As kids, Isaac Carr and Israel Thomas grew up playing the same video game: Super Smash Bros. Melee on the Nintendo GameCube. To win, a player must knock his or her opponent off a virtual stage using kicks, jabs, jumps and other moves that the gamers dictate with nothing but their fingers.
On a Wednesday afternoon in early January, the two friends — who met at Prince George’s County Community College — play round after round, rapid-fire style, for hours.
Carr, 25, and Thomas, 21, paid $15 each for an all-day pass and tournament entry at Xanadu Games at Laurel Park, a state-of-the-art video gaming venue with dozens of consoles for group and one-on-one play and 12 PC monitors for individuals. In an age where online and mobile games have shattered registration records and pumped millions of dollars into the economy, gaming hubs like Xanadu Games must compete with the power of at-home and on-the-go convenience that new technologies and formats allow.
Games designed for smartphones and watches are expected to make up 34 percent of the total 2019 gaming revenue, which, compared with other game formats, would be the only category to rise every year since 2015, according to a 2019 report by WePC. These numbers could perhaps add fuel to some of the darker stereotypes surrounding those who play video games, which categorize them as more isolated and less socially inclined than their non-gaming peers.
But like many other fans of classic gaming, Carr and Thomas make the drive to Laurel’s horse racing and betting venue from Greenbelt and Washington, respectively, whenever they can. They said older games like Super Smash Bros. don’t translate well online. Plus, here they can scope out the local competition and meet new people.
“It’s a lot more expensive now, but I compete here because I want to be the best,” Thomas said.
“I like to see who else is on my level,” Carr added. “It’s good practice.”
More young men, generally around Carr’s and Thomas’ ages, start to file in around 6 p.m., an hour before that night’s Smash Melee tournament begins. Most nights at Xanadu Games correlate with a different “fighting game” tournament theme: Smash 4 / Ultimate on Tuesdays; Smash Melee on Wednesdays; Fight Game Thursdays; and Grind Training Fridays. Open every day from 3 p.m. to midnight, the facility also includes a ballroom extension and an area for competitive card games like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokemon.
It also houses a production studio for Super Smash Bros. live streams, which owners Matthew and Calvin Lofton broadcast through Twitch, the Amazon-owned live-streaming video platform. The brothers’ Twitch channel, VGBootCamp, brands itself as the leading Super Smash Bros. channel. With a following of over 380,000, the site provides another advertising pathway and growth opportunity for Xanadu Games and the Lofton brothers.
Matthew Lofton, 30, said Xanadu Games’ previous location in Arbutus lacked enough space for popular tournaments and even basic amenities like air conditioning. Now, much to the delight of the gamers, the new 4,500-square-foot space includes comfy office-style chairs, a phone-charging station, vending machines and gaming tables, costing roughly $125,000 for the Maryland Jockey Club to renovate and furnish, according to its president and general manager, Sal Sinatra.
“The goal is they don’t have an excuse to not come back,” Lofton said.
In an email, Sinatra said the Maryland Jockey Club, which is part of The Stronach Group, invested in Xanadu Games to draw more people into the facility, adding that it appears that Xanadu Games will likely break even around the end of its first year in operation at Laurel Park. The new location opened in March 2018. According to Sinatra, the Club’s investment in Xanadu Games is “small.”
Lofton said his space might be one of the best multi-use, competitive gaming venues along the East Coast, and its location in Laurel allows gamers from Maryland and the Washington area to make the trek. Registration for the Glitch 6 tournament, which will be held over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, is expected to host over 600 players from around the country, Lofton said. Registration fees for competitors ranged from $20 to $50 for the two-day tournament.
“Fandom for these games keeps them alive. People are happy to be a part of it,” he said. “It’s a good place for people to be competitive who aren’t necessarily athletic.”
Like traditional sports, competitive video gaming requires top-notch equipment, coaching and practice, practice, practice. Friends Schuyler Kieley, 23, and Mike Crawford, 25, both said they’d do better in tournaments if they had more time in their schedules to come to Xanadu Games. The two Northern Virginia teachers visited Laurel Park on a day off from work.
They said Xanadu Games has a more prestigious reputation than any of the competitive gaming venues in their area.
“It’s a hobby — you put money into any hobby,” Kieley said. “In-person gaming has become a tradition, and it’s less toxic than what you’ll find on the internet.”