I’m in a bar on Northbourne Avenue drinking an Asahi and trying to operate a plastic guitar. I’ve watched other people play Guitar Hero but this is my first-time hands on. I get the hang of strumming while hitting the coloured buttons and it looks like I might be able to save some of my dignity, but Ravi is too far ahead – probably because he can actually play guitar. This is the second round that Ravi has won the challenge – but, hey, it’s his bar. Or at least it will be in a couple of weeks when the ACT’s first gaming bar, Reload, opens to the public.
Gaming bars have begun to spring up in Australia – venues have already opened in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. They’re a hybrid between a nightclub and a LAN café, a place where you can get a drink and play some Street Fighter with friends. And that’s why I’m here on a weeknight playing games: I’ve challenged co-owners Ravi Sharma and Jim Andrews to a series of battles to test their mettle as gamers. But I’m the one who’s being challenged. Jim Andrews has been running internet café The Barracks for the last ten years and he has the killer instincts of someone who has spent a lifetime refining their skill at Counterstrike and Defense of the Ancients. Ravi is more of a casual gamer but, as I’ve said, has the unfair Guitar Hero advantage of actually being able to play guitar. I have one last chance to save my reputation, so I pick a game I know I’m halfway OK at – Smash Bros. Game on.
The challenge for this bar, according to Ravi, is appealing to both gamers and the bar crowd. It needs to be a good bar to compete with its neighbours on the strip. But it can’t just have videogames as a novelty, if the bar is going to last they also need to seriously provide for the needs of gamers. At the moment the roster of mounted televisions is impressive: two 60 inch screens, three 40 inch screens, six 22 inch screens for consoles. That’s enough for up to 44 players in Call of Duty deathmatch or 22 simultaneous players in Street Fighter. Before the bar officially opens they also plan to have dedicated PCs and arcade machines as well as a space for board and card games. According to Ravi, they want to recapture the social aspect of gaming, especially now that a lot of games are online. Rather than playing at home on Saturday night, come out to Civic, sit down at one of their consoles and order a drink. Current plans for themed cocktails include the “Red Ring of Death” and the “Dagon 5”.
But it’s not just intended as a nightspot, it’s also planned as a venue for spectator e-sport. The Barracks has moved in up-stairs and is linked up so tournaments can be simulcast down in the bar. The big international tournaments also draw crowds. In just the last month I’ve watched a League of Legends tournament live and watched the Hearthstone world championship online. The audiences are larger than you might thin: the League of Legends worlds championship recently had an audience of about 32 million. For gamers top level play in videogames is just as interesting as watching the World Cup is for a soccer player (although of course games have more explosions and deaths). Reload aims to become an all-purpose social hub for gamers, somewhere it’s possible to walk in and play a casual game or compete in high level play. While drinking beer.
But back to Smash Bros. Ravi ducked out so I was up against Jim in a series of one-on-one matches. He claimed not to be very good at it but from his instinctive use of shields to block and the way he always able to hit me mid-air I suspect he was just saying that to get me to lower my guard – clearly over-estimating me. He stuck mainly to dependable all-rounder Mario so I flicked between characters to dazzle him each round with unexpected strategies. But even with the beast-like Marth I had trouble making headway against Jim’s solid play. I had more success with sneaky play from Meta-Knight and Sheik, using all the tricks I knew to catch my opponent off-guard. In the end I got lucky when Jim switched to Ganondorf and started trying to grab me with Ganon’s side special. I let him grab me a few times (at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). Knowing the attack travelled a long distance I positioned myself near the edge of the arena and baited him into using the move, dodging out of the way so he would fall to his death – and another point for me. And since I was playing Wario, after that I would fart on him.
Some of you have no idea what I was just going on about – but the people who followed every word of it are looking forward to the official opening of Reload later this month. And on a personal note, I’d love to go to a Hearthstone Fireside Gathering there (hint hint). Although if the Dagon 5 is as strong as it sounds I might need a Phoenix Down the next day.