December 31, 2006 11:30 AM PST

A haven for 'Halo' in New York City

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 Blip Festival 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.

CONTINUED: Diet of champions…
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