Triforce Johnson: The world's most patient gamer

Triforce Johnson has been first in line for new console launches eight times. This is his story.
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A man named Triforce waits on a patch of sidewalk just outside the Nintendo World Store in Midtown Manhattan. Here, at midnight on November 18, the self-declared superfan will be the first to purchase the new Nintendo Wii U video game console. This is Johnson's eighth time waiting at the front of a line, and at the age of 35, it will be his last.

I meet Triforce the day before Hurricane Sandy pulverizes the Eastern Seaboard, and three weeks before Wii U's launch. He's already been in line for 10 days, though he appears well rested.

Triforce has a medium build with wide eyes and tightly braided hair, which he usually tucks beneath a beanie or hood. His incessant enthusiasm affords him a certain glow. He looks young for his age. For anyone, really, who makes a habit of standing outside for long periods of time.

The first thing Triforce does when I arrive is fish his passport from a Nintendo brand messenger bag, flipping the little booklet open like a police badge. The passport — a real one; I triple checked — belongs to one Isaiah Triforce Johnson. "That is my full legal name," he says. "I got Triforce added to my first name, because it was easier than replacing."

Looking at the name, in legal text, my brain wrestles to calculate which displays more loyalty and fandom for one's favorite brand: waiting outside for weeks at a time, year after year, or legally changing your name to one of the brand's most iconic totems.

"My father calls me Triforce," he says, adding, "if he calls me Isaiah, then I know he's upset."

Who is this guy?

Origin of a game master

Before Triforce was Triforce, he was simply Isaiah Johnson. He wasn't a Nintendo fan or a gamer; he was a precocious son of two Jamaican immigrants living in the Bronx. His father was a cab driver. Triforce liked analogue toys, which bored his older, technologically-inclined brother.

Johnson's first memory of a video game is of an arcade cabinet in the local grocer. "234 White Plains Road!" he shouts. The grocer's gone, but the building's still there. Mr. Johnson was talking to a friend from Jamaica when four-year-old Isaiah pleaded to be taken home. To distract the boy, Mr. Johnson plucked a couple of quarters from his pocket and pointed to the cabinets in the back of the store.

They were tall and glowing. Triforce spotted a Star Wars machine. He sat down, pushed in a coin and splayed his miniature fingers across the buttons. From that spot, in the way back of the grocery store, the stream of Isaiah Johnson's life channeled in a new direction.

"First, this guy came to me and said that I was really good," Triforce remembers, "and then my father, he said I was a real brainiac. A little genius. I think that compliment made me want to play more games. The next day my brother and I snuck out to the arcade and it was done."

Triforce's older brother, Nathanial, brought Triforce into a local community of game lovers called Video Land. A mysterious 9-year-old named Kevin ran the group. The boy wore a Nintendo Power Glove as if it were a royal gauntlet, and would go on to win a Nintendo-sponsored video game championship. Kevin claimed the title of Game Master, the best of the group, the Obi-Wan to Triforce's Anakin.

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The kids fancied themselves virtual athletes, training to become the best at the sport of playing games. Their pastime wasn't cheap. The boys would pack bags at the grocery store for tips. "One time I got a hundred dollar tip for helping an old lady to her car," Triforce says. "I mastered so many games that weekend."

Triforce gradually cultivated a reputation as an arcade savant. Before he turned 10, he was able to set high scores on the local Vs. Super Mario Bros. and Mercs machines. He could play through Black Tiger at the nearby pizza shop on a single quarter. "The owner was cool with it," Triforce says. "He just asked me to come at the beginning or end of the day so other people got a chance to play."

Pressured by their two boys, the Johnson family finally procured a Nintendo Entertainment System for the home, introducing Triforce to his destiny with classics like Mario, Metroid and, most affectingly, The Legend of Zelda, the game from which his taken name originates. (The Triforce is the precious set of triangular metals that the hero Link needs to defeat the evil Ganondorf.)

As a gamer, Triforce was beginning to divide his time into two parts. Nintendo, the console, the playful adventure: this was his passion. The arcade, the high scores, Video Land: that was like a career.

At an unplaceable point in Triforce's early teen years, the influential Kevin left the Bronx. But beforehand, the group of arcade fans observed an unusual ceremony, a passing of the throne. Kevin bestowed the title of Game Master and the accompanying Power Glove to Triforce. The power and the burden were his now.

"It's one of those ancient kung-fu stories," Triforce says, "where the guy says, 'take this glove and may the power be with you.' Then he walks into smoke and never appears again. So as long as I love video games, as long as I'm the Game Master, I will wear this glove."

"When I was a kid," Triforce says, "I used to sleep with it. I was a kid thinking I'm the most powerful guy in the world."

