Frozen in Time - Pacific Standard

Frozen in Time

What a 22-year-old video game can teach us about nostalgia.
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Players at the King of '94 tournament in Toronto. (Photo: Sam Riches)

Players at the King of '94 tournament in Toronto. (Photo: Sam Riches)

Eric Lindros' legs are pumping as he pushes forward on the ice, into the Hartford Whalers' zone. With Philadelphia Flyers teammate Mark Recchi flanking Lindros on the right side, the Whalers defensemen must make a quick calculation. Without hesitation, they leave Recchi open and glide toward Lindros, the burly center. Three Whalers surround him, aggressively chopping their sticks, angling to knock Lindros' mostly-orange, indistinguishable and two-dimensional frame off the puck. When the players collide, it's a tangle of flailing limbs and a chorus of guttural oofs that fill the room, but the gamble pays off: The Whalers take possession and start rushing the other way.

Lindros retired from hockey 14 years ago. The Hartford franchise moved to Carolina and became the Hurricanes in 1997. Mark Recchi is now a player development coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins. None of this matters though, on a Saturday in September, in a bar in downtown Toronto, where the NHL's 1994 season is being re-lived. In the dimly lit space, in 16-bit graphics, the players skate again.

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The 128 competitors have arrived from across North America—New York to California, Toronto to Edmonton—to play in the world's largest tournament for NHL '94 (officially called "King of '94"), a video game that turns 22 next month.

"Today is a look back in time. Even though we're all 30 now, you can kinda look in here and see a bunch of 10-year-olds."

Mikey McBryan is the event host and organizer. He's spent the past nine months preparing for this day, gathering extensive input from a small but global community that continues to play the game online. McBryan is currently working on a documentary, Pixelated Heroes, which explores the social phenomena of NHL '94 and the community that continues to surround it. This tournament will be part of the film.

Growing up, McBryan was the best NHL '94 player in Hay River, a town of about 4,000 people on the lip of Great Slave Lake. Now, he's the general manager of Buffalo Airways, a family run airline in the territory. For six seasons, his work was documented on the decidedly Canadian reality show: Ice Pilots NWT. He's gained some domestic fame from that, but today, he's no different than the other guys in the bar, where the title of King of '94 is on the line. Like everyone else here, McBryan wants to know if he's still got it.

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Nostalgia, as a field of academic study, is still in its infancy. For most of the 19th century, nostalgia was regarded as medical disease confined to the Swiss. In the 20th century, it was understood to be a psychiatric disorder, then re-labeled a repressive compulsive disorder, then believed to be an auxiliary to depression, then a variant of homesickness. Currently it's defined as a pervasive and mostly positive sentimental longing.

Still for NHL '94. (Photo: EA Sports)

Still for NHL '94. (Photo: EA Sports)

In a 2008 study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, researchers identified four psychological functions of nostalgia: It generates positive emotion, lifts self-esteem, strengthens socializing skills, and alleviates existential threat.

Nostalgia, according to the 2008 study, can combat feelings of loneliness or isolation, and helps maintain a sense of self that links the past to the present, and establishes congruity. "Nostalgia can help one navigate successfully the vicissitudes of daily life," the researchers wrote.

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Back in the bar, where cold blue hockey rinks glow on television screens, nostalgia is on full display. "I've tapped into this world of this amazing childhood dream of making the NHL, the nostalgia, the bit factor of this obsolete video game that is still resonating today in the world of 3-D graphics and blu-ray," McBryan says. "Today is a look back in time. Even though we're all 30 now, you can kinda look in here and see a bunch of 10-year-olds."

There are about 14 games whirring simultaneously as McBryan speaks. People wear Quebec Nordiques jerseys and Minnesota North Stars ball caps. On top of every table sits a Sega Genesis or an SNES console. On his flight to Toronto, McBryan's carry-on backpack was spilling with NHL '94 cartridges, like he'd time traveled to 1995 and robbed a pawn shop. The more serious players carry their own controller, gently unplugging and re-wrapping the cord around it after each match.

In the center of the room there's a table lined with T-shirts, hats, and mini-trophies. There's also about $1,700 in cash on the line, but that's not what draws the crowd.

"This game is all memories for me, just the days spent growing up and playing it. It's such a classic. It's never going to disappear."

Beer-boosted stories of childhood NHL '94 tournaments pepper conversations, of gaming in the days before the Internet. "There wasn't anything to do besides going to your buddy's door and knocking; that was your Wi-Fi," McBryan says. There's little discussion of hockey's current generation; instead, opinions of Mario Lemieux, Jeremy Roenick, and Chris Chelios fill the room. Many in attendance are meeting for the first time, even if they've played against each other online for years. With the digital wall dissolved, the connections are almost instant.

"The friendships that are made today will last forever, because finally you can relate to somebody that knows the lines, knows the teams, knows the guys that are all retired," McBryan says. "If you ask someone in here to name the first line of the Florida Panthers today they don't know, but if you ask them to name the third line in '94, boom, boom, boom. They know every player."

One of the friendships solidifying in real time is between KingRaph, from New Jersey, and Sebe82, a Canadian. (Those are their gamer names.) KingRaph is the current NHL '94 world record holder, a title earned by beating the computer by the largest margin possible. The original record was 47-0. KingRaph beat it in a day, shutting out the computer 58-zip. Then, for about three years, KingRaph mostly stopped thinking about it. Until McBryan approached.

"Mikey showed up and said, 'Oh, you're the world record holder, you’re the top player,'" KingRaph says. "He kept saying things like that and I thought I should probably bump this record up because people are going to be like '58's not that great.'" Wanting to solidify his reputation, KingRaph beat the computer by a score of 69-0, which he says is "a legit score ... a hard one to beat."

In 2011, when KingRaph discovered the online NHL '94 community, he was already a good player. Or so he thought: Once he began playing on the Internet, he'd routinely get trounced by veterans on the Web forums, including Sebe82, who has been playing online for a decade. Despite their gaps in skill, the two kept playing each other. KingRaph would log in late at night and Sebe82, more often than not, would be there, ready for a game. Eventually, KingRaph, the student, passed Sebe82, the teacher.

"He's always been really helpful," KingRaph says of the mentorship. "I've always emulated his persona as far as helping others. When new guys come in I want to be just as friendly as he was to me."

KingRaph was a teenager when NHL '94 launched. His time then, he says, was spent watching the New York Rangers and playing '94—that was mostly it. Those were, he says, very good days.

"I can play this game for three hours and someone will say, 'Want to play another game?' and I'll always say yes," he says proudly. "I don't know why that is. For 20 years it hasn't been boring, so I don't expect it to get boring anytime soon."

Beside him, Sebe82 chimes in. "This game is all memories for me, just the days spent growing up and playing it. It's such a classic. It's never going to disappear."

On a blinking screen in the far corner of the room, Ron Barr, the veteran journalist and sportscaster, and the iconic face behind the EA Sports Desk, is introducing the next game, Montreal versus Chicago. The bar crowd pushes forward, leaning in as the puck drop approaches.

"Welcome to a sold out Chicago stadium...."

From his 16-bit utopia, Barr spouts his analysis. It hasn't changed in 22 years, and that's a good thing—just ask anyone in this room.

The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.

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