The story behind the Louisville Arcade Expo

Video games are such an intrinsic part of modern culture that they have become all-pervasive, an integral part of the social zeitgeist. There are films, from documentaries to fiction, based on video games like the Wizard, Scott Pilgrim or Wreck-It-Ralph. There is an entire genre of music — chip tunes — dedicated to reproducing that classic 8-bit sound that has helped shape the tastes of Generation Y and beyond. You can find video game clothing, get a video game tattoo, or artwork, find academic studies on video games and the surrounding culture; there is an almost endless list as to how gaming has impacted life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and the Louisville Arcade Expo serves as a celebration of all things central to electronic gaming.

It all started with an obsession. According to Joe Stith, public outreach for the Expo, “The Expo was started five years ago by three folks who had a great passion for arcade, pinball and classic console gaming. That was myself, Jeremy Fleitz and Matt Fleitz. We were reminiscing about the glory days of arcades and how we wished there was still an arcade in Louisville. While there were some excellent places around town that had machines to play, we felt the community could benefit from an expo that focused on all forms of retro gaming. Our goal was to create an environment where folks could re-experience that magical feeling we got playing these games many years ago.”

It only expanded and grew from there. Stith explains, “The first year we had lots of friends and local collectors bring their machines to set up for people to play on. We were thankful for their help and the help of the many volunteers who made certain that the machines were up and running. The old CRT TVs were playing Duck Hunt, and everything was running smoothly. We’re still blown away by all the support we’ve had from everyone. When we did our first expo, we didn’t think there were that many people like us who loved retro games. We are so glad that there are and that they enjoy what we do.”

Stith continues, describing of their evolution: “Year 2 was when we expanded to over 30,000 square feet, and our formula has stayed the same since then. We try to have more and more games, sprinkled with extra events, such as the costume contest, free concerts, guest speakers and lots of vendors. We expanded our tournaments and were even lucky to get the PAPA (Professional Amateur Pinball Association www.papa.org) interested in making one of our shows a national pinball tournament stop on their circuit.”

Co-founder Jeremy Fleitz expounds, “When working with Mark Steinman of PAPA, we quickly figured out he was ‘one of us.’ His passion for pinball and reaching out to the community that pinball and other gaming can still be a part of our public lifestyle is on par with our goals and objectives. Five years later our pinball tournament is one of the largest in the U.S., and attracts people from other countries, including Canada, Sweden and Finland. We hope to continue growing it for many years to come.”

The Expo has certainly grown. As to this year’s events Stith notes broadly, “We strive to make the Expo an all-encompassing retro experience. So beyond all the pinball, arcade and console gaming, we have all sorts of great seminars and events this year. Since 2015 is the 30th anniversary of the NES’s release in the U.S., a lot of our tournaments are focused on NES titles. So be sure and brush up your skills on 8-bit gaming to win some awesome prizes.”

Specifically, Stith and company are thrilled to host one very special guest. Stith points out, “This year we are very excited to have David Crane as our featured guest speaker. David created the legendary game Pitfall! for the Atari 2600, a game that for its time was an unbelievable achievement in programming and super fun to play. David also co-founded the company Activision, which is one of the largest game publishers in the business today. His talk will be centered around the early days of game development and how it has evolved.”

Cosplay — a part of geek/nerd culture that sees participants dressing up as their favorite pop culture figures, usually from comics, video games or anime — is, as always, an integral part of the Expo. Stith explains, “We are lucky to be friends with Malicious Cosplay, who is an award-winning cosplayer from right here in Louisville. She and her team will be presenting a talk on the basics of cosplay and costume crafting. Our friends Pixel Brain Productions, who do all our awesome promo videos, will be debuting their new web series, titled ‘Bagged and Bored.’  Filmed right here in Louisville at The Destination, it features one man’s struggle to run a comic book store while constantly being hindered by crazy customers, off-beat employees and an evil ex-girlfriend.The Expo is jam packed with all sorts of awesome events in addition to all the classic gaming.”

Stith adds, “We have two costume contests at the Expo, one for kids and another one for everyone over 10 years old. We have some of the most incredible attendees. Their creativity and imagination is just so awesome to see. We’ve had everything from Lando from Star Wars, to Minecraft characters, to Pokemon.”

The team behind the Expo trusts in video games as a perfect way to build community. Stith clarifies, “I think video games are what you make of them. Growing up in the ’80s, our favorite games to play were the multiplayer ones. We would play Contra on the NES for hours to defeat the game. Matt and Jeremy Fleitz always play pinball machines in their multiplayer modes. The social aspect enhances the gameplay. Part of the reason for doing the Expo was to try and expose the newer generations to the face-to-face social aspect of old arcades. The atmosphere of going into a gaming haven stocked with all sorts of games and then playing those together with friends, family or someone who happened to like the same game as you was an experience we all cherished and hope to pass down.”

In fact, Stith feels that “Video games are a major part of the broader nerd culture. The video game industry makes billions of dollar and has a massive reach into popular culture. Popular TV shows such as Big Bang Theory often have video game references or scenes. Some of the top Youtube channels on the Internet are based on video game reviews. If you walk down the street with a Mario t-shirt on a lot of nerds are going to give you a nod or recognize it.”

Stith believes, “Pinball, arcade and video games from the early years of gaming are like works of art. The designers, developers and programmers from those eras were working with hardware limitations that are unheard of by today’s standards. These early visionaries utilized their imagination and poured their heart and soul into games to create worlds and experiences unlike anything ever seen before. They had to do this to get around the limitations, and in doing so, they created something magical. They weren’t trying to wow us with 4K high definition graphics or astound us with 7.1 surround sound. Their focus was on fun gameplay. The games from these times have a universe appeal because of this.”

The Expo is this weekend from Friday to Sunday at the Ramada Inn. Tickets are $20 for a day pass and $45 for the weekend. (You can find a list of this year’s events HERE).