Sac levels up
Local gamers and developers make their mark in esports world
Jay Gist grew up on Street Fighter, and he knows what it takes to win that kind of fight—hours spent memorizing button combos and having your spirit broken by human players online.
The best virtual fighters can make big money: In August, Japanese player Masato Takahashi won more than $30,000 at the Evolution Championship Series, the world’s biggest fighting game tournament, televised on ESPN from Las Vegas. Gaming tournaments aren’t limited to fighters. The International 2019 tournament in China for the real-time strategy game Dota 2 had a prize pool of more than $30 million, the largest in esports history. Esports are shown regularly on ESPN and other networks.
Gist dreams of winning big at EVO, but he also runs his own fight club—Capitol Fight District, a group that has grown to more than 100 button-mashers competing in Northern California tournaments.
They’re part of only one Sacramento faction in a booming industry that started in 1972 when Atari released Pong. In 2018, revenue from video games surpassed subscription-based streaming services such as Netflix in the U.S., $36.9 billion versus $22.9 billion.
Playing video games may actually be a career. And some Sacramento gamers are seizing the opportunity. Besides prize fighters, there are streamers on Twitch, who create virtual living rooms where viewers can watch gameplay. There are young indie game developers, dreaming of selling their code to Microsoft or Nintendo. And there are YouTube personalities, imparting gaming’s history and culture to tens of thousands of subscribers.
These different factions converged in July at the California State Fair’s Bear Cup, and they’ll collide again Sunday, Dec. 8 at the 5th annual Sac Gamers Expo. Will the local gaming industry level up?
The world builder
Nathan Allshouse learned to code on a TRS-80 computer when he was 8. He made his first game in high school in 1984, a nameless Donkey Kong-style platform for the Atari 400.
Selling it would have been impossible. Giant companies controlled the video game market.
Now, independent developers can find massive success through digital distribution platforms such as Steam. The retro role-playing game Undertale—written, scored and programmed by indie developer Toby Fox—has attracted more than 3 million players since it released in 2015.
But Steam currently sells more than 27,000 indie games, and most aren’t Undertale.
For the last six years, Allshouse has been tinkering with his next game, Project Settlement. His 11-year-old son Christian inspired the leap. “I kind of wanted to do this—not just for my own personal stuff—but to show [Christian] that it’s not just a hobby,” Allshouse said.
Allshouse founded the indie company Chicken N’ Bits and also leads the Sacramento Developer Collective, with more than 1,200 members. In its 12 years, the collective has helped publish more than 40 games, and is connected with industry giants including Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Nintendo and Amazon.
Through the nonprofit collective, Allshouse wants to help connect those in the local game industry. “When we went out and formed our company, we really didn’t have a lot of people to turn to because nobody in our community had never done it before,” he said.
Members include Jim Niehues, who programs mobile role-playing games for 5th Planet Games in Rocklin and co-developed Dawn of the Dragons: Ascension, where players enter Tor’Gyyl, a fantasy world full of evil dragons, wolves and bandits.
Dawn of the Dragons has more than 50,000 downloads on the Google Play Store. Still, developing games can be brutal.
“It takes a long time to make a game, and there are lots of games out there that no one has ever heard of because they didn’t become popular,” Niehues said. “You put two years of work in, and do you get the money back or not?”
Some local games are developed at the Progressive Game Jam, an event in its fifth year. This year, it culminated in September with the Capital Creative Showcase, which featured dozens of games, including the match-three puzzler Dust and Diamonds, made by father-and-sons trio Brent, Jovan and Keith Bartlett.
Dust and Diamonds has been relatively successful, with about 1,000 downloads on Google Play since it launched in September. The Bartletts have also experienced flops. Flamey Boy, which released last year, is a 3-D game in which players battle giant spiders and worms through a fiery avatar.
“I mean, we got 10 installs,” said Brent, the father. “You spend six months on something, and it’s kind of disappointing that … it’s just silent.”
Creative differences have led to some awkward dinner moments. But the trio know what they’re doing. Teenagers Jovan and Keith play Minecraft and Rocket League to study the competition, and they have been developing games since they were 7.
“I’ve been fostering an intentional concept of creation over consumption since they were really, really small,” Brent said. “So when they wanted to do games, I was super supportive, and I was excited.”
The shelves are full of early video games—Atari, Nintendo, Playstation. A bug-eyed Robotic Operating Buddy sits in a corner. There is an Atari 2600—the 1977 system that kicked off the home video game revolution—and a Nintendo Entertainment System, which revitalized the market after the infamous crash six years later.
