Beer and games: a concept so simple and inherently complementary it’s difficult to imagine why it’s taken so long to become a thing. Indeed, it’s especially baffling in Australia where, according to The Digital Australia study, 67 percent of Australians play videogames. For those playing at home, that’s 16.5 million people with an average age of 34.
When you look at these demographics alongside The Beer Cartel’s 2018 Craft Beer Survey, where the 18,000 people who responded had an average age of 38 and, like gamers, were mostly male, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest Australian craft beer drinkers have either been teabagged by xXx_shOOterKILLer69_xXx whilst playing Call of Duty:MW2 at some point in 2010 and/or had to endure the exasperation of seeing the words “gg mid feed pls report” around four minutes into a DOTA match.
And yet both beer geeks and gamers retain their outdated stereotypes in Australian society: one being a weird, obsessive loner who is constantly on their phone and using indecipherable language to talk about their hobby, while the other plays a lot of videogames.
Perhaps this is why it wasn’t until a few years ago that Australia started seeing a union between two of its favourite hobbies quietly pop up in capital cities. Sure, arcades have always been a thing but any arcade with a liquor licence was likely a front for some sort of money laundering/drug empire or entirely populated by 18-year-olds playing Dance Dance Revolution.
Now, however, you'll find the likes of The Palace Arcade in the Perth suburb of Northbridge and Bar SK in Collingwood offering a wide range of both craft beers and games.
To dig a little further, dedicated gamer and double TV game show winner Judd Owen spoke to the owners of two venues who have successfully built cult followings without ever saying the n word on their Twitch stream: Ben Nichols, co-owner of The Scratch and Netherworld in Brisbane, and Ben Campbell, head honcho at 1989 Arcade Bar in Sydney’s Newtown.
Was it a conscious decision to marry beer and games together or did both things happen independently of each other?
Ben Nichols: It was always a marriage. All the folk behind Netherworld were in the beer industry in one way or another when we were planning this – between a small bar (The Scratch), beer repping, brewing and Brisbane's Brewsvegas.
After visiting some places in the US and having some of the most wonderful times of my life playing vintage games with a pint of Sixpoint IPA in hand, I was definitely keen to find our own spin on an Australian version of that. The general attitude since the get-go was to fill the venue with the things we collectively love – namely and specifically games and beer!
Ben Campbell: It was always a conscious decision to mix beer and classic arcade games; it's a dream I’d had for over six years ever since experiencing Barcade in the US. When I was living in London, I really wanted to open an arcade bar but when my wife and I decided to make the move to Sydney we figured we'd open one here.
We used the money made from selling our tiny South London flat to open '89 a couple of years ago.
Beer and games are obviously a wonderful combination, but are there any specific instances that you've seen in your venue that demonstrate why?
BN: Oh, hell yeah! My absolute favourite thing to see is when a person is playing a game and they know exactly the points in which they've got roughly three to four seconds to have a sip of their drink: in between levels on Frogger or when the ball hits a scoop when playing pinball.
We have one game called Ice Cold Beer that folks go wild for – it's a simple dexterity game with ten different goals to hit. In between each goal, you can watch people try to calm themselves by ritualistically taking a sip before attempting the next hole.
BC: We have a lot of four-player arcade games such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, NBA JAM, The Simpsons, as well as Mario Kart on the Nintendo 64. Seeing groups of friends play these games whilst enjoying a beer or two is amazing as the competitive spirit really comes out after some liquid encouragement.
And that's what I love about what we offer and the vibe of '89. Yes, we can play games at home on the sofa with friends but nothing beats being out in an arcade, having a beer and playing with friends or strangers you have just met in the bar who are keen on joining in – that is especially fun to see happen.
We have seen so many people become buddies after one of our arcade tournaments in which jugs of beer are often prizes. Many winners end up sharing their beer with the other players – it is so cool. We also get people traveling interstate for our tournaments, which is amazing and also a testament to the beer and game combo, but also the rise in popularity of competitive arcade gaming and the arcade culture in Australia.
The average age of people who play videogames in Australia is 34; is that reflective of your customers and is it surprising to you that there aren't more venues like yours popping up?
BN: Look, 33 is probably pretty bang on but I'm constantly blown away by the variety of people that walk through the door. We get everyone from families, to uni students to hens parties to folks in retirement venturing into the depths of the Netherworld and finding their own ways to interact with the venue. Videogames are a large, if not main, part of the bar but I think we've successfully balanced it with the food, the drinks, the weird events and the general vibe that, even if you weren't that into video games, you'd still come in and have a good time.
