As many of his friends were on their way to Las Vegas for this year’s Evolution Champion Series fighting game tournament, Mike Watson was fighting for his livelihood. He was sitting, patiently, in the front row of the City of Azusa Civic Auditorium. No matter what happened today, this wouldn’t be his last time there. But, if things went his way, it could be his happiest. So he sat, listening to people, all of whom were there because of him, speak.
All of them were telling stories. They told stories about many things: stories of how Watson had helped them, how his arcade had helped them, how the games he featured in his arcade had helped them. They told stories about how they became less shy by playing around other people, how they felt safe in the arcade, how they played games to relax after a long day of work. They told stories about avoiding gangs, about safety concerns, about “high quality.”
For years, everyone else had told stories about them, about the community Watson was a part of. Now they finally had the chance to tell their own stories to someone who might hear them out. This was probably not the best place to tell these stories. It wasn’t the most visible, to be sure. Many of the people who had already told stories about them probably wouldn’t hear them. But it was, right now, the most important place to tell them.
Watson was proud of his community for making their presence felt. He wasn’t sure what these stories would do, if they would help. But the friends and community who’d managed to make it out to the auditorium had told their stories, so he owed them his own. And after hearing everyone else’s stories, Mike Watson rose to tell his.
In December of last year, Mike Watson decided to relocate Super Arcade, the establishment he’d owned for over two years. Under Watson, Super Arcade became one of the most famous arcades in the world, notable mainly because of its place within the fighting game community; it had hosted regular tournaments for Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and other kinds of competitive games when Watson took the arcade over from its previous owner.
Fighting game players in southern California used it as a training ground, and it had never been more packed than when Watson (a top player himself back in the day) owned it. Players from all over the world traveled there. The arcade would stream its weekly tournaments out to thousands of viewers who’d spend their nights watching people play Street Fighter IV for hours the way some watched Monday Night Football.
Many of the actual arcade machines there were beside the point. They weren’t exactly for show (you could play a few rounds of Capcom vs. SNK 2 if you wanted), but Super Arcade made most of its money off tournament entry fees. The arcade’s regulars were consistent enough to make up about 75% of the arcade’s income. It made a small amount of money off venue fees, and it sold shirts, hats, games, gaming consoles and the ever-ubiquitous fightsticks many regulars played fighting games on. The average turnout for a weekly event was about 60-70 people.
Super Arcade stood mostly on competitive gaming money, but it was proudly independent, distancing itself from the grip of e-sports. So much so, in fact, that Watson ended up splitting with a former streaming partner over issues about sponsorships from gaming peripheral companies and the split he took on the venue fees, deciding to stream his weekly tournaments himself. It was badge of honor for Watson for the arcade to not need the money of anyone other than the community that had supported him and his arcade.
The catalyst for the move in December was a dispute between Watson and his landlord. Super Arcade made its home in Walnut California, about 26 miles and an hour’s drive east of Los Angeles. It was a popular area, and rent was high—about $6,000 a month, since the arcade took up two lots. Before December, Watson had been on a month-to-month lease (which was rare for businesses in the area), but that month his landlord decided to introduce a long-term lease without lowering the rent or offering Watson time to remodel the venue.
The location wasn’t exactly ideal, either. In the past, they’d had power outages and electrical fires caused by faulty wiring. However, in California it’s fairly common to have a triple-net lease, where the tenant pays for these kinds of things rather than the landlord. If you install a fixture (like air conditioning), you can’t take it with you when you leave.
Watson also felt the landlord was taking advantage of the arcade’s recent Kickstarter campaign to remodel the arcade, and he decided to push back. He had done a lot of good in the area; the arcade regulars drove up foot traffic, making more customers for the nearby Subway, Jack in the Box and Lollicup (a Taiwanese tea shop). The arcade had tripled the income of the latter. The Jack in the Box extended its hours to make itself available to players after the arcade’s late-night tournaments; when Watson closed shop after the Kickstarter temporarily to remodel, its owner would come by and ask when Watson would open the place back up.
Watson and the landlord couldn’t work out a new agreement on the lease, and Watson needed a new location for his many arcade machines and consoles. Watson wanted to stay in Walnut, but came up short when he looked locally. After expanding his search, he found what looked like the perfect place, only eight miles away from his previous location. Its address was 241 East Gladstone Street—part of the Edgewood Shopping Center and located in the city of Azusa, California.
