I was talking with a friend of mine while we drove back to school. Considering we’re in school not too far from Los Angeles, it seemed appropriate that after wandering through topics like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and accounting firms, we settled upon one of the then-current events; the execution of Stanley “Tookie” Williams, the founder of the notorious LA-based gang known as the Crips. “Look, man,” my friend said to me, “I won’t deny that he’s a criminal. But wherever gangs or organized crime start, it’s because the system there has failed to do what it’s supposed to do.”
A month later, I’m lying in bed, chatting online with two people who go by the names of “TheeTriforceGameMaster” and “Marvelous,” and they’re telling me all about their group of gamers. It’s an Empire, they tell me. It’s based out of New York. They toss around names like the Knights of Arcadia and The $yndicate. “Marvelous” tells me he plays Yu-Gi-Oh.
I can see why no one has written about these guys before. If I were any other interviewer, I think my patience would have been taxed by the time Yu-Gi-Oh came up. Certainly the mental image of these two – a high school kid with a Burger King crown and a grown adult man who is never seen in public without his Nintendo Power Glove – is not something wholly conducive to thinking business. And it’s not hard to be put off by their sweeping, grandiose Empire rhetoric. But I know something most other game journalists don’t: “Marvelous” is the alias for four-time Marvel vs. Capcom 2 national champion Justin Wong, and “TheeTriforceGameMaster” (hereafter known as Triforce) is his manager, of sorts. And they’re here to tell me about Empire Arcadia – their New York-based gaming posse turned corporate.
In fighting game communities, their reputations precede them. Justin is known primarily for his Marvel vs. Capcom 2 prowess, of course, but also for his relentlessly patient style of play that makes him a threat in any game he picks up. (He’s also known, somewhat less fortunately, as the victim of the legendary Daigo video that made the internet rounds from Street Fighter III: Third Strike nationals at the Evolution 2004 tournament; Japanese Street Fighter legend Daigo Umehara successfully anticipates Justin’s attempt to chip him to death, parries the entire super combo, and counters with a retaliatory combo that wins the match.) His challengers have ranged from local Southern California crowd favorites like “SooMighty” and Seattle-based players like “Rowtron” to Empire’s own members, Ricky Ortiz and Sanford Kelly. But up until this last year, Justin remained dominant. (“I don’t like Marvel any more,” Justin says to me, “It’s all about Tekken 5.”)
Triforce, on the other hand, is a one-man advertising agency. While some people don’t take the Power Glove seriously, Triforce is also known for doing whatever it takes to get Empire Arcadia’s players to where they need to be to compete, and more often than not, “whatever it takes” is up in the thousands of dollars. National champions or no, most competitors make their way to Evolution by carpooling, couch surfing, and living off of Carl’s Jr. in order to make the most of their gaming dollar. Empire Arcadia, by contrast, takes care of all travel and housing arrangements – not only for the players but also their retinue. “The members of Empire Arcadia share an exclusive relationship being that they are with the company,” Triforce tells me. “We sponsor our gamers at times for major events, transportation, housing and food. They compete to try and reimburse some of that and take home a good chunk of it for themselves.” If this weren’t enough, Justin proudly relates to me a time when Empire rolled out en masse (21 people!) to T7, a Canadian fighting game tournament, in order to learn more about the comparatively insular Canadian fighting game scene. Call them the Ambassadors of Ass-whoopin’.
Empire Arcadia plans to build a presence in other gaming scenes than just that of fighting games. Empire Arcadia retains tax status as a for-profit company. (“What type of Empire of Gamers competes only in one genre?” he asks me, and I’m not sure how to answer that one because, frankly, I don’t even know what an Empire of Gamers is supposed to look like. Apparently, Empire player “Prodigy-X” won an In The Groove 2 competition at New York’s Comic Con.)
For all of Empire Arcadia’s competitive success, it is only one small part of what the Empire is about. “Basically, we develop the very culture and community of gamers by using various elements to express gaming, such as music, fashion, health, art, film, literature and even education,” Triforce tells me.
