The Rise of CyberConXion

?Daddy, God loves me; he brought me to CyberConXion.?

This is Larry Hochendoner?s favorite memory of his work at CyberConXion. A little boy invited to a birthday party at the Pittsburgh gaming center gasped in amazement when he saw the console gaming room at the back of the building, outfitted with four projectors, each hooked to a Nintendo Gamecube, a Sony Playstation 2, and a Microsoft Xbox. For a kid, this was gaming heaven, and as he cried out in pure joy, the adults in the group all laughed. This place was not for them ? it was for their kids.

Since it opened on December 3, 2004, the CyberConXion gaming center in Squirrel Hill has been attracting guests of all ages for parties and tournaments, as well as for computer training and education in media creation. The center is located in the building at the corner of Forbes Avenue and Murray Avenue, near the center of the Squirrel Hill shopping district. It takes up 3700 square feet on the second floor, above the now-defunct Zyng Asian Grill.

Pittsburgh CyberConXion is the largest public access computing facility in Pennsylvania that offers PC and console gaming. With 65 top-of-the-line PCs and 12 console systems, all connected together in one big network with Internet access and more than 25 individual PC games to choose from, not to mention dozens of console games, it?s a treasure trove of gaming right in our backyard. Yet most students have never even heard of it.

Behind the Business

Leon Edelsack and Larry Hochendoner have a business plan. The two met when working at Westinghouse in 1990. While Hochendoner was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Edelsack only came to Pittsburgh in 1979 as a graduate business student at Carnegie Mellon. Both men now call the city home.

While this fact certainly had a bearing on their final choice of location, it did not begin here. The idea for CyberConXion has been gelling in Edelsack?s mind for years. He used to play games like the seminal first-person shooter Doom at home with his son, and quickly found that gaming was simply more fun with other people. He started running small parties for people out of his and their own homes using multiple computers, but over the years the idea kept growing.

?This business is about social[izing]. It?s not about the technology. The technology just happens to be there.... This is all about social. That?s where a lot of ? I?ll say 90 percent of our competitors don?t get it,? said Hochendoner. Hochendoner, who earned his MBA from the University of Pittsburgh?s law school, handles most of the technical side of the business.

As these two Pittsburgh businessmen continued to perfect their business plan and solidify their goals, the idea of CyberConXion took shape. As Edelsack was putting the pieces together, he realized that he had in fact stumbled upon an idea that could work. ?Let?s do something different and take the disciplines that we learned in big company business and try to do it in an industry that?s fragmented and generally unmanaged or poorly marketed, try to bring some business discipline ? and in Larry?s case technical discipline ? to an area that we could probably make some money in,? he recalled thinking.

So far their venture has paid off. CyberConXion has created a reputation for itself as being a safe, reliable, and supportive place for people to come and have fun. Moreover, CyberConXion has carved itself a niche that allows it to offer a unique experience. ?We?ve taken it to a new level with the ambience, with the computers, with the style of the workstations, with the chairs, with the lighting, with just the little things that you don?t see in any other place. And the safety,? said Hochendoner. ?It?s a very family-oriented neighborhood.? The safety of the neighborhood makes it easy for parents to support the center as a good activity for kids ? they don?t have anything to worry about.

A little something for everyone

With many public and private schools in the immediate area of Squirrel Hill, the presence of a 12-and-up clientele is not surprising. What is surprising, according to Hochendoner, is the way they congregate. ?They come in, in twos and threes and fours, but then three or four will show up in addition to that; so it?s a meeting place.... This is a destination.?

Parents, of course, love CyberConXion. Michelle Mullen, whose two sons are regular patrons at the gaming center, is thankful that Edelsack and Hochendoner have opened up shop here in Pittsburgh. ?It?s safe, it?s clean, it?s well attended, and these guys can control what the kids watch,? Mullen said. It?s not all about games, though; Mullen noted that sometimes she will send her son to CyberConXion to work on school projects if he?s having trouble concentrating at home. The staff can lock down a computer so it can only access a word processor, cutting out distractions and making homework easier to complete.

Edelsack recalled another time that his business had shown that gaming was a powerful driving force. One of his regular customers, a 13-year-old girl with high-functioning autism, loved playing The Sims.

?The mother was having quite a difficult time with her completing a project at school,? he said, ?and the girl just didn?t want to do it ? it was a book report. The girl finally came and said, ?Look. I?ll do this project if you?ll let me go to CyberConXion for an hour.?
?The girl went back and in an hour and a half had written this book report. The mother, almost in tears, calls up and relates what happened, saying this was absolutely, bar none, the best piece of homework she?s ever done in her life, and it was well written, well thought out ? now, you?re talking about 13, but given her capabilities the mother was just overwhelmed. They had dinner, she brought the child here for an hour and a half ? the girl was completely engaged. The parents feel so comfortable that this girl can come here and have a tremendous experience, and they use it as a reward mechanism, and she was so in tears ? it?s so powerful a motivator that it would drive her to that.?

