ITHACA VOICE: ‘Smash Lab’ celebrates a year of esports competition and community in downtown Ithaca

This piece originally appeared in the Ithaca Voice. They produce fantastic nonprofit news in Ithaca, NY and I highly recommend supporting that outlet!

Adam “Oculus” Avramis stood up to address the packed crowd at the Modern Alchemy Game Bar in Ithaca.

“Quit your friendlies! Quit your friendlies!”

All of a sudden the clacking of GameCube controllers stopped and was swiftly replaced by the nearly 40 competitors’ chatter about their bracket outlook.

Avramis called pairs of players by their in-game tag, and each took to one of the 10 setups of the Nintendo crossover fighting game “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.” Those players then selected characters and stages before duking it out to advance in the double elimination bracket.

Adam ‘Oculus’ Avramis calling initial bracket matchups.

“The Smash Lab”, a biweekly “Smash Bros.” tournament series hosted by Avramis, started in July last year and just completed its 25th event on Saturday with one of its highest attendances.

“I’ve really wanted to run something for a while,” said Avramis. “In [Lansing] High School, I started “Smash” club and started running tournaments there. Didn’t get to do too many with COVID happening pretty soon after I started, but I knew that Modern Alchemy was something starting to happen in Ithaca and I figured this would be a perfect venue.”

He said he came to have some mocktails and play board games, but once he saw the number of outlets and spoke to another friend there interested, he knew he had to ask one of the co-owners there that was working the bar. Once he was shown the back room to see the space, it all fell into place.

“Everything has run pretty well.” Avramis said. “It’s tough, but I just kept at it. Occasionally it was eight people and occasionally it’s 40 and it’s just kind of whatever happens, happens. You just have to do what you can to make it the best it can be.”

Games took place on community-provided Nintendo Switch setups

Typically drawing a crowd between 10 and 20 of competitors, Avramis wanted to make the event on Saturday special to celebrate the milestone, as many tournament series don’t make it past a year, let alone 25 events.

With contributions from the bar, himself, and regular competitors and collaborators Tammy Claypool and Carl “Oats” Zabel, they added a $500 to the prize pot that is created from entry fees for the top finishers. Avramis also had another stipulation — that all the competitors dress well, as with the money and milestone came the desire for a formal event.

“Almost every smasher I see is in sweatpants and a T-shirt and I just figured if we’re gonna make it something special, I might as well dress up for it,” he said. “I’ve always thought it’s just a fun way to kind of let people express themselves and also make it something different.”

Players dressed up to celebrate the 25th iteration of the tournament while competing for the $500 pot bonus

Some had a bit of fun with it. Cornell Smash officer Ben ‘TBD’ Perl wore a costume of his character Yoshi with a bow tie and Central New York player Anthony ‘Anagram’ Griggs put on a suit of armor. Avranis made sure even those that did not see the message or were new and unsure still got in on the fun, bringing extra ties for them to put on.

Afek Shalem, a freshman from Ithaca College, said while he had been playing casually for a long time, this was his first in-person tournament.

“You get the nerves, but it was really, really fun,” said Shalem. “Everybody that I fought against, I lost every match, but every one of them was probably the best match I’ve ever had.”

The esports industry has exploded in recent years, with spectators tuning in to view events online that have been known to fill theaters in stadiums across the globe. Both Ithaca College and Cornell feature active esports organizations on campus.

Major ‘Smash’ events can often draw hundreds of competitors and more than 100,000 viewers over livesteams 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” does compete for cash and livestreams its events, those there that came from local towns and colleges or nearby cities like Binghamton, Syracuse, and Horseheads are there for more than just the competition.

“I’ve actually already made a couple of new friends here,” said newcomer Maddie ‘RACHEL;)’ Finnigan. “We all lost last round one and two so we’re just kind of hanging out with each other.”

“Just getting to explore the regions,” said competitor Jacob ‘Naga’ Markusz, from Syracuse. I didn’t know [the Southern Tier’s] players. But again, they’re all incredible. Very nice people and great community.”

Players had to check into the event with either onsite or online registration

Some competitors like Zabel, an Ithaca College senior, and his green Kirby have become a staple at these and other events in the area, coming week after week to hang out with friends and try to improve his placings.

“As far as I know, this is the first tournament series Ithaca has ever had separate from the colleges,” said Zabel. “So having an actual local scene, even if a lot of the attendance is from other Southern Tier regions like Horseheads or Binghamton it’s really cool, and I really think Oculus does a great job.”

Modern Alchemy is just over a year old itself as a business, and co-owner Jonathan Westerling says while it has been exciting to see people come at times all the way from Pennsylvania to play, the determined regular players are his favorite to see.

“What I enjoy the most is seeing people coming back,” said Westerling. “The people that come in over and over again just to try to improve and get better — then probably get beat up.”

He says Modern Alchemy stays open on Saturday afternoons at times bar restaurants typically would not so that these type of community events can take place. The restaurant also hosts Magic the Gathering tournaments, trivia nights, and other events.

Avramis says Modern Alchemy along with the other competitors that help out with the event have all been a big part of what has kept the event going week after week.

Modern Alchemy on West State Street in Ithaca provided food and drink throughout the event.

Avramis, a Tompkins County local and current Binghamton University student, typically competes in his own events too — something uniquely challenging 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 has decayed as I’ve grown up.”

Having been declared blind early on in high school, it did not stop his love for the competitive side of Smash, which he first started playing competitively in middle school when his vision had already started to deteriorate.

“At first I just kind of wanted to pretend like I was just a normal player,” he said. “Eventually I learned I can do a lot better if I accommodate myself. So now I have headphones so I can hear my rights and lefts, I can hear different cues for different attacks happening, I can hear what inputs are working and what’s not, and I always try and go to a monitor that suits me. That kind of thing. And from there, I’d say I’ve been able to play somewhat successfully, considering.”

Adam “Oculus” Avramis competing against Anthony ‘Anagram’ Griggs, using a headset plugged directly into the Nintendo Switch to assist his sight. 

As the local scenes surrounding colleges and universities throughout the area start up again, like in Binghamton and at Ithaca College and Cornell, Avramis hopes that “The Smash Lab” can continue to bring the game downtown and into the future.

“I’m just really hoping that people that came today will keep coming,” Avramis said. ”That was really the hope of today was that we could get a couple more people interested and hopefully coming back every other week.”

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