A Night in the Mines

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  • The lobster is up when I step in, riding high on the crowd’s disbelief.

    From their cries, which peal on into other matches, it sounds like the lobster had a good match. Put on a good show, which is to say it caused an upset and got a lot of people paid.

    A read of the chat might suggest the crowd who rode the lobster’s odds as an underdog to a handsome receipt is satisfied, ready to walk out on top with their winnings. Some of them might, but it’s hard to tell. The remaining crowd’s freshly fueled fight lust outshouts any exit.

    The lobster is their new sounding point, an example to bemoan or beat their chests for. The lobster’s good match is fresh motivation for them to let their streaks, good or poor, ride match after match, hour after hour.

    On this billing, there seem to be only good matches.

    ———

    A new meme surfaces in the Salty Bet chat on this Friday. It’s about 7 p.m. on the East Coast, and they’ve granted the lobster immortality. The upset it turned pulled a lot of money out of and into a lot of pockets.

    They’ve taken to calling it “Lockster” – as in, the way its victory was a lock, an outcome guaranteed by raw ability. The lobster’s was anything but. But the name fits, and they’ve already hyped Lockster’s turn in the spotlight into a corner of fame, ironic and otherwise.

    Eying Salty Bet at a distance, it’s hard to tell where one attitude ends and the other starts. The site’s calling card – virtual betting on computer-controlled fights – is a perfect storm of faux-serious odds playing. And no one can keep a straight face.

    The person managing the Salty Bet system, which takes odds and handles payouts for the AI fights carried out in the freeware MUGEN program, is warmly referred to by the chat as Salty.

    Salty has a clean and intuitive system in place that allows participants to do three things with minimal effort: bet, watch and respond.

    The first two options are passive ways to interact with the Salty Bet system. Bets and odds reflect one degree of response to a matchup, and the number of viewers on the live stream another. But in the third, the site’s chat room, every passionate, ill-tempered, tenuously connected emotion gets a window to shout from.

    It’s the most indulged form of spectatorship – the fighters don’t mind your insults and barbs, don’t need your praise and are shuffled off for a fresh pair every five minutes. Anyone can join and add to the machine of the chat’s unending voice, which speaks in capitalized letters, broken, profane utterances and, tonight, around 7 p.m., is bellowing Lockster, Lockster.

    ———

    In Salty Bet, you arrive with nothing. If you make an account, you get $10 with which to start betting.

    Losing a lot on a bet is colloquially referred to as being sent down to “the salt mines.” The chat often shortens it to just “salt” – used liberally as an adjective, noun, emoticon and state of being.

    Some people celebrate it (“Looks like it’s back to the salt mines for me!”). Some revile it. Either way, after the lobster incident, there’s plenty of salt to go around.

    [As popular as it is, the Lockster zeitgeist is cut short with the kind of enthused heckling that pops up before, during and long after every match. Fuck you, Fat Albert. Make me money, Ronald McDonald.]

    ———

    Everything about Salty Bet is seemingly automated. The chat might almost be.

    The next match is between a character called Brimstone, whose fiery body stretches up off the screen, and a much smaller character.

    He’s gigantic, someone points out. The chat agrees with itself for several seconds; it seems like Brim is the ideal investment. I plunk down some cash.

    The second character is too small for Brim to hit, though. He’s all over, getting hits in high and low before Brim can uproot a single leg to make a move. The match is only seconds old, and already not playing out as it should. The chat knows, and its reactions come in hot.

    Mistakes were made!
    Always bet on hitbox!

    There are variations on these memes. Truncation is trendy (“Mistakes!”), but the sentiment is all the same in this upset, and you can summarize the disappointment of the losers and the euphoria of the winners with a single word, said with vigor: Salt!

    ———

    Every Salty Bet match is a sideshow of chance fighters and preposterous context. Even so, certain characters (and certain versions of certain characters) are better or more “complete” than others.

    This is a curious phenomenon: nothing about the MUGEN framework or Salty Bet itself seems fit to be called complete.

