Marvel vs. Capcom 2 champ Justin Wong is on the ropes. Shoulder to shoulder with his opponent, the muscle-bound Bryheem Keys, he’s playing as Cable, a second-tier X-Men character, and he’s fighting for his life. Around them, packed tight as a mosh pit, sweaty gamers strain to catch a glimpse of what’s happening on the arcade machine. They’re sitting on shoulders and standing on stools, piled over each other’s backs, their faces silently cursing anyone sporting a hat or an Afro. From the crowd, Wong’s pal Sanford Kelly is encouraging his friend with vacuous but colorful advice: “Shoot that nigga! Shoot his ass!”

The match continues as Wong, backed into a corner, narrowly avoids a devastating blow from Keys and counters with a deft series of gun and laser blasts chained into a giant, game-winning combo. Kelly goes crazy, stands up and turns away from the machine to face the crowd, yelling, “Everybody gets shot. Ehv-ree-one. Everybody gets motherfucking shot when my man is on the fucking mike!”

August 7, 2003: Outside, it’s another beautiful day in sunny southern California. Inside the Cal Poly Student Union it’s the Evolution 2K3 International Fighting Game Championship. The walls of the ballroom are lined with arcade machines, Playstation consoles, and TV screens. One thousand of the world’s best players are jockeying for position around the soft glow of machines running games like Street Fighter 3: Third Strike, Virtua Fighter 4, and Guilty Gear XX.

I came here this year to take in the spectacle, see some old friends, and–hopefully–beat the crap out of everyone else. Though I’ve won east-coast and midwest championships and played on the first U.S. National Team in Japan in 2000, I’ve never won an Evo–the Super Bowl of fighting-game titles. It’s good to be back, watching people find their buddies in the crowd and then humiliate them at the machines. The players scream, curse, and cry when they lose, but when it’s over they step aside to share cigarettes, pizza, and Cokes. They hit the machines in disgust, but never each other–in the ten-year history of such tournaments, there hasn’t been a single violent incident.

At Evo, no one sleeps alone. There are three, four, and even ten guys (it’s almost all guys) packed into rooms at the two-star motor lodge up the road, as well as people camped out in cars, or on the street. They’re from Long Island, Peru, and South Korea. It’s the first time some of the younger players–16, 17, 18–have ever left home. Ryan “Azhur” Hammerly endured 24 hours on the Greyhound from Denver, stuck next to the bathroom, subsisting on pop, chips, and candy. The bus was so crowded that people were sitting in the aisles. Mike “MiXuP” Mixon sold plasma for two months to make sure he had the cash for the trip from Florida. I got a lift to campus one morning with a guy who drove 1,000 miles with five others in a Ford Escort. “Just had to be here,” he said. “Had to, man!”

The competitive fighting-game scene today is distinguished by this kind of unrestrained passion on the part of the players. Yet, unlike the PC industry, which embraced its gamers early on by throwing tournaments for first-person shooters like Quake and Doom, the arcade industry has never figured out how to return the love of their most dedicated customers, even as the increasing popularity of home hardware has decimated their market.

At the height of its popularity, 1994, Street Fighter was a billion-dollar franchise that spawned countless sequel games, toys, comics, and the almost unwatchable Street Fighter: The Movie. Today, Capcom (maker of Street Fighter and three of the eight other games represented at Evo) has cut arcade game development budgets and flirted publicly with the idea of withdrawing entirely from the market on gaming Web sites like Mad Man’s Cafe and GameSpot. Arcades around the country are struggling to remain open, and those that do turn increasingly away from the fighting games that were once their bread and butter.

As home consoles improved dramatically in the mid-90s, arcade games quickly lost their competitive technological advantage. Today, the hardware in arcade machines is often no better than that found in home consoles. But where other businesses–say, coffeehouses or bars–thrive despite the fact that their products offer little or no advantage over the stuff you can consume at home, the vast majority of arcade operators have never bothered to spend a dime on niceties like housekeeping. Often coming from a background in vending machines, many had no affinity for the games they guessed would be a passing fad. The typical arcade of my youth was a dirty, sometimes dangerous place with management that ranged from indifferent to abusive. So even as the games themselves acquired a loyal fan base, arcades did not. Now that you no longer have to hang out in a rat’s nest to play the best games, it’s becoming harder to justify going out.

On the corporate side, things aren’t much better. Golden Tee, an unremarkable golf game with no new technological features, has become one of the industry’s top performers thanks to active tournament support from its creator, Incredible Technologies. As the tournaments have raised the game’s profile, the game’s presence on the street has risen as well–at this point it’s nearly as common in bars as neon beer signs. But in an industry known for bandwagoneering and knockoffs, no one has followed Golden Tee’s lead. As some of their best customers converged on Pomona, attracting coverage from national and international gaming magazines and TV networks, none of the manufacturers whose products were being celebrated had donated money or recognized the event.

Despite–or maybe because of–all this, Evo’s growing every year. The tournament’s open to all, and anyone who thinks they’ve got what it takes can show up and try to prove it. The host university would kill for this kind of diversity: all of last year’s winners were Latino, Asian, or African-American, and far outnumbering my fellow pasty white geeks are black guys in cowboy getups, hip-hop Arabs, ex-Marines, and Vietnamese gangbangers. There are so many subcultures represented that I can’t figure out who’s authentic and who’s a poseur, who’d be considered cool back home and who wouldn’t.

