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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Covid Is Pulling the Plug on Beloved Japanese Arcades

On January 16, 2021, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike tournament legend Tominaga made a rare and critical mistake.

Deep into the final round of a first-to-10 bloodbath against Kuni, a Ryu great who’s similarly known for precise gameplay, Tominaga’s murderous Makoto backed Ryu precariously into his own corner. Seizing the opportunity to close the book on a white-knuckle hour of back-and-forth showmanship, Tominaga dashed in for a grab that would have ensured victory. But he mistimed the outstretched reach of the tiny karate wunderkind to give Ryu the opportunity to escape. This was Kuni’s moment: a golden blink of time when jumping away from the opponent at such a distance would mean coming down on Makoto like a meteor—and yet, another mistake. Kuni pressed the wrong punch button during the descent and botched his own set-winning combo. Tominiga chased down Kuni and clinched the 10-9 victory. The commentators for this now legendary set, both equally renowned 3rd Strike players themselves, flipped out.

Normally Game Newton, a small Tokyo arcade in the Itabashi City ward that has become holy ground for the 3rd Strike faithful, would be a cacophony of applause and cheers at what American Street Fighter legend Justin Wong has called the best set of the year. But not so after 2020. Not in the time of coronavirus. Not when Japan is under its second state of emergency in 12 months, one that restricts outside gatherings and operating hours for establishments like Game Newton. Unless you streamed it on Twitch or watched the recap on YouTube, you would have been one of five people to see it.

This has become the cold reality for small, revered game centers like Game Newton and Takadanobaba Mikado in Shinkjuku. Known not only for classic arcade games, but as the nucleus for scenes such as 3rd Strike still enjoys after 20-plus years, these are the arcades where devotees of classic arcade rivalries meet, share knowledge, and compete. They are destinations that fanatical players from around the world make pilgrimages to, to learn competitive games of all kinds at the highest level. Though many of the games they operate can now be played online and conveniently from our homes, the Game Newtons and the Mikados of the world are the glue keeping decades-old live competition alive.

And COVID will kill them.

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Competitive scenes for arcade games are dwindling by the day. As the arcades in America have successfully transitioned from mall hangouts to bars with a nostalgia trip, peak-level competitions for music, rhythm, and fighting games have also evolved into online platforms like Fightcade or local meetups with consoles and monitors. In Japan, specialty arcades have carved out their own dedicated corners to keep local scenes for these games alive, and to act as destinations for players across the globe to learn from the best of the best. But as the pandemic eats away at a population struggling to contain it, the sun may finally set on a significant piece of video game culture.

“The saddest thing about arcades shutting down is that once they’re gone, they’re gone.” This is according to Andrew Fidelis, an American expat who relocated to Japan after college. An event organizer and streamer, Fidelis is one of the Western faces of Japan’s thinning competitive arcade scene, helping to run streams of large classic game tournaments for game centers like Game Newton and for famous professional players like Street Fighter icon Daigo Umehara. “New arcades and new communities are not being opened,” he tells me via email. “There might be a day in the near future where fighting games in arcades just don’t exist anymore.”

While the arcade market in the US still has destination locations like Galloping Ghost near Chicago and New Hampshire’s Funspot, most have evolved into bars with a noncompetitive atmosphere or chain restaurants like Dave & Buster's with a sea of ticket games. Places like these exist in Japan as well, but many game centers in the country have a different reputation. Some are known as a local hangout for Capcom’s Vampire (Darkstalkers in the West) players. Others for Cave’s DoDanPachi crowd. In the 1990s heyday, a certain tribalism flourished among arcade goers and their operators that still exists. Think of them how we romantically recall old biker bars: The gangs hang out in different locations. Occasionally, they find time to rumble. “Certain places are considered the homes of certain games,” says Fidelis. “You have to know where to go.”

But he, and everyone else interviewed for this story, touched upon the bigger problem: On a larger scale, arcades in Japan have been slowly bleeding out for years. According to this Kotaku story, game centers were some 22,000 strong by the dawn of the 1990s and had thinned to roughly 4,000 by 2019. The pandemic has accelerated the pace. “There are way too many arcades shutting down to count,” says Fidelis, directing me to this Japanese site that keeps tabs on game centers still in operation and those that have closed for good. Even if you can't read the language, the grimness of the picture is clear; the red symbols in each location’s description are those that have had to lock their doors.

Larger arcade operations and chains run by established global companies like Sega, Taito, and Bandai Namco have also felt the pinch. Akihabara staple Club Sega closed in late 2020, and other larger locations such as Taito-owned Hirose Entertainment Yard (HEY Arcade for short) have seen drops in attendance. These mainstream operations mainly house “UFO catcher” claw machines, music and rhythm games, and other novelty cabinets that attract passersby and the occasional tourist.

