['Tokyo Beat' is a new, bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by writer Ryan Winterhalter, focusing on expressions of game culture in Japan. This time, he checks out a venue for some of the more hardcore Street Fighter players in Tokyo.]

Shinjuku Sports Land: Shibuya Branch is not your typical arcade. Located in one of Tokyo’s biggest shopping and clubbing spots, it’s a place where you can find a game of Street Fighter or King of Fighters at almost anytime. Whether it’s geeks hanging out all night, couples on a date, or club kids taking a breather between venues, someone is always at Sports Land. Despite or maybe because of, the range of players, competition can be fierce.

“Oh man, you better bring your A-game when you come to Sports Land,” one Shibuya club goer told me. To be sure, other arcades around the city have a tougher reputations, but Sports Land is no slouch. It’s not the skill of the players, however, that make Sports Land notable.

On most nights, the place is populated by random strangers grabbing a few rounds in between train transfers on their commute but on Thursdays, the crowd changes. The place starts to look like an amateur sports club. Something like a bowling or softball league in America. Everyone here knows everyone else.

It’s a typical Thursday night and I’m making my way towards “Street Fighter Freeplay” at Sports Land. For 300 yen (about three dollars) I’ll be able play Street Fighter from 7:30 until 11:00. I’m distracted by the pungent stench of sewage that seems to permeate Shibuya whenever the seasons change and I walk right past the arcade without realizing it.

Seeing McDonalds and the Shibuya landmark store “Condom-mania,” I realize I’ve gone too far. Turning around, I find it this time, and head downstairs. The arcade is small, but it has managed to pack in at least one cabinet of every currently popular fighting game, plus a few classics for good measure.

“Evening Ryan, 300 yen.” the portly, baby-faced manager of the arcade, respectfully referred to as Tencho-San (manager), says as he holds out his hand. He’s got a lot of people to keep track of and he doesn’t want any freeloaders getting any free rounds. As I dig thorough my pockets for change, he tells me, “You missed out yesterday, Justin was here.”

He is referring to top American Street Fighter IV player, Justin Wong, apparently in town for a big international tournament. “Really?” I ask. “How’d he do?”

“He won,” Tencho-San says, taking my money. As I said, the players here aren’t slouches, but there’s always a bigger fish.

As the evening continues, the crowd grows. Salarymen and students, Japanese and foreign, they all come, not just to play Street Fighter, but for a sense of community. Everyone seems to know each other and they chat among themselves. As players wait for their turn at one of the three machines, they cheer and tease the those who are playing.

Most of the non-Japanese have never seen a place like this before. Marty Grant, a Montana native and exchange student to Sophia University, says he comes here to “Experience the arcade culture.” Another exchange student, Samuel Rosenius from Sweden, looks around with interest and says, “We don’t have any arcades in Sweden,”

Two networked machines host most of the matches. A final machine stands adjacent to the other two; the English speakers in the room call it the noob machine. Apparently this machine is reserved for those who have yet to earn enough Battle Points(BP) on their cards.

Cards are used to store information and player data in SFIV. With your card, you can carry your record anywhere. Those with more than 13,000 BP can’t play on the noob machine... I have 200 or so. I spend the evening taking turns with a young lady who is apparently here with her boyfriend and a player who is just under the maximum BP allowed.

In between rounds, I chat with other players, sneak outside, grab some dinner at Burger King with a few others, and get lectured on how to really play Street Fighter. Everyone seems to be at ease. This is a place to come and relax.

Before moving to Tokyo I had never seen an arcade as packed and lively and at first, it seemed to be a completely alien environment. When I ask other foreign players about their take on the arcade, they also think the place is unique.

The more I spend here, however, the more I see how normal the community at Sports Land really is. The way these regulars pal around reminds me of the circle of CCG players that used to hang out in my college dorm, or the dart leagues that various members of my family competed in back home.

The online social aspects of gaming have dominated the discussion of games for a long time. For a few years, in the late nineties it looked as if multi-player games were going to be solely played on the internet. In the years that have followed, thanks in great part to the success of games like Smash Brothers and Halo, local multiplayer games flourished in a renaissance of sorts.

For the past fifteen years the internet has allowed social gaming on a massive scale, while local multiplayer has allowed for more intimate social experiences. However, the middle ground, where dozens of players come together to play and socialize is still relatively rare.

Outside of small LAN parties and local tournaments (relatively rare occasions, at least when compared to something weekly like SF IV freeplay), there aren’t many events that work on that scale in North America or Europe. Sports Land provides that middle ground. It’s a place to hang out with friends, relax after work, and be part of a community with like minded people.

[Ryan Winterhalter is a freelance writer in Tokyo. He can be reached at Rwinterhalter AT gmail.com]