I’m a little bit skeptical at first – health? – but a quick look at their press kit yields pictures from all kinds of Empire events. Besides running game events for larger conventions, like doing Gamer’s Night Groove for the NY Comic Con or running tournaments at MAGFest, Empire has their fingers in all kinds of different pies. They’ve publicized short gaming films at local film festivals, held a Valentine’s Day women’s event called A Gamers Valentine, complete with the PMS Clan (Pandora’s Might Soldiers) as the guests of the day, they’ve worked both formally and informally for Nintendo as a publicity street team, they’ve even managed to get Triforce on MTV Game0RZ Week, Power Glove in hand and everything. I ask about the “health” bit; turns out that Empire Arcadia is sponsored by a Vitamin Water company. “Vitamin Water has a genuine interest in the gamer community, especially because of the stereotype that gamers are fat and all. We wanted to find a health company that would help us express gaming through health,” Triforce replies. “Guys like Prodigy – who plays DDR – needed a health drink to help him stay energized while playing. Justin drinks Vitamin Water before he hits the gym.”
One of the more interesting anecdotes Triforce relates to me involves the Major League Gaming organization. While it’s common knowledge that they’ve thrown some fairly large gaming events all across the country, it’s less widely known that they’ve caught some heat in the fighting game community for failing to pay out tournament winnings. Triforce elaborates: “Well, at the time, MLG owed gamers throughout the different communities prize money. They even owed Justin and Ricky, gamers from the Empire. They owed Wes, from Deadly Alliance, for Smash Brothers, Jop for Tekken, and a whole lot of other gamers in other games. It became a huge thing in the community where gamers were complaining, but they didn’t know what to do or how to do it. So the Empire decided to fix our problem and help the community. We got gamers representing each community that was owed money to go to MLG’s headquarters, and we discussed with them how and when they were going to pay players that had been waiting as long as a year.” I look in the press kit. They call this one “Defending the Empire.” Triforce continues, “For the first month, checks started to come and we thought that everything was settled. We even got ours. But even now, some gamers have not gotten what they are owed.”
This is all well and good – I certainly wouldn’t mind some vitamin water sponsorship for The Escapist – but I’m still kind of bewildered as to what could have possibly motivated anyone to form this kind of organization. While it doesn’t sound all that dissimilar, in some respects, from the machinations of any active college campus organization, I can’t imagine what would have gone into putting together, say, an Empire Arcadia business plan. Triforce, of course, is more than happy to explain: “Before I filed for the company, we were just a small private community in the Bronx that just played videogames for fun and entertainment. After looking at the direction the industry was going in terms of the ‘gamer culture,’ I just felt that we could do more by writing letters to videogame mags and telling them what we wanted.” I pause here for a moment. Something is sinking in, somewhere. Triforce continues. “As an official company, we would have a voice stronger than just a regular gamer’s voice. Not to put down gamers around the world, but ask yourself, how much voice does a gamer have in the game industry?”
I think I’m beginning to see what he’s getting at. He keeps going. “There is a great difference between ‘Greater Gaming Community’ and the community of the game industry. The industry makes the games, and the gamers like us are the ones that play them. I felt that if we organized the community, we as gamers around the world would have a significant voice.”
It’s because the system there has failed to do what it’s supposed to do.
Beneath the verbally capitalized phrases like Greater Gaming Community and the militant talk of the different Empire “units” (pre-existing gaming cliques and groups that enter into the Empire fold) and Knights and Valkyries and all of this, lies something that makes sense, sort of. Just like gang life is more than just shooting people wearing the wrong color, gaming life is more than just playing games. By and large, however, it feels like Triforce is right; the community that makes games seems to be rather disconnected from the people who play games.
It seems so ludicrous, at first, to hear him talk about health, fashion, art and literature when we talk about videogames – but when I think about it, it makes just about as much sense as talking about, say, Asian American health issues, hip-hop fashion, queer community art shows or sports literature. Maybe he’s not taking games too seriously at all. Maybe he’s just taking them as seriously as people take everything else that matters to them, whether it’s racial identity, sexual orientation or all-consuming hobbies.
By now, the interview is wrapping up; after all, I’ve taken up almost two hours of their time and they’re busy people. “I’m a gamer, not a businessman,” Triforce tells me on his way out. “My executive staff takes my vision, my dreams, and makes them into feasible marketing plans and services. Myself, guys like Justin, and the rest of us, we use our gamer skill to execute them.” Instead, it’s Justin who hints, lightly, at what I’m thinking. “There will always be people [who don’t take games seriously], but they can’t be like that forever. We’ll show them that we’re serious about what we do.”
Don’t worry, Marvelous, I think you already have.
Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long.