In just a few months’ time, Worcester will be home to not one, not two, not even three, but four video game bars. Four businesses, spread throughout the city, are making the same bet, albeit with different business models, that the good people of this city want somewhere to drink and game at the same time.

 

A trend that has in recent years spread rapidly along the East Coast is descending on Worcester all at once. Between Savepoint Tavern, which has been open for months, and the soon-to-open Free Play, Pixel & Pint, and All Systems Go, Worcester gamers will not be wanting for a watering hole.

 

So what gives? Why are we seeing so many entrepreneurs stake a claim at the nexus of booze, gaming and the Paris of the '80s?

 

The owners of each establishment in some way cited Worcester’s recent spike in development activity and the subsequent narrative of a city on the rise. They also cited the relatively cheap real estate compared to Boston, the large population of young people, and the central location.

But a more objective observer sees more at play. Tim Loew, executive director of Mass Digital Games Institute and general manager of the varsity esports program at Becker College, said that the convergence on Worcester is in part an acknowledgement of the growing influence of gamer culture.

 

“They see an opportunity, in games and games culture, which is huge, to connect with younger generations and older generations, to bring them back out to neighborhood restaurants and bars,” said Loew. “You’re competing with Netflix and video games and other in-home entertainment, and the idea is to bring that in-home entertainment out.”

 

With the huge and growing popularity of video game streaming on platforms such as Twitch, the emergence of esports as a legitimate market competitor to traditional sports, and online communities growing on forums like Reddit and Discord, gaming culture is perhaps more popular and more mainstreamed than it has ever been. Look to the 2018 League of Legends final tournament, which drew more viewers than the Super Bowl that year — 100 million unique viewers to the Super Bowl’s 98 million.

 

But, Loew said, games culture is not monolithic. There’s a broad range of different interests and expectations within the culture, and each of the four bars planned for Worcester targets a different slice of the market.

To the untrained eye, they may appear the same, but to the initiated, they are very different. Free Play, which is taking over the Maxwell Silverman's space on Union Street, will offer hundreds of cabinet and arcade games, from crowd favorites such as  skee-ball and air hockey to obscure old-school arcade games such as "Dragon’s Lair." The Highland Street-based Savepoint Tavern, on the other hand, focuses on console games. The space is stuffed with TVs hooked up to Xbox Ones, Nintendo Switches and Playstations. Pixel & Pint, on Grafton Street, is attacking the arcade game side of things, but with an intentional '80s theme and games tailored to match. All Systems Go, on Shrewsbury Street, directly targets esports. That business hopes to be a hub for competitive tournaments — one of the first of its kind anywhere — and as such the space is built out around a massive LED screen set on a stage designed for two teams of players.

 

“I think what we'll end up with is a good set of options for people who love games to get out of their home, get out of their dorm room, and get out in the community,” said Loew.

 

Savepoint Tavern

 

I met Savepoint Tavern owner Brian Huff on a recent afternoon a few hours before the bar was set to open. The Highland Street location, previously occupied by a restaurant, 57 Grill, and a nightclub before that, is small and slightly idiosyncratic. The walls aren’t perfect 90-degree angles and the interior is filled with wavy glass brick fixtures that vaguely allude to a different time. One such fixture, originally designed as a DJ booth, now serves as a two-person arcade game simulator station.

 

A few small tables near the entrance are just about the only seating in the entire bar that doesn’t face a screen, though there’s a projector feet away. Otherwise, TVs hooked to gaming consoles line the main bar, a rail for solo players, and what would traditionally be the dining room, except this dining room is full of couches facing TV screens. The bar has every console you could dream up, from classic Nintendo to Nintendo Switch, Sega to Playstation 4. A virtual reality system along the back wall has proven a big hit, Huff said.

 

Savepoint has been open for about six months, making it something of a test case in whether Worcester will be receptive to video game bars. As with any new business, Huff and the crew have shifted and adapted over the months to the clientele. They’ve added trivia, and they’re building out a more robust board-game menu. Theme nights, like Marvel and Harry Potter, have been a big hit, as have weekly competitive tournaments in games such as Mario Kart, Teken and Ascension Towerfall.

 

On most nights, the business runs lean — a cook, a bartender and a games guy — and the space can handle about 75 people at one time.

