This mishmash of video game lore and culture is Levels Unlocked Pub, the latest pop-up bar from Drink Company.
“I saw the cinematics playing on repeat and got really excited. You don’t see that anywhere else except here.” said Sandra Abucejo, a 22-year-old Overwatch player and fan, on a recent Saturday night. “Most of the bars here don’t have a quirk, it’s just a bar.”
Levels Unlocked devotes three adjoining spaces in Shaw to “Overwatch,” “Super Smash Bros.” and “NBA 2K19.” Here, you’ll swap out such classic drinks as Chu-Hi, Corpse Reviver No. 2 and Cherry Cobbler with the whimsical Pikachu-Hi, GOATorade and Tracer’s Cup video-game themed beverages. The bar is planning to host esports watch parties, tournaments and events, but details are still being finalized.
Beyond being immersed in the imagery of fan-favorite video games, people can also play “NBA 2K19” or “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.” You’ll have to ante up $60 as a deposit, in case you break any of the controllers.
“This captures my childhood,” said Leonardo Godoy, as his eyes hungrily consumed the video-game nerd explosion occupying his attention. “I grew up with playing ‘Super Smash Bros.’ and now I’m drinking out of Pikachu’s head.”
Drink Company began cycling through themed bars in 2015 with Miracle on Seventh Street, a holiday bar inspired by Mace’s Miracle on 9th in New York City. Since then, the team has created pop-ups in honor of cherry blossoms, “Stranger Things” and the metal band GWAR. Its “Game of Thrones” bar, complete with an animatronic dragon and replica Iron Throne, drew 90,000 people to the bar in nine weeks, according to Derek Brown, the president of Drink Company.
Events DC, the District’s sports and convention authority, reached out to Brown in February with the idea to develop an esports pop-up bar. The District’s sports and convention authority is hoping to make D.C. a nationally recognized esports hub, and Levels Unlocked is one way to draw attention to the nascent phenomenon.
“If we do it the right way, it will create opportunities throughout our ecosystem,” said Gregory O’Dell, president and chief executive of Events DC. The main objective for Events DC’s investment in esports, however, is not to generate revenue but to drive people to stay and eat at D.C. hotels and restaurants, he said. (Events DC receives some of its funding from the city’s hotel and restaurant tax.)
Events DC has working relationships with the Washington Justice, D.C.’s entrant in the Overwatch League; NRG esports’ Nairoby “Nairo” Quezada, a professional Super Smash Bros. player; and Wizards District Gaming, of the NBA 2K League — which is why those three games are prominently featured in Levels Unlocked. The Washington Justice gave the bar a nearly life-size poster of the Justice players’ favorite characters — decked out in red.
“It’s all DIY. We figure it out through YouTube and Pinterest and other platforms,” said Matt Fox, Drink Company’s special projects director. There was an extra challenge they faced when designing a bar for video game and esports enthusiasts: “Gamers have the best standards, and it just keeps getting better and better.”
Adriana Salame-Aspiazu, Drink Company’s special projects manager, said she enjoyed the research process, not unsurprising from someone who studied lab biology in college before becoming a bartender.
Salame-Aspiazu recalls sitting down one night with Paul Taylor, head of bar concepts, and his wife, opening a bottle of wine and watching every existing Overwatch cutscene. She was especially drawn to two long-lost brothers, Genji and Hanzo, featured as heroes in the game. Local artist Andrew Funk painted murals displayed in the video, and Salame-Aspiazu and Fox hung Hanzo and Genji’s blue and green dragons strung together with LED lights.
“In the cutscenes and gameplay, you see certain elements of characters and want to express that in the beverages and represent the characters the way they would themselves,” Taylor said.
That’s what Taylor envisioned with GOATorade. (the name is a play on the sports drink and the acronym for “greatest of all time.”) He started with the base Corpse Reviver No. 2 with blanc vermouth and Hendrick’s gin. By adding salinity to the drink with coconut water and pink Himalayan salt, Taylor created a beverage that not only looked like his favorite blue Gatorade but also tasted like it too. Cocktails on the menu range from $12 to $14.
The bar, while envisioned for video-game enthusiasts, is a space where everyone is welcome, Brown said. He hopes it will appeal to people who have an interest in esports, as well as those who want to learn more and those who just come for the over-the-top decor of the pop-up bar.
But it’s really for the esports and gaming enthusiasts, who often don’t have a place to be themselves and enjoy their passion.
“I’m never leaving until you drag me out,” said Chrystal Yee, a basketball fan, sipping a GOATorade at her side.
Levels Unlocked Pub, 1843 Seventh St. NW. popupbardc.com/esportshome.
UPDATE: Brown announced on Aug. 26 that the Levels Unlocked Pub will close on Sept. 1, four weeks earlier than originally planned.