More Than a Game

At the Shamrock Showdown in a Michigan community center, legions of gamers fight to the death without shedding a drop of blood.

A crowd of attendees intently watch as a tournament match unfolds in front of them

It’s a rainy Saturday in a suburb outside of Detroit. A group of young gamers, all armed with large, brightly colored boxes affixed with arcade buttons and joysticks, migrate through the hallways of the Hawk Community Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan. They’re all going to the same place, up an elevator to the top floor, where a soft echo of excitement can be heard reverberating. This is Playlabs, a venue that exclusively hosts esports events. And today it’s home to Shamrock Showdown 4, a fighting game tournament put on by Grand Finals Gaming. I came looking for a taste of the competitive gaming scene in Michigan, and to maybe even play a couple sets myself.

The tournament room is roughly the size of a large classroom. Lines of desktop computers sit on long tables at both sides of the venue. Multiple large flatscreens are mounted on the walls, displaying either gameplay or rotating promotions of the venue’s next events. At the tournament’s peak, the room is packed with spectators crowding around TVs and monitors to see a piece of the action. Nearly 60 people signed up to play in a bracket today. Many more are here to watch and support their friends.

It’s like watching a digitized UFC match. Under the soft glow of blue LED lights, a crowd gathers around two controller-wielding contenders as they manipulate their characters, trying to avoid the other’s attacks, occasionally trading blows. One player presses a button on the controller, throwing a corresponding punch. The hit is blocked. In retaliation the other character responds with a jab. It connects, and a recorded voice rings out from the TV: “Counter!” 

The crowd erupts in a symphony of cheering as the attacking character goes all-out with a repeated series of blows, bringing their opponent’s health down to zero. As the round ends, friendly banter—and a little trash talk—from the players cuts through the crowd’s murmuring. 

Even to an onlooker who doesn’t know a thing about video games, it’s impossible to deny the electricity in the air. It made me excited to get my hands on a controller and run a few sets. 

Fighting games—and video games in general—tend to flourish in online spaces where gamertags (a unique name a player goes by when playing online) takes precedence over legal names. But events like Shamrock Showdown 4 give gamers a place to meet IRL. They can hang out, talk, battle, and meet each other face-to-face. The founder of Grand Finals Gaming, who goes by either the gamertag Tek-Mazter or simply Garret L., succinctly described the mood of the evening:

“A lot of hype, a lot of people, a lot of yelling. They love it,” Tek-Mazter says.

Grand Finals Gaming hosts fighting game tournaments all around Michigan. They started back in December 2018. A wide variety of games are played at these events. No two tournaments have the same roster of games. At Shamrock Showdown 4, there’s a bracket for traditional fighting games including Granblue Fantasy: Versus Rising, Guilty Gear Strive, Street Fighter 6, Tekken 8, and a casual game that’s free to enter and played for fun. This month, the free casual bracket was for Sonic Adventure 2, which I entered. 

I was surprised to see Sonic Adventure 2 on the roster, which just happens to be one of my favorite games from my childhood. It’s not a fighting game, but more of a racing game. It’s a free game, so there’s no prize pool, but it still attracted around ten odd entrants seeking the glory of winning.

I thought that I had a pretty good shot at the top spot, and my first few games went pretty well. I clinched the win against my first opponent, but lost against my second, throwing me into the losers bracket. After trudging through the losers’ side, I arrived at the losers’ semi-finals, which finally knocked me out. I felt defeated, but after looking at the final bracket, I learned I ended in 4th overall. I didn’t catch the win, but 4th place is nothing to scoff about. It was an incredibly fulfilling and enjoyable experience. 

The Essential Gaming Accessory  

At these events, you might notice the nonstandard controllers that many players use. While the use of traditional Xbox or PlayStation controllers isn’t unheard of, most people who play at a high level have unique, custom-made controllers that sets them apart from the competition.

Every controller is unique, often tailored to the player’s personal preferences. The variety of buttons, color, and peripherals that any single controller can have is so wide that shopping for one can feel like purchasing a car. At the tournament, controllers of all sizes, colors, and types can be seen, making them seem like an  essential accessory for any competitive fighting gamer. For anyone unfortunate enough to arrive without a controller, they can buy one at the venue.