 

While Huff was expecting, given the location, a good chunk of its business coming from WPI students, it hasn’t quite worked out that way, he said. More so, it’s Worcester locals mixed with people traveling into the city from places like Marlboro, Hudson and Fitchburg for a gaming bar experience. When the business first opened, it was mostly solo players, but recently Savepoint has been more parties of two or three.

 

With a full kitchen and a full bar, Savepoint is reminiscent of a down-home and cozy neighborhood bar, except for the infusing of games and gaming culture. For Huff, a self-described lifelong gamer, that’s part of what makes Savepoint stand out. Savepoint’s unrepentant embrace of nerd culture will endear it to the right customer base.

 

"Everybody here is a part of that culture. We're all gamers, we're all nerds, we're all foodies,” he said. “That gives us a lot of flexibility to be versatile and to keep it new every time.”

 

All Systems Go

 

While Savepoint has the vibe of a cozy local bar, All Systems Go, on Shrewsbury Street, has a flashiness to it, and a bit of a wild ambition. With a sleek interior, a large seating space, and a massive, 46-foot LED screen, All Systems Go hopes to position itself as a premier hub on the East Coast for esports — a market that might seem niche, but has an audience large as some professional sports.

 

I met with co-owners Devin LaPlume and Amber Beck inside the large, unfinished space at 225 Shrewsbury St. When it is finished — they’re hoping for a spring open — the space will feature a stage and viewing area, a full bar, a coffee bar, a kitchen and a space for friendly cooperative play. What they’re shooting for is something truly novel on the East Coast.

 

"There's no day-to-day operation right now that handles esports that's open to the public, that's a bar. There's no esports bar, really,” said Devin LaPlume. “This brand is hopefully the emerging brand in that space, and we're looking to go to market right after and open more locations. So this is the first one."

 

They hope to host tournaments both local and national, and will make streaming on platforms like Twitch a part of the business model. The venture is based heavily on the bet that esports, among younger generations, will grow increasingly popular.

 

"That’s because everyone can relate, though," said Beck. “I don't play football, I don't care. But I care about something I can go on and play."

 

The Shrewsbury Street location nestles the business squarely within a neighborhood already teeming with dozens of options for food and drink. What the All Systems Go team hopes to add to the neighborhood is a solid after-dinner entertainment option, while also catering to the wider world of esports as a destination for tournaments.

 

“We're not here to compete. We're here to bring entertainment to an area where a lot of people go out to. I feel like a lot of people come out to Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, and they want to get a bite to eat, and they want to have a drink, but they don’t know what to do after. There’s no entertainment after that, there's nothing to do late night. So I think that's what we offer to people,” said Devin.

 

Esports, though wildly and increasingly popular, is about as decentralized as a sport can be. Most, if not all, of the action occurs online and via streaming. Last year, Worcester was host to a well-attended Super Smash Brothers tournament at the DCU Center Conference Center, but outside that, the area has seen little activity by way of esports. Naturally, it begs the question of "why Worcester?"

 

“This city is undergoing one of the biggest revitalization processes on the East Coast,” said Devin. “So that, when we were looking at different markets — all the colleges here, too, and the introduction of the stadium — it was an easy answer to come here and set up shop.”

 

Pixels & Pints

Savepoint and All Systems Go take unique approaches, but they are what a gamer might call console-based bars. Their draw is in the world of newer, digital video games. Pixels & Pints, on Grafton Street, offers something decidedly different. Heavy on retro feel, the relatively small space will offer a catered '80s-style arcade experience, with wall art, a drink and food menu and a bar to match. The centerpiece of the establishment, the bar is carved out of an old-school metal shipping container.

 

Owner Jason Eastty is no stranger to Worcester. His first venture was Escape Games Worcester, which he sold several years ago to pursue either an axe throwing bar or an arcade bar. Worcester is his home turf, the place where he says he feels most comfortable opening businesses. Pixels & Pints, which is set to open within the next several months, is something he feels Worcester folk — gamer or not — will find an attractive place to spend a night.

 

“I always want to bring something new and exciting to Worcester that hasn’t been there before. And I did that for a couple years and I kind of got bored and realized I wanted to do something else,” Eastty said. “That next thing was going to be axe throwing or arcade bar, and I settled on arcade bar. I just, I always want to bring something cool and new to Worcester for entertainment. There's definitely a need for entertainment venues in Worcester.”

