Jacksonville shooting shocks NYC gaming community

New York City hosts a handful of in-person gaming tournaments each year.

Many in the New York City gaming community were left “rattled” after a tragic shooting claimed the lives of two gamers — and the gunman himself — at a video game tournament in Jacksonville, Florida, on Sunday.

“A lot of people use video games to escape day-to-day life. You go to these events, you’re supposed to have fun, it’s supposed to be safe, and something like this happens,” said Luigino Gigante, who owns Waypoint Cafe, a gamer coffee shop on the Lower East Side. “I think a lot of people feel like, ‘Is anywhere safe now?’”

Waypoint Cafe, which houses a coffee shop and around 30 computers where users play hit games such as “Overwatch” and “Counter-Strike,” is more of a “local scene” with less to be worried about security-wise, Gigante said. Larger-scale events, like the “Madden” tournament where the deadly shooting took place, may have more to be concerned about, he speculated.

New York City hosts a handful of in-person gaming tournaments each year, including ESL One New York — a “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” tournament that draws thousands of esports fans to the Barclays Center — and Play NYC, an annual convention that features more than 160 games.

A spokesman for Barclays’ ESL One event in September said the organization was “working closely with the venue to ensure that every precaution necessary is taken,” but did not elaborate further.

Security has always been of “the utmost importance” at Play NYC, where attendees must pass through metal detectors and security checks, according to Dan Butchko, the founder and CEO of Playcrafting which produces the convention.

Most gaming events, however, may decide to ramp up security to match that of major events like Play NYC.

“I think … some of the events that are not already at that level will start inching toward that level, or step right up to it,” Butchko said.

Planning costs could rise — something Gigante fears could inflate attendance costs and dissuade people from attending — but “it’s a high cost because it’s so important,” Butchko noted.

For gaming community members like Gigante, a concern that looms larger than the security of future tournaments is the threat of gaming becoming a scapegoat.

After the Columbine High School massacre and the Virginia Tech shooting, many claimed video games were to blame for inciting violence, Gigante recalled.

“There’s plenty of studies out there that show that’s not true,” he said. “Gaming is about the community — it’s about bringing people together.”

Alex Shvartsman, the owner of internet cafe and gaming center Kings Games in South Brooklyn, said he sees the tragedy as an “isolated” incident.

“I think it’s just unfortunate that it reflects poorly on the gaming community as a whole,” he said. “But there’s no pattern there … which gives me hope that this is just one disturbed individual, rather than something we might expect to see again.”

“By their very nature, most of these games require their players to figure out how to cooperate with their teammates,” he added. “There’s just a certain level of empathy, almost, that that helps build.”

Butchko said Sunday’s shooting could give some players pause before attending live events. That hesitation, however, will likely be short-lived, given the ever-increasing popularity and push for live, in-person gaming events.

“Really, tragedy unites more than it divides,” he said. “People across the U.S. in games are going to be talking about it for a long time, it’s only going to make the events themselves, and the community, stronger, larger and safer.”

Maya Rajamani