Triforce kept his word. Today he reserves the accessory for special gaming events. Triforce currently wears his 10th Power Glove. Previous gloves have been signed by industry luminaries like Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime, video game record keeper Walter Day and professional gamer Fatal1ty. Triforce stores the gloves in a cardboard box in his bedroom, but hopes to one day display them in a glass case.

"Can you imagine it?" he asks.

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Rules of the game

The next time I see Triforce is a week after Hurricane Sandy, two weeks before the Nintendo Wii U's launch.

Triforce didn't wait outside the Nintendo Store during the storm itself. But after two days of subway closures, he walked three hours from Crown Heights to his spot in Manhattan. What other option did he have?

"I treat it like a job," Triforce says. "If you don't show up for your job, you're fired." Playing Nintendo games is fun. Waiting for Nintendo games, I learn, is work. When he says he's retiring, I now understand he means the words literally.

Like any job, line waiting has rules. Admittedly, I struggle to distinguish between the official rules and those he creates as de facto leader of the line.

The one rule I know to be true:

Triforce is allowed to wait outside the Nintendo Store while it is open, from 9 a.m. - 9 p.m. When the store closes, his security and well-being become the responsibility of Rockefeller Plaza's guards, the stewards of the broader swath of private property on which he waits. The plaza's management does not allow loitering, so Triforce must leave.

"This is the misconception everyone has," Triforce says. "Everyone thinks I'm going to actually live on the block. That's not happening. That doesn't happen."

Triforce maintains that the following additional rules are official, and they probably are, in the sense that someone with authority is unlikely to bother refuting them.

1. To maintain his spot at the front of the line, Triforce must be in front of the Nintendo Store from before it opens until after it closes. Friends and a handful of security guards are allowed to protect the spot for him during the occasional meal or break.

2. As first person in line, Triforce holds the first four to five slots. Triforce says, "The Nintendo people will ask who the first person on line is. Then they'll ask me who is second. And I'll say who is three, four and five and so on."

Triforce assures me he doesn't pervert the power, but he will use it to settle disputes and in-fighting on the line. The first 10 guys in line, Triforce says, come to a truce so everyone can get at least five hours away each day. With great power comes great responsibility, but everyone needs a bathroom break.

"This is the misconception everyone has," Triforce says. "Everyone thinks I'm going to actually live on the block. That's not happening. That doesn't happen."

3. In inclement weather, Triforce can huddle beneath the awning 30 feet down the block. When I visit Triforce later that week, during a Nor'easter, I find him like a popsicle, a shivering, rigid man being pelted by a wintery mix of snow, ice and the gnarly frozen dust that kicks up off the streets in Midtown Manhattan. A blanket given to him by Nintendo at the Nintendo 3DS launch does a pathetic job of fending off the elements. "I only stand under the awning when it's really bad," the popsicle says.

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All work, all play

It took time for Isaiah Johnson to become Triforce.

After graduating from Marist College, he worked for Danka Office Imagine. From there, he transitioned to Xerox. Then he worked in the mailroom of Goldman Sachs. "It was good pay," he says, "but it wasn't for me. They said, 'Hey man, do this for five years, and we'll get a position for you.' I'm not waiting five years. I want a career I'm going to be happy with now. If you accept a nine-to-five and you're able to do better, then you're a sucker."

Triforce jumped from Goldman Sachs for a job at the GameStop on 34th St. He got the job in 1999 after pushing Nintendo 64 titles — "I wasn't even working there yet." As he recalls it, the store manager took his bag and told Triforce to sell a few copies as if he were an employee. Impressed, he gave the Game Master a job.

He's been hustling in the industry ever since, taking jobs at game shops and the Nintendo Store. He works when he has to pay the bills, never staying one place for too long.

The one consistent job of his adult life has been Empire Arcadia, a sort of follow up to Video Land, a collective of video game players who compete at international gaming tournaments for cash prizes. He has the novelty checks to prove it, along with two episodes of an ill-fated MTV series that followed the group's happenings.

Despite the occasional splash of fame, and having the world record for most video game world records, the company is yet to strike it rich. One of its star players, Justin Wong, a Street Fighter champion, left for bigger cash prizes and a ritzier team.

Triforce hopes to stabilize the company, to make it a legit business. It currently operates out of his apartment.

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Home turf

Gods' Arc is as muggy as a locker room, but it's better than the alternative; the snowstorm is pounding outside.

Over the past couple years, the two-bedroom apartment, tucked inside the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, has been transformed into a dojo for competitive video gamers. The sweet tang of hookah can be smelled from the front door, making it difficult to place its source within the building. Doesn't matter: Even without recreational drugs, a visit to Gods' Arc is hallucinatory.

