Competitors played for the top spot in a Mario Kart 64 tournament at Brain Dead Brewery in Deep Ellum on Tuesday.EXPAND
Competitors played for the top spot in a Mario Kart 64 tournament at Brain Dead Brewery in Deep Ellum on Tuesday.
Danny Gallagher

128 Mario Kart Racers Compete at BrainDead Brewing Gaming Night

The racers are at the starting line. The next three laps will determine the winner. There are no do-overs, mulligans or second chances. The only thing that matters after a long night of racing is being the first to cross the finish line under the checkered flag.

The traffic light turns green, and four racers cross the start line. Jonathan Cobb has the starting position and keeps the lead for a while, but in the first lap, Tom Steele and Jeremy Riddle ensure that it's a narrow one.

Cobb has clearly memorized the track and knows when to turn for the perfect skid and where to position himself in the road when the hill drops at a 45-degree angle and gravity takes the wheel. However, even someone with Cobb's driving skills can't memorize the obstacles on the track. Steele gets his first shot at the lead when Cobb collides with a Chain Chomp.

Cobb recovers, but then Steele gets an invisibility star and a mushroom boost. Steele takes the lead; the crowd goes wild. Rather than interfere with Steele, Cobb waits for him to make a mistake. The gamble pays off. A critical lane collision in the final lap knocks Steele back to third, behind Riddle in second. Cobb wins the race, the championship and the coveted Banana Trophy, a plastic banana mounted to a wooden stand with a monogrammed plaque.

Jonathan Cobb hoists the banana trophy over his head after beating 127 competitors in BrainDead Brewing's Mario Kart 64 tournament Tuesday.
Jonathan Cobb hoists the banana trophy over his head after beating 127 competitors in BrainDead Brewing's Mario Kart 64 tournament Tuesday.
Danny Gallagher

In the last year, this scene has been a typical one for a Tuesday at BrainDead Brewing. The Deep Ellum brewpub hosts video game nights every week. A group of regulars — Todd Hensley, Tony Weninger, Ashley Johnston and D.J. Nellis — started the events because they wanted to play some Nintendo 64 games over beers in the middle of their hectic work weeks. A week ago, the Mario Kart 64 tournament went viral on Facebook and attracted a record 128 competitors.

"It's like seeing my college dreams come alive again," says Keven White, the manager and event coordinator for BrainDead Brewing.

Hensley and Weninger had been hosting weekly classic gaming nights on their N-64 console and projecting it onto a wall in their apartment parking garage. As people passed by, they would ask them to join the game.

"When we first started out in our apartment in the garage complex, we would set up a projector and used Christmas lights as extension cords," Weninger says. "It was just us and a case of beer, and we were just hanging out."

Eventually, Hensley's roommate, Neil Armstrong, the bar manager for BrainDead Brewing, invited them to play at the bar, where crowds were typically light on Tuesdays, leaving enough room for a couple of projectors. Johnston and Nellis heard about the hangout and began hosting Super Smash Bros. tournaments every Tuesday.

Over time, the weekly get-together has attracted a bigger crowd, requiring more consoles, controllers and copies of classic multiplayer games like the James Bond-themed first-person shooter GoldenEye 007, the spy shooter Perfect Dark and Mario Kart 64.

"We're a family now," Johnston says. "We just started coming to the game nights, and it's so inclusive and welcoming to every type of person, to everyone who walks in the door and just wants to play."

As the tournaments grew, Hensley and his crew had to organize them more effectively, with more complex brackets and bigger prizes. The winner of the first few Super Smash Bros. tournaments took home a giant championship wrestling belt that Hensley bought for a few dollars at a toy store. The next trophies were broken N-64 controllers spray-painted gold and mounted on plaques.

"People really want this thing," Hensley says. "There's something to be said for sitting right next to your opponent and obliterating them and going, 'Yeah me, motherfucker!' and doing your victory dance."

Todd Hensley, one of the first regulars to attend BrainDead Brewing's Tuesday night video game tournaments, oversaw the rankings for its most recent Mario Kart event.EXPAND
Todd Hensley, one of the first regulars to attend BrainDead Brewing's Tuesday night video game tournaments, oversaw the rankings for its most recent Mario Kart event.
Danny Gallagher

The Tuesday night game fights reached their apex a few months ago when the brewery announced its first Mario Kart 64 tournament on Facebook. White says the event attracted more than 800 "interested" clicks in just four days.

He and Hensley picked up a bunch of lucrative prizes, such as tickets to shows a few blocks away at The Bomb Factory; games and gaming swag from the local software maker Bethesda, which publishes DOOM, Skyrim and the new Wolfenstein shooters; passes for free rounds at Cousins Paintball in Forney, where Hensley works; and BrainDead Brewing gift cards.

"By and large, this is the largest one [Mario Kart tournament] we've ever had," White says. "I never thought it would be this popular."

The Tuesday night tournament was so big that the brewery needed eight game consoles and screens, as well as four sectioned areas, to be able to monitor the wins and handle the additional crowds that came to watch.

"It's like I'm high-fiving my 16-year-old self," Weninger says. "One day, somebody's going to pay us to play video games and drink beer."

The classic game nights are a draw because the games chosen are accessible to players at every level, unlike most modern games.

"I remember playing this as a kid," says Josh Miller of Seagoville, who competed in the tournament. "It still brings out the kid in me."

"And anybody can play it," adds his competitor, Justin Warren of Royce City. "It's very universal and playable unless you don't have any hand-eye coordination at all."

The competition gets intense when there's a crowd watching, and a true pro steps up to the screen.

"It's a whole different game when 100 people are watching," says Mike Dumas of Dallas.

"We're also playing against people who know all the tricks of the trade," says Callie Murphy of Dallas. "You think you're good when you're at home, and then you play here."

Even if you don't compete, it's just as entertaining to watch the action leading up to the final battles. The excitement is palpable, and it's easy to get lost in the thrill of the battle, even when the sound of squealing tires is produced by a 64-bit DSP chip and the crashes are just well-organized pixels on a screen.

"This is something that everyone misses in their life," Hensley says. "It's like the first time you beat Ocarina of Time or beat your friends at the game they're best at and the camaraderie of sitting next to someone and experiencing the highs of winning and the lows of losing. When you win or lose online, you can just turn off the TV and walk away, but here, it's on display."

Vince Villanueva (left) and Kaitlan Estes congratulate each other on a well-run race.EXPAND
Vince Villanueva (left) and Kaitlan Estes congratulate each other on a well-run race.
Danny Gallagher

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