By Steve Wright
I’m no stranger to eSports events, and as a result, I wasn’t in a terrible hurry to get to Couch Warriors’ fifth annual Battle Arena Melbourne (BAM) event this past Saturday afternoon. I walked into the building the tournament was housed in and could easily tell where I needed to go simply by following the click-click-clicking of fighting sticks being slammed about as gamers tried to best one another.
In the hallway leading the main room, the temperature began to rise. Unfortunately, it was accompanied by an odour I couldn’t help but attribute to hundreds of video game players corralled into an area that needed better air conditioning. I made a mental note to breathe through my mouth whilst giggling and chastising myself at the same time about that thought and its connection to those already at the tournament.
It’s important to note that all of my preconceived ideas of what the event would be like weren’t Battle Arena Melbourne’s fault at all. Instead, they were supplied by the other eSports events I’ve attended, usually occupied by sports titles like FIFA or PES. My “mouth-breather” thought – more awful than it was ever funny -- reminded me of this, and I scorned myself as I mentally wiped the slate clean. I told myself I wasn’t going to let bias ruin the event as I checked in.
As usual, I decided to take a tour of the floor first, and after a lap or two, settled in behind two guys squaring off in Injustice: Gods Among Us. A DC fan, I was quick to side with the player using Green Lantern as he dodged around a cumbersome Solomon Grundy. The players controlling the super-powered titans saw me approach, and both glanced back to throw me a quick smile before continuing with their fight. Things were looking promising. Watching for a couple minutes, I gained enough courage to ask a question and see how it would be received…
…but before I could, a gentleman who I assumed was trying to walk by extended his arm in an attempt to cut through. As I took a step back to facilitate what I thought would be a continuation of his journey, he simply moved where I had previously stood. He wanted to watch the Injustice match himself.
I sighed and was ready to write Battle Arena Melbourne off. As I turned to hit the bar for a quick beer before my interviews, one of the players looked back at the new spectator and jokingly said, “That was a bit of poor form; there’s heaps of room to watch!”
The new guy blushed and took a step to the side, apologising, and the two fighters continued on with their game. I smiled; it was if fate decided to step in and tell me to give this another chance. When the match had ended, I quickly pounced and asked the question on my mind: as I watched, I noticed that both players had filled their super meters, but never used their all-powerful super moves. On top of that, level transitions were never attempted. Were they taboo?
The same helpful player shook his head at my question. “Oh, no! I think we were both saving our meters for super burns, that’s all,” he said, before asking if I had any other questions. My faith in the event restored, I thanked him and went on my way.
Telling that story to Daniel Chlebowczyk, president of Couch Warriors and the organiser behind BAM, he wasn’t surprised. “Battle Arena Melbourne is absolutely a community event, and the whole idea is to be inclusive,” he said. “Yes, there is a higher level contest being played, and yes, it’s a national tournament with major prizes and bragging rights on the line, but we always try to encourage people to come along. If it’s someone’s first tournament, they’re as welcome as a five-time competitor. It’s about being inclusive and bringing everyone together.”
As such, the weekend isn’t entirely about fighting games. “We were really happy that we were able to invite Pselodux to start off the show with a chiptunes set Friday night,” Chlebowczyk said. “As it’s our fifth anniversary, we really wanted to break out, and the community said he’d be perfect to be involved. It was a great way to open the weekend and get us all energised before we started up exhibition matches.”
In addition to the kinds of tournaments you’d expect from an event like BAM, the Couch Warriors partnered with New Game Plus and Computer Games Boot Camp to sponsor a tournament for school kids aged 15-19, with winners gaining free entry to the event for the entire weekend. The weekend also marked the major Injustice tournament on Australian soil.
“We’ve done a lot to capitalise on Injustice’s recent release,” Chlebowczyk said, adding, “we’ve got Tom Taylor here to talk about the comic book too, and people are quite excited about the whole thing.”
Tom Taylor, the writer of the Injustice: Gods Among Us comic book prequel, was finishing up his own lap of the event when I had a chance to speak with him. Answering questions as he signed comics for competitors and spectators alike, he chuckled as I asked if he’d pick up a controller and have a go in the Injustice tournament himself. “Oh, no! I’m too scared,” he exclaimed, pointing at gamers practicing nearby. “You’ve seen the quality of fighters in this room; I just know I’d get my ass kicked.”
It didn’t help that as Tom was saying that, the gamers in question were using menus I didn’t even realise existed in Injustice.
Laughing it off, I pointed Tom in the direction of the gamer who had helped me previously. Chlebowczyk told us that our guardian angel was named Fish – or, more accurately “<><” – an Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 fighter who was also pegged as one of the up-and-coming Injustice players at the event. Chlebowczyk said our exchange was indicative of what Battle Arena Melbourne aimed to promote in the community. “The idea of this gathering is to give people the opportunity to come here and potentially transition from a fan to a competitive player.”
As Tom and I decided we’d stay as spectators for the weekend, Chlebowczyk nodded. “This is really about gaming culture, and whether or not you call it eSports or competitive play, or even just a fighting game community, it’s all about people coming together to play,” he said. “And, at the highest level, some of these guys are performers. It’s a different thing to just watch someone play the game; this is watching someone play the game well. It’s a great little dance as those playing against each other begin adapt to strategies. You can really start to learn yourself by watching.”
The competition does get serious, but still had nothing on the aggressive matches I’d seen at other events. “You always have examples of people who go a bit too far,” Chlebowczyk said. “And that’s because it can be quite intense. If someone has a stressful match, they might be what we call ‘salty’ – a bit down on themselves or angry. Nothing ever escalates, even though some people in this scene can be big-talkers.”
As if on-queue, a shouting match emerged from BAM’s main stage. We quickly learned that one player had accidentally hit the pause button during a round of Tekken. As people began to rise from their chairs, a light-hearted shouting match between the player in question and several spectators began.
Chlebowczyk, calm as ever, stood up and simply said, “You know the rules guys.” Instantly, tensions dissipated. The accidental pauser automatically lost that particular round, and match picked up from where it had left off. Honestly, a large part of me was disappointed that there wouldn’t be more to the exchange... after all, it kind of makes for a rather bland story in the end, doesn’t it?
What the exchange did do was to get me feeling quite comfortable with the idea of borrowing a controller and having a quick crack at Injustice. Thinking back, it’s hard to believe that I’d gone from wanting to turn and run to picking Nightwing and trying to win an round or two myself, all in the course of a couple hours. Sure, a room with 400 people or so in it might not smell the nicest, but it was my initial attitude that stunk in the end. While I’m not about to tell you how I did, let’s just put it this way: I probably should have challenged Tom Taylor to a match instead of the players on the floor.
In the end, BAM was an event so easy to get behind that Street Fighter series executive producer Yoshinori Ono couldn't help but record a video of support himself. That's a far better endorsement than one from me any day, isn't it?
For more information on Couch Warriors -- and results from Battle Arena Melbourne 5 -- you can head to the Couch Warriors’ website. To read our full interview with Injustice’s Tom Taylor, check back tomorrow (it's a good'un!).
Photos graciously provided by Jake Baldwin.