In a side room, tucked away from the noise of competition, a table is set up with a wide range of refurbished sticks for purchase. Behind the table, a pizza box has been transformed into a makeshift controller and a sign reads “Poverty Box Customs.” The owner of Poverty Box, who goes by Aerospice in the community, refurbishes old controllers with new hardware or makes his own controllers from scratch. 

AeroSpice, the owner of Poverty Box Customs with their cardboard box-turned controller

“I go around to local smoke shops and ask for cigar boxes. I drill holes into them and retrofit them into controllers that work on modern systems,” Aerospice says. He also takes older controllers and renovates them to sell at his shop.  

Aerospice has been in the business for a little over eight months, selling his controllers either on eBay or at Grand Finals Gaming events. To promote his wares, Aerospice has laid out several different controllers on a table, encouraging any who walks past to test out the merchandise. There was quite a variety of choices, and each fighting stick sports a different shape, size, and color. Regardless of your preference, they’re built for destruction. 

More than a Competition

Given the cult status of fighting games, the community surrounding it has become tight-knit. Tournaments are more than a way for players to show off their skills—they’re spaces to talk with other people that share this unique interest.

“If I’m having an off day, it doesn’t matter. Fighting games [are] right there. I come to these tournaments, these guys make me feel good,” says BionicArm, who also goes by Spencer. BionicArm helps run tournaments with Grand Finals Gaming and is heavily involved in the local scene. “It just means a lot for me, just that I get to be around a lot of like-minded people.”

There is also a lot of effort going into making the space as comfortable for new players as possible, even if they don’t have the skills to go up against the tournament’s top brass.

“I get to see a lot of the younger guys just come out and just enjoy themselves. Even if they lose, they come up, they ask, ‘Hey, Spencer, how do I get better?’ And I break down the gameplay for them,” BionicArm says.

A contender from Windsor, Canada, who goes by DidiHyper, is one of those players. She crossed the border just to be with people who love these games as much as she does.

“I’ve met some really great people through this hobby, and I think it’s a really cool skill that’s worth learning,” she says. “It’s not like your typical video game where you’re just mashing buttons. You actually have to try to improve every day.”

The competitive aspect of fighting games is another huge draw. Fighting games are traditionally very hard to get into as a newcomer. The difficulty varies by game, but playing at a high level requires strict timing, razor-sharp reflexes, and extensive knowledge of the game and its mechanics. Fighting games aren’t for casual players, but for some, the competitive aspect is among the biggest reasons to participate.

“I’m competitive. I’m here to win. I play to win,” says DSpek, one of day’s competitors. “The adrenaline rush that you get when you’re about to compete. The relief, you know, when you do something right, even the agony when you get messed up […] it’s addicting. It’s like a drug.”

If you’re interested in fighting games but haven’t made the leap into the scene yet, look into a local tournament in your area. One of the best places to find tournaments in your area is on Facebook, where there are groups dedicated to the fighting game community in most regions.

“If you’re thinking about coming out with me and coming out to compete, do it. The only thing that’s keeping you from it is yourself. Come on out, learn something, have some fun,” DSpek says. 

Into the Fray

I took DSpek’s advice and sought out someone to test my skills against. My game of choice was Street Fighter 6, and while I didn’t enter the tournament, I was still itching to get some playtime in. I eventually played a few games with DidiHyper, borrowing a controller from Poverty Box Customs. It didn’t go very well. 

Round after round, I couldn’t keep up with her unpredictable movements. While I came in with confidence, my character’s life bar kept getting chipped away. Punch. Kick. Done. I ended up not winning a single round. I was absolutely wiped by DidiHyper’s character of choice, Blanka. Although I didn’t take home any fighting game wins at the event, it was still a tremendous amount of fun.

I might have been knocked down, but I’ll be back. Talking to everyone at Shamrock Showdown 4 and seeing the excitement surrounding these games, it gives me plenty of motivation to get better. And who knows, maybe with a little training I’ll be able to hand out an L of my own. Maybe. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *