Interview: Section 9’s Stephen Sanford

For the uninitiated, Section 9 Cyber Cafe opened in 2009, providing Fargo video game enthusiasts with a place to call home. Recently, they moved to 1142 17th Street North, where they recently reopened. This week, I caught up with Stephen, and this communiqué resulted.

ERIK MEYER: As a FYI, describe Section 9’s new space and what has gone into the move; what is being added, why closer to NDSU, and how have you changed as a business because of it?

STEPHEN SANFORD: Section 9’s new space has pretty much the same gaming equipment as the old location, it has just been formatted to make each station a little more personal. For example we have most of our consoles set up to their own 24” monitors with headphones in order to help immerse our gamers into their selected games without the background noise pollution of other players having a ball or whatever. We have started using a new LAN Center program called “GGLeap” which requires our gamers to set up an account when they come in the first time and through that it adds an interface to the PCs that displays our games list, online leaderboards among all LAN Centers that are using GGLeap. It tracks their time for them so they know where they stand on time. Eventually the system will offer a rewards system that will sync to certain games (League of Legends, DOTA 2 and Smite). As far as additions go we have converted our snack and drink section into basically a miniature convenience store. We carry anything from ice cream to condoms. However we are not carrying any fresh produce or anything prone to early expiration during our first couple of weeks at least. On the gaming end we have yet to add anything new other than the classic section we created. We have our eye on VR and really want to implement it but we just do not have the space for it yet, but we will figure something out. We have always honestly wanted to be near NDSU. We feel that there are people on campus who have a desire to game but just do not have the means to do it properly and we want to provide that.

EM: I notice the logo has been redone; what other kinds of things have been happening behind the scenes?

SS: Yes we redid the logo, we figured we should update our image and that our original logo was too similar to the Ghost In The Shell logo (an anime I personally am not familiar with nor did I even know about when we first opened. In other words I didn’t name the store). We don’t really like to work behind the scenes. Everything you see is what you get with us, we are all about transparency unless it comes down to a legal matter.

EM: What kinds of things have you learned from your first location? As I recall, you were above the Raven and next to a framing gallery originally, but what wisdom have you gleaned since you first opened?

SS: I have learned a lot of things from our original location. I learned that gamers are not easily defined by demographic, they come in all shapes, sizes, ages and sexes. There is no discerning who is a gamer and who isn’t. We have all learned how to run a tournament and I think we are finally able to implement the necessary changes to make it comfortable and smooth for all the competitors. Coffee and caffeine reigns supreme in the life of a gamer. Sometimes they will drink water, but only in dire situations. So when we had the Red Raven below us it was very helpful for our business and theirs as well I hope.

EM: How has gaming changed since you first opened?
SS: We had a pretty good idea of where gaming was heading when we first opened. We saw that competitive gaming was going to be a huge deal and we wanted to be the first ones in town to pull off a LAN Center.
Gaming was not really at the level of competition that it is now. Now you see million dollar tournaments being run for games that are free to play, that is one thing we did not predict. Our most played game in the shop is actually free to play (League of Legends).
The genres feel like they are being bogged down and the originality of single player titles is dwindling in my opinion however. I catch myself picking up old games and remakes before I even think of grabbing a new game. The last new game I purchased for myself was the biggest upset in gaming history (No Man’s Sky) and I will never forgive that, removing that bandage is going to be painful when I finally do try another new single player title, more than likely that will be The Last Guardian when that FINALLY comes out. If it comes out.
EM: For the uninitiated, what kinds of services do you offer now, and what would you like to offer in the future?
SS: Right now we offer 18 Gaming PC Stations, 2 single player Xbox 360 stations, 1 PS4 single player station, 1 PS3 single player station, a 4 player classic games section, a 4 player Wii U station and an Xbox One station for up to 2 people.
We also offer PC and Laptop repair.
Coffee, snacks and drinks.
EM: Describe your clientèle and the gaming community in Fargo; what makes Fargo a good place to do what you do?
SS: As I said previously our clientèle fits in every demographic, oddly enough. We have seen it all. Fargo is a great place for a business like this because it is a frozen wasteland for 7 months out of the year give or take. We wanted to provide a form of entertainment that is more engaging than most options available in this city. Our main source of entertainment and socializing in Fargo would be going to the bars and what does that leave the younger crowd and the people who do not like the bar scene to do for fun? Probably lots of other stuff but those are old mediums and we wanted something fresh to stimulate the creativity of future business leaders in the area.
EM: Moving is a lot of work; what inspired you to pick up and get new digs in 2016? What’s your favorite game moment of 2016?
SS: We left downtown for a number of reasons but our main reason was our lease was up and we wanted to be closer to campus. Downtown is not a very good place for a business like ours where we tend to have a large number of younglings in there. There was a slightly seedy element around Robert’s Street, not that anything terrible ever happened to any of our customers, but we have had our fair share of encounters with people not fit to be around children.
My favorite game moment of 2016? Oooof that is a tough one.. I guess the launch of Overwatch made me pretty happy and the Legion expansion for World of Warcraft. I kind of stepped away from Blizzard titles for a long time due to their games just feeling slapped together and turned into careless micro transaction based money grabs. Everything they have released this year has been top notch and that is impressive to me.
EM: A number of groups (Fargo Game Makers, NerdQ, etc) related to gaming exist locally, and the term ‘Silicon Prairie’ gets thrown around relating to start-ups setting up shop locally. How do you feel Section 9 fits into dev culture and similar ventures?
SS: As far as our fit into the Dev Culture I feel is very minimal. We do not really associate with those groups as much as I would like. I always wanted to make the Fargo Game Makers meetings more and try to work with them but with us being a family business and not really having any employees to cover I was unable to take nights off to meet with them.
We did have the opportunity to debut a test playthrough of Close Studios / Beach Interactive’s game “On My Own” which I thought was a very cool event. It was something that we had never done at Section 9 before and I was happy to have the chance to work with those guys. I would love to be able to hold more events like that in the future.
NerdQ has always been excellent about creating coverage of our space and events that are taking place. Also they do an incredible job of spreading the word about other events in the gaming and tech industry in town, Games on the Plains for one, I am really happy to see that up and running.
EM: Finally, what Easter eggs have come with the move? (for you or for soon-to-be patrons)
SS: As far as Easter eggs go we do not really have any as of right now. Nothing has really changed much from our day to day other than we open at 8pm now and close at 10pm. Excluding Sunday and Monday. More than likely we will be closing shop at 5pm on Monday in order to allow the members of the Red River Valley Autism Network to run their event that is called “Game On”. Sundays we will probably be opening at noon on Sundays and only run until about 8pm.

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Author: Erik Meyer

Erik edits content, writes articles, conducts interviews, and draws silly things for The NerdQ. He also produces Planning Session, a comic showcasing dev discussions.

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