“There’s a teleporter in here,” said a long-haired blond boy traipsing up the stadium stairs of the Camino Real theater, though it wasn’t clear whom he was talking to. “I’m gonna find it,” he said hauling his laptop — about half as big as he was — into an aisle seat.
From the back row another voice chimed in, “Where are you?”
The blond boy stands up, almost dropping his computer, and points up. “We’re dancing: Look.” Sure enough, two blockheaded avatars awkwardly spin each other on the big screen.
The occasion for all of this youthful high-tech play was a warm-up meeting for the Super League Gaming’s champion Minecraft play-offs. For un-initiates, Minecraft is a “sandbox game,” so called because of the freedom from strict rules of play afforded its users, though younger player accessibility clearly applies. In essence,Minecraft is a virtual Lego 3D building program, though the game also supports a combat mode. People can build extensive environments for fun, or they can get all multi-user and suffer and launch attacks on each other’s castles. Minecraft is deceptively simple, which loans it a mythology layer — stories tell of the game’s inventor, Markus Persson, known as Notch. It is also said that that one user built a Minecraft clock that actually worked.
“The kids play in both modes,” explained Super League Gaming’s Brett Morris out in the lobby of the Camino Real one recent Saturday morning. “They build but also play combat games, too.” The tournament, which lasts four weeks, mainly turns on the number of “kills” the young enthusiasts accumulate, though the parents I met like other aspects. Besides, Minecraft is nowhere near the overt violence of, say, Mortal Kombat addictions.
Inside the theater, about 20 kids are hunkered down on their laptops. The morning’s thrill included an appearance of YouTube celebrity ParkerGames (a pseudonym), who sat mid-theater surrounded by very young women. But most of the kids were furiously playing while Super League staff wandered around offering tips, working their own screens while the movie theater cycled through different game environments — a zombie war and a Hunger Games–like battle pop up at different times, cued by a machine voice. Periodically, the kids stop battling and build.
“The whole thing is a win-win situation,” explains Morris, president and COO of Super League Gaming. The kids get a chance to ramp up their skills, the parents like the socializing aspect and even the movie theater is happy that at 10 a.m. Saturday morning, popcorn-buying customers are there.
“I won a $5,000 scholarship,” said 10-year-old Julien Wiltshire later on the phone from his Pacific Palisades home. Wiltshire won last year’s Santa Monica–based competition. “I got a bunch of other stuff too. I like the building part, but I’m the best at getting kills.” Was it strategy? “No, I just have really fast reflexes,” he said.
Douglas Trowbridge from Santa Barbara likes both the creative aspect and the combat, according to his mother, Elisa, who is raising the 7-year-old boy alone and has a cautious love of theMinecraft obsession. “It’s better than so many of the other games,” she said. “And he knows he has to do his schoolwork first and then he can play.” Douglas will compete this year, though he’ll miss the first game for a family outing. “I’m gonna win,” he told me matter-of-factly and then reeled off other games he likes including one that features creepers that get in your virtual face.
“I think the best part of the whole experience is getting the kids out here,” Morris said, as we watch computer-engaged kids kill zombies. “A lot of these kids are, well, it’s all they want to do. I can’t tell you how many parents have thanked me for getting their kids out of the house.”
Kids can sign up for the $60 four-week league, which runs every Saturday at 4:30 p.m. from February 20 to March 12, until February 16. See superleague.com.