In a poorly-lit corner of a former Polish wedding venue in Brooklyn, New York, Giovanni “ShinG” Nieves took a screwdriver to a GameCube controller as a crowd of customers waited. Nieves, in a red bomber jacket and a fade haircut, was reverse-engineering a Super Smash Bros. 4 competitor’s controller at a tournament called Smash Sounds. Under its shell, Nieves was picking at a screw with a screwdriver. He says he picked up a clean $700 (£530) that weekend modding, repairing and refurbishing GameCube controllers.
In 2016, Nieves, then a student in the US state of New Jersey, routinely wrecked his GameCube and 3DS controllers playing Smash. The 3DS’ circle pad is notoriously flimsy, and for people who play a lot of Smash, even sturdier GameCube controllers can suddenly fritz out. It impacted his game and had his wallet bleeding cash for repairs. “I was frustrated,” he told me. “It got me very, very aggravated.”
Nieves searched YouTube and Smash forum SmashBoards for GameCube controller schematics that might help him be his own mechanic. Somewhere deep on the internet, he stumbled upon a person he calls Smash’s “controller guru.” The guy’s tag was Kadano, and he’s known only by an anime avatar and an impenetrably complicated website. Nieves drank in Kadano’s tips on reducing click resistance, spring removal, modding pivot f-tilt notches and replacing stickboxes. Then he started offering his services to friends and fellow tournament goers.
Fast-forward two years, a few botched controllers and $500 (£379) in equipment costs later, and Nieves repairs controllers under the moniker “FixMyStix.” His business card offers services like replacing parts, free controller diagnoses, refurbishment and painting. He describes the way he feels doing it in comparison to how happy Jimmy Neutron’s dad is collecting wooden ducks. I watched him fix controllers at Smash Sounds and caught up with him over the phone a few days later.
At the Brooklyn event, Nieves sat at a table behind some monitors, cages containing controllers and a sprinkling of tools and buttons. He’ll fix players’ buttons and replace cables. “I got into painting controllers,” he added. At Smash Sounds, a striking teal controller sat atop a container of parts, and, over Discord, Nieves shared some of his more subtle paint jobs—all-blue, black and white, a two-toned grey. “It’s a toxic relationship,” he joked. “I have to wait for perfect weather conditions. I have to paint in a certain way. The final coat, a clear coat, I use is very toxic and can kill you.” (Nieves added he uses a mask.) Sometimes, when controllers’ motherboards crack, Nieves says, “I do some real ghetto stuff.” He’d scrub the motherboard with sandpaper before adding wire and soldering cracks together. For $15 (£11), he’ll adjust control sticks’ sensitivity. For $2 (£1.51), he’ll reduce a trigger’s press. For $7 (£5.30), he’ll do an in-depth cleaning and, for $10 (£7.57), he’ll install a whole new set of buttons.
If you’ve played a fighting game, you’ve heard the age-old excuse, “I’m not playing up to my standards because my buttons are sticking!” Nieves deals with these players all the time. “It’s pretty interesting, the psychological aspect of people having their controllers worked on,” he said. “Sometimes people report errors and there are not errors.” He’ll do something small, like add silicone grease to the triggers, and players will walk away beaming with confidence. “This is what they call ‘placebo,’” he said.
Once, he says, a player walked away from his booth to tell his friends, “Yo, this controller feels better than sex.” (“What the fuck?” Nieves added.)
Nieves’ business is new and, according to him, “I literally do this all by myself.” There are a few people like him who show up at tournaments with a little more than a screwdriver, but, he said, it’s still a grassroots gig. He finances his hustle out of his own pocket. “I just hope I break even,” he said.