After winding my way around quiet suburban streets of San Jose, California, I pull into the driveway of a fairly nondescript house. Some kids are tossing a football around in the front yard, a few men are milling about in the backyard and the TV is on. To most, this is just another house, but to Street Fighter II players, this is Mecca.
Northern California used to be the hot spot for competitive fighting gamers. Between the Golfland arcades and those of the various nearby universities and colleges, virtually every corner of the San Francisco Bay Area was bursting with top-level competition. From the days of old-school legend Thomas Osaki and his reign of terror at the Berkeley Underground to the ascendancy of current-era champions like John Choi and Ricky Ortiz, NorCal was the place to be.
The last few years, however, have not been good to the arcade scene. Oakland's Oaktree arcade and the UC Berkeley BEARcade have closed down, and many of the Golfland arcades have either cashed out their arcade machines for kiddie prize games or seen their fighting gamers flee for greener pastures. Some cling to the safe havens of the San Francisco State University Rack-n-Cue or the arcade in the San Jose State University student union, but with new releases like Street Fighter IV costing over $20,000 to get a full setup from Japan, it's hard for stateside arcades to stay current.
What's more, fighting games haven't adapted to the console age quite so gracefully. Matches often hinge on decisions made in fractions of a second, making them hard to play online without lag. More recently, GGPO.net and Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix have offered the Street Fighter faithful a chance to bring their game online, but it just isn't the same. Street Fighter is meant to be played in dark rooms with sticky controls and lots of noise, or not at all.
So players slowly drifted off. Tournaments went from weekly to monthly to sometimes none at all. Some turned to World of Warcraft, others to Halo. But one man decided to take matters into his own hands and revive the arcade scene.
In his garage.