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Arts & Entertainment

Inside the So Cal Regionals, a competitive Video Game Tournament

Fans watch a match during the So Cal Regionals fighting game competition
Fans watch a match during the So Cal Regionals fighting game competition
Courtesy Dana Graham
Fans watch a match during the So Cal Regionals fighting game competition
At the So Cal Regional Fighting Game competition, players use special custom made joysticks to simulate arcade consoles.
Jefferson Yen
Fans watch a match during the So Cal Regionals fighting game competition
Competitor Kelvin Jeon poses with So Cal Regionals winner Lee Seon Woo
Jefferson Yen
Fans watch a match during the So Cal Regionals fighting game competition
Competitors Darryl Steve Leavis, 2nd place winner Kenneth Pope, Chris Jayson and Jason Wang.  
Jefferson Yen

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People have been playing video games competitively since Pac Man. As the popularity of video games grew, so did the size of the tournaments. One tournament took place last month on the campus of UC Irvine. 

Off Ramp contributor Jefferson Yen went to find out how things have changed since the arcade game's heyday.

It’s a quiet Sunday afternoon in Irvine,  hundreds of people, have gathered to watch the final round of the Southern California Regionals. All eyes are trained on the main stage. The two opponents, both in their twenties, have just shaken hands and are throwing out jabs, trying to feel each other out. Eyes fixed on the scene, commentators wonder if Angeleno Kenneth Pope will take out Lee Seonwoo, a professional who flew in from Korea.

But this isn’t an underground fight club. Nobody is going to get hurt: it’s a video game competition. The largest of its kind in the So Cal. Eight hundred people will compete by playing fighting games like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Tekken.

Right now, Lee and Pope are duking it out on Street Fighter 4: A demon-eyed karate master and a carefree kung fu skateboarder move like characters out of a Hong Kong action movie. The two muscle bound cartoons trade blows until Pope catches Lee off guard with a combo to end the round. 

But this isn’t just about bragging rights. The winner gets to walk away with more than $2000 and perhaps, more importantly, a higher seed in the granddaddy of fighting game tournaments, the Evolution Championship Series in Las Vegas.

When you step away from the main stage and  rows of people watching the action, the room looks like a huge arcade. People crowd around monitors hoping to play the next round; many even brought their own laptop sized arcade joysticks. The players, with their headphones on, are in their own world. Most are in their early twenties and male. Some are from as far away as Florida or New York.

Dana Graham traveled all the way from Salt Lake City to watch the tournament.

“A bunch of guys just packed into a car, and all came up. They were going to try their luck at Soul Calibur, Mortal Kombat, Marvel, Street Fighter, so we’re just out here rooting for them,” she said. “I remember back when Street Fighter first came out. Me and all my friends all went to this arcade and were like ‘Oh, my gosh, this game is so cool!’"

Talking to people like Dana made me realize why I used to love playing these games. Not because I was good at them but because, as an awkward teenager, it gave me something to talk about.

It was while I was thinking about this that I ran into Roger Tung, an old high school friend at the tournament. Where my enthusiasm died down, Roger’s didn’t. I asked him why he came to events like these.

“I’m not exactly sure how to respond to that. I think it’s just the socializing aspect; getting to meet people with similar interests with you” said Tung.

Kenneth Pope, the local player in the finals, pretty much said the same thing. “Back then in middle school, I was kind of shy," he said. "But I feel like when I meet the scene, I’m able to just network with anybody.”

Back to the last round of the finals: Lee, the pro from South Korea, is on the verge of winning. Pope throws his character’s signature move -- a fast succession of hits -- hoping to catch Lee off guard… only to miss. The match ends. As they unplug their joysticks, people crowd around Pope patting him on the back. Lee, who doesn’t speak English, gives Pope a hug.

While Pope lost that final match, the confidence he gained knowing that hundreds of people were rooting for him may be worth more.