    Music from StarCraft II swells. The people wailing over losses in the chat perk up as a lithe knife fighter and a poorly-drawn version of the Pokémon Blaziken face off in the Dead Pool arena from Mortal Kombat. Someone in the chat shouts “REAL MATCH,” so I feel safe betting against the pocket monster. The other guy has long blonde hair, twin daggers, and never gets a hit in as a jerky character with a third the pixels pummels him senseless.

    HE LOOKS SO COOL HOW COULD HE BE THIS BAD, someone yells into the chat.

    The next bout is Cell versus Ryu. Except it’s not Ryu.

    This pugilist, called Uppercut, slides between forms with each movement—Scorpion, Dudley, Johnny Cage, even different versions of his base character.

    Every whiplash-quick attack is an uppercut. Every uppercut it lands – and they all land – triggers a few seconds of Roger Daltrey’s throat-shredding scream from “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” peaking and distorted into ferocity. Clips from the CSI: Miami intro occasionally replace the venue background. In motion, it’s a Who-tinted fever dream of fists and figures.

    Uppercut is what the Salty chat calls a “god-tier” character. Their caps-locked admiration outnumbers even the most popular of Salty Bet axioms: “Always bet on DBZ.”

    For some reason, I put my small bundle on Cell. I’m the fool, separated harshly from his money, but what I’m seeing makes it hard to care. Everyone won that fight, someone says.

    The chat is trying to catch its breath. What is lockster, another interjects.

    ———

    The good feel dies with the next match’s introduction—Dazzler versus Sion. The blunt, Internet-age equivalent of catcalls and wolf-whistles rains down.

    TITS
    All in on boobs
    WAIFU

    Then people notice bets aren’t going through. They curse Salty, invoke Lockster’s holy name. The chat is fickle; the mood is decidedly salty.

    A miniature version of Goku starts fighting Ivy from SoulCalibur. The chat shifts again.

    tits lets go
    Boobs!!!! 1!!
    tits and sword
    fuck that bitch up

    The odds are in Ivy’s favor. Goku is just barely denied the upset. His backers seethe.

    Then the matches stop. For about 40 minutes, the chat is locked in subscriber-only mode. The signal-to-noise ratio skyrockets. For a moment in the mines, you can hear yourself think.

    ———

    People talk, in lowercase letters now, addressing one another directly. As Salty repairs the system, they discuss pertinent topics like Diablo III, SimCity and the positive qualities of apple juice.

    There is some Salty Bet talk. Removed from the torrent of the chat proper, at least this portion of the crowd shows they pay attention.

    They know matchups, and the best versions of characters. They know who wins and why, what the best hitbox size is (“small”), which big rollers lost money on what, the fights they’d like to see. They know who’s shit, and who’s legit.

    They talk about chat icons they want. Someone suggests carts (for the salt mines). One to represent Dragon Ball Z is a popular contender, as is one for “Darude – Sandstorm” – the answer you’ll get when you ask about the current track, no matter what’s playing. They already have a head for “facepalm,” and a Rasta dog, just because.

    A lot of the talk – humor, analysis, shorthand – is laced with references to salt. Saltines. Salt water. Salty tears.

    Ever had anchovy pizza? someone asks. Saltiest pizza.

    I want one, another adds, walking the conversation back to icons, for big payouts that has a guy with his mouth open facing up, while it rains salt into his face.

    The stream starts running test matches, and then letting the non-subs in. Most arrive with bombast, shouting their freedom as the collective voice roars back to its full, boorish strength.

    ———

    The fights roll on, but then the payouts stop. The matches become sporadic. The system starts to crash. It seems to have spawned multiple matchups, switching back and forth, then shuttering them all at once to the sound of a hysterical chat, 3400 strong and still building. Someone recommends Firefox; someone recommends Netscape Navigator.

    Somewhere in the middle of it all, I manage to lose a grand with a bet on a yellow Japanese ambulance.

    ———

    I can’t connect to the chat anymore. The right side of the screen, normally occupied by large letters and bracing words, is a slab of white. As the page loads, the video comes in choppy, and I see characters move in a handful of frames at a time.