The name Gods' Arc is short for Arcade of the Gods — Triforce is quick to diminish the religious connotations. To enter the Arc, a visitor must walk a 20-odd-foot hallway, lined on both sides with signed posters of arcade legends like Billy Mitchell, Walter Day, Todd Rogers, Jonathan Wendel and Tony Temple. At the very end is a poster of Triforce himself.

"These are the gods of video games," Triforce shouts. "The protectors of gamer culture."

The hallway opens to a spare living space, no more than 10 by 15 feet. This is no living room. Where you'd expect a sofa towers a wall of trophies and plaques honoring the accomplishment of Triforce and his friends, members of the Empire Arcadia gaming collective. Every wall holds novelty checks or certificates from tournaments. In bold font is the amount of prize money won. $100. $500. $5,000.

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Chairs


Playing

Instead of an entertainment center, the group has rigged four small LED televisions along one wall and five old-school CRTVs along the other, creating a 90-degree angle of glowing entertainment. Between the screens are nearly every console conceivable, small piles of deli sandwich wrappers, a futon and a crinkled mattress, where two trainees sleep.

We arrive at night to the sounds of Super Street Fighter 4, a cacophony of digital groans and yelps paired with the rapid analogue taps on an arcade pad. One player, a young man who goes by the name Lincoln, is practicing a new combo, while his colleague, Sanford, plays hypeman.

560 hit points. Then 590. Then 610. "Holy shit, don't get greedy now," shouts the hypeman.

It's 10 p.m. and Triforce is at work, uploading videos from his day in line to Duxter, a video game social network that is sponsoring his bid to buy the first Wii U. While the file transfers, he sifts through Facebook, writing on the walls of a few friends. There's no privacy in Gods' Arc. A foot to his right are Lincoln and Sanford. And to his left, on the floor, another friend is watching a downloaded episode of pro wrestling.

This is where some of the men live, right there on the floor.

You've been here if you've ever been drunk in a frat house. A room that oozes testosterone. The kitchen has no food, and the bathroom no toilet paper. The men leave the toilet seat up and use dish soap to wash their hands.

"No women or children are allowed," Triforce tells me, so I ask about prospective dates. "I don't bring girls here," he says. "I go to their place."

Out of the game

"The focus," says Triforce, "the attention, the drive, the ambition, the dedication: when you say things like that you'd think you were talking about someone's wife. For me, that's video games."

In 2007, Triforce and his wife of eight years divorced.

"I learned that after I lost her," he says, "that those things were supposed to go into her. I thought me loving her and me having dedication to her was something different than me having a dedication to my own individual passion. But it doesn't work that way."

The line waiting wasn't the problem. The money was. He spent recklessly on Empire Arcadia, making sacrifices to keep the brand alive. His lifestyle and hers ceased to mesh. Following the divorce he moved to an apartment he calls The Arc, where he lived until moving in 2010 to God's Arc, 10 blocks away.

"That's a part of my life I want back," he says. "I love video games, but video games do not complete my life. In order to get that back, I have to become a lot more stable. I have to be satisfied with this ... I just want to do regular business. My time is up. I'm 35 years old. I need to give what I used to do to the younger guys."

He wants kids, and hopes it's not too late. A moment later, Lincoln and Sanford bust into the living room, giggling, interrupting our interview. "Yo, you guys done?" one says, "We want to play some Street Fighter."

Triforce nods.

The future

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Back in line, Triforce likes to tell stories of what he sees during the long days. One of his favorites involves the Korean pop singer Psy, who has become a sensation with the song "Gangnam Style." Months ago, when Triforce was on a different line, Psy was set to appear on a nearby New York City morning show.

"Everybody of every race, of every size, creed, color — they were all here," he says. "If they were here for that one time, for a song they can hear on the radio for free, what's wrong with me waiting for a system I can play for the rest of my life? To each his own."

I ask Triforce what will happen when he retires. What does a 35-year-old who's defined himself by playing and waiting for games do when he stops? It's not the first time I've asked, but the answer is always long and tough to follow.

He wants to make Empire Arcadia work. He wants to get a job in the business. He wants to move on. He wants wealth and success, the American dream. He wants to pass down his mantle, just like Kevin did decades ago. None of the answers are especially tangible, and I get the sense Triforce — like most human beings — is figuring it out as he goes along.

A friend mentions an upcoming trip to France, and Triforce mumbles a quip about croissants and some beautiful nameless woman.

"I'm taking her with me," he says. "There's a particular lady. I waited a year. A year for her. A whole year. No nothing. I just waited. That's how much I'm into her.

"Do not let that confuse you. I am one of the most impatient people in the world. It has to be something extraordinary for me to wait. If I'm waiting, it's god-like. It can't be A or A+ or even AAA. It has to be S-Class. Seriously speaking, I'd definitely wait for her." Babykayak

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