Above: Patrons enjoy the offerings of Super Arcade’s previous location in Walnut, CA.
For countless youths across America, the mid-90s was the Golden Age of video arcades. The gaming community at large only faintly recognizes their influence today, but arcades carved myriad facets into the larger sphere of social gaming. For many, arcades were a place for family bonding and school field trips. To others, arcades were a way for disenfranchised youth to get off the streets and release their aggressions in a (mostly) virtual manner. Still others saw arcades as repositories for both local cultures and for gaming curiosities from around the globe.
And, some say, arcades were the Fertile Crescent for what would later become widespread competitive gaming. Fighting games (Street Fighter, The King of Fighters, and beyond), shoot-em-ups (Raiden, DoDonPachi), and rhythm games (Dance Dance Revolution) all enjoyed humble beginnings in arcades. Southern California and New York in particular boasted thriving arcade scenes, each with their own distinct cultures, conceptions of skillful play, and rivalries. Many fighting game players from this era still compete today; others have vanished into the stream of time and working life.
But with the passage of time also comes changing tastes among gamers. Around the early 2000s, video arcades quickly gave way to home consoles as the preferred medium for social gaming, computer gaming notwithstanding. Arcades, once simultaneously viewed as vibrant social spaces and as dens of moral corruption, became niche locales for dedicated retrogamers. This isn’t just an American phenomenon, either. Arcades in Japan were and are a much more prominent feature in the fabric of social life than most other regions, but are now losing favor over mobile gaming devices like Nintendo handhelds and smartphones. And so beloved arcades across the country began closing down.
It’s easy for an avid arcade gamer to cite the 21st century as the Death of Video Arcades. The sentiment is thrown around enough to make things seem hopeless for arcades. But where there’s adversity, there are also individuals who won’t give in to defeat so easily. Tell them that arcades are dying, and they’ll just open one of their own.
Or they’ll try their hardest to, anyway. Few individuals know this struggle as well as Mike Watson, a longtime veteran of Southern California’s video arcade and fighting game scene. Until recently, Watson was the proprietor of Super Arcade since 2002, a “mecca” for competitive fighting game players and the home of events like Wednesday Night Fights, which hosted large-scale fighting game tournaments that attracted players of all skill levels from the entirety of Los Angeles County and Orange County. A dispute involving Watson and Super Arcade’s landlord – in which the latter attempted to force Watson into a long-term lease – caused Watson to close the arcade in 2014.
The following interview between Watson and fighting game news site Shoryuken provides further details on the matter, if you are so inclined.
You can also read more about Super Arcade’s history, as well as some of Watson’s recollections of Southern California’s arcade history, here.
In spite of Super Arcade’s setbacks, a determined Watson set out to revive the arcade by moving elsewhere in the city of Walnut. Super Arcade’s players looked for other venues to host their weekly gatherings; with the most convenient meetup location for both Orange County and Los Angeles residents gone, many of these communities fragmented and splintered to various parts of Southern California.
In 2014, Watson launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund Super Arcade’s revival. After two months, the campaign eventually reached its $57,213 goal. Watson then announced that Super Arcade would be moving to the City of Azusa, CA. And thus began the latest chapter of Watson’s ambition.
Watson initially set out to acquire a “minor use permit.” According to the City of Azusa, a minor use permit is “process for reviewing proposed uses and activities for compatibility with adjacent land uses.” In layman’s terms, this means that the permit is required for the city to designate a specific plot of land for retail purposes.
After acquiring various ancillary permits and abiding by strict city construction guidelines, however, was met with resistance. In June 2015, Watson and several other members of the Southern California arcade gaming scene defended Super Arcade in a series of City Council hearings. Although Azusa’s City Planning Committee eventually voted 3-1 against Watson, the effort put forth by these avid fighting game players was nothing short of admirable (if not a little awkward). It’s something that isn’t often seen in the world of gaming, and one that gives gaming communities whole new meanings.
Around the world, fighting game players were outraged at the City of Azusa’s refusal to let Watson re-open Super Arcade. In another touching moment of gamer solidarity, players signed petitions and expressed their discontent on discussion forums and social media. Watson, meanwhile, found the ordeal stressing, but he was determined to press on.
Little was heard from Watson over the next year, though he still remained active in the fighting game scene and supported local arcade events. Earlier today, though, Watson posted a new announcement on his blog. Its primary purpose: to let fighting game and arcade players know that he hasn’t given up the fight just yet. Its secondary purpose: to point out a strange new development in the city of Azusa, which appears to be a planned “Family Fun Center” situated right across from his planned plot for Super Arcade.
Watson then pointed out that the Family Fun Center embodies a contradiction. During the City Council meetings, Watson had been met with complaints from Azusa residents that an arcade would attract “hoodlums,” and would endanger the neighborhood. How, Watson wonders, would a Family Fun Center be any different? He suspects that perhaps this new development was what ultimately prevented him from opening Super Arcade; though, of course, we encourage our readers not to jump to conclusions based off speculation.
Nevertheless, the Family Fun Center will be undergoing its own City Council meeting tonight, at 7:30 PM PST. Watson will be present at the hearing. The future is uncertain for Watson, Super Arcade, and arcades in general. What could the emergence of a Family Fun Center say about a way of gaming life that is rapidly fading from the public consciousness?
At MXDWN, we occasionally publish articles that explore complex, controversial, or otherwise convoluted stories in the gaming world not as didactic pieces, but as a means through which to explore the many textures and contested boundaries of our favorite hobby. In this case, we briefly tracked the history of one of the country’s most influential video arcades. While its downfall and current state of purgatory demonstrate the rapid disappearance of arcades across the country, its owner’s – and its community’s – perseverance testifies the hardened will of dedicated gamers worldwide. When a sacred space like the video arcade is threatened with extinction, its supporters will stand up for its continued existence.
The landscape of the American arcade is always shifting. Its players, meanwhile, are diverse and complex, but will band together as one community when the need arises. For this reason, the video arcade may not breathe its last breath any time soon, due to the dedication of gamers who carry on the competitive spirits borne forth from the arcade.
And fighting games themselves are becoming ever more popular. Titles like Street Fighter V, Tekken 7, Smash Bros., and Guilty Gear Xrd are reaching out to greater audiences in never-before-seen numbers. Joey Cuellar, organizer of the EVO Championship Series, jokingly (or maybe not!) suggested pushing the international tournament back this year, referring to the sheer number of entrants the tournament is getting every day.
If you’re ever in the Southern California area, there are still places to visit if you’re into arcade and fighting games. The eSports Arena in Anaheim, while not an arcade, is the new home of Wednesday Night Fights, which are streamed weekly on this channel. Don’s Arcade in Torrance is a unique hangout spot for many of the area’s arcade game players: it’s in a man’s garage! Arcades are still out there. You just need a little pluck and a dash of determination to find them.