From Wizards to Cosmo: A 21st Century Ilonggo Story on Business and Survival

By joseph batcagan

We are what we enjoy. Or, at the very least, we can tell a person’s age by the entertainment he or she used to enjoy (because, let’s be honest, no one actually dresses their age nowadays).

For me, arcades used to be one of them—you know, right until the time someone threatened to stab me in the gut (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can read more about my misery from our special Iloilo Hobby Con 2015 story). And for many awkward boys of my age, the arcades were the only solace from the drudgery of what we consider as “life” back then. Ah, if only the rest of us knew how hard scraping a living would be when we would become adults much, much later.

Read that last line? That’s the nostalgia in me talking already. Memory can be a powerful drug.
Carlo Anton Borromeo also had many warm memories of sitting in front of a videogame for hours on end. There’s one caveat, though: his family practically earns a living from it.

For many Ilonggo kids—mostly boys, of course—who were old enough to remember going to SM Delgado between the late ‘80s to the early ‘90s, there was that one particular sweet spot at the back of the mall where they hang out to spend an afternoon with their eyes glued to the tinny CRT TVs and their hands gripping Family Computer controllers, all while their parents and yayas eat their meriendas at the back.

If the title above doesn’t make it obvious yet, I am indeed referring to Wizards, the pioneering kompyuteran in the city—arguably, the granddaddy of today’s internet stations where today’s young people spend their time playing DoTA and League of Legends or browsing Facebook (hey, not everyone can afford smartphones, you know). Borromeo didn’t know it then, but he was getting to be the heir apparent to a medium he literally grew up with; of course, the parents did not approve of his love for videogames even one bit.

Tandaan ko, four years old pa lang ako, first time ko pa lang tandog sang Family Computer. Ti guinpahampang (sang tatay ko) sa akon ang… ‘Super Mario (Brothers)’, and then ‘Contra’. Guinakadlawan niya ako kung gakadagdag ako sa cliff, or kung mabunggo ako sa mushroom nga ulo,” Borromeo narrates fondly.

[I remember, I was four years old, it was my first time touching a Family Computer. Then my father let me play… ‘Super Mario (Brothers)’, and then ‘Contra’. He was laughing at me every time I fall off a cliff, or when I hit against a mushroom-shaped head.]

Now, if you haven’t grown up playing a Family Computer videogame console before, then what he described above does sound like absolute nonsense. But for the generation weaned on the salad days of videogaming, a new language was being taught to those kids of the time: jump, avoid death, and maybe hit an enemy when you’re lucky.

However, you could say Borromeo was “born” into the business of selling video entertainment; his father, the one who originally started Wizards upon being inspired by a similar shop while he was working at Manila, was running a video rental shop that–amazingly enough–is still operating beside a nearby hotel in downtown Iloilo. They were also one of the first businesses to sell Family Computer units in the city back then. With very few places where kids can pester their parents for gaming entertainment, business was understandably booming for Borromeo’s family during that time.

How “booming”? Well, it got to the point that they were even able to open a separate arcade shop that was able to even eclipse the Wizards brand itself: Cosmo. For any local young ‘un reading this, this arcade was practically unavoidable back then; almost every major mall had one, and it was packed even during the weekday siesta hours–usually a “death zone” for most businesses, unless you’re a kid apparently making ligoy from classes.

From Wizards to Cosmo - Project Iloilo
A young Borromeo (in blue) at Wizards

For a young boy like Borromeo, he was already living the perfect life: “Ang akon nga goal halin sang una nga grade school ako, once makatapos na ako sa school, makahampang na ako videogames forever [My goal from the start when I was in grade school, once I finish school, I can play videogames forever],”he says without any hint of irony. So, imagine his confusion when they began closing several of their arcades once the ’90s came heading to a close.

The “competition” came in the form not of another upstart arcade, but in another medium of gaming altogether: personal computers. ‘Diablo 2′, ‘Counter-Strike’, and ‘StarCraft’ were the hot games of the time, followed by ‘Ragnarok Online’ and its roleplaying ilk during the mid-2000s, and it’s now bookended by the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) boom of today. Of course, I’d be remiss if I also don’t acknowledge how it’s way easier to play games using a mobile phone nowadays compared to the crappy quality it was notorious for a decade ago.

With losses gradually piling up, you would have expected them to have moved out of the arcade business altogether, but they didn’t . They simply did what any good business should be doing: adapt. With licensed arcade machines being prohibitively costly (with a new one would cost around six figures, according to Borromeo), they went back to renting out home videogame consoles–which has also become an expensive commodity in itself, but is guaranteed to compete with the PC gaming market because of its “exclusive” titles–and taking advantage of perhaps the one thing that Ilonggos love to do most during their downtimes. And no, it’s not drinking.

Ang nami daan sa karaoke, every month, may mga new songs nga naga-release mo. Ti kay ang mga kabataan, gusto man magkanta sang bag-o, [The good thing about karaoke, new songs get released. And for the kids, they want to sing the new songs,]” Borromeo explains with a sheepish grin. Good business sense, right? Well, here’s where they take the Ilongggos’ predilection for singing a step further: “Kung puno pa ang VIP rooms, ti mahampang man guihapon sila sang arcade games. Ti, benefit man guihapon (para sa amon), eh, [If the VIP rooms are full, then the people waiting for their turns will play arcade games. At least it will still be to our benefit,]” he explains.

Another “diversification” strategy that he had since implemented for his business was the installation of a couple of long tables near the entrance of the shop which serves as a space for trading card players to battle against each other, often during weekends. More than serving as a gaming space nowadays, the modern-day arcade has become a space for hobbyists in general. From the outset, you can begin to see how this inspired him to jumpstart Iloilo Hobby Con two years ago.

Despite the “legacy” that Borromeo’s family have started with the creation of another niche, but loyal, community in Iloilo, he’s surprisingly pessimistic in how he foresees his contribution to the gaming/hobbyist scene in another generation or two: “Bale ang guwa niya guro, daw ‘trip to nostalgia’ na lang ang guwa sang Wizards [It may end up that Wizards can only represent a ‘trip to nostalgia’]. In the next two decades, I don’t think people would remember (the business).”

You can’t fault him if he thinks that way; after all, the Wizards brand started at around the time when the city was populated with nothing but family-owned mom-and-pop stores. So, if you can take anything away from this story, it’s that we better appreciate our local siopao joints before it gets gobbled up by another convenience store giant.

Videogames as a driving force for local business–now that’s something you don’t hear every day.

Photos courtesy of Carlo Anton Borromeo

Joseph Batcagan is the editor and a writer for Project Iloilo.