Local fighting game community strives to be the best

By: Kevin Bunch | C&G Newspapers | Published January 17, 2014

 Juan “VDO” Tolbert and Markus Cobb, of Detroit, have some laughs while playing “Capcom vs. SNK 2” during the Metro Detroit fighting game community’s Mitten Masher Mondays event Jan. 13, while other players watch.

Juan “VDO” Tolbert and Markus Cobb, of Detroit, have some laughs while playing “Capcom vs. SNK 2” during the Metro Detroit fighting game community’s Mitten Masher Mondays event Jan. 13, while other players watch.

Photo by Deb Jacques

METRO DETROIT — It’s Monday night at the Plum Hollow Lanes in Southfield, and the event meeting room is slowly filling up with a crowd of regulars. They come from all across the metro Detroit area, lugging televisions, video game consoles, customized controllers, a love of the game and an intense fire to improve and win.

They are not here to bowl, but they are here to play. They are southeast Michigan’s fighting game community, and they are setting up for a weekly open gaming session with their eyes turned toward getting better in their games, sharing advice and techniques, seeing friends old and new, and having some fun.

The local community has ebbed and flowed over the years, much like the genre of fighting video games.  Both went into a lull in the mid-2000s, but they have seen a resurgence in recent years as gaming companies like Capcom, Namco and SNK Playmore continue to release new games in series like “Tekken,” “Street Fighter,” “Mortal Kombat” and “Marvel vs. Capcom.”

At its core, the genre typically pits two characters — or two teams — against each other in an enclosed stage. Each character has a number of unique properties and moves, and the players must use these effectively and intelligently to reduce their opponent’s energy to zero, knocking them out.

Jim Nardecchia, 30, of Troy, helps organize the Monday game nights and said the games are as much about strategy and quick thinking as they are about being able to execute the techniques necessary to win, making it a game of skill.

“What’s interesting to me is the strategy involved in all the little things,” Nardecchia said. “The funny thing is it’s almost like a sport. I like strategy games, and in those, you have time to think about things. In sports and fighting games, things are happening so fast, you have to be ready.”

Nardecchia said that he also runs small local tournaments for several popular games every other Saturday at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, and he helps run the larger Michigan Masters tournament each year. He added that groups of players will carpool to large tournaments in other states, like Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Georgia, which is a tradition dating back to the 1990s.

As they improve and players travel around the country to compete in tournaments, Michigan’s scene has started making a name for itself, despite logistical hurdles that larger cities with greater infrastructure do not face, he said.

“I will say straight up we are at a disadvantage. The area is spread out, the lack of mass transit,” Nardecchia said. “We have challenges, but we can go out and beat Chicago, we can beat Cleveland. We have trouble beating the (east and west) coasts, but we do really well against the Midwest.”

The Mitten Masher Monday sessions were originally the brainchild of Tony Jennings, of Southfield, who started playing competitively in 2010. He said after Michigan’s contingent lost badly at a 2011 Ohio tournament, he told Nardecchia that they needed a regular place to play and improve as a group.

Starting in 2009, when a new crop of fighting games came on the market after the mid-2000s lull, players had only been gathering to play in tournaments and were otherwise just playing with their friends at home, he said. With gaming centers closing, Jennings thought it could be a way to help those businesses, too.

“There was no one thinking we should get together. There was people who played together, and that was it,” Jennings said. “I said that we need to do something to support these places also, so they don’t close.

“Why not pay five bucks? It’s less than most people pay to do something they enjoy, and it keeps the lights on.”

Jennings announced he would be at a now-defunct gaming center at 7 p.m. every Monday to play, and eventually the number of people joining him grew from four to anywhere between 30-50 today at the bowling alley.

“I went for at least 2 1/2 years and never missed a Monday,” Jennings said. “Rain, snow, sleet or hail — if the event went down, I was there. It was amazing, a lot of fun — I never had any idea that’s what it would become.”

During the 1990s and early 2000s, local players faced off primarily in arcades like the now-defunct Wizzard’s Arcade on Eight Mile Road. Warren resident Kevin Hicks, who started playing with “Fatal Fury” and “Street Fighter II: Champion Edition” in the early ’90s, said it was a different time from today, when people play on consoles like the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.

Hicks said that now people practice at home, but they do not normally get as much experience actually playing against others. He, along with a few other “OG” or original players, still come out to community events, both to play and because some want to help instill the lessons and dispense advice to newer players — effectively becoming coaches to help the competitors get better.

“I still enjoy it on a casual level, but more than anything, I want to see the young players win. I want to see them win way more than myself, because they are the ones out here with the drive and know-how and reflexes to still win,” Hicks said. “The only thing they’re lacking is the experience and knowledge. I can’t give them experience, but if I can give them the knowledge, then my job is done.”

New players have stepped up to that challenge, Nardecchia said. While well-known older players like Juan “VDO” Tolbert and Brian James still come out and support the scene and players, newer competitors, such as Brandon Miller, Antwan Ortiz, James Marshall, and Joshua Philpot have been bringing more attention to the area and its scene.

Larry Price, of Detroit, is a newer player, only starting about a year ago, and said he has improved immensely thanks to the other players in the area.

“When I started, I couldn’t make it anywhere in tournaments, but I kept practicing and became one of the best in Michigan in ‘Marvel,’” Price said. “I would get advice from people, like my friend JDM, James Marshall. He would tell me what I should have done and told me what I did that was good, so I would go into the lab (practicing at home), improve, and so just by playing, my decisions became better.”

Hazel Park’s Darryl Brown said he got started competitively with “Street Fighter IV” in 2009, playing in the chain video game store Gamestop’s national tournament for the game. He said he eventually lost to Ortiz, but Brown started hanging out with him more and learning a lot to get better just through experience and by getting advice.

“I thought I was just playing the game. I didn’t know it was so complex,” Brown said.

Looking ahead, Nardecchia said the biggest challenges include keeping people interested in the games and competing. He said that while interest has stayed fairly strong in “Street Fighter IV” and “Marvel vs. Capcom 3,” other games have struggled to keep enough players to actually hold tournaments, though lowering entry fees has helped some.

With good relationships with both the bowling alley and Schoolcraft, however, Nardecchia is confident the scene will have places to play for the foreseeable future.

Mitten Masher Mondays run from 6 p.m.-1 a.m. at Plum Hollow Lanes at 21900 W. Nine Mile Road in Southfield. The group also maintains a Facebook page with more information, which can be found by searching “Michigan Fighting Game Community.”

Call Staff Writer Kevin Bunch at (586) 498-1030.