I am going to a video game tournament today...
...despite the fact that I have never played a modern video game.
The first video game I remember playing regularly was on the campus of the then South Carolina State College. We lived two blocks from campus at the time. The student center was a short walk. Inside there were ping pong tables, a pool table or two, and a Pong machine off to one side. Pong was the electronic version of Ping Pong.
For a quarter, you bought the exquisite privilege of getting to turn a black knob to the left or to the right to control a small gray rectangle that served as your electronic paddle. There were only two trick shots you could make. One involved violently spinning your knob just when the "ball", a gray square, hit the surface of your paddle. The other trick shot required precise timing, and involved ramming the rectangular paddle into the "ball" from the side just before it sailed past the end line and off the court.
So why am I going to a video game tournament, if all I've mastered is turning a little black knob on a Pong machine?
Because S.'s son is in town for a video game tournament he and his buddies cooked up about fourteen years ago called Final Round. Even though they are now all in their thirties, they all head back to Atlanta every spring to put on the southeast's biggest fighting game tournament. At this year's Final Round XIII, the competitions are being live streamed. As I write this, they seem to be setting up stuff for today's events. The Twitter news feed for the hashtag "#FinalRound" is a drama in and of itself.
I understand the basic concept behind the genesis of the tournament -- as exquisite as it was to play Pong inside the AIR CONDITIONED student center at SCSC back in the early seventies, you would eventually begin to lose interest in feeding the machine quarters if you thought you were wasting them on someone who didn't provide any real competition.
But these guys are for real. They have all been serious gamers since grade school, when they played at the arcade against each other. And when we ride down to the hotel later today where the event is held, it will be hard to get a park. And unless things have changed a lot since last year, there will be lines of young African American, Asian and Caucasian men streaming into the building, toting their controller consoles under their arms as if they are Fender guitars.
I remember visiting some friends of our family in New Orleans a few years after my love affair with Pong. The father was a pharmacist who owned a couple of pharmacies, and his son, who was about my age, had reaped the benefits accordingly -- he had a room in the back of the house with three or four arcade games in it that he could play all day without putting a single quarter in them, or having to wait his turn. I was envious all the way back to South Carolina.
Nowadays, kids have more gaming capabilities in their pockets with the Nintendo portables than we used to have in an entire arcade in the seventies. The buddies who have put together this Final Round tournament have all the latest games, from PlayStation to Wii, with all the attendant accessories, and the latest hi-tech, high touch controllers, but they seem to revel in the old schoolness of the games they built the tourney around. And the participants seem to rejoice at the amount of money they win for outfighting everybody else.
As nice as some of those joysticks look, though, I don't think they will ever top my beloved black knob on the Pong machine.
Who knows where this might lead? Video games show no signs of losing their appeal. And if the "X" Generation or "Y" Generation or whatever name some advertising exec has dreamed up this week for this demographic is anything like us, they will long for the nostalgia of arcade video games the same way us post baby boomers gravitate towards old-school rap music these thirty years later.