Meanwhile, all the guys are playing my game.

"You have got to get this game here," says the guy who's won every match so far, to a Microsoft Store employee. "Oh, and Dead or Alive! I love that game."

Everyone has a good laugh about Dead or Alive, because it's more a soft-core porn than a video game. I laugh, but out of discomfort. The employee is watching me and standing closer to me than I'd prefer.

"Right, Dead or Alive," I quip. "Because it's got such great game mechanics, right?"

"No, that's not why people like it," says the employee. He doesn't seem to understand my joke. "They like it because the girls in it have huge boobs."

I stare at him.

"I mean, reaaaaaaally huge boobs." He gestures at his own chest and moves his hands around. I look at the floor again.

He keeps trying to talk to me after that, asking me my name and what other games I like. I back away from him and stop answering. After what feels like forever, he says goodbye and walks away.

I tell the guys that I want the next game, but they keep ignoring me. It seems that no one will look at me anymore. They all want to play my game, but they don't want to play it with me. Eventually, a different employee starts repeating to everyone that I have next game and they'd better let me play. Between every match, he repeats this. They ignore him.

Finally, the guy who's won every match has to go. I swoop in and grab his controller as soon as he stands up. The other guys look uncomfortable, but I don't care. I've waited long enough.

None of these guys have sticks, so I feel like a jerk taking mine out and plugging it in. All of a sudden I feel over-prepared, like a show-off. I decide to see how well I can do back on a controller, even though I've been practicing with my stick.

I pick my team. In the past couple weeks of practicing, I've switched to Wolverine instead of X-23. I tend to need firepower over fancy footwork. I still have Trish and her traps on standby if I want to keep my distance. And if I need even more power, I'll switch in She-Hulk.

My opponent picks the Phoenix, Magneto, and — ironically enough — X-23. Not so different from my team in terms of character strengths and weaknesses.

His Phoenix goes down first and fast. I'm chaining combos like a champ, not letting her get a hit in edgewise. She could really do damage, if she'd had the chance, but I wasn't about to let that happen. She's strong, but he made the mistake of starting with her instead of saving her and hitting X-Factor to boost her speed and power for a big finish.

Next, my Wolverine must fight X-23, but my health's depleted, and I'm soon left with only Trish and She-Hulk. I'm switching between characters, doing aerial tags, and trying to remember the combos I drilled in training mode, but the early loss of the Phoenix seems to have given my opponent a desperate second wind.

Before long, we're both at half-health on our final characters: She-Hulk for me, Magneto for him. I'm dodging his long-range blasts and flinging aerial hits as best I can. I can see my health slipping. We both hit X-Factor for the home stretch, but I've still got a sliver more health than he does, enough to buy me the confidence to line up a big final blow: an aerial kick right to the face. KO! Player 1 wins!

I realize I've been holding my breath, and I heave a sigh of satisfaction. My first-ever win at a fight night! I feel a warm glow spread over my whole body. This feeling — this must be the reason to keep coming back. To get better, to watch your own progress, to feel this good about yourself. And to think I felt too nervous to even walk in here.

I turn to my opponent to give him a smile, a handshake, a "good game" . . . but he's standing up, keeping his back to me, tossing his controller down on the table, and walking out of the store without looking back once.

Oh. Okay.

A guy who just walked in sits down to play with me. My mind's not on the game anymore. I feel unfocused. The next match ends up being another close one, maybe even a game I could have won, but I lose and give up my controller.

The other Microsoft Store employee smiles at me as I walk away from the TV. "See?" he says. "Now you've had that taste of competition!"

You have no idea.

>>MMYERS@PHX.COM:: @SAMUSCLONE

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