The empty lot in which Mike Watson hoped to reopen Super Arcade had been a clothing store. City of Azusa staff say it had been abandoned since 2001, but other sources claim it’s been empty since 2011—someone probably made a clerical error. Either way, the clothing store was exactly the kind of business the city wanted in that lot: It sold lots of perfectly taxable items, which meant the City of Azusa saw plenty of sales tax revenue from it. A clothing store doesn’t threaten anyone, either; it could potentially offend someone’s sense of taste, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone genuinely afraid of going to one. It probably had its own stories, but no one would have mistaken it for something it wasn’t.
For Watson, the lot was as good a place as he could have hoped for. After scoping the lot out, he learned it would be half the rent for twice the size, and had easier freeway access, which meant his regulars who often drove for an hour or more to play in tournaments would have a slightly easier time getting there. It also had an entire second floor, which Watson could use for storage, or add more machines if he ever needed to. There weren’t as many places for his regulars to eat—looking at a Google Map of the place, the Edgewood Shopping Center has a Taco King, the Gladstone Donut House, and a Rite Aid, if you really need a cheap two-liter of soda in a hurry. Not as bountiful as the Walnut location, but everything else about the place seemed like a good fit.
By the time Watson submitted the initial application for the two minor use permits he’d need to run the business on May 5th, he’d been without an arcade for about five-and-half months. He had all of his machines in Walnut storage units and returned to plying his mortgage and poker trades. One of the permits was to open the business in that location, and the other was to extend its regular hours. The lot would normally have to close at 9pm, which wouldn’t work for the arcade; tournaments ran into the early hours of the morning, and usually wouldn’t start until long after regular working hours to accommodate players making the drive from LA after work.
Initially, city staff reviewed Watson’s permits and approved them, believing Super Arcade a good fit for the area. However, it’s not up to the city alone to approve of a new business. Whenever a business applies for a permit in an area like this, a notice goes out to all property owners within 300 feet of the proposed business. In order for the permit to go through, every property owner must sign off on it. If anyone explicitly states their opposition to the business opening in the area, the city’s planning commission holds a meeting to approve or deny the business.
This is what happened in Watson’s case. Just barely within that 300 foot limit are the Villa Azusa Senior Apartments, a few houses, and most of the other businesses in the shopping center. It’s unclear who exactly opposed the permit (probably for good reason), but in any case, even one opposing vote meant the permit had to go a meeting. The meeting was held on June 24th.
The initial meeting was exactly what you’d expect when you hear the phrase “local planning commission meeting.” Only people with a real stake in the matter, or an obligation to oversee proceedings attended. The five city planning commissioners—Chairperson Jesse Avila Jr. and commissioners Robert Donnelson, Suzanne Avila (no relation), Jack Lee and Anthony Contreras—sat high above the local audience on an elevated wooden bench; city staff sat on a table directly beneath them. Opposite the planning commission, Mike Watson and a few people who supported his cause sat on stuffy chairs, as did some local residents. After the initial formalities of the meeting, Commissioner Donnelson recused himself on any decisions involving the arcade, since he lived near its potential location.
Then the commissioners launched into the potential problems the arcade would face if it were to open in Edgewood. A shopping center like Edgewood can only have a certain percentage of non-retail sales (like tournament entry fees), which are harder to tax than regular retail sales (like clothing). The number of people Watson brought in was also a problem; if Watson could not install a second bathroom, security cameras, and a guard, he’d have a tough time getting approval.
When making his case to the commission, Watson first mentioned how the financial model for Super Arcade was different than what the commission may have thought; Watson made an effort to distance himself from the coin-op arcades of the past, calling his entry fee-based revenue a “turnaround” of the model. He also wanted to distance the arcade from arcades’ delinquency problems. In his time as owner, Super Arcade had never had a problem with the police; the security guard stationed there was mandated by the city of Walnut, and had never seen an incident. His arcade was far safer, far nicer than older arcades. And if he needed to install another bathroom to get the lot, he would.
But as the meeting went on, it became clear that logistics were the least of Watson’s worries. After Watson made his case, attendees and citizens (including the recused commissioner Robert Donnelson) came up to voice their arguments for or against the arcade opening in Edgewood.