The smaller local joints, though, are owned and run by community leaders and ex-players who want to keep their dedicated scenes alive. As these older communities are cultlike in their devotion, a good arcade with frequent tournaments can eke out a living by joining forces with these scenes, be it fighting games like Street Fighter and Virtua Fighter, or music and dance series like Taiko Tatsujin or Dance Dance Revolution.

The problems began in earnest with a seemingly mundane operational change at the beginning of 2020: a ban on indoor smoking motivated by public health concerns. “For a lot of arcades, they spent the beginning of the year making changes that could be seen as an inconvenience to some of their traditional clientele,” according to Jonathan Metoyer, another American streamer and event organizer living in Japan.

The problem is sales. Community-focused local spaces need to rely on their dedicated base to show up and play. While the smoking ban alienated the older crowd that would congregate in these long-established communities, looking back, it’s the rock thrown into the pond. Says Metoyer, “In late January/early February, enter Covid. An already struggling business model then has to face periods of closure while still having to pay their normal utilities.”

Though Japan had fewer reported infections than many other countries, the prime minister imposed a state of emergency in April 2020 that encouraged retailers and restaurants to suspend operations. When these restrictions were lifted at the end of May, social distancing and sanitation guidelines were then strictly enforced.

Metoyer clearly spelled out the stakes. “For a lot of arcades based outside of Tokyo that don’t have big communities to rally around,” he says, “that’s a death sentence.” It meant that after nearly two months of closure, local arcade owners needed to establish sales while running half or fewer of their arcade machines to observe social distancing. That was only the beginning of the struggle.

Yasuaki Matsuda, the manager of Game Newton and a godfather of the fighting game community, according to Fidelis, is famous for his large-scale team tournament events like the Cooperation Cup, an annual Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike competition pitting teams of five players against each other. It’s a long weekend of top-level play with hundreds of players from around the world participating. Certainly too large an event to house in the arcade, so Matsuda rents conference space for the tournament every year as it has grown steadily in attendance. In an interview with Japanese enthusiast website Dengeki Online last July, he said that he operates his two Game Newton locations at a slight loss, with events like this making up the difference. Without these events to attract players and sponsors, though, the bottom line for an arcade operator of Matsuda’s size can mutate from struggle to crisis. Conference space in Tokyo must be locked down with money up front, several months in advance, so canceling tournaments due to the pandemic is time and income wasted.

However, it’s worse when it happens twice. Having planned to move the Cooperation Cup from its normal January date in 2020 to early summer in a partnership with Japan’s recently formed Esports Association, the event was delayed multiple times and eventually canceled. Matsuda, perhaps cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the pandemic, organized again for a January 2021 Cooperation Cup, but new restrictions and a second state of emergency led to pulling the plug yet again for this year’s tournament. While Matsuda was contacted and agreed to be interviewed for this story, he has not returned my emails. As his active Twitter feed indicates that his sales outlook for the foreseeable future is roughly half of what he would normally project, it’s fair to assume that he has more pressing matters at the moment.

Matsuda has been lucky, though, as has Minoru Ikeda, the owner of two Mikado game centers in Tokyo. With revenues dropping some 50 to 70 percent over the past year, Ikeda took to the internet and his fans to support him in April 2020, running a successful crowdfunding campaign to keep the lights on. Matsuda and Game Newton did the same, and both owners began aggressively building followings on Twitch and YouTube. These campaigns fared very well, due largely to overseas players pitching in to help. According to Jason Moses, a Japanese-English translator living in Japan for the past five years, the crowdfunding support is both an optimistic sign and a financial love letter. He says Game Newton and Mikado are “too well loved and well connected to have to close up shop permanently.” Courting a small, dedicated following may be what saves these locations from the pandemic, as they have regretfully shifted their tournaments from large-scale events to small sets of matches online. If anything, Moses thinks they may scale down to smaller locations or close satellite arcades. “Mikado especially isn’t going anywhere,” he says. “Worst case, some rich guys bail them out so they still have a place to play Ninja Warriors.” I asked him this before the second state of emergency, however, which is forcing them to again rethink their business plans. The crowdfunding is now in perpetuity.

Fighting game eminence Daigo Umehara cut his teeth in arcades such as these. A prominent Vampire player before making a name for himself by perhaps saving an entire genre, he offers some tempered words of wisdom that reach beyond fighting games. “Those who truly loved these games came together solely because they loved them,” he says via email. For a guy who can foresee opponents attacking and turning into a fighting chance to live, though, even he can’t predict the future.

“This is really an unprecedented situation, so it’s hard to say what will happen. I think we’ll have a better understanding once the coronavirus situation improves.” Hopefully that happens soon. Those who truly love these games are helping, but they may only be able to afford that for so long.

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