Tucked away on a side street along Pacific Avenue is Santa Cruz’s only local video game store — Level Up. Founded two years ago by Jerry Abreu, Level Up is both a video game retailer and a hub for collaborative and competitive gaming, serving as a gaming museum and a place for gamers to come together and discuss the gaming experience.

It is a cherished crossroads threatened by the growing prevelence of digitally distributed video games.

“It’s a great community of gamers — we’ve been throwing events to get people to meet and realize that a community for gamers does exist,” Abreu said.

Last Saturday, Level Up held a retro gaming tournament featuring popular games from classic Nintendo systems.

“Level Up made it more exciting to play with other people. It enhanced it — it’s more of an experience than playing online,” said Level Up regular Bill Stevens. “Having the same common ground really helps.”

For each event at Level Up, the store is reorganized, with the usual shelves and displays pushed to the far side of the room. In its place, three TVs are placed in front of a row of chairs for players to face each other, one-on-one.

Community events like these, which Level Up hosts often, are what define the store, Abreu said. But with Gamestop moving into town on Mission Street, he says local, friendly Santa Cruzans will be the prime factor in helping Level Up stay in business.

“Santa Cruz happens to be one of those towns that seems to respect and show loyalty to independents,” Abreu said. “For that reason they tend to flourish out here, and you see some really great companies spur from Santa Cruz because of that.”

With many “cookie cutter” franchises controlling the market, Abreu commends Santa Cruz for fostering a sense of local independence. But the threat of corporate invasion on the local gaming market isn’t what Abreu is fearful of.

“Eventually the draw of digital distribution is going to affect retailers like Walmart and Gamestop. Hopefully we’ll still be around,” Abreu said.

Game publishers and console producers like Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are switching distribution methods to online stores, accessible from gaming systems themselves. More games are being offered in online stores every month, taking away the necessity for hard copies. Abreu is looking to the Santa Cruz gaming community to combat this growing trend.

Many of Level Up’s customers have been stuck between buying hard copies from stores or adding titles to their hard drives in the comfort of their pajamas, including customer Kobra Ortiz.
“Digital copies, sure they’re good. They’re in hard drives, making them easier to access,” Ortiz said. “But there is just something you don’t get with it that you get with a hard copy — a collectibility.”

Many gamers at the event cited the convenience of downloading to a hard drive, but added that shopping in an actual store comes with a special feeling of nostalgia.

Others stated how the choice between digital and hard copies isn’t just black and white.

“It depends — if it’s a staple game I enjoy, if it’s easier to get it right now on the hard drive or if it’s cheaper that way, I’ll pick a digital copy. If it’s a game I want to play over and over again I might get a hard copy,” Stevens said.

Although physical sales still make up the bulk of video game purchases, digital distribution continues to occupy a larger part of the market. Physical sales dropped from 80 to 69 percent between 2009 and 2011, while digital sales increased from 20 to 31 percent, according to Entertainment Software Association.

“Honestly at this point I’m enjoying digital — with PSN (PlayStation Network), for example, I have 30 copies on my hard drive,” said event competitor Jake Avila.

Many large gaming websites like Forbes and IGN have editorials predicting that traditional gaming shops will fall with the rise of downloadable titles. Despite these predictions, Abreu is hopeful that events like the retro and Pokemon tournaments will keep his business afloat, citing that the Level Up experience is about more than just purchases.

“When you come here, it’s not just about buying games, it’s about the experience. We have a connection,” Abreu said. “It’s about talking to the guys who work here and who know the games and the genres. It’s not separated by money.”