this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on March 18, 2010.

The memory is almost two years old, but it still remains fresh in my mind: Twenty people are cramped inside a room, waiting for their turn to fight. When my turn comes, I step forward together with my long-time opponent, someone I have fought with many times before. Adrenaline begins to enter my system. My heart rate races as I try to keep myself under control.

The match starts, and it turns out to be a close one. Every round we go back and forth, each win a testament to our own individual skill. In the end, with the score tied, the match is decided with a single strike. In five minutes, it’s all over, and I stand victorious.

Don’t get me wrong, aside from a few egos, no one was hurt. In fact, no one even threw a single punch. For the better part of three years, I have been part of a community of video game players, specializing in a single fighting game.

When you hear the term “video game players,” you think of a couple of people holed up in a computer shop clicking a mouse. But there are many kinds of video game players, and we are part of a distinct species: the fighting game player.

We have played in each other’s houses, often cramped into a single room, during meetings organized through the Internet. We have never played for money, mainly because we think it would take most of the fun out of it. The biggest prize anyone ever gave out was a pirated DVD someone had donated. The players I have met weren’t tambays or people with nothing else to do in their lives. Aside from the usual high school and college crowd, there have been office workers, businessmen and young professionals. The only thing that links us is the fact that we like playing this one video game.

In my next match, I am defeated by a strong player, a young man from Rizal (their group had come all the way from the province just to fight us). Although I am disappointed over my loss, I shrug it off and turn my attention to the other matches going on. In one station, a young but talented kid fights a guy twice his age. This guy seems to be losing to the kid, but manages to pull through in the end.

Our community is small, and the game we play, based on a popular animé, is not as popular as your “Tekkens” or “Street Fighters.” We consider our meetings as a chance to share our passion with others.

When I was growing up, I was a very shy kid. I never had the chance to open up to others, or to do things of mutual interest together. Perhaps this was partly due to the fact that my interests never really matched anyone else’s. I was like the kid in the playground who talks a lot with nobody understanding him. Playing this game was one of the very rare times I was able to make friends outside of our family or school.

Back to the game. The crowd falls silent and a thick tension fills the room. The player who defeated me earlier is now in a match against one of our best players. In reference to a legendary fighting game player, some of us call him “The Beast.” He has made a habit of winning all the tournaments I have witnessed, although you can’t find a nicer guy.

Everyone’s eyes are glued to the TV screen as if it’s the last few minutes of the last game of the NBA Finals. The matches are decided by pure, unadulterated skill. Everyone’s heart skips a beat as the match goes back and forth. Our best player appears to be losing. He loses a few rounds, but regains the momentum and strikes back. When time runs out and the winner is finally declared, everybody cheers like their team won a world championship. It’s a feeling you rarely experience anywhere else.

Did I ever think I was going to be doing this for a living? No. Did I ever think I would do this for the rest of my life? No. Ultimately for us, it is just a hobby—the rest of our lives was there to look forward to. But I know there are people doing this for a living, but that’s another story.

Looking back to that time, the game we were playing wasn’t important. It was the bonds that we formed as friends that were valuable. Being a passive person who hates confrontation, I experienced for once the thrill of competing against someone else (and sometimes winning too.)

I may not play the game so often anymore, and other younger people may have taken over the scene, but I look back to those days with a sense of nostalgia. And if anyone’s raring for a match, I guess I’ll take him up for a round or two.

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