The games themselves can be downright strange. In addition to the standard comic book heroes and chop-socky characters, the gigantic, room-dominating video projector shows someone playing as a tiny robot whose modes of attack include setting the table. On a smaller screen, there’s a guy who throws signed autographs fighting a monkey girl who turns him into a giant strawberry before eating and spitting him out. Over in the Guilty Gear XX competition, the cast of characters on-screen seems to have been named by some extremely weird record collectors–not just Zappa, Slayer, and Axl, but Faust and Chip Z’nuff. Anyone up for getting KO’d by a vintage Chicago metal musician?

But the communities formed around fighting games are real, friendly, and even warm. Though based on a corporate product, tournaments like Evo, which is run by the player-operated Web site, are entirely grassroots. From behind a sprawling array of laptops, projectors, and microphones, Shoryuken’s Tom and Tony Cannon, identical twins with computer science degrees from Stanford, organize players into match brackets. Beyond that, there are few formal leaders. Instead, the Cannons delegate furiously, deputizing whoever seems useful. Those who can speak a foreign language help out as translators, DJs and stage crew geeks set up the lights and sound, and people with arcade experience keep the machines in good repair. Everyone’s a player, and no one is paid. (The $10 entry fee goes into the prize kitty.) Except for the virtual violence, it’s kind of like an Amish barn raising.

Fighting games involve neither the brainless pattern repetition of nostalgic cheese like Pac-Man, nor the reflex tests of popular games like Quake. It’s not you against a computer, or dealing anonymous death at a distance on the Internet. You stand next to your opponent, look him in the eye, and smell his fear. Winning requires tight execution and precision technique, to be sure, but what it really boils down to is what the Japanese call yomi: knowing the mind of your opponent.

The basic dynamic is simple. You choose from a variety of characters. They fight with fists, feet, or weapons controlled with a joystick and up to six buttons. You run and jump or fly around a fixed game space, trying to deal out more damage than you take while a timer counts down to zero. A typical game is usually over in under five minutes and often ends in a KO long before time runs out.

Say I’m playing as Honda (an enormous sumo wrestler) against Ryu (a supercharged karate guy) in Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo. I want to jump at him because he’s controlling the ground by repeatedly throwing out a fast fireball. If I anticipate his fireball, I can jump early and hit him with a kick before he can recover. Unfortunately, he knows that I want to jump in and is waiting for me to try it, whereupon he’ll uppercut me out of the air. I know that he knows this, but waiting for me to jump makes him hesitate just a bit before throwing those fireballs. I take advantage of his hesitation to close some distance without jumping at all. He sees me advancing, panics about getting crushed by one of my throws, and tosses a fireball to regain control. Unfortunately, I’ve predicted his panicked reaction and have already jumped, meaning he’s about to eat 400 pounds of foot. Simple enough, right?

Now consider that each game offers between 16 and 56 different characters. Each character has perhaps 50 distinct moves, most of which can be executed at any time. The actual effect of any particular combination of moves depends on a lot of factors: your distance from the opponent, the order in which you perform them, and even which opponent you’re using them on. Though play is cartoonishly over-the-top (a well-placed punch can send your man flying 20 feet into the air), the in-game physics is quite consistent. As with games like chess, the rules can be learned quickly, but it’s the interaction between them that creates the dizzying complexity.

Hard-core players have successfully learned to combine the psychology of poker with the logic-chopping determinism of chess, thinking through countless possibilities in advance, at speeds that invite the most reactionary and predictable behaviors. Bluffing and fear are often their most effective tools.

They treat these games not as objects of worship so much as ongoing science projects. Either trying to squeeze an advantage from some arcane bit of information, or in it strictly for the sake of the investigation, they hypothesize about the games’ complex underpinnings, stage elaborate tests of their theories, and publish (or jealously guard) their results. They compete to have their latest work displayed on the best Web sites, rushing to make sure they aren’t preempted and fighting bitterly over credit for invented techniques.

When commercially available joysticks aren’t up to the rigors of competition, they build their own, customized with special parts, colors, and graphics. “Jedi make their own light sabers, we make our own sticks,” remarked a guy toting a homemade brushed-metal monstrosity at one point during the weekend. The console systems they play the games on at home have also been modified to allow them to play foreign or pirated games. Even the games themselves have been judiciously hacked. Marvel vs. Capcom 2, for example, has intricate play with limitless strategic possibilities but also a nauseating smooth-jazz sound track. So Campbell “Buktooth” Tran hacked his copy to play tracks by 50 Cent and the theme from Top Gun.

As the weekend wears on and the casualties are swept back into the crowd, it’s down to the final eight in each category. I’m not among them. I missed the Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo finals by one game, coming in ninth. The Capcom vs. SNK 2 champs walk the aisle to the main stage through the crowd and beneath giant, projected head shots. Japanese champion Tetsuya “Ino” Inoue is doing a disturbingly good impression of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, sporting too-tight jeans, a ridiculously wide belt, snakeskin boots, and a T-shirt reading “Jesus Died for You.” Ricky “Hel-O-Kit-E” Ortiz, openly gay and one of the best players in the world, struts to the stage to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” Jason “Afro” Cole, who’s known to yell “racism!” on the rare occasion of a loss, does a James Brown stutter step to the theme from Sanford and Son, while Japanese clown KenRyo Hayashi runs like an ape to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” giving the cheering crowd the finger. They slug it out in pairs until the final blow is dealt and Ino leaps to his feet in victory, fists pumping wildly, before turning to embrace his defeated opponents. They try, and fail, to raise him to their shoulders. The crowd goes wild.