It's a tense moment in the Xanadu game store in Arbutus.

The grand finals of the weekly tournament for Super Smash Bros. “Project M” have just begun. The room is crammed with players, televisions and Wii game systems, but everyone's attention is fixed on the one big screen in the corner, where two final players are duking it out.

Smash Bros. is a video game that pits Nintendo characters — think Super Mario, the Italian plumber, Donkey Kong, the agile ape and Princess Peach, the gal who swings a mean parasol — against one another in a matchup that's part all-star game, part glorified sumo-wrestling match.

An observer might look in this room and see 50 decidedly unathletic 20-something guys slamming caffeinated sports drinks and mashing controller buttons with silent concentration, cackling madly and uttering unprintable epithets and trash talk.

But the players aren't really “there” in Arbutus — they're on a field of combat that floats in midair, requiring them to use not muscles and mass but reflexes and strategy to keep from plummeting to their doom or being beaten by opponents.

Smash Bros., a fighting game in the same vein as Street Fighter, drops players onto a cluster of small platforms where the only goal is to knock the opponent senseless until they fall off the stage four times in a best-of-three set.

For respect and money

These gamers might not look like traditional athletes, but the good ones command, in the virtual world, similar respect for their skill. And since gamers put so much time and effort into their craft, many are trying to turn e-sports into a source of income.

The biggest stars in strategy games such as Dota 2 and League of Legends, with corporate endorsements, say they have six-figure incomes. They compete live — and online — before rabid fans. Some matchups are organized by Major League Gaming, which is trying to be the NFL of Internet sports and offers prize pools of up to $6 million.

In fighting games such as Smash Bros., the prize pools aren't nearly as big. This summer's biggest winner, Mango, made only about $15,000 from recent tournaments.

The recent Xanadu event was smaller still, with only about a $350 prize pool. While the local fan base is clearly not as big as in, say, South Korea, where gaming is practically the national sport, there are players trying to make it big in the Smash Bros. scene.

The events even have commentators. At Xanadu, the crowd favorite is Terrence Kershaw (often referred to as TKbreezy), who hypes each match and makes it interesting for nonplayers. His play-by-play sidekick is Phillip Stewart.

“For outsiders, I definitely understand why they wouldn't appreciate it because it looks like just any other game,” Stewart said. “But it's crazy how fast the community is growing, and I wouldn't be surprised if one day soon people view Smash Bros. in the same light as any other sport.”

One of the people who has helped kick-start a new wave of professional gamers is Calvin Lofton, 24, of Laurel, who recently dropped his day job to focus entirely on his popular Smash Bros. online stream channel, Video Game Boot Camp, which he has been building since 2009.

“My brother was like, ‘You make these videos, why don't you teach others to get better at the game?' So we started by teaching people, but then realized streaming events was really the way to grow the community,” Lofton said.

With over 500 subscribers who pay $5 a month and ad revenue from the video game stream hub Twitch.tv, Lofton has been able to focus on his one-man production company that travels to all the major Smash Bros. tournaments.

“Part of what I do now for my site is get people seen, kind of like a recruiter. In college and even high school, you've got ... scouts who offer them scholarships to schools, and it's similar to e-sports sponsors,” Lofton said. “Since this is so new, gamers don't know how to get recognized by sponsors, so hopefully my streams will help that.”

It seems to be working, as thousands of people watch the stream each week, allowing viewers to get acquainted with top-level “Smashers.”

Age and injuries

One of the gamers is Daniel Rodriguez, aka ChuDat, who goes to Xanadu every week and has consistently been one of the top Smash Bros. players in the Maryland-Virginia region. However, at 27, the Falls Church, Va., resident acknowledges that his best days are behind him.