For years, the larger centres in Aotearoa have had a headlock on the competitive gaming scene. But with the Waikato Arena Rampage, that’s all about to change. Horiana Henderson reports.
In the ‘80s cool cats toted big square box ghettoblasters around. Nowadays, top dogs of the New Zealand fighting game community carry a big square box of their own: a fight stick. Don’t know what that is? Don’t worry, neither did I but my little (albeit towering) brother has one and last weekend he, I and this square box thing headed off to WAR, aka Waikato Arena Rampage, Hamilton’s first major fighting games tournament.
WAR’s “commanding officer”, tournament organiser Daniel Rikihana, is a family man paying the mortgage by day and decimating opponents online by night under the fight name Terrorist. He grew up with nine brothers playing Street Fighter I on arcade machines and travelled to tournaments for a first prize of twenty bucks. His devotion runs skin-deep, as evidenced by the “Ryu” and “Ken” (characters from the game) tattoos on his arm.
Times have sure changed since the twenty buck days. At WAR, the contestants were playing Street Fighter V, Dragon Ball Fighter Z and Tekken 7 for cash, medals, trophies and a trip to Australia’s Battle Arena Melbourne 10 (BAM10) next month, which is a gateway to the lucrative international circuit.
Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch have historically been the fighting game champions across Aotearoa. Always. In Rikihana’s telling, his crew, the Hamilton Fighting Game Community (FCG), were hyped after attending Wellington’s 2017 Crush Counter Capital tournament but sick of feeling like the ‘baby city’ of the scene. So they decided to show that the Tron could stage its own event.
Terrorist’s gaming brother, Richard “NZ_Maoriboy” Heke, had a dream. In it, he saw his FGC hosting a major and it was called ‘WAR’; Heke told the boys about it and they committed to the name. The only problem was that his vision hadn’t specified what WAR stood for, so they got thinking and came up with ‘Waikato Arena Rampage’
Cut to: The WAR battlefield (SkyCity Hamilton Events rooms 1-3).
The rooms are littered with banks of glaring computer screens. People wear headsets, mates chill together, and others barely breathe because they are so immersed in their virtual realities. Some gamers have relocated their entire setups to the CBD-based “major” (event), where there are tellys big and small butting up against some serious machinery. Some people have old-school joysticks, others have typical Playstation-looking controllers. And then others, like my brother, have fight sticks.
What is a fight stick? It’s a video game controller that brings the joystick and buttons of stand-up arcade games to any gaming console. It’s specially designed for thrashing out attack combinations in fighting games and seemed to be the weapon of choice for most.
In western society we are (or were) taught to look people in the eyes as a mark of respect and I can still remember being told by my nana that if I looked at a screen too long my eyes would go square. At WAR though, Nana’s rule had truly left the building. Stumble into a fighting game event and prepare for hundreds of people intent on avoiding looking at or hearing you. Mess with their screen-view or headsets and prepare for trouble, and maybe even tears.
To outsiders like me it can appear anti-social, even rude, but google some of the gamer names and you’ll find artists, business owners, academics and high school students.
ARENA ONE: WUGS.
The Waikato United Gaming Society (WUGS) was established when Tom “Mad Scientist” Featonby moved from Palmerston North. Unable to find a social gaming group when he started working at Waikato University, he did what he knew: he networked. And thus WUGS was born.
At WAR, WUGS sets up a BYOPC (bring your own PC) LAN (Land Area Network) zone where the headset-wearers lived. The society runs two tournaments, Overwatch and Rocket League, and despite cash being up for grabs, these folk still have time to stop for a chat. The amiable Featonby was one of those who takes time out. “We’re not super competitive like the fighting guys are. We’re mainly social so this is slightly different than what we usually do.”
WUGS usually meet at the university campus, he says, though every month they relocate to a pub for beer and chips, and to hang out and “just jam party games.”
ARENA TWO: Final Round: Fight!
G. Ian Templer loves Street Fighter and he loves card games but he hates rubbish Street Fighter-influenced card games. His solution: creating his own version, called Final Round: Fight! . Only one problem: in his own words, that first version “was shit”.
Five years of development later and he has a not shit version to demo at WAR, and he’s launching the game via KickStarter. Templer describes it as “a Fighting Card Game which captures the action, the strategy, and the excitement of traditional 6-button Arcade Fighting Games, and delivers them without the needed dexterity and muscle memory such games usually require.”
ARENA THREE: The WAR zone
Who’s around? Battlers and support crews.
One battler, ‘Westnea’ aka ‘Uncle Calum’ Robertson’s support crew includes six-year-old Jayden Small. Small’s tall companion, his father Dylan, says he’s a bit intimidated: “Everyone’s got pretty flash gear with their fight sticks.” During gameplay, Westnea gets off to a promising start but falls to the superior skills of Rikihana the Terrorist.
As they say: all’s fair in love and WAR.
Another battler’s entourage comes to the WAR party with only love in their hearts. Making his major debut, 17-year-old Josiah ‘HartyLawnMower’ Rimaha is shy and unsure of the landscape when we meet, though clearly itching to play. Next time I see him, he’s descending from the stage and trying, unsuccessfully, to contain his joy at winning his bout.
His whānau fly at him from the hall’s four corners; his nan, mum, brothers and some tamariki had all come from Rotorua. From his crowd someone yells, “It was just supposed to be two of us and then they all came!”
In the warm up zone, battlers Josh ‘AucksBro’ Jakeman and Lloyd ‘Llionheart’ Stockman (my little brother), are casually stretching their gaming muscles as they wait for the die-hard matches. The duo fight often and Josh has seen Lloyd’s game noticeably improve over time. Unsurprisingly, other fighters improving is an occupational hazard, with the result being that ‘AucksBro’ has had to step up his game.