The room belongs to Chris Alaimo, a Gen X gamer who never outgrew the adventures of his youth. He hosts Classic Gaming Quarterly, a YouTube channel where he explores obsolete tech.
“I’m not like a retro grouch or anything, but that really is what I prefer playing,” said Alaimo, who is on the bill for the Sac Gamers Expo.
In one episode of Classic Gaming Quarterly, Alaimo covers the launch of the Sony PlayStation in 1995, the first console he bought with his own money.
As an adult YouTuber, the Sega Saturn was the most perfect holiday gift he ever received.
The 32-bit system was one of the most notorious consoles launched in North America, Alaimo said. While games such as Panzer Dragoon and Nights Into Dreams were successful, the Saturn’s complex hardware made game development difficult, so the console had a small library and audience.
At almost 700,000 views, Alaimo’s “Launch of the Sega Saturn” video is a hit on YouTube.
“I woke up on Christmas morning [in 2015] and uploaded it, and in my head, I’m thinking, This is a stupid idea. who uploads the video on Christmas Day?” Alaimo said. “It had 10,000 views in a couple of hours, which … I’d never done that before, and all of a sudden, the subscriber numbers started going up.”
Alaimo has received fan mail from as far away as Vietnam. In December 2018, Alaimo earned a silver play button from YouTube, given to content creators who reach 100,000 subscribers.
“I remember when I found out that that was even a thing, and to me it’s like when you find out that a Lamborghini is a thing,” Alaimo said. “I just figured, well, I’m never going to get one of those.”
His early videos were rough. “You kinda don’t want anybody to watch,” Alaimo said. “I’ll watch some of my older videos—even some after the channel has started getting popular—but I’ll look at it now and be like, ’God, that’s terrible.’”
Now he spends months writing, shooting and editing each episode to document video game culture, showcasing games, consoles and magazines from the 1980s and 1990s. He started collecting Nintendo games in 1998.
“When I was growing up, we didn’t have a lot of game stores at all, and all of a sudden we got FuncoLand,” Alaimo said. “[My friend and I] went down there, and we came home with a huge bag of games because they were so cheap.”
Games aren’t what they used to be, Alaimo says, and mass digital distribution has changed the way players interact with them. He fondly remembers his childhood, when he mostly rented games or got them as holiday gifts.
“Even if you didn’t like [a game] that much, you’re like, ’I’m gonna do my best with it,’” he said. “Now you don’t have to do that. So in a lot of ways, we don’t spend that much time with games anymore.”
The summer of 2016 started out uneventful for Julia, an unemployed UC Berkeley undergrad.
She spent every waking hour playing at Kyle Moorman’s house. The television was tuned to Twitch.tv, and they were watching people play Super Smash Bros. when Moorman’s roommate offered some casual advice to Julia: “Hey, you know you could just do that.”
They laughed at first. But within 24 hours, Julia and Moorman trekked to Best Buy for a microphone, camera and headset. With the help of YouTube, they set up Moorman’s computer for video streams.
Beside the camera sat a small, stuffed red panda from the Sacramento Zoo that helped ease Julia’s nerves when, on July 3, 2016, she went live under the pseudonym “Khaljiit,” a reference to the Elder Scrolls race of cat-like people. (SN&R is withholding her last name for her personal safety.)
“If you play video games all day, every day, you should try streaming it to find more people to play with,” Julia said. “I just thought it would be fun.”
Early on, Julia and Moorman found a card-collecting strategy game called Duelyst, developed by a Berkeley indie studio. The strategy game had a devoted Reddit and Discord fanbase and a niche Twitch following.
Through Duelyst, Julia’s Twitch channel viewership grew steadily. “You could see [Julia’s] numbers go from an average of 10 to 15, 20, 25, 30,” Moorman said.
Now, she has 66,000 Twitch followers. She caught Twitch’s attention, and the company asked her to participate in an event celebrating the release of a special edition of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. That meant a front-page spot on Twitch.tv and more attention.
In February 2017— six months after she began streaming—Julia got “partnered.” That means she could monetize her Twitch channel through ads and viewer subscriptions, which range from $4.99 to $24.99 per month, split 50-50 with Twitch.
“It kind of felt like that could be a career path,” Julia said “When I was a kid, I always wanted to play video games for a living, and I knew that wasn’t a possibility.”
Explaining the new job to her parents wasn’t easy, but they eventually started their own Twitch accounts.
“They watched my stream in the beginning, but now they just go onto my Twitch when they need me to pay attention to them when they text,” Julia said.
