Story and photos by Leslie Adami
The North Campus community is quiet, mostly home to University of Texas at Austin grad students who are done with the West Campus party culture. Wedged between a red-roofed house and a mini food market on the corner of 31st Street and Speedway, the little gray building is easy to miss in passing. And, although many people may not realize it as they’re driving by, that little gray building is actually a Texas treasure.
A red haze of light from the gaming systems fills the room. Bright pink and blue neon lights bounce off of the old walls, and a combination between an old Lil Wayne remix and Japanese cheers and chants bring the small arcade, Arcade UFO, to life.
Established in 2009, Arcade UFO is one of the few standing traditional arcades in Austin, and prides itself as the only Japanese-style gaming center in Texas, as well as a haven for Austin’s old-fashioned gaming community.
Before UFO, however, there was Einstein’s.
Einstein’s Video Arcade was located on the Drag for decades. When it shut down in early 2008, so did a home for gamers. Among those was UT grad and avid gamer Ryan Harvey. “I was crushed, I was devastated,” Harvey recalls. “So, for a lot of people, when their favorite spot closes down, like a music shop or a bar, or something more mainstream, it’s sad but there’s always something else to go to. With arcades, it’s a little different — there wasn’t anywhere like Einstein’s to fill the gap.”
At the time, Harvey had already graduated, was employed and still frequented Einstein’s up until its closing. A few years before, he had studied abroad in Japan as a senior, which jump-started the idea of making his own Japanese-style arcade. Upon hearing the news of Einstein’s end, Harvey’s ideas for what is now Arcade UFO began to hatch. “When I first saw the grey building I was like ‘eh,’ because it was tucked away, but with the right connections, good real estate, we were able to find a place not too far from campus,” Harvey says. “I’m really happy about how it all turned out.”
Harvey says building the establishment was an “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” process. And sure enough, customers came, slowly but surely giving life to Harvey’s dream.
“[The UFO Arcade] is definitely like a home away from home for me. I honestly don’t know what I would do if something happened to this place,” arcade regular Chris Lanza says, his eyes fixated on a street fighter as his hands effortlessly maneuver a joystick.
Those who come regularly sometimes even become UFO Arcade Staff. Mike Schiller, UT computer science student, is a UFO Arcade veteran, now employee. Schiller says one of the main reasons that keeps people coming back to the arcade is the growing reputation for its incredibly competitive atmosphere. “The fact that this normally casual gaming arcade can turn into this super competitive environment in just a blink of an eye is just super cool to me,” Schiller says, speaking as a competitive gamer himself who has traveled to national gaming competitions. “We’ve had people fly out here from California just to play in our tournaments. It really brings people together.”
As the only Japanese-gaming style center in Texas and a recently named ‘Top 5 Geek Spot’ of the Austinot Blog, the little arcade ranks in high regard as one of the most respected standing arcades.
“People with similar gaming interests become friends very quickly. It’s just really awesome that this little arcade, with so few of them left, really reaches out to people,” Schiller says.