Their main issue with the arcade had as much to do with Edgewood’s landlord as it did the arcade itself. they described the Edgewood Shopping Center in much the same way as they would have the arcade stereotype: seedy, prone to delinquency. Local residents came in once a month to clean the place up, all because the landlord refused to do anything about the litter. “We cannot allow this slumlord to devastate our city,” on local resident said said. “He’s not accountable or responsible for that shopping center and what he has done to the community.” Super Arcade, with its late night tournaments, would only exacerbate Edgewood’s problems.
Additionally, despite Watson’s claims about turnarounds, arcades were still not the kind of place residents of Azusa wanted near their homes. They brought up cases where violence had occurred because of arcades, specifically citing a 2013 incident of a robbery that took place at an arcade. Watson mentions in a blog post that the incident they described actually took place at a GameStop, citing research done by a person who had watched a livestream of the initial planning commission. However, a robbery did take place at a Seattle GameWorks in 2013.
Other speakers were more supportive. Most were not residents of Azusa but came to speak about the character of the arcade. Despite the preconceptions about arcades, they felt safe there, and went to the Walnut location every week to unwind after work. Other supporters mentioned the good Super Arcade and Watson had done for their community. Last year, when Terrance “PushaTee88” Moore passed away after collapsing at the arcade, the Super Arcade managed to raise over $9,000 dollars for his family. Listening to the meeting, you get the sense that Watson was on trial for a crime he hadn’t committed, and needed character witnesses to make his case, rather than evidence.
After everyone had had their say, the city of Azusa’s planning commission cast their votes. “High quality does not really fit with games called Street Fighter and Combat, so I think matching the general plan performance is a little bit of a stretch at this time.” Commissioner Suzanne Avila made this remark in her closing statements, explaining why she had decided to vote against the permits. She commended Super Arcade’s community for coming out and showing support, but stressed that the Edgewood shopping center was not the right place for the arcade.
Commissioners Jesse Avila and Anthony Contreras were also opposed, citing the tax, logistical, and delinquency issues. It would not provide “a high quality of life” for the community, Commissioner Avila said. Despite the show of support from the arcade’s regulars, the local residents (only one of whom supported the arcade) took precedence, and if they had concerns about the arcade, they had to do right by them. Finally, they cited the problems with the landlord, who remained unresponsive and had not made efforts to clean up the shopping center. The denial was nothing personal, but it would be “detrimental to the public health and safety.”
The sole vote in favor of the arcade, commissioner Jack Lee, had to contend with properly straddling both sides. While the rest of the commission and local residents dismissed it and Watson and excused and distanced himself from it, Lee acknowledged the power of arcades’ history, and chose to confront it. He equated his early days as an arcade goer with his current hobby of going to shooting ranges. People don’t see either hobby as wholesome, but there were “good” and “bad” people in every community, and you couldn’t dismiss an entire group on the basis of their worst members.
Despite Lee’s best efforts, the rest of the commission was not swayed. Mike Watson’s request for two minor use permits was denied, 3-1.
Commissioner Avila’s “high quality” comment made minor rounds on Twitter, gaming forums and blogs, and it would have been more frustrating if it hadn’t been so unsurprising. As it stands, however, the comment is symptomatic of a much larger problem that Watson, Super Arcade, and the entire fighting game community face: everyone only has one side of their story.
Avila’s comment is indicative of the long history of poverty and delinquency arcades struggle with, one people like Watson have been trying to shake off for years. Beyond the logistics like bathrooms, guards and cameras, the argument against Super Arcade relied largely on a negative ethos. Arcades, in their heyday, weren’t exactly friendly. Their bad history had always been somewhat misattributed, from their early affiliations with gambling, their ability to suck time and money from the nation’s youth, and, most relevant to Watson’s dilemma, their uncanny tendency to attract the supposed “wrong kind” of crowd. Even as most arcades struggle to continue staying relevant in a largely online world, their negative image lives on.
Watson’s entire case for reopening his arcade felt like an effort to push back against that image. Many of the local residents who shot down the arcade had made assumptions about the kind of place Watson’s arcade was— a den for the kinds of troublemakers you’d see in 80s movies, the kind with the over-the-top hairstyles and studded leather jackets to match their sociopathic tendencies. It’s a powerful image to draw from, especially when it allows you to profile the kind of people who’d go to an arcade as the same kind of people who’d urinate on shopping centers after midnight.
