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.
Enter Keystone II, also known as “Albert’s Arcade,” an exclusive spot secreted in the suburban depths of Mountain View where all the top players come to play. Get your name on the guest list – you have to know somebody who knows somebody – and you can bump shoulders with the best on a set of authentic homemade arcade cabinets, drink cheap beer and play Street Fighter late into the night. Your host is one Albert Carmona, a big man with a smile that’s just waiting to hustle you out of a couple bucks in some late-night money matches.
“When I first moved to where Keystone II is currently located, I saw the garage and thought this would be a really cool place to put a few arcade machines,” Albert says. “So I did just that. I went down to San Jose Golfland, which is just down the street, and bought two U.S. cabs from them. Keep in mind, I had no intention of having a ton of people playing at my house or even the Keystone name at that time. I just wanted to drink beer and have a couple of friends over to play Street Fighter. I guess word of mouth got around when I started posting on SRK and KS2 took off. More and more people starting coming over and I bought more equipment to accommodate them.”
Keystone II is located in a separate garage that is part of Albert’s backyard. While it looks fairly cramped from the outside – not much more than a slightly oversized tool shed, really – it’s surprisingly roomy. There are about twelve people milling about inside, some playing Street Fighter III: Third Strike, others on Capcom vs. SNK 2 and still others on Marvel vs. Capcom 2. Albert is watching the now-legendary “Iron Mic” viral video on the PC in the corner, and someone tells me that it’s been playing on repeat for weeks. Outside, a few more players are smoking cigarettes and sucking on drinks from the pile of liquor on a picnic table. Surrounded by the alcohol is a tip jar where people contribute to help out with Albert’s utilities – unless you’re a top player, you come bringing cash or booze.
Carmona built all the hardware at Keystone II himself with very high quality parts – if he had purchased that kind of equipment it would have run him a small fortune. “People are often surprised to find out that everything in KS2 is consolized,” Albert says. “The advantage over actual arcade hardware is that you can easily switch games and it’s a lot less expensive. I gotta give myself props for figuring out how to do all that stuff by my lonesome. People usually can’t tell it’s not arcade hardware unless I tell them.”
Calling Keystone II “Mecca” fits. Certainly, this is what the modern, grown-up arcade experience should look like – think Cheers with just a little more liquor and a lot more Street Fighter. But people don’t cross the country for a bar. Keystone II, meanwhile, boasts a veritable Who’s Who of fighting game players on the guest list: two-time Evolution National Champion John Choi and regular top-three finisher Ricky Ortiz are regulars, as are the occasional Shoryuken.com staffer. Capcom’s Senior Community Manager Seth “s-kill” Killian also makes an appearance every now and then. “We have celebrities every Friday – John Choi and a bunch of other hard pipe hitting fools,” Albert tells me, “Tons of random people try to get a piece of the action. I usually say yes because I’m a nice guy. It’s hard to regulate the amount of people coming in sometimes.”
It takes a particular kind of guy to open his doors to random gamers once a week, especially since Street Fighter players are kind of grimy by reputation. (Literally – one of the giveaways at a Capcom Street Fighter Club event was a bar of Street Fighter-branded soap. Good one, Seth.) Have things ever gone wrong? What does his family think?
Albert handles both questions effortlessly. “Every time we get together it’s hype and crazy, always tons of fun,” he replies, “That’s why people show up from every corner of NorCal. I try to avoid bad shit from happening like people getting slapped or getting their eyebrows chewed off, but sometimes it just can’t be avoided. Someone calls the cops every so often. Thank goodness the cops have always been nice. They usually just say to not make so much noise with the games or else they’ll ticket me – which has never happened.” About his family, Albert simply says, “I have a very loving family. I’m very lucky. My wife, Marisol, allows me to indulge in my sickening video game obsession, and my son Kage is also a game fiend.”
Occasional run-ins with the police, alcohol-induced trash talking, and small-time money matches: Isn’t that really what Street Fighter II is all about?
Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long. Stop by his blog, Token Minorities, for more on race and videogames.