The video arcade lives on in Austin

Einstein's Arcade

[originally posted at Sega Nerds]

Austin, Texas — Einstein’s Arcade was a popular hangout for enthusiasts and casual players alike, with a variety of games and extremely convenient location right on the edge of the University of Texas campus. It was practically an Austin landmark; one of the few constants on the Drag since 1985, as stores changed and restaurants moved over the years.

On January 1, 2008, Einstein’s Arcade closed down.

“It was completely unexpected,” said Don Hawkins, a former employee at Einstein’s. “Nobody saw this coming.”

Hawkins said that even Josh Fields, the general manager of Einstein’s, didn’t know until the day it happened. “Josh got a call that day saying we had to clear out our stuff in an hour and a half, and the machines would be going up for sale immediately,” he said.

Einstein’s original lease had expired and the monthly rent had doubled, making a profit even harder to turn. According to Hawkins, Einstein’s owner Ronnie Roark didn’t want to pay the annual taxes on the machines and closed the place down.

“It was a huge disappointment when we heard about it,” said Ryan Harvey, a system administrator for an IT company in Austin and UT graduate. “At the same time, we knew it was inevitable.”

Einstein's Arcade on Guadalupe St. in Austin, Texas, now closed.
Einstein's Arcade on Guadalupe St. in Austin, Texas, now closed.

Harvey started at UT in 2000 and quickly became a regular at Einstein’s. “I used to be the guy that could beat all his friends at Street Fighter II as a kid. But when I came here to Einstein’s, I got my ass handed to me. I was a newbie.”

Harvey, who goes by the handle “Fubarduck” in fighting game circles, has played games like Street Fighter III: Third Strike competitively both nationally and internationally. “There’s an incredible community for these fighting games,” he said. “There’s always more to learn, and that’s something you can get in an arcade that you can’t get anywhere else. If you keep losing, there’s someone there to show you how to counter a certain move, or what to do in a certain situation.”

The fighting game community extends online as well, with players sharing videos and strategies on websites dedicated to the scene. “When I discovered, it was like taking the red pill,” Harvey said.

Some claim that the community is what kept Einstein’s around for so long. Nationally, arcades have struggled since the market crash in 1984, with a slight resurgence in popularity in the mid-1990s. And as the market for video game home consoles continues to grow at a rapid rate, it seems the market for arcades is moving similarly – in the opposite direction. Le Fun and Power Play were two other local arcades in Austin that closed down in the past few years.

If the community kept Einstein’s alive, then it’s the community that will continue its legacy. Harvey is planning to open a new arcade called Arcade UFO this summer. He was able to rescue several machines from Einstein’s, while another Einstein’s regular bought the Dance Dance Revolution Extreme and In The Groove machines. As luck turned out, her father is an Austin real estate investor, who ended up providing the location for Arcade UFO.

“Einstein’s was a great place and we loved it, but we think we can do it better,” Harvey said. “The Drag had a lot of issues, and Einstein’s had a pretty seedy feel. It wasn’t a place you’d feel comfortable dropping off your kids.”

Arcade UFO will be located in a spot that was previously a combination laundromat and coffee shop at 31st and University, right next to an IF bus stop. The place is being renovated for a planned summer opening.

Arcade UFO's location, at 31st Street and University Avenue.
Arcade UFO's location, at 31st Street and University Avenue.

“The whole situation is just so fortunate,” said Austin Hambrick, a Radio-Television-Film senior and self-proclaimed “godfather” of the upcoming arcade. “We’ve got a great location, and everyone involved really loves games.”

“It’s a niche market that hasn’t been filled, because it’s been such an awkward transition,” Hambrick said.

“People still go to movie theaters even though they can watch them at home. People still go to bars even though they can drink at home,” Harvey said. “People go to those places for the atmosphere and the experience.”

As for competition, the folks at Arcade UFO aren’t too worried. Only big chains like Dave & Buster’s, Main Event and Chuck-E-Cheese are left in Austin, and they cater to a different clientele.

“I don’t have a lot of experience, but I’ve been around for a while seeing arcades open and close and I think I have a pretty good feel for what it takes to succeed,” Harvey said. “I wouldn’t put so much time and effort into it if I didn’t think it would succeed. But I’m not quitting my day job.”

Harvey wants Arcade UFO to be a place where both the hardcore gamer and a family can feel comfortable visiting. That means cleaning the place up, and having games – in working condition – that appeal to all sorts of gamers.

Ryan Harvey inside the Arcade UFO building.
Ryan Harvey inside the Arcade UFO building.

“Arcade UFO is for people that really enjoy the classic coin-op arcade,” Harvey said.

For more information, check out the official Arcade UFO site. You can also view a list of Arcade UFO’s games. Support your local arcade, and if you happen to live in Austin then make sure to visit Arcade UFO when they open for business this summer!