This image, like many of the assumptions older generations hold about the newer ones, ended up having far more sway in the court of law. The planning commission was “four, five older people of particular socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.” says David “Ultradavid” Graham, an attorney who often covers everything from entertainment startups to contracts for professional fighting game players. “They have prejudices, and expectations and [as someone making your case to them] you have to play towards those. It’s like anything in politics. You have to understand what [theirs] are, and play around them.”
And make no mistake, the modern interpretation of the older generation’s image of the younger one, which often mixes arcades, at-risk youth, and the impoverished, has an oft-forgotten racial element. “There are lots of people [who play] fighting games who are racial minorities, or they’re poor,” says Graham. “And watching that scene, with those commissioners, I really think it was a problem for them.”
In their closing statements, the planning commission mentioned that their denial wasn’t personal, but it’s hard to believe it was entirely logical, either. The logistics were far from the biggest issue. The negligent landlord played a large role in their decision as well, but the stigma they held towards arcades, and the kind of people they figured would frequent them, went a long way to backing up their denial. Saying something is “detrimental to health and safety” is a value judgement, especially considering Watson could address most of the “health and safety issues.” Though the commission’s declarations insisted it was the location, and not the arcade, they were rejecting, watching that first meeting, you get the sense their minds were made up long before the final arguments were made.
It’s also important to note, again, that the city staff had initially approved both of the arcade’s minor use permits, and the meeting was called only once at least one property owner wrote in to protest. This sort of denial doesn’t happen often in Azusa, either because the commission doesn’t go against city staff approvals, or because nearby property owners don’t complain about new businesses springing up in their area.
In Watson’s case two factors could have affected the permits’ approval: first, the local residents’ history with Edgewood’s landlord. The citizens who gathered once a month to clean up the shopping center lambasted its landlord for his negligence, and any notice of a new business opening in his shopping center would have caught the residents’ eye. Second, seeing that the permit was for a “coin-operated arcade,” the kind they figured would attract even more delinquency, they likely sprang into action in a way they wouldn’t have for another kind of business. When these two things coincided, voicing their disapproval may have been a no-brainer.
Arcades’ bad reputation isn’t entirely illegitimate, but it is dated. Though their history is steeped in stories of cheating, gambling, and violence, “arcades got that reputation because it was just a period of time when there was a lot youth violence in general, everywhere, in the 80s.” says Graham. “That was a big problem in the 70s and 80s. Arcades got that because it was a place where lots of young people went, but wherever young people went was a problem because it was a different time and place.” But for the commissioners who had never set foot in arcade, the image of smoke-filled arcades filled with young criminals stuck, and it would have taken more than a few people speaking against this perception to sway them.
Bad perceptions aren’t a new problem for the fighting game community. They’ve always been a subset (fighting games) of a subset (arcade games) of a subset (competitive games) of a cultural subset (videogames). They’ve been looked down upon by players of friendlier arcade games, the e-sports crowd, gamers in a wider sense, and society at large for decades.
In competitive gaming, they’ve always been the underdog, even as they grow larger every year. This year’s Evolution Championship Series Tournament offered many of its winners tens of thousands of dollars, and the upcoming Capcom Cup in December offers a total prize pool of $500,000. There’s much more money to go around for players this year than in the past, but these numbers pale in comparison to many of the most prominent events in e-sports, such as League of Legends’ League Championship Series ($1 million for first place) and Dota 2’s International ($18 million prize pool). If you’re passionate about fighting games and have what it takes to play them at a high level, it’s harder to maintain a full-time job playing them than, say, Counter-Strike. “I would say there are probably fewer than fifteen or twenty people playing fighting games full-time,” says Graham.
The fighting game community has always been a grassroots effort, due in part because of the very roots and image Watson had tried to distance Super Arcade from. Unlike the PC and console-centric worlds of e-sports, fighting games don’t exist without a communal environment like the ones arcade made so popular during Street Fighter II’s inception. This could be why the scene’s lagged behind the e-sports crowd, which started online and has thrived on the back of a more affluent audience, but it’s also allowed the FGC to become the most diverse community in competitive gaming. But because of this diversity, they’ve received furtive glances from just about everyone around them. Combine America’s chronic racism with outdated notions of what arcades are like, and the “high quality” remarks don’t sound as shocking.
