People flocked to Anchorage’s Thai Kitchen on a recent Monday evening — but it wasn’t for the food.
Chairs were stacked up against the back wall. Computer monitors occupied the restaurant’s tables. Spectators gathered around the screens, engrossed by the action.
“Everyone’s yelling,” said attendee Raphael Borromeo. “It’s almost like a sporting event.”
At the center of it all: video games. Every other week, the popular restaurant transforms into a makeshift arcade for Monday Night Combat — a fighting video game tournament hosted by Banky Kitchpanich, whose family has run Thai Kitchen for 37 years. Kitchpanich said it’s a chance for fighting game enthusiasts to play each other in person, sharpen their skills and meet other like-minded people.
“There’s just a sense of camaraderie you get playing offline,” he said.
Thai Kitchen has become one of the few remaining spaces in the city where people can play video games face-to-face. That used to be the only way to do it, but Kitchpanich said arcades started disappearing when online gaming took off in the early 2000s. Now, he said, most people just play over the internet.
“People just prefer to sit in their home, you know, comfortably,” said Kitchpanich. “They don’t have to go anywhere. It’s just as easy to play with friends. I totally see the appeal.”
But he said playing in person has an entirely different appeal.
“There’s definitely a different vibe to offline events. People get really hyped just watching, you know. We’ll egg each other on, and talk some crap to each other,” he said. “It’s always a fun time.”
Kitchpanich has been involved in competitive fighting games for 17 years, ever since he was a kid. He first started organizing monthly in-person competitions in the neighboring frozen yogurt store in 2017, but the pandemic brought those to a halt.
“Since COVID pretty much shut down all the offline events, we didn’t have anything for a really long time, and people were missing the offline competition,” he said.
The pandemic also impacted his family’s restaurant. Thai Kitchen has exclusively done takeout orders since May 2020, and started closing on Mondays. Kitchpanich said it seemed like the perfect opportunity to relaunch the gaming tournaments. He pitched the idea to his parents.
“When I found out we were going to be closing once a week finally, I was like, ‘Is it cool if I throw some video game tournaments here? Because there’s nowhere else in town I can really do that,’” he said. “They were like, ‘Yeah of course! You know, just like, clean up after yourself.’”
He started Monday Night Combat in June 2021. Recently, they’ve been playing Street Fighter.
Matches are live streamed on Twitch, with two people doing commentary for the audience. They call out plays as they happen and speculate on what the contestants might do next, using an abundance of fighting game jargon — nicknames for different moves, situations and strategies.
Borromeo is among the commentators, and he’s been competing for 14 years. He said the atmosphere of offline tournaments can’t be beat.
“It’s kind of like watching a UFC fight, but not exactly the same, obviously. But you know, it’s just like the energy, the camaraderie, the competitiveness. It always brings me back,” he said.
Over the years, Anchorage’s competitive fighting game scene has essentially become one tight-knit group of friends, with a couple new faces every tournament.
Kitchpanich said all kinds of people show up. Some are completely new to fighting games, and some have been playing them competitively for their entire lives.
“Instead of just teams that are invited to play, it’s basically an open bracket,” he said. “So, you know, Joe Schmo from down the street can come over and play against Michael Jordan.”
It costs two dollars to play, and another five to enter a tournament bracket. The winners get a cut of the earnings. At the most recent event, 20 people entered and first place went home with $50. Kitchpanich said it’s usually a pretty small cash prize — people really just compete because they love to compete.
“It’s more of a passion thing, you know?” he said. “And you get a free lunch if you win, basically.”
At the end of the night, the tables were cleared of monitors. The next day, Thai Kitchen opened for lunch, as if nothing ever happened.