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.
“Nowadays, the top players are guys in their late teens or early 20s; it's all because they have much better reaction time,” Rodriguez said. “While us older guys definitely have more knowledge and strategy, it's hard to make up for the speed that we lack because our eyes can't adapt fast enough anymore.”
Through a decade of mashing his controller with fast, intricate movements, Rodriguez concedes that his hands have suffered as well. As with other games, e-sports take a physical toll, which can include repetitive strain injuries.
“I've got these huge calloused blisters on my palms and fingers,” Rodriguez said. “You don't even realize you're developing them since you're so mentally focused during games.”
Even though Rodriguez has constantly been near the top of Smash Bros. player rankings, he hasn't been a full-time gamer. He'll be a senior at George Mason next year, where he'll try to complete a finance degree.
But while some of the best Smash Bros. players have always worried about making a living from the game, developments in the past year have made that more obtainable. In January, sponsored e-sports teams such as Cloud9, Curse and Evil Geniuses, which initially had signed only players from strategy games such as League of Legends, began signing Smash Bros. players.
"This phenomenon of having sponsors is really a big help for people like me who have a lot of stuff outside of gaming to worry about because they pay for all my trip expenses," said Rodriguez, a member of the e-sports team Mortality.
The attraction of Smash
Such sponsored teams are one of the major reasons Smash Bros. is starting to garner an audience rivaling that of other e-sports.
In Smash Bros., the main draw is that each movement and attack can be sped up through tricks and techniques that player Stephen Silver says are being used to somewhat “break” the game, such as “wave-dashing.”
"Basically, if you press 'jump' and then dodge toward the ground at an angle, you do a short, fast slide along the ground," said Silver, 26, of Bethesda. "So people started figuring out all these cool mechanics that made it pretty strange to watch because it looks kind of like everyone's moonwalking around the stage. But in reality it's allowing you to go really fast and do all your moves without having too much lag time."
According to Silver, the difficulty of Smash Bros. has created intense moments. In a previous grand final at Xanadu, the loser was so frustrated he refused to shake the winner's hand.
While people at Xanadu take their matches seriously, one of the things they enjoy most about the tournaments is the sense of community. Devin Gajewski, who will be a senior at Maryland this fall, said his favorite part is how open everyone seems to be.
"No one's going to say 'You're too weird,' or 'You're not good enough for the Smash community.' We really do have every kind of person in our community," Gajewski said. "Yeah, we might tease each other once in awhile, but we're really accepting."