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Barcade gamers battle to be legends of the leaderboard

By Mick Swasko, @swasko

RedEye

6:10 PM CDT, April 14, 2014

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A few days after his wedding in July, Scott Hoyer was back behind the bar. Between flicks of the wrist at the tap, he was collecting tips from patrons who ranged from rowdy cowboys to jocks to raging punk rockers. Each of them slung an empty Budweiser glass back for another, each of which Hoyer expertly caught and refilled.

He did this for more than four hours without a break, until his wife returned from shopping and told him it was time to walk away.

He did so happily. His eyes were growing tired of staring at the Tapper arcade machine at Emporium Arcade Bar, where he'd just shattered the previous high score by a few million points. It didn't matter that he wasn't actually tending bar, but rather hitting buttons and pulling levers on the 1983 classic arcade game; he was exhausted. He entered his initials onto the screen, HOY, and alerted bar owner Danny Marks, who manages Emporium with his brother, Doug.

Hoyer's name was restored to Emporium's chalkboard list of high scorers, which hangs prominently above the bar, and no one has come close to topping him since.

"It's a Chicago thing," he said, adding he visits the bar about twice a week. "You have a bar that you're a regular at. [Emporium] is mine. No other bar has my name on a sign."

Hoyer is just one childhood gamer sucked back into the hobby by the Chicago arcade bar scene, which will be growing even bigger this year. For some, the beer on tap at barcades like Headquarters, Emporium and Logan Hardware is the draw. For others, it's just casual gameplay, or the lure of a growing list of tournament-style pinball and arcade game events. But for those like Hoyer, whose names are displayed as the best-of-the-best at their game of choice, it's all about chasing a new high score.

"It's just the stupidest game, in all honesty," Hoyer said of Tapper, which he remembers playing as a kid when his older brother would reluctantly bring him along to an arcade in the suburbs. "It's stupid and mundane and monotonous. But for some reason, I love playing that game."

Being enshrined on Emporium's scoreboard--for however long the 2,235,750 high score lasts--has its perks. But so does hanging out in the bar. Most staff members know him by name; no longer is he just "Tapper guy" to them. On a recent Monday afternoon, Danny Marks approached Hoyer to fill him in on who else had been in recently, and the pair retired to play a game of NBA Jam together over a beer. The two have an understanding that if Hoyer's high score is ever broken, he'll get a text immediately, though he claims its "damn near unbreakable."

"It's kind of like 'Cheers' in a weird way," Hoyer said. "People know me when I walk in. I'm somebody special over there."

While his name and score in chalk is enough for Hoyer, that's not the case for some. Ed Rhee's name can be found on Emporium's high score list as well--he has the bar's No. 1 arcade-mode Galaga score of 4,592,170. But that's not the 32-year-old Wicker Park resident's endgame.

One busy afternoon in February, Rhee sat for nearly four hours at the arcade's Galaga machine--a classic space shooter where row after row of enemy ships are blasted away. He racked up 3.9 million points in tournament mode, a more difficult setting that allows the player only five lives, and captured the entire session on camera. If he opted to send that video to Twin Galaxies--the de facto video game world record authority--he would be recognized as the second-highest-scoring player of all time. But Twin Galaxies won't see the proof. Rhee isn't looking for second place; he fell just short of the world record.

"I just want to know that I'm the world record holder in a game I've always played," he said, adding that with a little more practice, he believes, he can hit 5 million and overtake current world record holder Andrew Laidlaw. "It's really just knowing you have the record. It would be cool to break it here, set a legitimate iconic world record here."

Rhee said he's planning another attempt after a little more practice, and if successful he will send his videotaped evidence to be stamped as the all-time champion.

As far as arcade world records go, Jim Zespy is well-versed. He's owned Logan Hardware, a Milwaukee Avenue record store and retro-arcade, since 2010. In that time he's seen multiple world records set and attempted inside his museum-like collection of arcade cabinets, from PacMan to Donkey Kong. In February, he hopped onto the bar scene by opening a barcade in the original Logan Hardware location after moving the record shop down the street. He didn't know what to expect at first, but he's been happy so far at the response.

"It feels good to see a guy who just got off his job as a banker, a kid getting off his fixed-gear bike and someone coming in from DePaul all together to play," he said.

Zespy also is beginning to see a community form around the games. During a large tournament in late March that featured some of the best players in the world, Zespy watched as Centipede record holder Donald Hays racked up a score of 999,999 "for fun." A curious onlooker wasn't impressed.

"He looked up the world record on his phone," Zespy said. "He leans over to [Hays] and says, 'The high score is 7.5 million. Good luck, dude.' [Hays] turned around and said, 'I know, it's mine.' It was this guy's anecdote at the bar the rest of the night, that he'd met [the record holder]."

The community extends to the novices. Zespy said social arcade bars are encouraging the casual players to band together. In one recent instance, Zespy watched two patrons who knew each other only by the initials they used to enter their scores. One of them remarked that it's his goal to beat the other's score each time he visits.

"Now they're trading tips and tricks," he said.

With both Emporium and Lincoln Park's Headquarters set to expand, and Logan Hardware's bar new on the scene, Zespy said he hopes the community that is forming isn't temporary.

"I hope it's not a fad," he said. "I hope for everyone involved, it's not just some bubble waiting to burst. I could be that it's just the right time."


Chicago's barcade scene

Chicago's arcade-bar scene is about to expand. Here's where you can play and drink now, and a look at what's coming. M.S.

Now open

Emporium Arcade Bar
1366 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Opened: June 2012

Headquarters Beercade
2833 N. Sheffield Ave.
Opened: Oct. 2012

Logan Hardware
2410 W. Fullerton Ave.
Opened: Feb. 2014

Replay Beer and Bourbon
3439 N. Halsted St.
Opened: May 2013

Coming soon

Emporium Logan Square
2363 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Opening: Summer 2014
Game plan: Emporium Logan Square will have a table game focus, including pool, air hockey and foosball in addition to arcade games. The location also will feature an indoor food truck.

Headquarters River North
213 W. Institute Place
Opening: Spring 2014
Game plan: Much like their Lakeview location, the River North Headquarters will feature classic arcade machines and pinball along with craft beer and cocktails.
mswasko@redeyechicago.com | @swasko

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