As hordes of journalists vacated Auburn’s locker room Thursday morning at U.S. Bank Stadium, one crowded scrum lingered.
But this throng wasn’t surrounding a star player. It descended upon Marvel vs. Capcom.
The classic arcade game found in movie theaters and bowling alleys across the nation was one of eight machines wedged into odd corners of the Final Four teams’ locker rooms. Players like Auburn’s senior forward Horace Spencer and junior forward Danjel Purifoy clamored for joysticks and buttons, nearly crawling over each other for a turn to play.
In Virginia’s locker room, Ms. Pac-Man sat obscured behind a whiteboard that displayed a handwritten leaderboard for the game instead of drawn-up plays for the Auburn semifinal. Junior guard Braxton Key claimed the top spot by almost 2,000 points with 24,760 total. Never mind the Final Four, Key said that score was “the highlight” of his season so far.
“I played Ms. Pac-Man ever since I was a little kid,” Key said. “I’m going to let everyone know that I’m first place, and I don’t need to defend my throne until I’m beaten.”
Key isn’t the only champ. Texas Tech’s Kyler Edwards said he “whooped” fellow freshman Josh Mballa four times Thursday in WrestleFest, though Mballa maintains it had been “a long time” since he had played.
Texas Tech assistant coach Glynn Cyprien said the team had been sitting in the locker room for about 1½ hours between media obligations and practice, so a little distraction was welcome.
“I make fun of them,” said Cyprien, 52. “I say, ‘You guys don’t even remember Pac-Man or pinball machines. When I was growing up, that’s what we did.’ ”
It’s true, several players admitted to the arcade games made popular in the 1980s being old-school or something they’ve seen in “a lot of movies,” per Michigan State freshman Marcus Bingham Jr. Many young athletes are part of a new generation, playing games such as Fortnite and NBA 2K on at-home consoles.
Not every player immediately gravitated toward the games, though. Virginia’s Jack Salt said he was busy stretching while his teammates battled for high scores. Michigan State freshman Jack Hoiberg’s locker was next to the games, but he said coach Tom Izzo made his players get ready for practice before they could try their hands at Street Fighter II.
The games, which don’t cost any quarters to play, have cropped up in Final Four locker rooms the past two or three years. The idea came from a previous Final Four team’s suggestion to improve the locker-room experience during long days. The machines will stay in place Friday and Sunday but disappear Saturday and Monday — game days.
But on off days, the Final Four players will have the chance to evade ghosts in a maze rather than guards on the court.
“It’s a really cool way to relax,” Virginia freshman Jayden Nixon said. “It kind of just shows us that it is just a game.”