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Gainesville man turns his love for gaming into massive expo
Preston Burt
Preston Burt visits his basement arcade room at his Hall County home Wednesday, July 13, 2022, where he has a selection of upright arcade games as well as pinball machines. Burt will be hosting the 9th Annual Southern-Fried Gaming Expo this weekend at the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel & Convention Center. - photo by By Scott Rogers

It’s a-me, Mario! 

BOOMSHAKALAKA! 

Finish him! 

If you’re an old-school gamer — or even if you’re not — these video game catchphrases will immediately strike you as iconic. 

They are also apt to trigger a warm sense of nostalgia for a simpler time when a shot at glory could be had for just a quarter at the local arcade. 

Well, gamers rejoice: this weekend you can unlock old memories and create new ones at the Southern-Fried Gaming Expo in Atlanta – billed as “Georgia’s largest arcade.” 

The three-day expo is expected to draw a crowd of 6,000, and it will be held at Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel & Convention Center, from July 15 through 17. 

The expo was co-founded in 2014 by Gainesville resident Preston Burt, whose passion for gaming has massively outgrown the dimly lit arcades of the 1980s and ‘90s, where a quarter would buy you a chance at beating the high score, earning you bragging rights among your friends — and putting a target on your back. 

But for Burt, gaming is about much more than high scores, final bosses, and “whipping up on the young punks,” he joked. 

“For me and a lot of the people coming to the expo, it isn't necessarily about the high score. It’s about getting back to the social aspect of gaming, which I think we lost when the arcades started to decline,” he said. “And so it's just a fun event to be able to get people out in the physical world, play on real hardware, the original hardware from sometimes up to 40 years ago.” 

The golden age of video games lasted from 1977-1993, according to Roberto Dillon in his book, The Golden Age of Video Games: The Birth of a Multi-Billion Dollar Industry. 

The golden age began in Japan, where Nintendo released the first at-home gaming console, Color TV-Game 6, which contains several versions of the game Pong. The console is battery-powered with two knobs for moving each of the in-game paddles, and it has switches that allow players to do things like adjust the size of the paddles and increase the speed of the ball. 

During the golden age, Burt said, arcade games were everywhere. 

“What a lot of people don't remember is that in addition to the arcades being filled with arcade games and pinball machines, is that back in the 80s and 90s, you could find them all over,” he said. “You could find them in a supermarket, you could find them in Walmart, you could find them in a hotel, truckstops, anywhere you go, they'd have one or two. And when you're a kid, you're always searching, your eyes are always looking for the next hit.”

Burt’s love of gaming goes back to his childhood in Jackson, Mississippi. 

“I remember playing Galaga when I was really, really young, and I was always enamored with arcades, you know, when your mom would give you four quarters to go spend in the mall,” he said. 

That passion has only grown throughout the years. He recalled buying the first arcade game of his own. 

“When I was in college, I worked at a movie theater in the mall, and across from the movie theater, there was an arcade, and we were friendly with the manager there,” he said. “And he came over and asked me one day if I would like to buy one of the machines that they were going to get rid of. And never in my mind did I fathom that a normal person, a regular person could just own one of these arcade machines. And so it just sent me down a path.” 

Now, Burt has a basement arcade with nearly a dozen retro arcade games and pinball machines.

His all-time favorite game is Street Fighter II, released in 1991. 

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Preston Burt
Preston Burt shows the insides of a pinball machine in his basement arcade room at his Hall County home Wednesday, July 13, 2022. Burt will be hosting the 9th Annual Southern-Fried Gaming Expo this weekend at the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel & Convention Center. - photo by By Scott Rogers


“The first real memorable game that I played was Street Fighter II, and that's my favorite game to this day,” he said. “I have a stand up unit in my basement right now, and it was just so fun to be able to not just play against the game, but play against someone else. And so I remember riding my bike to the corner store that had a game room in the back and being able to play against people my own age or people older than me, and being able to dominate them on a video game felt really, really good.” 

But if he could only keep one, it would be his ultra-elaborate Ghostbusters pinball machine, which pauses at various points to play scenes from the movie. If you hit the ball down the appropriate lane, a little crane pops out and suspends a “slimer” in the air, which makes slimy noises and earns you extra points when you manage to wack it. 

Among the thousands of gamers who attend the Southern-Fried Gaming Expo, many make the trip in pickup trucks and U-Hauls, lugging their personal gaming machines to the event. 

“What makes our event great is it's community-driven,” Burt said. “My connection with all these arcade and pinball collectors really helped out in the beginning and continues to do so because they're the ones that bring the games to the show. There are a few people that we hire to bring some games. There are some distributors that come to display the brand new games. But most of them are people who bring one or two or three pinball or arcade machines from the house.”

In addition to over 50 guest speakers, 150 scheduled events, and dozens of live tournaments, attendees can enjoy hundreds of tabletop board and roleplaying games, retro and modern video game consoles, and hundreds of full-sized arcade and pinball machines.

The expo serves mainly as a throwback to the golden age of arcades, but it has expanded to include more modern video games like Super Smash Bros., a highly competitive multiplayer game that will have its own tournaments at the event. 

And while Burt no doubt has a competitive side – he founded the Atlanta Pinball League, after all – video games are more about having fun and making new memories. 

“It's pretty incredible to see how much this impacts other people,” he said. “Honestly, when I co-created this show with a bunch of friends, it was just a bunch of people who were home collectors, and we were jealous that other places had shows like this. And so selfishly, if one wasn't going to come to us, I said, ‘Well, let's just go ahead and make one.’” 

He reminisced on the first expo in 2014. 

“That first show on Friday night, when all the lights were going and hearing the sound of the games, I just took in all the people that were there just having fun,” he said. “And being able to look at: I had a hand in making this and helping other people make new memories. It was really, really meaningful to me.” 

The irony of hosting “Georgia’s largest arcade,” though, is that Burt doesn’t have much time to play games himself. 

“It's funny, I created this so that I can have some fun place to enjoy playing games,” he said. “But I actually don't really get to play any games. During the event, I'm so busy running it. So I just get joy from seeing other people enjoy this event and having fun playing games.”

 This article was originally posted by the Gainesville Times, a sister publication to Forsyth County News. 

Georgia’s largest arcade 

What: Southern-Fried Gaming Expo

When: 3 p.m.-midnight, July 15 

Saturday, 10 a.m.-midnight, July 16  

Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., July 17 

Where: Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel & Convention Center

How much: $75 for a weekend pass for teens and adults; $35 for kids ages 6-12 More info: Check the event website for daily rates.