This story was written by guest contributor Jay Bradley.
Adam “Oculus” Avramis stood to address the packed crowd at the Modern Alchemy Game Bar on West State Street in Ithaca.
“Stop your friendly matches! Leave your friends!”
All of a sudden, the chatter of GameCube controllers stopped and was quickly replaced by the almost 40 chatter of competitors about their support prospects.
Avramis called pairs of players by their in-game tag, and each took one of 10 configurations from the Nintendo crossover fighting game “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.” These players then selected characters and stages before competing to advance through the double elimination bracket.
“The Smash Lab,” a bi-weekly “Smash Bros.” The tournament series, hosted by Avramis, kicked off in July last year and just wrapped up its 25th event on Saturday with one of its highest attendances.
“I really wanted to race something for a while,” Avramis said. “In [Lansing] In high school, I created the ‘Smash’ club and started organizing tournaments there. Didn’t get a chance to do too much with COVID soon after I started, but I knew modern chemistry was starting to happen in Ithaca and thought it would be a perfect venue.
He said he came to have mocktails and play board games, but once he saw the number of outlets and spoke to another interested friend, he knew he was had to ask one of the co-owners who worked the bar. Once she was shown the back room to see the space, everything fell into place.
“Everything went pretty well.” Avramis said. “It’s hard, but I kept going. Sometimes it was eight people and sometimes it’s 40 and that’s just kind of what happens, happens. You just have to do what you can to make it the best it can be.
Typically drawing a crowd of between 10 and 20 competitors, Avramis wanted to make the Saturday event special to celebrate the milestone, as many tournament series don’t exceed a year, let alone 25 events.
With contributions from the bar, himself, and regular contestants and collaborators Tammy Claypool and Carl “Oats” Zabel, they added $500 to the prize pool created from the entry fee for the top finishers. Avramis also had another stipulation – that all competitors dress well, for with the money and the milestone came the desire for a formal event.
“Almost every smasher I see is wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt and I figured if we were going to make it something special I might as well dress for it,” he said. declared. “I always thought it was just a fun way to let people express themselves and do something different with it.”
Some had a little fun with it. Cornell Smash officer Ben ‘TBD’ Perl wore a costume of his character Yoshi with a bow tie and New York Center player Anthony ‘Anagram’ Griggs donned armor. Avranis made sure that even those who hadn’t seen the post or were new and uncertain still had fun, by bringing them extra ties to put on.
Afek Shalem, a freshman from Ithaca College, said while he’s been playing casually for a long time, this is his first in-person tournament.
“You get the nerves, but it was really, really fun,” Shalem said. “Everyone I’ve fought against, I’ve lost every match, but every single one of them was probably the best match I’ve ever had.”
The esports industry has exploded in recent years, with spectators logging on to watch events online, while events have been known to fill theaters in stadiums around the world.
Large “Smash” events can often attract hundreds of competitors and over 100,000 viewers via live teams and YouTube. Many top players, including Binghamton’s Jake ‘Jmook’ DiRado partner with professional esports teams to travel to such events.
However, while “The Smash Lab” competes for money and broadcasts its events live, those who come from local towns and colleges or neighboring towns like Binghamton, Syracuse and Horseheads are there for more than just competition.
“I’ve actually made a few new friends here already,” said newcomer Maddie ‘RACHEL;)’ Finnigan. “We all lost the last rounds one and two, so we’re just hanging out with each other.”
“I’ve just been exploring the regions,” said competitor Jacob ‘Naga’ Markusz, of Syracuse. I did not know [the Southern Tier’s] players. But again, they are all amazing. Very nice people and a great community.”
Some competitors like Ithaca College senior Zabel and his green Kirby have become a fixture at these and other events in the area, coming week after week to hang out with friends and try to improve his rankings. .
“As far as I know, this is the first tournament series Ithaca has ever held separately from colleges,” Zabel said. “So having a real local scene, even though a lot of the attendance is from other Southern Third Regions like Horseheads or Binghamton, it’s really cool, and I really think Oculus is doing a great job.
Modern Alchemy is just over a year old as a company, and co-owner Jonathan Westerling says that while it’s been exciting to see people come over from Pennsylvania to play, determined regular players are his favorites.
“What I love the most is seeing people come back,” Westerling said. “People who come over and over again just to try to get better and better – then probably get beaten up.”
He says that Modern Alchemy stays open on Saturday afternoons, sometimes restaurants-bars usually wouldn’t so these kinds of community events could take place. The restaurant also hosts Magic the Gathering tournaments, trivia nights, and other events.
Avramis says Modern Alchemy along with the other competitors helping out with the event have all been a big part of what kept the event going week after week.
Avramis, a Tompkins County resident and current student at Binghamton University, also participates in his own events, which is especially difficult for him due to the visual nature of video games.
“I’m legally blind,” Avramis explained. “I have something called Stargardt [disease]which is a form of macular degeneration, so my central vision deteriorated as I grew.
Having been declared blind early in high school, it didn’t stop his love for the competitive side of Smash, which he began playing competitively in middle school when his vision had already begun to deteriorate.
“At first I just wanted to pretend to be a normal player,” he said. “Eventually I learned that I could do a lot better if I accommodated myself. So now I have headphones to hear my right and my left, I can hear different signals for different attacks, I can hear which inputs are working and what doesn’t work, and I’m still trying to go to a monitor that works for me. That sort of thing. And from there, I’d say I was able to play with some success, counts tenuous.
As local scenes surrounding area colleges and universities reboot, such as in Binghamton and Ithaca College and Cornell, Avramis hopes “The Smash Lab” can continue to bring the game downtown and into the future.
“I really hope the people who came today keep coming,” Avramis said.