Gamers' Delight

A new downtown business puts competitive gaming in its crosshairs

Less than 10 years ago, 20 million people were self-described video-game buffs. Now, as the industry continues to grow and the technology advances, the gaming population has soared to well over 150 million. Here in Knoxville, gaming is just as popular as ever, with Epic Computing in Seymour and Game Connection in Halls catering to the true competitive gamers in our town. And soon, a new addition to the gaming scene will appear downtown on Gay Street's 100 block.

"Currently, the video-game industry outsells the blockbuster-film industry," Summer Shelton writes in an e-mail. At the tail end of February, Shelton plans to open the doors of Versus at 119 S. Gay St., just a few doors down from Nama Sushi Bar. Versus is designed to provide a space for live music, artwork and competitive gaming, featuring the XBox 360, Nintendo Wii and Playstation 3. Versus doesn't just cater to the youngest demographic, either; many of the kids who grew up with Atari still play with a kind of competitive spirit that's usually reserved for professional athletes.

"It's not just kiddos that are console users," Shelton goes on. "People my age [from 25 to 35] are the first video-game generation.... Most people can't afford to have all the XBox 360 games in their home. Similar venues have been successful in other cities, so why not Knoxville?"

The gaming space will take up the main floor of the building, with the downstairs to be used for all-ages concerts and impromptu art shows.

"I really want to feature new music in Knoxville," Shelton says. "I want younger bands to know that they have a place to showcase their music."

Shelton's brother, Sky, is a serious gamer. It was her brother's passion for gaming culture that eventually inspired Versus. Shelton insists that gaming is not a phase; it's a lifestyle, a bit of high-tech culture that has grown beyond certain geeky cliques.

In January, 2005, Knoxville hosted a competitive video-game tournament at the Convention Center. It was the first so-called "high-tech" event in Knoxville. "Chasing the Dream," the name given to the tournament that attracted gamers from around the country, was the brainchild of the former track-and-field Olympian, Knoxvillian, and avid gamer Laurence Johnson.

Even a 17-year-old student from England made the trip to Knoxville to play Halo 2 against some of the best gamers around. The purse for the Knoxville tournament was $5,000. In many ways, the competition wasn't just about the money, it was, dare say, for the love of the game.

"It's very likely that people who were passionate about Super NES are passionate about today's consoles," Shelton says. "It doesn't matter if they work in a bank or attend middle school. Gamers are gamers for life.

"I don't play video games," she adds. "That's a good thing, because I would probably play instead of work."

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