With the announcement by the US State Department that players of the online video game League of Legends would be granted the same visa status as professional sportsmen and women, we decided it was high time to check out the city’s recently opened and so-far only gaming-themed bar: Meltdown, on Caledonian Road.
Meltdown is the third bar of a nascent franchise, following successful launches in Paris and Berlin. London’s incarnation comes in the form of a regular pub/bar with beer, seats and standard indie rock — comforting for anyone concerned that they might be entering some futuristic virtual-reality den between the Cally Road’s old-school grocers and kebab shops. The main difference is the gaming equipment taking up around a quarter of the bar, used for the playing of mini-tournaments that you can sign up for on the night.
Given the American announcement it’s to be expected that the tournaments on show at Meltdown heavily feature League of Legends, with Starcraft 2 and various Street Fighter-style games also on display during our visit. Broadcasts from international tournaments and online scraps play out on the screens dotted around the bar, alongside live footage of the games being played on the four main gaming rigs.
The central machines are set up in an X formation with a couple of additional monitors. Four players play a 2v2 match, with teammates on opposite corners of the X so that each player cannot see their opponents’ screens but, crucially, can see that of their teammate. The extra monitors allow the whole bar to watch the action, with further screens dotted around to facilitate viewing.
The effect is strikingly similar to that of watching football in any pub across the city. Groups of people stand around chatting and drinking, some intently watching the action and others looking over when a particularly daring move is made in the game, or someone’s character is about to take a pummelling. While ‘exploring the facilities’ we heard a distinct cheer go up from the bar akin to a goal being scored.
The focus of the bar is very much on watching a shared passion with friends and having a good night out — sociability not necessarily associated with players of computer and video games in the past. Changing the view others have of gamers is probably one of the motivating factors behind the opening of Meltdown, as well as disseminating the knowledge that competitive gaming is actually bewilderingly popular — the most recent League of Legends World Championships saw the winners take home $1m of the $5m total prize pot.
Caledonian Road seems an unusual choice for Meltdown — the building used to house the popular Prince pub, which was forced to close last year after a series of disputes between landlord and tenant. But according to Rob, Meltdown’s enthusiastic barman, the locals are quite taken with their new neighbours.
“There’s been no blow-back at all, quite the opposite,” says Rob. “I think they appreciate that our customers are much less likely to cause trouble than you might get in a normal pub — they just want to have a drink and play or watch a few video games.”
With the popularity of gaming only heading one way, prospective entrepreneurs may be watching Meltdown with interest to see if similar bars could work in more easily accessible parts of the city. Meltdown is a little way from the nearest tube, although the Caledonian Road & Barnsbury Overground station is nearby.
Despite the location’s relative isolation, Rob says they’re doing well: “We’re getting more people in every week. People tend to look online to see what our featured game is that night and come in for their favourite, which helps us work out which games are best for business."
A new themed bar is always worth a look, and this makes a radical change from the proliferation of prohibition basement bars and BYO cocktail joints. It seems surprising that it has taken gamers so long to force their way into the eye-line of the capital’s drinkers, but if Meltdown’s success continues they may well be here to stay.