The FGC isn’t exactly spotless, either. They’re “prickly,” if we’re being generous. Even Mike Watson isn’t without his rough edges—when people call him out, he opts to respond in kind. The same article which praises the community’s racial diversity chastises its “rocky history with gender politics.” It brings up the Cross Assault scandal, where a woman on the online reality show was sexually harassed by her team’s captain. And it’s a problem that extends beyond the online spotlight; people refer to everything relating to hardcore fighting game aficionados as “The FGC” but like any community, it’s actually made up of hundreds of local scenes, and even in smaller spaces women are commonly made to feel unwelcome. Various scenes are also stuck with dealing with the fallout of its members’ actions outside the games they play. These stories don’t paint a good picture.
FGC members also tend to shoot themselves in the foot. Even during the very trial in which Watson was trying to present the community as a public good, stream viewers and Twitter users spun the hate machines the internet is so well known for, sending dozens of angry tweets at the City of Azusa’s Twitter account during and after the planning commission meeting. “It’s not helpful to claim that the arcade is going to be a good thing for the community while you have people attacking on its behalf. That’s an unfortunate thing,” says Graham.
It’s easy, however, to see these communities as their worst stories (though we shouldn’t forget they exist) when you live outside them, when you’re telling these stories second-hand. It’s easy to see an entire community as dismissible when you focus on on the newsworthy stories, the juicy bits of drama. The disparaging stories should definitely be a part of the narrative, because they’re important to improving the community. But the good stories aren’t newsworthy, and outsiders often miss the strides people within those communities are making. Community members still have issues, but it’s hard for them to move forward if the good work isn’t acknowledged, if they’re seen as perpetual problem child despite their best efforts.
And often, the same people casting aspersions forget many problems within the FGC are symptomatic of a larger problem within the arcades of the past, with the violent youth of the times, within the male-dominated world of competitive games, the largely unsympathetic online world of gaming. So while the planning commission’s biggest problem (an unresponsive landlord) similarly had its roots elsewhere, Watson stood on trial for it, like he and many of its members had been for years.
In the wake of the first meeting, Super Arcade’s story made its way into popular gaming sites across the internet, and support was unsurprisingly in Watson’s favor. Prominent FGC members took to Twitter to share their support and vent over the planning commission’s assumptions about their community. There was, of course, the continuing deluge of angry messages aimed at Azusa’s Twitter profile. Some took a more civilized approach, drafting open letters to the city of Azusa and encouraging others to contact members of the planning commission through more formal means.
Watson himself was devastated. “I feel as if my heart was torn out,” Watson told Kotaku. “I feel like I have a whole community on my back and I failed,” he said.
The denial affected more than Watson, who was still getting by on mortgages and poker. Without Super Arcade, players in Southern California no longer had a place to unite, practice their skills, and prepare for tournaments. As of recently, their visibility on the international scene was fading. Top-tier players like Justin Wong weren’t attending weeklies, preferring to practice online or hold more private sessions. Without a place to congregate, the future of SoCal’s players was at stake. The families and players who took their children, relatives and spouses would also have to find somewhere else to go.
Immediately after the meeting, Watson continued to meet with city officials in order to plead his case to them and help overturn the denial. Watson also began enlisting more local support for the next meeting (to approve or deny the denial), encouraging people to show up in whatever formal attire they had and show their support. Before the second meeting began, Watson spotted over 200 people ready to support him and make their case for the city. The planning commission had told him that the speaking time per person would be cut from five to three minutes, and the total time allotted for public hearings would double from 30 minutes to an hour in order to accommodate every speaker. He met with everyone who planned to speak at the meeting so they could cover as many points as possible, effectively turning their side of the story into one hour-long speech. With a plan and place and a much larger show of support than the last time, Watson was confident he could overturn the denial.
For the second meeting, commissioner Robert Donnelson once again recused himself on account of his proximity to the Edgewood Shopping Center. Additionally, commissioner Contreras had stepped down from the commission to continue his education at the University of Southern California. This left only chairperson Jesse Avila and commissioners Suzanne Avila and Jack Lee to decide whether Super Arcade’s denial would go through.
