By Rosemary An and Neda Karimi
When Michael ‘Face’ LaBombard, noticed a lack of community and professionalism within the local e-sports scene on Long Island, he raised $25,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to open up his own tournament venue. He opened AON Gaming, located in Deer Park, in 2016. It established a home base for players who would often compete remotely or in other locations.
AON Gaming regularly holds weekly tournaments in fighting games such as ‘Super Smash Brothers’ and ‘Rivals of Aether.’ Tournaments are streamed by AON’s director of broadcast and owner of GenGame streaming, Trevor ‘GenGame’ Magnani, who believes the venue serves as a central hub for gamers of all ages, taste and play styles to call home.
“We want people to spend all day here,” he said. “We want to create a spot that’s safe where players can come in and feel welcome.”
Prior to the venue’s opening, local players would compete remotely or in the backs of hobby shops such as Brothers Grim Games and Collectibles in Selden, and Play N Trade locations, according to LaBombard. There weren’t many places where players could gather and compete.
“We’d be in the back making deals with the store owners like ‘Hey, we’ll give you a cut’ and they did,” 21-year-old Dan ‘Funkdoctor’ Costello, a commentator for AON’s live streams, said. “It was way less intense.”
It was at a tournament run by LaBombard at the Brothers Grimm hobby shop when he approached Magnani with the idea for AON Gaming.
“I ended up doing the live streaming out of ‘Grimm’ with my portable broadcast kit,” Magnani said. “That’s where he said he was looking into getting his own venue. I said sure and the rest is history and a lot of gambling.”
AON Gaming’s establishment has been a ‘by the community, for the community effort,’ according to LaBombard. Attendance, however, isn’t limited to players who only compete locally. Internationally known players such as Dabuz, who is ranked #3 in the world right now, go to AON.
“He lives on Long Island and comes here every Friday,” LaBombard said. “We also have Mr. E, one of the best Marthe [players] in the world. There’s a lot of good talent here.”
The ‘smash’ competitive scene emerged in 2002 after the release of ‘Super Smash Bros. Melee’ for Gamecube in 2001. Despite pushback from the company that makes the game, Nintendo, which still doesn’t sponsor smash tournaments, competitive play exploded. Players compete worldwide in various versions of the game for thousands of dollars in prizes. The most popular are the original Melee version and ‘Super Smash Bros for Wii U’, which the community calls Smash. 4.
While the venue fills up with Smash 4 players every week, the Melee scene is lagging. Competitive players like Costello said that they expected attendance to be flourishing because they have this entire setup to themselves. But that isn’t the case.
“There are several niche communities in Long Island that don’t like that you have to pay $15 [for entry] instead of $10,” Costello said. “Melee is on the rope. AON strengthened the core group of Long Island Melee people but the niche groups disappeared and have not fully embraced the place.”
According to an annual report released by Newzoo in 2018, the e-sports industry will reach $1.5 billion in revenue by 2020 and the global e-sport audience will reach 360 million by the end of this year. The international prize pool this year for the Defense of the Agents tournament was a record $24.8 million.
“It’s a fun prize pool,” Magnani said. “If you win this prize, you’re set for life.”
AON’s prize pools aren’t as large, but players still get 100 percent of their fixed-ratio style pool. They charge a $10 venue fee, with an additional $5 towards entering the tournament.
“If there are 100 people in the bracket, and they each pay $5 that’s $250 that goes out to the winners,” LaBombard said.
As e-sports has grown over the past decade, it has become difficult to keep running tournaments without a set space.
“Anybody can have a tournament in a big room,” he said, “But we’re trying to treat it as if it’s a professional experience with live, professional-style broadcasts, big regular weekly and monthly tournaments, regionals and nationals.”