ARENA FOUR: The Battlefield.
The business section. This arena is no place for the meek. If you can battle you can progress. If you lose once you can dust off and try again; if you lose twice you don’t belong on the field and are eliminated. You would think it would be simple, right? You would be wrong.
The ability to work a controller is only the beginning. Contenders must hone reaction time and counter-plays, and drill optimum attack distances. The committed study the strengths and weaknesses of likely challengers and take up every opportunity to verse others pre-WAR, but contenders are always strategising. They always keep some plays to themselves. Their species is part human, part hustler.
Come D-day, all these skills must align. A grand master must dance between their knowledge, their game, and keeping their composure during the heat of battle. Major gamers are not playing around.
My brain gets overwhelmed just watching the videos but for some people, or at least for the 125 registered soldiers of WAR, it is the air they breathe. At the major they were breathing in Tekken 7, Street Fighter V, Dragon Ball FighterZ, Marvel Capcom: Infinite, Super Smash Bros and Super Smash Bros: Melee.
At WAR I saw contests and lots of them. I also saw a glimpse of the FGC spirit. I saw a community that keeps in touch more than the average relationship could manage without feeling absolutely suffocated. They check in with each other, hourly, daily, basically 24/7. Gamers trash-talk and build-up, they mentor and they plot against each other. Not in a back-stabbing way but in a ‘if you don’t respect yourself or me enough to bring your game then let me eject you from my battlefield’ way.
I watched as one minute a Tekken champ stretched back triumphant in his AKRacing chair, and the next he had lost a game, his expression cycling through a range from completely shook to ‘ah, no big deal’. But no one signs up for war aiming to be defeated. Ever. The moral: no threat can be underestimated and whenever a challenge is accepted a threat has arrived.
I was impressed by the FGCers’ resilience after defeat. Tekken’s “Get ready for the next battle” is clearly a life philosophy as much as a catch phrase. Their commitment to their chosen game is deep. Not only do they pay for it (in cash to register, travel and in mental and physical exertion) they love it!
And no one was loving it more than the two winners of WAR’s Street Fighter V and Tekken 7 competitions.
ARENA FIVE: To The Victors The Spoils
‘GhostChips will win.’
‘GhostChips always wins.’
‘GhostChips and Street Fighter V, man. He just seems to be the most dominant player in New Zealand right now,’
These were the words that come from fallen soldiers of the WAR Street Fighter V battlefield. But who is this ethereal snack dude?
Frustratingly for some challengers, the nation’s best is a 16-year-old Auckland Grammar student. With prospects in law, commerce, computer science and engineering, he’s raking up the academic scores as well. His family are supportive of his extra-curricular activities on one condition: “As long as I keep my grades up that is all that really matters.”
So what’s his winning secret?
First he enjoys gaming – which is a good place to start. Second, he employs the gaming gymnastics of balance and flexibility.
‘GhostChips’ gave his Dragon Ball FighterZ third placing the same smile-treatment as his Street Fighter V first. “I find them fun for their different reasons. With Street Fighter, I like how it’s slower. You can see things more clearly. Decision making is a lot more straight-forward. Whereas with Dragon Ball, it’s a very messy game but that’s where all the fun comes from is being able to lock your opponent down with moozballs and mix-ups.”
Cue my seriously lost expression. Cue a champion’s charity. “Heaps and heaps and heaps of mix-ups.” Thanks for that, kid. The gameplay is complex but the internationally ranked gamer keeps things simple. “I feel pretty good. First place Street Fighter V, third place Dragon Ball, can’t really ask for much more than that.”
Turns out you can ask for more if you’ve got the talent to dominate come game day, and GhostChips and fellow Auckland teen Dan ‘DanBanter’ Saeidian showed off that talent at WAR, resulting in plane and Australian hotel room bookings to test that talent against the world’s best at BAM10 (Battle Arena Melbourne).
Tekken 7 champion Saeidian has never been to Australia. He had also never won a major tournament event and was positively jubilant. Pre-battle, he appeared to have some nervous jitters but as soon as he heard the game’s command to “Fight!” he was a focussed rock. While his next battles loaded between matches, he was a smartphone-scrolling rock. Next level intimidation right there.
“Honestly, it feels great because I wanted to go to Battle Arena Melbourne. Honestly, it’s like a coincidence because this is Hamilton’s first Major and this is also my first tournament win. Thank you for this whole tournament. Honestly. Thank you.”
You’ve got to love a fresh perspective. Honestly. When that perspective belongs to a newly crowned gaming king you’re reminded that rulers can say things however they want because at the end of the day, they rule. Honestly.
Saeidian’s win ended the Waikato Arena Rampage. The crowd was still buzzing around though and the Hamilton FGC resorted to asking lingerers if they needed parking validation tickets.
Code: “alright go home now”. Translation: “happy patrons.”
Did the Tronites thrash the big-guns? This proud Hamiltonian’s gonna say: WAR’s war has only just begun. This big sis’ is gonna say: pre and post WAR my fighting game champion was set. Alas, I was no WAR adjudicator – that role belonged to Street Fighter V life gauges and battle win markers and those judges dubbed my favourite pick with a Llionheart-ed 4th place.
Hundreds of competitors later, an empty trophies table, prizes claimed, a smashed ringawera (work crew) and NZ_Maoriboy’s WAR dream has lived, flown and set the stage for rematches now and into the future. So Aotearoa, consider that Round 1.
This post, like all our gaming content, comes to your peepers only with the support of Bigpipe Broadband.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.