Night has just fallen on Mill Avenue, and already the Valley's hippest half-mile is bustling with the usual Saturday night strollers. A trio of college girls in tight-fitting graphic tees and body suits bring the already slow traffic to a standstill. Beneath the Hooters balcony, a 50-ish man plays a mean flute and dispenses pearls of wisdom for spare change.
And just up the street from Starbucks, Mike Martin opens the front door to his brand-new PC room and waits for the traffic to flood in. With about 16 gamers already battling it out on the 25 computers up and running, and the Beastie Boys blaring loudly on another computer set up solely as an MP3 jukebox, it doesn't take long for intrigued passers-by to start ducking in.
One couple in their early 30s, sipping on fashionable Boba drinks from a shop down the way, saunters in and asks Martin what sort of business this is. "Oh, I hear these are really big in California!" the woman says excitedly, as the man circles around peeking at everyone's screens but declining to play himself. "I don't know anything about this stuff," he confesses. "These kids would kill me in a second!"
The younger, more initiated customers just look the place over, nod "Cool," and take Martin up on his offer to grab a seat and test the games out for free, tonight only. It's Lan Gamz's grand opening special -- and also a crafty way for Martin to check if everything's working up to speed using real, demanding gamers. "I've been here since 9 a.m. getting everything hooked up," yawns the amiable ice cream heir, who only received delivery on most of the computers the previous night and is still opening boxes, readying another 14 PCs in two smaller rooms. "Eventually we'll have lots of tournaments here, and we'll use the separate rooms for competing teams."
Tonight, however, it's an informal party, with Martin playing the host to the coolest geek bacchanal on the block. "Is everyone ready for a new map?" he calls out to the dozen Counter-Strike players at the front of the store, getting ready to restart the match on another virtual playing field. "Hey, why don't you guys join our game?" he asks a quartet of Battlefield 1942 diehards, reluctant to abandon their tanks, planes and helicopters for Counter-Strike's foot-soldier combat.
With the enthusiastic entrepreneur luring the curious street-strollers in for a free trial, it's easy to cast Martin as a kind of insidious Pentium pusher, hooking unsuspecting kids on an addicting habit that will eventually cost them $5 an hour, at least at his high-rent store. Solomon, who insists she never got tugged into the lifestyle herself, has nonetheless seen the booming California PC room scene take its toll on a number of friends. "I had some friends who would wake up in the mornings every weekend, go to the PC room, and they wouldn't come back until really, really late at night," she says. One boy she got to know bought the all-day pass every day of his spring break, doing neighborhood yard work in the mornings just to feed his $100-a-week monkey.
Fortunately for the addicted, there should be no shortage of PC rooms in the near future. Mark Nielsen, executive director of iGames, a San Francisco-based trade association of PC rooms, estimates there are close to 1,000 centers in the U.S. already, nearly double what it was only a year ago. "And a lot of owners are already opening between three and five new locations," he states.
The gamers themselves are a fickle lot, switching loyalties from one PC room to another whenever word spreads of a center with newer games, a faster connection or better video cards. "A lot of owners make the mistake of investing a lot of money into computers but not upgrading them every year," says Mike Smith, operator of Combat Lans in Tempe. "You gotta keep your hardware and software cutting-edge, or they'll just migrate somewhere else."
As for the Valley's newest entry, Mike Martin has an ingenious idea to keep his gamers coming back.
"All of our customers will have a roaming profile,' which will save all your personal settings, items and progress for every game you play," he explains. "Everyone has different ways that they like playing, and sometimes just setting up the keystrokes the way you like can take up to five minutes on these higher-end games. But when you set up your keystrokes the first time here, those settings remain in your profile forever. So every time you come back, you just log in with your password and all your keys are already there, along with whatever games you were playing. So if you were at level five in Warcraft III, you pick right up at level five when you come back."