A haven for 'Halo' in New York City

Nyclan, a new community center for video game fans, combines gaming with a social and friendly atmosphere.

NEW YORK--This place is underground. Literally.

It was shortly after 10 p.m. on the day before New Year's Eve, and I was looking for Nyclan, a community-focused video game center in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. I'd heard about it when I picked up a promotional flier that had been lying on a table at the last month, and was immediately intrigued by the idea of a community center that featured Saturday night Halo matches from 11 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.

So I had e-mailed Nyclan's owner soon after and asked if the gamers wouldn't mind having a reporter come and poke around. They were more than willing to accommodate me.

When I made my way over there, pretty much all I knew about Nyclan's location was that it was on West Fourth Street near the intersection with Seventh Avenue South, and that the space was below ground. Consequently, I was briefly concerned that I'd pass over it altogether; the Village, after all, can be hard to navigate.

The historic district is filled with brick row houses and streets that jut out from avenues at wild angles, a far cry from the towering high-rises and neat grid of roadways that characterize most of the city. And on a Saturday night, outsiders have to navigate not only the maze of streets but also the crowds of convivial Manhattanites who are headed to the Village's seemingly countless bars.

But I was able to find Nyclan, thanks in part to the colorful sign hanging over the West Fourth Street sidewalk as though it were advertising yet another tavern. The gaming center was indeed underground, tucked beneath a ground-level bar called Absolutely 4th where plenty of martini-sipping patrons were visible through the windows.

"Sugar and more sugar. No caffeine. I mostly do an energy drink or something."
--Marc Stubbs
Competitive 'Halo' player

But down the stairs and inside Nyclan, the atmosphere was strangely reminiscent of a high school computer lab: neat and well-lighted, with a pack of young people intently focused on the monitors in front of them. But the monitors were actually TVs connected to Xboxes, the contents on the screens were the first-person shooter Halo 2 rather than educational software, and the attendees were sitting in extra-comfy padded chairs--nothing you'd expect to see in a classroom. They were supplementing the game with lively conversation: yes, they do actually say, "You got pwned!"

I was immediately and cheerfully greeted by Brian Tang and Kia Song, the young husband-and-wife team who own and operate Nyclan--Tang says his official title is "overlord"--along with Nike, their dog. The gaming center has been operating for almost two months, having opened its doors for the first time on Halloween. Both hard-core gamers themselves, Tang and Song had previously hosted video game parties that had grown so popular that a nightclub-like line would form out their door.

As Tang recounts, "We decided, 'Wouldn't this be so awesome if we turned it into a real place?'" He and Song quit their jobs and pitched the idea of a gaming center to potential investors. The investors apparently loved the concept.

"This would be considered a slow Saturday night," Tang told me, surveying the crowd. Usually, a Saturday night would see 50 to 70 players, but Nyclan had an understandably lower attendance on the night before New Year's Eve. The space is divided into two rooms: a large front room for recreational gaming and a back room for competition, which was empty but about to fill up, Tang said.

At that moment, it looked like everyone in the recreational gaming room was playing with Xboxes, but Nyclan boasts a whole range of consoles from Super Nintendo to the Wii. There are no PlayStation 3s, though, Song said. "We don't have the PS3 because there are no really good titles out on it," she told me.

Indeed, around 10:30 p.m., the competitive Halo players began to show up for their weekly Saturday night matches. ("Are you here to play?" one of them asked me enthusiastically.) They are a young bunch, all male with an average age of about 18 (the youngest is 14, the oldest 27), and almost every one of them was wearing an oversize hoodie. Each one had brought his own Xbox 360 controller, and most had loaded their pockets with snacks.

"Sugar and more sugar," said 20-year-old Marc Stubbs, one of the competitive Halo players, as he ate some kind of bite-size, cake-like confection and then fed another one to a grateful Nike. "No caffeine. I mostly do an energy drink or something." Caffeine, he said, "will give you a rush, but it's a short rush." Not all of his fellow players were in agreement, however, as a few of them began to swap stories about how many Red Bulls they'd chugged before big professional gaming events in Orlando, Fla., and Las Vegas.

Stubbs has been gaming competitively since July 2005, and when he's not at the Xbox 360, he's a student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is signed with the Major League Gaming professional league, and is captain of a team called Shook1 Gaming that regularly places in the top six to eight spots in major Halo competitions. Stubbs admitted to not being a Nyclan regular.

"Usually, I'm online practicing with my team," he said. He added that the informal tournaments at Nyclan serve a low-key form of recreation for pro gamers, for whom Halo has become an occupation. Such recreation doesn't always appeal to him these days.

"Ever since I started playing competitively, I wouldn't say I lost my love for the game, but I stopped playing it as much," he said.

Another in the room, 18-year-old Eldy Martinez, had a different perspective. This was his fourth straight week playing at Nyclan He showed no signs of wanting to cut back on recreational Halo even though he had already been signed to Major League Gaming and is looking to form his own professional team. Being able to go to Nyclan and just play casually is appealing in part because the professional gaming lifestyle isn't easy, Martinez said.

"Any professional could tell you that from the beginning it's hard," Martinez said. "Trying to get sponsorships, getting to events, it's hard." Plus, there's the frequent woe of being stereotyped as a lazy couch potato, he added. Being able to find girlfriends is the "worry of a lot of competitive gamers."

The gamers at Nyclan seemed to be having plenty of good-natured fun, but there was one more serious subject that I wanted to investigate: . Did the "overlords" of this gaming center ever have to deal with people who were playing Halo or Gears of War to an unhealthy level? According to Song, it's a non-issue because of the inherent social factor in not only Nyclan's atmosphere, but in console gaming overall.

"If you look at console versus PC games, console by their nature has always been the more social of the two. PC is more immersive," she explained. "The crowd for consoles is absolutely a more social crowd."

Though there were already plenty of regulars at Nyclan, the gaming center didn't have problems with addiction--yet. Martinez was in agreement. "I actually don't play that much," he said, warning me to "stay away from" online role-playing games like World of Warcraft. "Console games can be addictive, but nothing like that." In addition, potential addictions may be curtailed by the fact that Nyclan isn't free: long-term memberships are available, or day passes can be purchased for between $8 and $12.

On my way out, I saw a familiar face: Triforce Johnson, the local gaming guru I had interviewed when he was the first person in the United States to obtain a Wii console, and who always accessorizes with a Nintendo Power Glove on his right arm. According to Johnson, a gaming community center like Nyclan is a much-needed fixture in a city like New York.

Gaming is "not a hobby anymore," he said. "This is a full-fledged community, and there is a culture to this."

He walked over to a bulletin board on the wall that displayed photos from the smattering of gaming parties that Nyclan had thrown in its fewer than two months of existence, and pointed out some highlights: an "8-Bit Zombie" party on Halloween and a Christmas party the week before. Nyclan has plans for a Valentine's Day party "geared toward females," Johnson said.

In the back room, the Halo pros were about to start the night's tournament, but Song halted them for a moment to make an announcement.

"We'll have two extras tonight," she said as though talking about last-minute guests at a party. "Predator and Solace are on their way."

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