And then there are the parties. ?Overall, the big picture is birthday parties have just exploded on us. It?s not because of the games, it?s because of simplicity,? Hochendoner said. ?There?s a value, the number that we can do concurrently ? we thought we could do two at a time but we?ve proven that we can do three at a time, which is great for us.?

The nature of middle-school friendships means that this trend is growing; parents see their children go to parties hosted at CyberConXion and want to do the same for their own children, who get jealous if Timmy Smith has a cool computer party and they don?t. Edelsack remembered fondly the night that he and Hochendoner ran two parties simultaneously, and how it exemplified why these parties are so popular: ?They were absolutely engaged in competitive and cooperative multimedia entertainment for a two hour period of time, and the parents said this was probably the least amount of work they?d ever had to do ? they had nothing to do, basically ? and they said this was absolutely superb and they said while it wasn?t inexpensive, they felt that for the amount of kids they had interacting, it was good value for their money.?

While parties and middle-school-aged children are gaining CyberConXion a great reputation and building its foundations as a successful business, Edelsack and Hochendoner have yet to truly penetrate a very important demographic: college students. The Oakland?Shadyside?Squirrel Hill area of Pittsburgh is full of members of the collegiate crowd from every imaginable background and with every imaginable set of interests. Many of those students are huge fans of computer games. However, most college students who are ?hardcore? gamers will have their own setups and their own friends they play with on the university network for free.

College students who are ?casual? gamers, the ones who might wander into CyberConXion on a Thursday night out of boredom and play a game of Dance Dance Revolution or maybe drop in for a Counterstrike match or two, are not going to want to pay $7 to do it. This is especially true for the over-21 crowd, where $7 an hour can buy you enough drinks to get up the courage to talk to that cute girl in the corner before she gets up and leaves. You can only take one choice or the other: girls and booze or terrorists and Bawls. Unfortunately, the draw of girls and booze usually wins out.

The other problem is somewhat self-perpetuating. College students tend to group together; this concept needs no real explanation. Everyone does it, including high schoolers ? who happen to be one of CyberConXion?s biggest groups of clients. College students generally don?t want to hang out with a bunch of high school kids, especially in a situation where they might have to interact ? like a gaming center, for instance. Even though the center is equipped with several individual rooms that can be (and are) cordoned off for small groups of players to sequester themselves from the rest of the customers, many people still think that a gaming center is just for giant dorks and pubescent boys.

But what about adults? How do they benefit from a 3700-square-foot public computing facility in one of the oldest and culturally richest neighborhoods in Pittsburgh?

The staff at CyberConXion is in the opening stages of offering hands-on computer training for adults, similar to the program they currently have for young girls. The plan is to offer group training for computer applications like web design, digital photography, and other multimedia endeavors. Edelsack has already seen difficulty getting the program into motion, but he is also already working on a solution. ?The problem has been getting a group together all at the same time, and the other problem is that most of these people who are older adults want individual supervision or they?re uncomfortable being with a group; how we?re going to resolve that is we?re going to take groups that have natural affinities, like temples, where there?s a women?s group at the temple, or churches, or things like that, where they already interact, and that?s how we?ll hit the adult market, so they?re comfortable already together,? he said.

The tides are slowly changing. Parents with tech-savvy kids are now often being ever-so-slightly drawn in to their children?s world ? a person, any person, can only watch a game for so long before becoming fascinated with it, if only subconsciously. It?s clear to Edelsack that parents are becoming more interested. ?If they?re women it tends to be they engage on things like DDR. If they?re men, it could be console games that are typically sports games in the back [on the consoles], or some of the first-person shooters and strategy games on the computer systems. So it?s one, a function of the gender of the parent and two, the age of their children, and how many there are,? he said.

As the appeal of gaming spreads and evolves, Cyber-ConXion will be evolving with it to attract new customers and keep their old ones. They will continue to try attracting college students, and are extending, through the end of the year, a 40 percent discount on hourly rates if Carnegie Mellon students mention this article and the code ?ZXNFAJA.?

The Friday night crowd at CyberConXion will continue to be a motley crew of gamers and people just looking to have fun. One quiet Friday night saw 13-year-olds playing the newly released shooter Day of Defeat: Source on the center?s PCs, while in the back, a group of high-schoolers were giggling hysterically as their friends played Dance Dance Revolution. A girl named Sarah lay on one of the green, benchlike sofas, staring intently as two of her friends stood, moving their feet around on command with the music. She had never been to CyberConXion before tonight, but she already understood why her friends came here week after week. ?It?s chill. I like the couches,? she said, still entranced.