    I try to follow the match, and wonder what jokes are being made out into the ether. The Twitch stream calculates thousands still tuning in, but watching this fight—a wolf man going one-on-one with something that could have been vomited in MS Paint—is strangely solitary.

    ———

    I switch to Firefox, where I find the chat in rough shape. The site still seems to be various shades of broken: not loading names, showing bets, taking bets, or broadcasting at a steady frame rate. People aren’t sure what to be mad at.

    PUT POPEYE ON DAMMIT, someone booms. He’s not joking: MUGEN Popeye can clean up a match in spectacular fashion.

    Things work themselves out. Another StarCraft theme shuffles on, playing over a fight that involves an uber-powered Vegeta. People pay attention again.

    For She-Hulk vs. Gengetsu, they seem to pay extra attention.

    BOOBS vs. WINGS CANNOT COMPREHEND.

    can tits lose?

    never bet on colored chicks

    Female fighters surface the worst of the Salty chat. No match I see over the course of the evening involving one isn’t met with at least a handful of “waifu” shouts. Most are prefaced with an adjective, for distinction. Magic. Sword. Umbrella. Damn. Bitch.

    [For all its enthusiasm and playfulness, a vocal division of the Salty Bet viewership is especially willing to dumb itself when it comes to a combatant’s gender, populating the chat with openly sexist sludge and then laying down in that stream for a good long soak.]

    Two matches down the line sees Juggernaut square off against Akane. The chat knows what’s coming: the angry bulk of Juggernaut, even in knockoff form, is nigh unbeatable, and this wide-eyed anime girl is the size of his boot. It’s all they can do to be the first to say it.

    prepare your anus

    rape train

    smells like rape

    MY DICK CANNOT HANDLE THIS LEVEL OF REAL

    rape little girls

    RAPE CULTURE

    reminds me of porn

    It’s well after midnight, and the chat has swollen to nearly 3800. Psylocke is up against Commissioner Gordon. I’m too preoccupied with the chat to make a bet.

    GUN THE BITCH DOWN

    UNLOAD ON THIS SLUT

    Whore

    CALL KOTAKU

    ———

    The chat is peaking at about 4000. I glance at what looks to be a fight between a very blue, very blocky Megatron and a very pink Spider-Man. Closer inspection shows it’s actually Spider-Girl, a pink reskin of Katana from Mortal Kombat.

    I struggle to think of a child who wouldn’t enact that or any other of these scenarios with glee on his or her bedroom floor, figures from all series and ages and genders dumped and mingling in a pile, waiting for their match.

    Salty Bet captures that feeling sometimes. At its best, it finds ground between a child’s ability to tell limitless stories with the pieces available, and the anticipated newness of Saturday morning cartoons. Its “competition” is inconsequential, but as natural as playground posturing – Hey, I bet Godzilla couldn’t beat Naruto. At its best, Salty Bet can be nonstop imagination fulfillment.

    Spidercunt.

    Spiderwaifu.

    Always bet flat chest.

    The tits are too small.

    GIRLS NEVER WIN.

    STAY IN THE KITCHEN SPIDERGIRL.

    ALWAYS BET ON WHAT YOU FAP TO.

    And it can turn as mechanical and unfeeling as the systems that feed its matches. Following the attitudes of the chat can be utterly draining, and choke the childlike whimsy that prompts squeals of excitement when Marvin the Martian pops up to fight M. Bison.

    Watch Salty Bet long enough and you may come to a choice between enduring the lesser of two evils: the machine taking your money, or the one bellowing memes and slurs into the night.

    I wager my 4272 Salty bucks on Spider-Girl and shut the laptop.

    ———

    The stream is still open when I wake up later in the morning. Sephiroth has just overcome mountainous odds to hand Punch-Out!! ’s Mike Tyson an authoritative beating. The chat is pure positivity and chaos, unified in disbelief.

    THE DREAM IS ALIVE, someone cheers. THE DREAM THE DREAM.

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