JACKSONVILLE, Fla. ― On Monday night, a group of gamers met up at a local arcade and bar for a casual Super Smash Bros. tournament.
It wasn’t anything fancy; a few guys and gals hooted and hollered over beers in the corner of the bar, duking it out in pairs of two, either in front of a tiny TV or a projector screen. Some were regulars, who’d been schlepping their controllers and consoles to this King Street venue since it was a laundromat and bar, well before last year, when it became a dedicated barcade called Keg & Coin. Others were just curious and asked to hop in for a quick round of Smash.
It was like a lot of other Jacksonville gaming events: smaller affairs that happen almost nightly and usually take place at one of three mainstay arcades in town, or at a less formal locale like someone’s apartment, where this competitive gaming community got its roots.
But of course, this night was different. Some of the folks watching the tournament wore shirts or pins bearing the name GLHF ― the arcade just over two miles away at Jacksonville Landing where, less than 24 hours prior, a mass shooting at a Madden tournament left three dead and another 11 wounded.
Keg & Coin, then, was the obvious setting for them to gather and mourn together; to revel; to plot their next steps; to just get their mind off things.
“We needed somewhere to get together and hang out ― now this is one of the only places to do that,” said Joshua “Tyger” Campbell, 35, who’s been hosting competitions in town for nearly two decades. “In Jacksonville, this scene used to be so underground. But in the past three to five years we’ve had so much community organizing and so many events that we’re stronger. We have so many places now where gamers feel safe to congregate.”
They also wanted to point out the strength of this community. Campbell said he was excited that a national gaming tournament was being held at one of his local haunts. It signaled that the community he’d helped to start, with small Dance Dance Revolution tournaments held back in 2003, was thriving.
But then came the shooting, one that would undoubtedly change the message about his community. This was, after all, a shooting at a video game tournament, and gaming has been a punching bag and a boogeyman for politicians since shooting at Columbine. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has continued that storied tradition, vowing earlier this year to look into the connection between video games and mass shootings. Surely, this real-world, violent event would breed more mischaracterizations about video game culture.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” said Mark Ronan, 22, who organizes gaming events across the city. “GLHF is here so we can have a place to hold awesome events like the Madden tournament. One of Jacksonville’s opportunities to shine in the esports world was soiled, and made headlines for all the wrong reasons.”
The people HuffPost spoke to Monday ― gaming advocates and activists, family and friends of those victims still hospitalized ― wanted to paint a different picture of local gaming. They’ve spent years fostering a culture of charity, entertainment and competition that extends well beyond the shooting at Jacksonville Landing.
’This Is His Dream’
At the University of Florida Health medical center, Sujeil Lopez told reporters that she used to get upset when her son, 26-year-old Timothy “oLARRY” Anselimo, played video games for a dozen hours a day or more where he grew up in New York City.
“I used to get mad,” she said. “My husband used to say, ‘He could be outside doing a lot worse, leave him alone!’ I used to be so furious. But he went to high school, went to college, and he’s a good man.”
Anselimo now makes a living playing NBA 2K competitively and boasts a sponsorship from the Milwaukee Bucks. Lopez created a Twitter account just to follow and support his career. She’s fully on board.
“This is his dream ― his life,” Lopez said, a life that was put on hold when her son was shot three times on Sunday, once in the chest, once in the hip and again in his right hand. Lopez spoke to reporters as he went through surgery on that hand, a procedure which would decide whether he could continue his career.
“As a mother you want your child to be brave,” she said. “If he can’t play and he can’t work, his life would be changed forever. … But look forward to seeing him again. This is not the last you’ll see of oLARRY, I promise you that!”
In the same hospital where Lopez spoke, another group of friends and family was waiting on Chris “Dubby” McFarland to recover. The world-renowned Madden player was grazed in the head by a bullet on Sunday. His friend, John Washington, said outside the ER that McFarland’s gaming community, and sense of safety, had been “invaded.”
“He’s very emotional, his whole family is emotional. He’s a soldier, but now it’s like, where in America can you go and feel safe anymore?” Washington said. “The gamers really appreciated this event coming to town. This was just so catastrophic for all of them and the Jacksonville community as a whole.”
McFarland, he said, was expected to be released from the hospital sometime this week. But his side career in gaming may be put on hold.
‘Gaming’s Not Going Anywhere’
There’s rehabilitation to be done, but luckily for the gamers in town, there’s already a network in place to do that. Before the shooting, they had Games Art And Music, a gaming culture company that melds local entertainment with events; the Jacksonville chapter of Extra Life, which raises money for local pediatric programs through gaming events; and locals like Campbell and Ronan, who are already preparing to host charity events for their people.
“A lot of people have questions about how they can help, or how we can increase safety at our events … it encourages me,” Ronan said. “We have to bring everyone back together to show that something like this isn’t going to stop us from having a good time and doing what we love.”
Kyle Schmisek, 32, who hosts trivia at GLHF, said calls were rolling in from people wanting to donate to the arcade and various victims’ funds. Over the course of 24 hours, he went from a local organizer in gaming to a national one.
“It needs to be done so I do it,” he said. “I’ve been sitting around waiting to do something other than just donate, so I’m here to help. But there’s still a lot to be done. We want to help these families, and we’re still working on that.”
Schmisek, Campbell and Ronan sat around a table outside Keg & Coin as the Smash Bros. tournament wrapped up, talking shop and devising plans on what to do next. When asked whether the shooting changed anything for them in terms of their involvement in the scene, they each laughed.
“This is my livelihood,” Ronan said. “I work at a game shop, I host events, I travel for them. I put a lot of my effort into Smash. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”
“Gaming’s not going anywhere for me,” he said.
- This article originally appeared on HuffPost.
Read on Yahoo! News