keeps the community together. Smash is a super close-knit community because we all see each other every week,” Burrowes said.

Burrowes moved from New York to Maryland, and when he first arrived, he didn’t know anyone. Burrowes said he wasn’t a “super social person” before he started going to locals, but now that he goes, he has made friends and runs a Discord server with about 70 people from all over the country, all built from Smash.

“Smash was pretty much the only way I had to meet people, so all of my local friends here are from Smash,” Burrowes said.

"Let's just say I haven't made a penny for three months."

Josh Hafkin is the owner of the Game Gym in Rockville, Maryland, which runs a small tournament series called Flex. Hafkin’s venue is in a different situation from others — the Game Gym isn’t primarily a tournament venue, but an esports coaching center.

Hafkin said he started the Game Gym to capitalize on the lack of development that existed for younger gamers looking to get into esports. While many professional teams, just like with traditional sports, have development coaches and people who help better performance, the equivalent at younger ages is microscopic.

“Part of what I really wanted to accomplish with Game Gym is [to] be the coaches that we never had in esports,” Hafkin said.

Hafkin said the Flex series isn’t meant to generate revenue, but to build exposure for the brand.

“We’re doing well, we’ve got some really great opportunities, but at the same time, we are very much hurting and have to have a venue we can’t pay for,” Hafkin said.

In response, Hafkin has transitioned from in-person summer camps to online camps, meant to provide structure during the day while also providing the coaching that he set out to accomplish when he opened Game Gym.

Hafkin said “literally everyone” was hurting, from organizations to venues.

“Anybody who has a live venue, unless they’ve got really really great renters or landlords, is still on the hook for their venue. And, to me, no matter what money I make in successful online camps, it’s just purely going to a venue I can’t operate out of, so that’s a tough part of this whole thing,” Hafkin said.

Game Gym owner Josh Hafkin addresses the crowd at a FLEX tournament last fall. The Game Gym has resorted to online camps to stay afloat.

Hafkin applied for and received a small business loan through the government Payment Protection Plan program, which he said helped with some of the burden of paying coaches through the pandemic.

Outside of Maryland, venues are also having issues. Jesse Baker is the owner of Arcade Legacy, a series of venues located in Cincinnati, Ohio, and in Newport, Kentucky. When the pandemic hit, Baker was forced to reckon with three different rents and a significant loss of revenue.

Baker said through email he was fortunate enough to get two out of the three landlords to work with him, but with the ways things are going, the future may still be looking grim.

“Let's just say I haven't made a penny for three months,” Baker wrote in an email. He said he’s also now in the hole for back rent and one of his locations, in Newport, Kentucky, can’t reopen because he can no longer afford the employees.

“At this point, if I can't do it myself it's not happening,” he said.

Baker also didn’t apply for a small business loan from the government due to the stipulations that he hire employees back by a certain date. Baker said he wouldn’t have made enough money to reach that benchmark, and that the loans were “basically useless” for himself and other small businesses.

GoFundMe pages and donations helped keep Baker and Arcade Legacy afloat. One such fundraiser, organized by Ohio player Alex Woodward on March 17, was made with the intention of keeping the venue around for the local scene.

“Arcade Legacy has been a long time spot for the Cincinnati gaming scene, and the foundation for its competitive fighting game and Smash Bros. scenes for over a decade now,” wrote Woodward on the GoFundMe page.

One day after launching, the page hit its donation goal of $500. By the end of the next day, the fundraiser ended with over $2,000 raised.

Baker was grateful for the support.

“It was beyond what I could have imagined. I don't even want to think of how much in the hole I'd be now without that support,” Baker said.

Other venues haven’t been fortunate enough to have the money to keep going or a flexible landlord. Versus Gaming Center, a LAN center in Pompano Beach, Florida that has been the site of some of the most prominent locals in the South Florida region, announced it was shutting its doors on June 3 after six years.

Russel “Kino” Klein, a former tournament organizer (TO) for Versus, didn’t know that Versus would be shutting down. Versus had an agreement with the company who owned their plaza that would’ve allowed the management of Versus to pay back the rent owed at a later date.

Then, the company made a reversal. On June 2, the company informed Versus management that they decided against the agreement, and Versus was forced to leave.

However, Klein said even if the company hadn’t kicked them out, there wouldn’t have been a way to meet costs.

“Even if they hadn’t kicked us out, they obviously would have expected us to pay back owed rent and things like that. Even just keeping up with the regular rent would’ve been difficult, because even if the LAN center would’ve been able to open back up, it’s not like we were having busy days.”

The week prior, when Versus was open, Justin Elsner, one of the managers of Versus, told Klein that they were getting only seven or eight people a day.

“Even if we got through this month, [we] probably wouldn’t have been able to make rent for the next month,” Klein said.

Versus’s bio on Twitter now reads “South Florida’s Former Premier Gaming Center — Permanently Closed.”

Versus Gaming Center in Pompano Beach, Florida emptied of equipment after closing. Many players expressed their sadness over its closure on Twitter and Facebook. Photo Courtesy of Russell Klein.

