Non-Traditional Sports and Popping my Gamer-Tournament Cherry

I recently found myself at a Super Smash Bros. gaming tournament in a Radisson Hotel Ballroom off the freeway. I had no idea what to expect, but what I saw there and what I have come to understand as the competitive Smash scene was definitely not it.

I walked into a ballroom filled with CRT-TVs (you know those huge TVs from the days of yore) with crowds of people watching matches as well as participating in match-ups. It was all very overwhelming, and I was really only there to support my partner, so I spent some time on the outskirts observing the general excitement and occasional elated outbursts.

Standing near me was a woman around 45 years in age who could not resemble a suburban mother more if she tried. She had the Hunter Boots, Plaid Scarf, and Giant Purse. We got to talking (we were both wondering if there was coffee in the vicinity) and she told me her story, the reason she too found herself in this Radisson Ballroom filled with such a diverse group of gamers.

Her 13 year old son, let’s call him Charlie, had been obsessed with video games for awhile and this was his first real competitive experience. That was him over there in the orange hat. Right when they got there, Charlie ran off to play with his online friends. Charlie’s dad and siblings were around here somewhere.

We found our coffee and eventually parted ways. Throughout the remainder of the tournament, I would periodically see them gathered around Charlie’s matches, huddled together like penguins in the Arctic. At some point, the grandparents made an appearance. Later, I could hear the parents discussing how the Sunday portion of the tournament would fit into the Sunday School schedule, much like parents balance soccer games and Sunday School or piano lessons and Sunday school.

This brief interaction with the family at the Smash Tournament stuck with me. What I expected was a bunch of late-teens and early-twenty somethings who smelled like a charming mix of stale body odor and stale weed. Instead, I found this family supporting their middle school-age son as he goes to his first tournament. One particular thing that stuck with me above the rest was the fact that he met up with his online friends.

Hearkening back to my own middle school experience, I remember how my school was very small, very sheltered. If you didn’t play soccer and obsess over Jesse McCartney, then you were excluded, excommunicated is more like it. I was into reading. And listening to Muse. And wearing black eye-liner quite liberally. And I felt so alone.

My best guess would be that Charlie feels much the same way in his middle school. My partner recalls his middle school as having no one with an interest in the competitive Smash scene. But tournaments offer the opportunity to get excited about a passion in a place where almost everyone is as excited as you are. And that’s what Charlie has found.

These tournaments have been described to me as “not about winning,” and “just really about playing a super fun game and getting better.” It’s like if popular sports today were based solely on the purity of the game and not about winning and crushing the other team and steroids and end-zone dances and rivalries and athlete entitlement. It’s like if they were based on the sports themselves.

Now, I’m not saying that all sports are evil. I’m just saying that the attitude of camaraderie I witnessed that day in the Radisson Hotel Ballroom off I-94 was, as intense as this sounds, inspirational and hopeful. And I’m grateful to have witnessed it.