 

Worcester folk, he said, will be blown away by the space, with its tight '80s concept, selection of arcade games, and ambitious food and drink menu. Experimental cocktails and craft beer will be a focus, he said, as will a small but ambitious food menu, which he was reticent to disclose publicly.

 

Unlike the other three, it’s possible the games may not end up being the main feature of the establishment, but rather an add-on to what would otherwise be a fun, cool bar.

 

“The main pitch for us and the way we design this is even if you don't want to come and play arcade games, if that's not your jam, you'll still want to come to us because of how we're built out, because of our general feel, and our food and drink menu,” he said. “It is going to be very unique. If you don’t care about video games, you'll want to come hang out here.”

 

Free Play

 

For lack of a better phrase, Free Play aims to be a free-for-all. Tucked inside the old Maxwell Silverman's space at 25 Union St., roughly 8,500 square feet, Free Play is an arcade bar that will feature more than 100 cabinet-style arcade games as well as old-school favorites like air hockey, pinball and skee-ball. The business is very much a replication of the company’s first location in Providence, where folks pay a flat cover fee for unlimited access to every game in the establishment. With a full bar and a light food menu, Free Play aims to be a destination for both hardcore gamers seeking rare and out of the way retro games, and casual bar-goers hoping for a bit of arcade activity to accompany their night on the town.

 

The Providence location of Free Play has operated for about two and a half years now with success. The Worcester location, which is already visible on the street with a large stand-alone sign and embroidered window awnings, is less than a month away from opening, barring any setbacks. The owners hope to have Free Play open to the public by the end of March.

 

I met with two of the three partners inside the space on a recent afternoon. The space bore only a cursory resemblance to the old Maxwell Silverman’s space — the brick walls, an old steel boiler cover and beaten-down wood support beams. Otherwise, the space was packed with cabinet console games as a crew of about a dozen hurried around the space, installing and positioning games. As we spoke, in the middle of what would become the main game floor, a crew of three worked to install and balance the panels on which people will one day play Dance Dance Revolution.

 

“I think it’s going to take off a lot faster than it did in Providence,” said Jay Leone, one of the three owners and a game collector responsible for most, if not all, of the games inside the space.

 

“There’s a lot of talk around it already, a lot of hype around it,” said Leone. “We haven’t really advertised at all, but people are asking us daily, you know, ‘Are you guys open? When are you opening?'”

 

At Free Play, everything takes second-place to the games. A full-service bar and a light food menu will keep people in the space, but the draw is unabashedly the full access to a wide array of arcade games. But that draw, from Leone’s estimation, is split between what you might call hardcore gamers and the casual fan looking for a somewhat different night out.

 

“I would say it's probably 5 to 10 percent hardcore gamers who went to arcades and really want to relive this,” said Leone, speaking of his experience with the Providence location. “And then the other 80 to 90 percent are folks who have never experienced an arcade before. Who come and say ‘Wow this is so cool. This is what it was like 30 or 40 years ago.’”

 

As such, the business is geared heavily toward nostalgia, while not sacrificing it for more modern games — like "Dance Dance Revolution" — which have proven popular mainstays. Interspersed with the big hits are more niche '80s arcade games like "Dragon Slayer," "PacMan," "DigDug" and others. Part of it, Leone said, is an appeal to the hardcore gamer, but perhaps more so, it’s a recognition that nostalgia for the '80s pervades the culture.

“In music, in television, in media, everything about it is retro,” he said. “This is hitting at the right time.”

 

Who will last?

 

Though different in a multitude of ways, all four video game bars open or set to open are attempting to cash in on the same general trend. It begs the natural question of winners and losers, which only time will truly answer.

 

Looking a bit deeper, All Systems Go and Savepoint have more in common with each other, with their focus on modern console games. And both Pixel & Pint and Free Play are offering a more old-school arcade experience.

 

But the natural question of whether there will be one victor in the race to capture the video game bar market is something at which Tim Loew, of MassDIGI, balks.

 

“I think they can all benefit from each other’s marketing schemes. Rather than just one lone operator, we have four operators broadcasting and marketing.”

 

Each business offers something a touch different, and it remains to be seen what model will prove successful in Worcester, he said. But Worcester, he pointed out, is a market for a public video game experience that has been untested since the last of the arcades shuttered several decades ago.

 

“I think it’s pretty cool that Worcester is becoming a center for this,” said Loew. “Tip of the hat to all these entrepreneurs who are taking the risk, coming here and building their business around games.”