I'm not surprised there's not a lot of gaming bars out there – it was a terrifying and unproven concept when we opened a little over two years ago. It seems to have found its place in Brisbane and the community has been very nice to us, which is bloody comforting.
I think more gaming joints will open up, but they'll probably be quite different - there's 100 different ways you could do this. Hell, we don't really have any games made after 1999 other than some of the pinnies. There's twenty years of content since then! Any day now you'll be looking for the Noughties nostalgia bar that people will be excitedly taking their kids to, explaining the things they played in “their day”.
BC: We definitely see a lot of people around my age and older – the late thirties, early forties bracket – but more recently students from Sydney Uni have discovered us, which is very cool, as the younger crowd has really taken to the classic arcades. One of my favourite things is students coming into the arcade after uni to simply smash a game of Time Crisis 2; it's awesome. We recently put three pinballs into the venue, which has drawn some of the older crowd – those in their fifties – as they love Addams Family pinball!
Sydney has a few gaming venues and we all offer something a bit different: '89 is the classic arcade experience, Spawn Point is the console and online gaming experience and, just recently, First Round Esports has opened, which is all about the online gaming experience. Will more classic arcade or video game venues pop up? I am sure they will, but Sydney is such an expensive city and rent is a real killer... we'll see.
Both gamers and beer geeks are pretty ruthlessly stereotyped in Australian society. Do you ever find yourself having to defend your customers and/or interests from others?
BN: Not really – it's a pretty positive environment. This is something we thought a lot about before opening. I suppose we settled on the idea that while those stereotypes exist, it only represents a small, louder portion of those communities and we didn't want to exclusively cater to them.
Almost everyone likes beer and almost everyone likes games, so while we throw as much passion and love behind both of those things, we've purposefully tried to make them as accessible as possible to the folks who come through our doors. I think, as a result, we get an incredibly diverse and broad audience that just gets on board with the venue and a good time.
BC: Within the four walls of '89 I have never had to defend any of our customers or interests. And that doesn't necessarily mean that we are a “safe haven” or “refuge” for game and beer enthusiasts but rather the crowd is super chill, inclusive and hanging at '89 because they love the things we love – beer, games, pop culture and all the other great things in-between.
Our issue really has been getting more of the general populous through the door – enticing those who may look down their nose at a video game bar to give us a go – and getting '89 out into the wider media. When people visit us they quickly see that craft beer and good times are our top priority. We are a dive bar serving craft beer... where there are also 20-plus arcade games, three pinball machines and more than 40 board games.
Have you found it difficult to introduce people who come in to play some games to craft beer?
BN: Nah. The crew are amazing at reading a customer and just helping them find something they like. We try hard to have drinks, food and an atmosphere we personally want to experience ourselves, but without dictating that experience to punters – being genuinely accessible. Everyone comes for different reasons and we want everyone to experience any one aspect of the venue, without feeling pressured to have to experience another. If everything works for them though, brilliant!
We have a significant amount of vegan food and unusual beers. It can be a pretty Australian thing to get a little threatened by those sometimes scary words, so we're pretty gentle and we find that works for us.
BC: People know what they like and we have such a large range of drinks that there really is – most of the time – something for everyone, but some folks have visited and tried a beer that they normally wouldn't be interested in: "Try this passionfruit and mango sour, I think you will dig it." "I don't really like fancy beer." "Give it a go." *sip* "That's pretty good!" – and have walked out slightly more interested in what craft beer offers. I've seen that happen to those who have become our regulars over the last couple of years.
At the moment, do you have a favourite game from your venue and favourite beer?
BN: There is one specific pinball machine that has eaten up the majority of my gaming at Netherworld over the last two years and that is Medieval Madness. It's all about the prep – if you line everything up perfectly before going for the big shot, it pays off. A schooner of the freshest pale ale we've got and a couple of games at clock off definitely does the trick.
BC: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in my all time favourite arcade game but we now have a four slot Neo Geo cabinet with Windjammers in the arcade that I am absolutely in love with.
Beer wise we currently have the Pixel Brewing 480p Pale Ale on tap, which is very tasty and dangerously sessionable. I know it's not sexy to say a pale ale is your current fave beer, but, heck, a good beer is a good beer!
Netherworld is at 186 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley. You'll find 1989 at 22-24 King Street, Newtown.