Warehouse Tournaments Let Gamers Get Down
Bryan Marquez, who everyone just calls "Bmarq," is one of the visionaries behind
the Underground Tournament League, a series of "gaming culture events" that bring
together video games, music, art and food. (Kim Nowacki)
When a bunch of Activision employees were laid-off from the popular video game maker this past September, Bryan Marquez decided it was the perfect opportunity to devote even more time to gaming.
Not, though, by locking himself away in his bedroom, sure to develop early arthritis from hours of playing "Call of Duty," his favorite game.
Instead, out of unemployment he founded the Underground Tournament League (UGTL), an idea that you can throw one hell of a party -- and maybe even create something bigger and more meaningful -- if you bring together video game devotees, up-and-coming DJs, live art, home cooked food and cheap beer.
"It's not a bunch of nerds," says the 25-year-old Bmarq, as everyone calls him. "That's one of the reasons why I wanted to throw this event, too, to get rid of that stereotypical view people have of people playing video games."
"We're very talented people," adds Bmarq, who, with slightly gauged ear piercings and a flat-brimmed ball cap, doesn't look the part of an anti-social, basement-dwelling gamer. "We like art, we enjoy finer things, we just happen to like video games."
He calls what the UGTL does "a gaming culture event." And through it, he's amassed a dedicated group of like-minded volunteers. In fact, Bmarq can't talk about the UGTL without talking about the community of gamers, musicians and artists he hopes to build up around it.
Bmarq is one of those guys you know will have your back - the kind of person who makes life-long friendships. A big guy with a bigger smile, making friends has always been easy, he says, which was a good thing for him. He changed high schools three times, going from private to public school when money got tight for his folks.
"Growing up, switching schools, you learn just to talk to people," he says. "It's helped me out a lot in life, so I really am glad that I ended up having to change schools quite often. I have a big network of friends now."
For most of his life, Bmarq played baseball on travel teams until injury took him out of the game. And he was a good student, he says, taking advanced placement classes and graduating with honors. After high school, his parents split up and Bmarq, his brother and sister stayed in their childhood home when their parents moved out. But that meant working to pay rent.
"I went to school, worked full time and then played baseball, too. So it was interesting for the first two years," Bmarq says of his post-high school life. "Eventually I got injured and wasn't able to play baseball anymore so I just kinda went through school. I ended up not finishing because I tried to make more money. I'm pretty close, though, which kind of sucks."
"I have some issues with school," he explains. "I don't like people telling me what classes to take. I love learning and I love taking classes; I would rather choose my own classes and go, instead of them telling me you need to take this, this and this."
And, of course, besides baseball and school and his family -- Bmarq's the father of two, including a newborn -- for most of his life, there's also been video games, starting with the Nintendo he got as a surprise gift in kindergarten.
Bmarq held the first official UGTL at his house in July; about 40 people showed up. At the next one two months later, "Somehow it went from 40 to 70 people at my house," he says. "I was like, 'OK, I need to get my act together and get a venue and make this official.'"
That led to a warehouse in South Los Angeles that sits on a quiet street where front yards double for taco stands and vibrant graffiti murals cover the backs of buildings.
By late afternoon, about four hours into the second UGTL event here held last month, the gamers (the vast majority are male in their late teens, 20s and 30s) are warming up their "Street Fighter IV" skills in front of TVs that line the walls. Those TVs, like the gaming consoles (mostly Xbox 360s) and the mismatched furniture, are all on loan from Bmarq's friends.
"It's a great venue, great people, tacos and ample parking," says 25-year-old Ted Polak, a regular at gaming tournaments.
The cheap tacos are one of the popular draws and outside a couple of guys run the barbecue where Bmarq's specially spiced carne asada is on the grill. Cooking, says Bmarq, is another of his passions.
While the tacos may cost you a couple of extra bucks, the $10 cover charge and your ID grants you access to the open bar before registration closes at 5 p.m. After that, you can't buy a drink but you can buy a raffle ticket, which happens to come with a "complimentary" beer or cocktail.
The UGTL tournaments are 18 and older, but Bmarq hopes to expand the events to all-ages in the future.
As the sun starts to hang low, the actual tournament -- with cash prizes -- is still a couple hours away, so right now people are just casually playing. There's an ever-present click, click, click of the controllers as the players' avatars karate chop and slide leg sweep. A small crowd forms around pro-gamer Mike Ross, who's here with Ciji Thornton (aka StarSlay3r), a "Guitar Hero" pro-player.
Having pro-gamers show up and compete gives the UGTL credibility, and Ross goes on to place third in the tournament behind fellow pro-gamers Alex Valle and ComboJack.
"That's a huge plus, the fact that people who play the game professionally are showing up to your tournaments and are coming back is a huge thing. It's massive," says Bmarq. "It kind of blows my mind. It means we're on the right track."
But the flash of the "Street Fighter IV" intro coming from the multiple big screens is only part of the event. On stage a DJ spins remixed tunes from his laptop and bartender Sarah Woodruff stays busy cracking open Tecate beer cans and mixing drinks.
Woodruff, a 24-year-old Loyola Marymount University graduate student, was at the first UGTL warehouse party and had so much fun she volunteered to sling drinks for tips at this one.
"I really like the community. I'm a part of it now," she says.
"Where else," she asks, "do you get together and drink and play video games in a warehouse?"
It's a valid question. Most video game tournaments are held in rented offices or hotel ballrooms. Strangely, they sound like sterile, boring affairs with a lot of waiting around to play. Here, before the actual tournament, UGTL has the energy of a house party mixed with the laid back vibe of an afternoon barbecue.
It has a festival feel, says Alfredo Barraza, who met Bmarq at Activision and is in charge of lining up the DJs.
"It's definitely the scene I want to be in," says the 24-year-old Barraza, a DJ who uses video game samples in his own music and goes by the moniker "sxezskoz," a reference to a Nintendo game code.
"I didn't start performing live to perform offices," he says. "I want to play at a warehouse. This is definitely home for us now."
Like Barraza, most of the UGTL volunteers are Bmarq's former co-workers from Activision, where he worked as a game tester for nearly two years. After doing all kinds of odd jobs, this gig was a dream job, and it was at Activsion, the company most well known for "Guitar Hero" and "Call of Duty," where the idea for the UGTL began.
"It started out with 10 guys on a lunch break at Bmarq's house to here," says volunteer Todd Carrigan.
The next UGTL tournament will most likely be in mid-December, and at a different venue (the warehouse, run by a DIY co-op called Project Infest, is booked up).
Until then, Bmarq's started hosting Sunday "casuals" in his carport. Again, the click, click, click of the controllers is the first thing you hear as you round the corner to the beige stucco building that sits up on a hill overlooking Echo Park.
Sunday "casuals" at Bmarq's house began earlier this month. (Kim Nowacki)
Of course, the grill is fired up and bacon-wrapped hot dogs are the day's specialty. A plastic pitcher is about half full with donations to help pay for the grub and drinks.
"Basically I open my house up to a whole bunch of ... not random people anymore because I know quite a few of them," says Bmarq. "It's a Sunday barbecue with 'Street Fighter.'"
Looking back, getting the pink slip from Activision gave Bmarq and the others time to think about what they really care about. It turns out, it'll always be video games -- and the people that play them.
"After getting laid off, I didn't want to just lie around and not do anything and mope around, but make something from the ground up," says Bmarq. "And maybe make it something bigger, like a movement."