Standing at 1,500 square feet, Ultra Arcade is a brand new haven for the fighting game community in San Antonio. It opened its doors in February and has since garnered enough attention that IFC Yipes trusts them with hosting tomorrow’s Curleh Mustache South – which, as of today, has 140 confirmations on Facebook, with top players such as Job “RG|Flocker” Figueroa and Vu “Ranmasama” Tra expected to attend, and Team Spooky handling the stream. Owners Brandon Alexander and David Ruben have promised a hell of a time with outdoor casuals and Texas BBQ, and the gathering of the South’s best Marvel players will be the first major event for this mint establishment.
But although they are still rookies in the arcade operation business, they are fighting game veterans with the backings of real-life experiences. Alexander, 25, moved to San Antonio from Norway when he was 13 and plays for the band Bad Obsession. Ruben, 31, relocated from Salina, Kansas, when he was 16 and has a seasonal job repairing hail damage. They met thanks to a mutual friend and a Killer Instinct forum in 2013 and, through common goals, Ultra Arcade was created. Together, they provide a place for the FGC in a city that bleeds Spurs’ silver and black.
We had a chance to talk to them about the creation of Ultra Arcade, its planning, future goals, and other related questions. Their story is not just a tale of two people with different backgrounds and lifestyles converging on a singular path, but also how their bond creates a vibrato that’s already begun to resonate across the community.
Jason Yang: What fighting games did y’all grow up with?
I was big on Mortal Kombat. I always love the competitive aspect of fighting games which gets my blood pumping.
David Ruben: I played Street Fighter with my siblings, but the old Killer Instinct was the game that made me fall in love with fighting games.
JY: How did y’all get in contact with the fighting game community in San Antonio?
DR: I met Matt Castro in a Killer Instinct forum seven years ago because I wanted to see if anyone playing the game wanted to meet up at an arcade. Seven years later, Castro contacted me through my email on the forum and invited me to a Killer Instinct gathering.
BA: I always see if people want to get together, but a venue for gatherings is rare in San Antonio. The community was underground. I figured I wanted to do something to improve myself and other people who shared the same interest.
When Street Fighter IV came out in 2009, I was a Subway manager. I felt this urge to host a tournament, Revolution, and my boss allowed me to use the restaurant as the venue. A lot of players came down, like Jan, Jewelman, and other top players in Texas, even though I didn’t guarantee any money. The Subway was packed. Then I continued hosting events such as Subway Fight Night until my leave in April 2013.
JY: What made you want to start an arcade?
DR: Rejoining the FGC reinvigorated my passion. I found out about EVO and saw the entertainment and hype, and we don’t have anything similar in San Antonio. We have a decent scene, but we don’t have an arcade with fighting games. The expensive mainstream arcades such as Dave & Busters or Main Event didn’t cater to the hardcore gamers.
BA: So we planned to drop $50,000 for a tournament, but with that much money on the table, we said, “Screw it, let’s just open an arcade where we can run tournaments all time.”
DR: When I was young, the arcade I grew up with took away the Killer Instinct cabinet because the owner didn’t want it there. So when I found the FGC in San Antonio, I attended gatherings all the time. For four to five times a week, we would bring our set-ups and travel to Arcade UFO in Austin because there wasn’t a venue here to get decent matches. It wasn’t an ideal situation. We’d meet up at 10 p.m. and play until 3 or 4 a.m. It was all we had. So the excessive traveling was also another reason.
We are not making a living out of it. We don’t expect to become rich. You don’t want to sacrifice almost everything to have the arcade for the community. But the FGC in San Antonio wants and needs it, and to flourish, they have to have it. That’s the main reason. We agreed from the start that if we make enough to float above the bills, then at least the community has the arcade.
JY: How did the arcade come to fruition?
DR: Although I played fighting games all my life, I never entered a tournament nor ran one – until I met Brandon, who is heavily involved with the FGC. He had experiences as a manager and was one of the original guys who started the scene in San Antonio. We both wanted an arcade for a long time so we asked the community for feedback, and everybody said, “Hell yeah, you should do it. We’ll come out and support you.” So we decided to open an arcade, shopped for a venue, and found a location we loved.
BA: We have a small business loan, but we still have to invest almost all of our savings. With that said, the demand was high so we wanted to put something together as soon as possible. We decided in December 2013 and Ultra was finished two months later.
JY: Were you aware of the risk from past failed arcades?
DR: Yeah, we knew arcades were on the decline. San Antonio used to have a franchise, Diversions, which had eight to ten venues. But now there’s only one left. So we knew the risk, but we also saw the potential of this new movement: the competitive scene, the hype. That’s why we did it. That’s also why we went with a low overhead type of deal.
BA: Average arcades consider a $50 profit lucky. I told David he can’t expect to make a huge profit out of this business. If we are doing this, it’s 100 percent for the community and not for us, and he’s totally cool with it. If we don’t get the support, at least we can say we tried and did what we could.
Super Arcade deserves to stick around because it’s run by the community. Their issues were sad to see, but that Kickstarter turned the boat around, and they need to be around for years to come especially for the future FGC. I want my children to experience what I experienced in the arcade during my childhood. Everyone should at least have that luxury. Arcades, not consoles, got me into video games and changed my life.