A touch and go sort of thing

The plans for tournaments going forward is spearheaded by the heavy use of online play. Some TOs and locals, such as Xanadu, have embraced the online format and continue to host their normal locals, streamed just as they were before.

Other TOs, such as Adam “Bonz” King, have spurned online tournaments.

King is the TO for the Game Gym’s Flex series, and he said that for Flex, the online tournament format wouldn’t work. King said many locals had to contend with the debate over whether to have an online tournament or cancel them outright.

For Flex, King said although he put together an online bracket on as the quarantine began, he wound up not going through with it.

“We’d never run an online [tournament], but the main thing was we didn’t know, like, would people want to pay to enter? Would we have to do it for free with no prizes? We couldn’t figure out the logistics of that,” King said.

King said other roadblocks included fears of oversaturation, having to compete with the likes of Xanadu and The Cave, a prominent venue located in Fairfax, Virginia. Flex is every Friday, biweekly, which means it competes with The Grind, a weekly tournament put on by Xanadu. But another thing came into King’s mind — how it interacted with the Flex brand. He wanted to make it less stressful than the serious atmosphere The Grind created.

“Flex has always wanted to cater to new competitors and people that might just want to have a fun tournament to attend, maybe they don’t even care about getting better, they just want to hang out with their friends and play Smash,” King said.

King was also worried about Flex becoming another name in the Wi-Fi bucket.

“I completely lost interest in having online Flex events, because they couldn’t be at the Game Gym, people couldn’t hang out, there was nothing about what makes Flex special that I could apply to an online Flex tournament,” King said.

Christian “Roflfox” Byrd, a TO at Xanadu Games, talked more about how online tournaments exist to “establish normality as much as possible in a very un-normal world,” despite Smash Ultimate’s “extremely bad” online service.

“It’s a touch and go sort of thing. The tournaments both provide a good space, but at the same time, they can be stressful because the online is bad,” Byrd said.

Despite the poor online service, Byrd said the communities locals helped form are still sticking together, even if it’s not through Smash. Other games, such as VALORANT, the newly released first-person shooter from Riot Games, are one of the places players are migrating, according to Byrd.

“In the absence of locals, people are finding other ways to continue their lives together,” Byrd said.

Now, people are worried about the way tournaments will be run in future, depending on how the pandemic evolves and changes. This is of particular concern for major tournaments, which can have hundreds and even thousands of entrants. The largest recorded major was EVO 2019 in the Smash Ultimate bracket, which had 3,534 entrants overall, and Smash Ultimate is only one of several games at EVO.

Cyrus “Cagt” Gharakhanian, a prominent TO in Florida and an esports consultant for Duo Studios, said he’s spoken with major tournament organizers who are “definitely very worried” for the future of Smash and other fighting games. Gharakhanian previously worked on majors such as Super Smash Con and CEO Dreamland, while also working on Shine and 2GG: Hyrule Saga for Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U, more commonly called Smash 4.

Click to hear Cyrus Gharakhanian speak about the vision of Smash tournaments post-pandemic.

Gharakhanian said some adaptations he and other organizers would have to make would involve spreading out setups for the games and finding larger spaces than before the pandemic to accommodate for players and distancing. He said people may turn to head-to-head setups at tournaments, where two setups are split to two screens with players directly across from each other. Usually, players are packed shoulder-to-shoulder at one setup.

Gharakhanian also said tournament budgets would start to lean a lot more toward the health and safety measures for attendees.

“There’s going to be a completely different approach to how we handle attendee’s safety to how we handle even the way the tournament format runs, the way the venue is laid out,” Gharakhanian said.

All these changes will mean added stress for venues, and for small owners like Hafkin, every ounce of support can count.

“This is something that is going to be a big thing for a long time. A lot of people have taken a big hit. I would say support your local venues in every way you can and are able,” Hafkin said.

He said that anything can help, from messages to donations.

“The Game Gym can kind of scoot by. So when we open up again, we’ll be okay. There’s other people taking huge losses right now, and they’re in a situation where they’re taking out loans, doing different things just to keep their dreams alive,” Hafkin said.

Josh Maston had to reckon with this as well. The pandemic has provided immediate obstacles, and Maston’s dreams are no different. He still wants to get into working in esports. He’s not sure how, despite dabbling in different ways, but he knows what his goals are.

As for the Anvil series, Maston is hopeful that it will return. He said that he already had multiple people approach him about incorporating the series into their venues and businesses.

Maston knows what he helped start is special, and he doesn’t see it going away for long. He did what he wanted to when he first owned the Forge.

“When I took over the Forge, I set out to make an impression and bring esports to Richmond, and I did exactly that.”

Matt Thibault is a graduate student at American University enrolled in the School of Communication. This project was completed to fulfill the requirement for the Capstone project in order to receive a Master's degree in Journalism and Public Affairs. A profound "thank you" to everyone who shared their experience and story for this article.

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