Game On: Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night

by Brian Caulfield

Walk into any other nightclub in San Jose, Calif., carrying an orange, 18-inch Stihl chainsaw on a Saturday night and you’ll wind up tagged, bagged and in the back of a patrol car before you can say “taser burn.”

But Dean didn’t get a second look as he strolled into the AFK eSports Gamer Lounge, cruised past the packed black granite bar, under banks of displays blazing with action from the latest first-person shooter, by small groups perched on leather banquettes flirting over fried calamari and sliders, and out to the huge stone gaming table on the back patio.

Everyone at the table gets the reference. Dean is dressed as Ash, the always exasperated, zombie-killing protagonist from the “Evil Dead.”

“Groovy,” Dean says, as he plops his chainsaw down on the patio table, opposite an outdoor bar equipped with beer taps and a display case full of Red Bull energy drinks. “Home at last.”

Gamers – Yes, Gamers – Are Redefining What a Saturday Night Out Is About

Not your mother’s basement: PC gaming began with the raucous LAN parties of the 1990s, and the action continues at gamer lounges like AFK.

You know the stereotypes. PC gamers live in mom’s basement. They don’t socialize. And no one’s interested in watching them play. Nope, nope and nope.

In fact, while traditional neighborhood watering holes are disappearing, fast, places like AFK are popping up all over. On the East Coast, there’s Battles and Brew in Atlanta, an establishment with gaming stations and gleaming stainless steel taps that give it a look that’s somewhere between a between a high-end watering hole and a 23rd-century battleship. Howie’s Game Shack has gleaming gaming centers scattered throughout Southern California and Arizona. Chicago’s Ignite gaming lounge provides a plush place for the Windy City’s gamers.

In other words, gamers have emerged from the cultural basement. And they’re bringing their chainsaws with them right into AFK co-founder Tyler Peckham’s business. “Gamer is a term that pretty much describes everybody,” the 27-year-old says as he mingles with the clientele while wearing a gray-and-black baseball cap with the NVIDIA claw logo. “It’s no longer a question of ‘Are you gamer?’ but ‘How much do you game?’”

In-game kills and social skills: The only challenge to striking up a conversation at AFK is the crowd noise.

And the more you game, the more you want to game with others. The gamers at AFK — which stands for “away from keyboard” — love a crowd: gamers spill out onto the sidewalks in front of AFK some Saturday nights. And when a big gaming tournament is on, the energy level rivals the most raucous sports bars. In fact, gamer bars are thriving in a world where the rest of us are increasingly disconnected. Weeknights can be quiet, with knots of gamers sprawled throughout the bar, dining area, back patio and downstairs basement. But Saturday nights are packed.

And while many of the patrons could have walked right off the set of “Big Bang Theory,” complete with superhero t-shirts, others don oxfords, slacks and designer jeans. These are people with social skills — the only challenge to striking up a conversation here is the crowd noise — and jobs. Hey, the specialty cocktails like the “Pac Tan” — a mix of Tanqueray, Lemon, Pineapple, Orgeat, Bitter Truth Creole Bitters, and Cherry — aren’t free.

Keeping the LAN Party Going

Exception to the rule: For the past decade, neighborhood bars have been closing at a rate of six a day, but gamer bars like AFK are springing up in major cities.

It’s a story that runs counter to the broader trend in the United States away from gathering with friends for a drink or two. For the past decade, neighborhood bars have been closing at a rate of six a day, according to data from Nielsen research.

You wouldn’t know it at AFK. The crowd is young: it’s hard to find someone over 30. It’s loud. And even those without an energy drink or cocktail are having fun. Glance into the all-but-empty bars nearby, populated by a handful of burnt-out boomers, and it can seem like the gamers at AFK are the only ones still socializing.

Maybe that’s because PC gamers have always been social. Bars like AFK don’t have roots in the coin-operated arcades of the 1980s but in the raucous gaming culture that emerged in the ’90s among teens and 20-somethings.

Back then, the only way to play with friends was to meet up in person to link your PCs together, Peckham explains. “Gaming online is great, don’t get me wrong, but for a lot of gamers, getting together with other gamers is part of the fun, always has been,” Peckham says. “I grew up with that.”

Bar none: the sleek bar at AFK provides a great setting for live broadcasts of major gaming events.

Gamers, it turns out, are a social tribe. Take Dean — the chainsaw-toting gamer joining his friend on the back patio of AFK for a few rounds of Zombicide, a tabletop zombie game. He’s part of a group of about a dozen regulars — some of whom have driven two hours to get here — who meet up every week for everything from PC and tabletop games to beer pong. Some are students. Others hold down jobs as nurses and accountants.

Others gather downstairs, in front of more than 40 PCs equipped with NVIDIA GTX gaming cards. For a few bucks an hour, gamers like Chris can battle it out with teams of online opponents, while exchanging tips and strategies with a pair of friend’s he’s playing alongside at one of AFK’s PCs.

“We have jobs now,” Chris says, when asked by one of his friends if he’s up for another few rounds of “Rocket League,” a frenetic game that’s drawn more than 8 million players with an improbable mashup of soccer and rallycross driving. “We can play as long as we want.”

Cheering On Your eSports Heroes

When not cheering on their heroes, gamers at AFK participate in everything from Halloween costume contests to DotA 2 tournaments held on AFK’s PCs and even a Super Smash Bros. tournament.

Regulars like Dean don’t just meet to play games. They meet to cheer on their favorite gamers, too.

Competitive gaming has become a huge spectator sport with audiences — and prize pools — that rival traditional sports. Peckham can count on a full roster of gaming events that draw online audiences in the millions — The International Dota 2 Championships in August, the League of Legends World Championship in October, the Call of Duty Championships in March — to pull crowds into AFK to cheer their teams competing for multimillion-dollar prize pools.

In between major tournaments, Peckham keeps competition-crazy gamers coming back with everything from Halloween costume contests, DotA 2 tournaments held on AFK’s PCs, and even a Super Smash Bros. tournament played on vintage Nintendo consoles and CRT displays. “I never thought I’d see a game played on a CRT again,” says Rusty, one of the AFK’s staff. “You see it all here.”

On any given Saturday night, Peckham’s patrons will shift seamlessly from playing games on PCs, to tabletop games on the back patio, to consoles favorites, to watching their favorite teams on AFK’s big-screen TVs.

“I used to wonder why people got so excited about a particular college basketball team or a pro football team,” says Christian, a 21-year-old student at nearby Mission College as he sips on a Samus, one of the bar’s signature drinks. “Then I came here, saw people cheering for their favorite League of Legends team, and I got it.”