Video Game Speakeasy Slips Into Soho for a Night of Raucous Fun

Nights in New York City's upscale Soho neighborhood always offers something at which to Gawk.

Models and hipsters wander the streets mingling with star-truck tourists and Hollywood starlets. Restaurants and boutiques vie for curb-space among million-dollar apartments and two-by-two patches of grass and trees.

But last Thursday night the biggest crowds weren't those forming to catch a glimpse of Lindsay Lohan's private shopping spree, but the nearly thousand-person line that wrapped around three sides of a trendy block of nondescript buildings.

The line of people stopped in the middle of a sidewalk a good 200 feet from the object of everyone's attention; A small shoe store.

The excited crowds, dressed in t-shirts and some toting laptops, cameras and joysticks, weren't here to mingle, snap pictures or shop, they were here to play.

Inside the packed shoe-store, temporarily decorated with posters and art of winged super heroes and martial artists, people gathered in tight clusters around flat screen panels to get a chance to play game developer Capcom's latest fighting video game.

"The idea of fight club came straight from the down-and-dirty arcade roots of Capcom's fighting games," Capcom community manager and legendary Street Fighter pro Seth "S-Kill" Killian tells Kotaku. "Chris Kramer and I were really excited to get our community hands-on and playing the games, and to recreate that gritty, fun atmosphere of getting together for in-your-face competition."

Last week's impromptu Capcom Fight Club took over a two-floor shoe store. The top floor was packed with video game consoles, televisions, pizza and players. But a second line greeted those trying to make it down the stairs to the darkened basement.

Crowded between the plain plaster walls of the basement, packed from concrete floor to pipe-lined drop-ceiling, gamers gently pushed their way to the end of the single narrow room where a 20-something DJ spun records on two turn tables, her face blank as she stared at a laptop screen.

The crowds undulated toward her, staring over and past her head at a darkened big screen television, two white, over-sized joysticks pushed sitting on either side of it on translucent pillars.

This is why more than 500, perhaps a thousand people traveled to the shoe store last week, ignoring the famous, the rich and the beautiful, standing in line, then snaking through a sweat-drenched crowd of gamers in a packed basement: The chance to catch a glimpse of Super Street Fighter IV.

Due out early next year, the latest iteration in the wildly popular fighting franchise draws crowds where ever it goes.

"We've done Fight Clubs in LA, New York City, Vegas, San Francisco, now New York City again," Killian said. "Basically fight clubs are there for us to help (gamers) get hands on the game before it's released..."

Thursday night Killian made his way to the end of the basement every hour from 8 p.m. to midnight, turning on the big screen to hoots and hollars and then booting up a copy of Super Street Fighter IV.

"We have many happy press here tonight who wish they could play, but they cannot, Killian says into a microphone, the game playing behind him on the screen. "This is for you the community, so enjoy."

Less than eight people from the thousand or so who showed were able to get their hands on the unreleased game playing on the big screen, but no one complained. Instead they rooted for the randomly selected gamers, cheering and jeering during the impromptu match-ups each hour.

Between presentations games returned to the two dozen or so smaller flat screens mounted on the walls in the basement and upstairs, playing the already released Street Fighter IV and the soon to be released Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom, both fighting games.

But Fight Club isn't just about the virtual fights. Capcom makes sure that the irregular, underground events tap into the deeper elements of pop-culture and art that inspire many of their games and in turn inspire art.

"We hire local and notable artists for every event, and have worked with groups like IAM8BIT, Meatbun, Triumvir, and Jim Mahfood, just to name a few," Killian says. "Street Fighter in particular runs so deep in our culture that there's a great supply of amazing artists inspired by the games and characters.

"We cook up a 'you can only get it here' limited edition, unique t-shirt that we give away at every event, and in my opinion they're pretty rad."

The first Capcom Fight Club happened with almost no notice and no marketing.

"At the very first club we basically told nobody that wasn't in my phone, and we still had 300 Street Fighters showing up to a skid-row warehouse in downtown LA," Killian said. "The attendance has increased at pretty much every one since then, as word continues to spread."

Despite the almost exponential growth of the marketing parties, the Capcom Fight Clubs somehow manage to maintain their gritty, grassroots feel.

Graffiti of in-game characters decorated the walls of the shoe store in Soho, people quietly slipped in and out of the video game speakeasy with quiet affable patience and everyone waiting in that monstrous line got their chance on a game.

Arcades may have died in America, but the people who played in them still thrive, it's just that now they have to travel to find their community.

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.