Near-empty during the first meeting, the Azusa Civic Auditorium was packed for the second, mostly with Watson’s supporters. In the first meeting, 11 people (including Watson) voiced their opinion as part of the public hearings; the second meeting has exactly twice as many. Most of these supporters were fighting game players whose situation allowed them to stay in town long enough to attend the meeting then head to EVO (as Watson planned to). Most of them were out-of-towners, whose sway may have been slightly diminished compared to local citizens with a stake in the matter, but whose presence was no less impressive.
They told stories of avoiding gang influence and drugs while growing up because of the presence of a local arcade, and how Super Arcade was able to do the same for younger generations. They told stories of bringing their children there just because it was a great place to be.
They told stories to say that the people going to Super Arcade were more affluent, diverse and less prone to violence. They wanted to paint a better picture of fighting game players, of gamers in general, to a group of people who before would not have given their aspirations a second thought.
They told stories to refute the “high quality” comment, arguing that the games it called out weren’t about the violence of outlandish pugilists, but rather about critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication between two speakers of a common language.
They told stories of managing three medical centers and hundreds of physicians. About working in automotive design, or sales, or electrical engineering, and using fighting games as a way to recover from the stress felt as minorities having to be twice as good to get by.
They told stories of running arcades in other parts of the country, and traveling across it to show support for a place that deserved to open. They told stories about the misconceptions of arcades, and how their owners had to fight against them in a market that wanted them around less and less.
They told stories even when they were afraid to, when they had a fear of public speaking, about how much the arcade meant to them. They told stories about Mike Watson’s generosity, about him helping people get through law school. About the good he and his arcade were doing their community.
They were telling their own stories, finally. Then, allotted the full five minutes to speak, Watson told his.
His story was the summation of all the issues all the people before him had been trying to forward for the rest of the meeting, since Super Arcade’s struggles began, and for the fighting game community’s entire life. He told the planning commission that the arcade would benefit the area economically, that arcades were no longer the problem areas the older generation had thought them to be. That the commissioners, like many of the people who had seen FGC members as problematic for various reasons over the years were misattributing their problems with other things (like the landlord) onto them. That it wasn’t fair he was stuck in a fight that wasn’t his. That there were more good people doing good work in the community than people hindering it, but their reputation was still sour. That all he wanted to do is run an arcade and make the community better. That he already knew that if the commission rejected him again, he’d appeal immediately, without question. It would cost him, but he’d do it anyway. Because he was on the city’s side. Because he just wanted to help.
The planning commission of Azusa couldn’t have said yes if they wanted, at least not right away. They were voting on a resolution to deny a minor use permit, after all. Even if they shot it down, that didn’t mean Watson was in the clear. It simply meant he wasn’t denied, and another public hearing (this one, despite being livestreamed, was considered private for legal purposes) would have to take place before Watson could reopen his arcade.
Commissioner Suzanne Avila spoke first. She again commended the community on showing up to the hearing, taking note that this was clearly something which mattered to them. The said she was more empathetic to their cause and wanted to help them. “How could we say no?” she said.
However, many of the people supporting Watson that day were from out of town. And many people dissenting were local. And for a city planning commission, the local residents mattered more. And the neighbors in the area, the older folk who had showed up to the first meeting but not the second, didn’t want the arcade. As much she wanted it to happen, the Edgewood Shopping Center was not the place for Super Arcade. “I don’t want to say no to reject it, but I want to say no to work with [the arcade],” she said. It wasn’t a yes, but its tone was far removed from the “high quality” comment.
Commissioner Avila asked the city staff sitting below the commission’s bench if there was anything they could do, if they could accommodate Watson in any way. The city staff said they’d try.
Chairperson Jesse Avila echoed some of Commissioner Avila’s sentiments, citing that the location was still not a good place for the arcade. “No doesn’t mean no, no means go back to the drawing board.” For Watson, no also meant having to spend money on an appeal process in moving it to the city council.
Commissioner Jack Lee was still in favor of the arcade. After hearing the comments about Edgewood not being the right place for Super Arcade, he asked his fellow commissioners: “If not there, then where? We can say ‘let’s help.’ But do we have anything in mind? I don’t.” It was a surprisingly frank showing of the hand, a comment against the nature of government to pay lip service without execution.
Lee then gave Watson’s case one final hail mary to convince his fellow commissioners to vote down the denial. As Lee saw it, Watson could actually be an instrumental tool in helping to fight one of the local residents’, and by extension the commission’s, biggest problems—the nefarious landlord. If Watson set up shop, he could use his power as a tenant to withhold rent from the landlord if he wasn’t keeping up his end of the lease. If the lot was dirty, if the landlord was doing nothing to keep away the construction workers who may or may not have been urinating on Edgewood’s walls, Watson could use rent as a way to force his hand. “Mr. Watson has teeth,” Lee said.