Julia and Moorman had to find other streamers to learn the intricacies of Twitch, including the software used on the site. So they started Twitch Kittens, a community of 185 streamers who exchange behind-the-scenes info to improve their shows. Later, they formed the NorCal Casters, a local version of Twitch Kittens that now has nearly 900 members.
One up-and-comer in NorCal Casters is Rachel Sheets, known as “Forkmylife,” who streamed at the California State Fair in August.
During a Nov. 8 stream, dozens of viewers volleyed chat messages, excited to watch the local graphic designer play the 2019 remake of Resident Evil 2. The screen faded in and revealed Sheets, who opened with a bubbly, “Hi, guys!”
She spent the next 15 minutes chatting up her viewers, many of whom tune in every chance they get: “Hi Tehalemi, hi Ryan, hi Stryker, hi Nighthawk, hi Blu!”
Sheets says the games she plays matter less than the connection she has with her viewers. “Sometimes I’ll pause the game for 15 minutes and not move [the character] because I’m sitting there talking to chat,” she said.
Sheets has about 7,000 Twitch followers; her average viewership has increased from 7 per stream in August 2017 to 55. Still, Sheets says she hasn’t considered a Twitch career. Pay is determined by viewer donations, advertising and merchandising, all of which depend on audience.
It can also mean too many hours in front of a screen, Moorman said. “It’s very easy to spend too much time in it, to take it a little bit too seriously, to the point where it becomes a little bit self-destructive, where you’re streaming 12 hours a day trying to grind,” he said.
Julia says she loves playing games more than ever, though she’s stepping back from streaming. “I’ve saved up a lot to get by in case anything happens, but I do want to take it easy and go month-to-month,” she said. “I think I’m gonna enjoy it and just stream when I can, and not stream because I have to.”
The prize fighter
As a kid, at a Florida skating rink, Jay Gist dropped a quarter into Street Fighter 2, calling dibs on the next match. His skates lift him up close enough to reach the controls. The opponents were older, but they didn’t stand a chance.
Fast forward to 2008, and Gist attended his first tournament, held in a corner of the UC Davis Memorial Union. The game was Street Fighter IV. He got beaten badly, but he was hooked.
“When I was younger, I was always the best in the neighborhood,” Gist said. “But then once you go to a tournament … you realize you’re nothing. And I thought that was really fun, to just go and just get slaughtered.”
Gist often drove from Sacramento to Davis, Reno and the Bay Area to compete. By 2011, he noticed he was running into Sacramento players a lot.
Now, his local Capitol Fight District has grown to become a tournament organization recognized globally. At this year’s California State Fair, Gist organized the first-ever Bear Cup, an esports tournament that drew hundreds of attendees and exposed newcomers to competitive gaming.
“They would see people get excited and they’re like, ’Oh wow, why are they so excited?’” Gist said. “And once they started learning about what’s going on … they would start getting excited, too.”
Gist worked with NRG Esports, which represents dozens of professional competitors across the United States, and with SF Shock, a team it owns. NRG Esports is owned by Andy Miller, a co-owner of the Sacramento Kings.
“I started going to some of the big championship matches and seeing the huge crowds and the engagement and their passion,” Miller said. “I was like, ’Wow, this is really fun. We should do this.’”
Investing in esports was a no-brainer, Miller said, since the younger generation is growing up with video games.
“If you don’t play Little League baseball, you’re probably not going to grow up a baseball fan,” he said. “These kids are all growing up playing games, and they’re not going to stop playing games later.”
NRG represents some of the world’s best esports players, including Garrett Gordon, an 18-year-old Rocket League player from Georgia known online as GarrettG.
Gordon is one of the vehicular-soccer game’s highest rated players. Before competing in its Championship Series, Gordon practiced 50 hours a week. “I grasped the concept of the game really, really quickly,” he said. “I was in love with the game, I got a chance to play professionally and I just went forward with it.”
Gist’s Capitol Fight District tournaments used to be a one-man show. He scrambled to move players from table to table and curate the game list.
Now, he leans on the players. “I look towards my community and see what they want to do,” Gist said. “[If] there’s a certain community that would like to see [a certain] game more, I say, ’OK, let’s do a tournament for that.’”
Recently, Gist contacted Allshouse at the Sacramento Developer Collective to center the competition around locally developed games.
On the weekend of Nov. 16-17, they held the Sac Dev Collective Game Jam, where teams made their best fighting game. Gist and his crew will choose the best, which will be the centerpiece for a tournament in April.
“It was just a real casual, kind of off-the-cuff kind of thought, and we just put it together,” Allshouse said. “We basically thought that’s a great idea, let’s have a game jam, develop a local game and create a tournament based off of that.”