JY: What were some of the obstacles?
BA: The only struggle was finding the right location for the venue at the right price. Overhead cost is the real murder of arcades.
JY: What kind of promotional tools did you use?
BA: I used Facebook and word of mouth. We had a street team passing out fliers. I also branded the city with bumper stickers, and people would see them and search for Ultra Arcade on the web. I brought set-ups to places such as a bar to introduce our community to strangers.
JY: What makes Ultra Arcade stand out?
BA: First, it’s the atmosphere. San Antonio FGC loves nurturing players. Second, we have every single fighting game that has been a favorite to someone – except Shaq Fu – so we can support every community. We only charge $5 for all you can play from open to close – that’s 40 cents an hour. We also have affordable pizza, donuts, honeybuns, water, sodas, and energy drinks. We know fighting game players have limited spending so we aim to be one of the most affordable arcades. It’s also run by the community, so we’ll host an event for any player for free. We also hold fundraisers.
JY: How much support has the FGC in San Antonio shown for Ultra Arcade?
BA: The support has been great. We are usually packed unless it’s exam time. We really appreciate the support such as everyone’s assistance in promoting Ultra. They’ll come here once and bring 10 friends with them next time.
On Wednesday, we had 45 players for an Ultra Street Fighter IV tournament. On the weekend, 200-300 people come throughout the day. We’ll have tournaments for the usual fighters, tabletop card games, and even Mario Kart. Mondays and Tuesdays, our slowest days, we might break 100.
JY: Did y’all expect such a warm reception from those other communities?
BA: No. We were clear from the start that Ultra will cater to fighting games. But we do realize that we want to do this for all the communities such as DDR or tabletop games or Mario Kart, Smash, Call of Duty, League of Legend, etc. I agree with a quote from FilthieRich: In the end, we are all playing games and we should all grow together. That’s why we have other genres. We actually don’t have eSports setups yet, but we plan to have them. We support everybody, because there’s no place for communities here. It’s a place they can get away instead of staying at home and playing online. They can temporarily detach from the stress called life and do it with hundreds of other people.
DR: Fighting games are our bread n’ butter, but we also encourage any type of competition. If they want to get better and enjoy the matches, that’s something we’d like to see. If we can add a competitive level to any kind of game and grow any kind of scene, we’ll do that. We also have other communities such as the 3DS players, Monster Hunter and Pokemon, so we are about helping them grow. Even though we bleed FGC, we want Ultra to be where everyone can show up and have cheap fun. I used to go to the arcade with $5 and go directly home afterward. Now it’s more of a community where people socialize.
At the end of the day, everything supports Ultra Arcade. We can’t expect to survive strictly off fighting games because we’ll be pinned in the corner — especially in this economy, at the price that we offer, we need as much support as we can get. We are all about growing the arcade community in general.
JY: How has the opening of Ultra impacted San Antonio’s scene?
DR: I’m the perfect example. A lot of people share my story: their discovery of the FGC rejuvenates their competitive mojo. Whether the game is Street Fighter, Killer Instinct, or Smash, Ultra has everything they need to succeed, from set-ups to high level competitions.
The FGC has grown, but the arcade community is gaining pace as well. The nightlife isn’t great here and we offer something for that type of crowd. Our price and competitive spirit translate well with them. They love watching exciting matches and getting hype. So both communities are definitely growing.
JY: What are your current goals? Grand plan?
BA: Our goal is to buy the surrounding 1,100 square feet in addition to our current 1,500 square feet so we can get the lowest overhead cost possible.
The other goal is to expand and grow with the FGC. We wanted an arcade to cater to fighting games so we opened one. We want to be part of this movement and grow with the community. The grand plan is to host huge events, not just annually. We want to do something outside of the state, country, whether it’s music, fighting games, eSports events. That’s our ultimate dream. But like I said, we are doing this for the community, not making profits. As long as the community is happy and succeeds; that’s the goal.
JY: Do you think such fast expansion means larger risk in the future?
BA: No, I don’t think so. We need the space because we are packed during the weekend. Adding a patio translates into outdoor events, but that won’t happen until the lease ends in April 2015. We know the cost. Electricity might be doubled or tripled but no big deal because the cost is cheap in San Antonio. If you own the building, you pay the whole thing off, and we plan for utilities and permits. We don’t need to worry about rent because Ultra is our property.
JY: Do you feel like the arcade might struggle in the future?
BA: Arcades failed because of lack of marketing and not maximizing your assets. Marketing and reinventing the place are the secrets of staying open.
The struggle might happen, but we are prepared for it. Ultra is doing well right now. We are getting the support that we need. But the goal here is open for the community so we are willing to make the sacrifice to keep Ultra open. We are expanding to keep the price at a good rate and to have more machines to accompany the growth. The more people we have in here, the better we’ll do. So we could struggle, but if we get the right support, we’ll be alright.
JY: Any additional comments?
DR: The bottom line is it’s all about the community. That’s what it is. This isn’t a business where people come because of necessity. They don’t come here because of other inconveniences. They come to Ultra for entertainment and the community. Those are really all it is.