Lee also mentioned that Watson had already addressed most of the other issues local residents had, such as security. As for the retail tax issue, sure, the commission could hold off and wait for a business with a friendlier financial model to come by. Or they could work with Watson, a viable tenant ready to pay his dues, and start getting revenue for the city from that space. They could tax the income Watson made off the entry fees, or the console stations. They could work something out.
He sympathized with Watson’s plight, having been an arcade-goer himself. He mentioned his favorite arcade game in the old days was Raiden, a classic top down shooter. His plea was, quite frankly, inspiring. He seemed as frustrated with the process, the lack of mutual understanding as Watson was. He made a final plea to his fellow commissioners: “Let’s make this place great.” The commission discussed it some more, mostly reiterating their main points again. Then city staff asked for a final vote.
On Resolutions of Denial for Minor Use Permit MUP 2015-12 & MUP 2015-13, the request to allow a Commercial Recreation Facility (Indoor) Use and extended hours of a coin operated arcade located in the Edgewood Shopping Center, Planning Commission Chairperson Jesse Avila voted aye. Commissioner Suzanne Avila voted aye. Commissioner Jack Lee voted nay.
With a 2-1 in favor, the resolution for denial passed.
If Mike Watson wants to continue pursuing 241 East Gladstone Street as a location for Super Arcade (which he plans to rename as soon as he re-opens), he had 20 days to file an appeal, a date which expires this week. He’s also going to have to pay the $2700 appeal fee in order to stand before the city council, which doesn’t guarantee much of anything. He could get denied again, be out a few thousand more dollars and still need to find another place for his business.
Planning commission decisions do get overturned, but not often, according to Troy Butzlaff, Azusa’s city manager. When I spoke to him and Kurt Christiansen, head of economic development over the phone before the second meeting, their advice for Watson was to do exactly what he ended up doing: address the commission’s concerns about safety and the non-retail sales issue (by agreeing to sell more retail like food or merchandise). If he does end up appealing, the city council could bring up these exact issues as well, even if city staff had already approved the minor use permit before the first meeting.
They also recommended he make a compelling emotional argument. Even though they’re based on standards, local government entities like the planning commission make subjective decisions based on the information available to them, and can be swayed if there’s a good enough case for it. Unfortunately for Watson, though, his argument ended up not being strong enough.
Watching the second meeting, you get the sense no argument would have been compelling enough. Whether the landlord issue was an immovable obstacle, the local residents’ dissention was a much larger influence than the stories of several outsiders could ever have been, or the misconceptions about arcades and videogame players in general are still too pervasive in the minds of some to change, the trial seemed like a done deal even as it started, even when there were moments, like Commissioner Lee’s impassioned speech, that you thought otherwise.
It’s easy to point the blame at the planning commission, but their concern for their community is very real. And even if they seemed empathetic to the situation by the end of the second meeting, their loyalty is to their local residents, who made their disapproval clear. They’re as wrapped up in the rules of government as much has anyone else, have their own internal politics to consider.
Watson has also found another potential location for this arcade already, which could end up going through a much easier approval process than the one in Edgewood. It will need some more work before it’s fit to operate, however, and he’s going to have to make a choice about whether he wants to cut his losses and go for this new place or file the appeal soon. Things could work out for him long term. But that doesn’t make his loss any less disheartening.
Whatever ends up happening, Mike Watson should be proud. His story wasn’t on the national stage. Most people outside the gaming sphere probably won’t take notice of his struggle to relocate his business. But it’s also possible that a very small number of people changed their minds that way. That Watson has done the FGC, arcades, and the people involved in them, some small amount of good. That he’s made some progress with his story in overturning the misconceptions about his community, one that’s had a rough history and still has major issues but that’s ultimately a positive one. And hopefully, some of that good will eventually find its way to him. It has to.
How could we say no?
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who almost failed a basic computer management class because he spent way too much time watching Ricky Ortiz fighting Combofiend in Capcom Vs. SNK 2. He’s written for Paste, Kotaku, GamesBeat, and you can follow him on Twitter.