Pikeville, KY — Page-3’s Game Zone will always be a special place for me. This unassuming purveyor of all things nerd culture started out as a garage shop in 1992 but has since grown into a fixture for students and alumni from the nearby University of Pikeville and Pikeville High School looking to get a nostalgia fix or to be among their own kind. Today, there are a few more patrons than usual as employee Cody Little is hosting a tournament for the East Kentucky Smash Bros. One bracket for the newer Smash 4 (on the Wii U) and one considerably larger for the venerable Super Smash Bros. Melee (on the GameCube).
Shop owner Aaron tells me that Page-3 is currently hosting weekly events for card games like Magic: the gathering and Force of Will, and has recently resumed hosting weekly Smash meetups as well. As a business owner, Aaron is happy to get people in the doors. As a gamer, he is also happy to take part in the brackets tonight. Cody confesses that the local Smash scene died out a few years ago as people left the area; an all too common problem in these parts. However, the last year or so has seen a renaissance of sorts. Cody and his friend Ryan have been organizing tournaments in the area and splitting their time between Page-3 and another nearby game store called Game Time. Ryan, a former professional Halo player, is blunt in his assessment of what happened. “Melee kind of died out around here completely”, he tells me as those involved are making sure an array of GameCubes and CRT televisions are working properly. Ryan had started playing Melee with some friends in nearby Floyd County after working for the e-sports platform and organizing site smash.gg, and credits his experience with that community and on the professional Halo circuit for their success in reviving the local Smash culture.
During the two hours of open friendly play leading up to the pools stage of the tournament, Ryan explains the work behind organizing even a small local tournament like this one and balancing out exactly who advertising appeals to. “It’s something that requires a lot of attention. An important part is getting the hardcore fans, but also getting it out to the casual fans who play Smash when they’re drinking with their friends.” Inevitably, the sound of Smash draws customers from Page-3 into the backroom where the tournament is being set up. A pair of young siblings pick up the controls on one of the Smash 4 setups and play a few rounds as their father watches. A short argument over who gets to be Sonic “because Sonic is the best!” is quickly resolved.
A few other participants are here already, even though there is still at least an hour and a half before the tournament begins. Enthusiasm is high. A pair of friends competing under the handles Ozzy and Thunder let me play a few matches with them. I’ll be taking part in the smaller Smash 4 bracket later, and quickly learn that my choice to stop playing the game just before Cloud and Bayonetta became playable may come back to bite me tonight. But that’s not the point. Everyone here quickly realizes that the point is not to win, but to have fun. This is the first tournament of any sort for Ozzy and Thunder, and before the night is done they’ll both be ready to come back for the next one. Neither is willing to divulge what character they’ll be relying on tonight as their main at this stage, and some friendly banter takes place as Thunder suggests that Ozzy is bluffing and doesn’t really have a main.
Just before the tournament is scheduled to start, the headline act arrives. Cob, officially the number one ranked Melee player in the state of Kentucky, has arrived with fellow pro The World and their respective girlfriends. When asked how he ended up deciding to make the two and a half hour slog known to Kentuckians as the Mountain Parkway so he could attend this tournament in Pikeville, Cob’s answer is simple: “I woke up and thought ‘oh that Pikeville tournament’s today’.” He’s here for the fun of it, and has graciously provided an additional television and system for the Melee tournament. We play a quick game of Smash 4 while he is waiting for one of his pool’s matches to begin, and despite not having much experience with the game, his Duck Hunt Dog is able to overcome my Yoshi without much fuss. Cob makes polite conversation with one of his opponents about how to get involved with the professional Melee circuit, which has outlived the console which the game was released for by a decade and shows no signs of fading. By now I’ve been knocked out of the double elimination Smash 4 bracket by Thunder after a disastrously suicidal use of Yoshi’s down-b special move (I could have sworn I was facing toward the stage, but we all got a good laugh out of it at least). I end up placing 4th of the six who entered which is still better than I expected. Thunder eventually loses to Ozzy in the final, but both have enjoyed themselves and earned back some cash.
In any case, I’m grateful to Thunder for eliminating me early as that means I can watch the larger Melee field compete. It is immediately apparent that no one here is knocking off Cob who is switching characters to keep things interesting and only loses one game all evening in the best-of-five tournament. An audible pop is heard from the Smash 4 side when Aaron inflicts a particularly humiliating K.O. on Ozzy who promptly gets his revenge. Neither has expected the nervousness that comes with an elimination match, and the two stop after their first round to compare how shaky their hands have become. Back on the Melee side, Cob has put together an inevitable string of victories and will continue to do so until defeating The World 3–0 in the final. There’s no bad blood — none of the anger or rage you seem to get with online gaming. Just a handshake and the occasional “good game”.
The broad-stroke stereotype of gamers is that we are an introverted lot, who would prefer to socialize through a headset rather than from across a table. The thing is, everyone would rather have something in common to talk about. That’s why every casual chain restaurant in America shows random weeknight NBA games. Here, that function is served by something everyone involved can enjoy. If you have fond memories of Smash as I do, if you are socially awkward as I am, do some digging. Find your local Smash scene. It’s like that casual chain restaurant, except there’s video games.