Ninterview: TriForce Johnson - A Journey From Game Master to First in Line
Posted by Darren Calvert
"Video games kept us off the streets"
In recent weeks we've spoken to a number of people with an exceptional passion for gaming, with that dedication centred on Nintendo. Isaiah TriForce Johnson's love of Nintendo is well known, as many will recognise him for the fact he's been first in line to multiple major launches in the U.S., all while wearing a Power Glove. His immense queuing skills rival even the most determined patron that England has to offer.
Yet there's much more to Johnson than simply being the man in line, with plenty to learn beyond the official images of him shaking hands with Reggie Fils-Aime as he receives the latest major Nintendo system before anyone else in the world, as was the case most recently with Wii U. For Johnson, Nintendo and gaming as a whole isn't simply a hobby, it's a life, and he's forged a career through his own business, "Empire Arcadia". The company is best known for its successes in competitive gaming (eSports) and a disputed representation in a recent documentary, and it's formed with a core team whose lives are entirely centred around games.
In fact, there's even more than that to Isaiah TriForce Johnson. He holds many world records, is on first-name terms with Fils-Aime and other Nintendo employees, and has an intriguing tale to tell about how video games became the centre of his life, and why that mattered.
We caught up with Johnson to talk about all of these topics.
To start off, please tell us a little bit about yourself. What are your earliest gaming memories?
My name is Isaiah TriForce Johnson, I’m a Jamaican raised in the Bronx of New York. I was born a gamer as most of us are and my earliest memories of gaming was growing up in the arcades of White Plains Road from 242nd street to Allerton Avenue. I played some of the best arcades that was ever made during the early '80s from the vector arcade of Star Wars up to Vs. Super Mario Bros. and more.
What is the story behind the Power Glove? How did it become such an important part of your persona?
The story of how I came across the power glove is very long and in depth. I’ll try to shorten it as much as possible. In the early '80s I was a part of a gaming group called Video Land. For us Video Land was not the same as the one found in Captain N and the Gamemaster but the area that we lived in that had a whole bunch of arcade games and video game stores that use to sell NES and Sega Master Systems.
For us just going around to arcades and packing bags at the supermarket to make enough money to buy the new video game system for our home consoles was the life that we had outside of going to school. Video games kept us off the streets, literally. Thanks Nintendo! Furthermore the leader of our community was our game master that we called Kevin. Ironic isn’t it? Eventually Kevin’s passion in gaming dwindled and he focused more on other personal things in his life and he passed the leadership down to me.
In '91 he gave me his Nintendo Power Glove and told me that I was the new Game Master and that I was obligated to wear it whenever representing video games, and so I did. Every video game tournament that I went to, I wore the glove. It then became my persona as everyone would recognize me when I walked in the arcade as the Game Master of Video Land. I made it my business that we were the best gamers in the state. There was not an arcade that I would go to that I did not go and set high scores on every arcade I knew I could play. All people would see was TGM which was my acronym for “TheeGameMaster”, which is my AOL screen name till this day.
How did you originally get the TriForce nickname? Is this now your legal middle name?
The name TriForce was created for a lot of different reasons. Mainly because some of my members did not like calling me “GameMaster”. They all knew I was a huge Zelda fan and the decided to name me Zelda. That led into an argument because I was trying to explain to them that Zelda is the princess. They then switched to Link and Ganon but it just didn’t work and my friend Robert Billings then decided to call me TriForce. He said that he prefer to call me an inanimate object since I always looked at the Triforce as the most powerful item in gaming. From there it just stuck. This was around 1996 right around when Zelda: Ocarina of Time was coming out.
"For us just going around to arcades and packing bags at the supermarket to make enough money to buy the new video game system for our home consoles was the life that we had outside of going to school. Video games kept us off the streets, literally"
I was still the game master of our community “Video Land” so from that point I was known as TriForce Game Master. In 1999, I decided to take it a step further and have the name TriForce legally a part of my “FIRST” name. I didn't want to disrespect my parents by changing my first name so I added it to read “Isaiah-TriForce”. My full Legal name is Isaiah-TriForce M. Johnson, my friends and family call me TriForce. Even my dad. I asked him why does he call me TriForce instead of Isaiah and he told me that he had to respect my name, because a person’s real name is not what their parents name them but what they give to themselves.
I respect my Father to the utmost because he is the reason I am the man I am today. I do everything in my power to honor him in what I do. We’re all not perfect but I think I've done a good job despite being raised in the hood. I could have turned out to be a completely different person and I don’t mean for the better either. My dad did a great job using Nintendo to raise me but that’s another story for another time.
What is your favourite Nintendo era and why?
I would say Super NES through the Genesis but it’s really a mix between two eras. I say NES through the Super NES and SEGA Genesis. As for why? I don’t want to come off as arrogant and not answer the question but quite frankly 'til this date there is no generation in gaming which had more pound for pound godlike gaming titles on both systems to satisfy the casual and hardcore gamers' appetite than that 10-year span. 1985 to 1995? Nope… still waiting for 10 years like that.
Can you share some of your favourite all-time Nintendo games?
The Legend of Zelda series, Super Mario Bros. series and Tetris. No particular order. In fact, these are the three best gaming titles in the history of gaming. My opinion though... and I really do think my opinion accounts for a lot.
You’re known for being the master of waiting in line at the Nintendo World Store. What games/consoles have you waited in line for?
- 2003 - The Legend of Zelda Wind Waker
- 2004 - Nintendo DS
- 2006 - Nintendo Wii
- 2008 - Super Smash Bros. Brawl
- 2011 - Nintendo 3DS
- 2011 - The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
- 2011 - The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
- 2011 - Super Mario 3D Land
- 2012 - Nintendo Wii U
What is your motivation for being first in line? What experience made you want to do this for the first time?
I was the first on the line for The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker at a GameStop in Rockefeller Plaza and I went to go get something to eat from Burger King and ended up being 3rd. The person who replaced me on the line as first ended up getting the Wind Waker world map parchment scroll. From that point I told myself never again would I miss the #1 spot.
What are your tactics for this? Do you have help when you need a break?
I have a team of guys from my gaming team Empire Arcadia to help me. Guys like Lance Eustache, Christopher Landon and others have helped and relieved me for about 3 to 4 hours a day so I could go home and shower, change and come back stand the line again. Without them it would have been very difficult and unhygienic for me to have done it.
What memorable things have happened during these pre-launch lines? What impact did Hurricane Sandy have on the Wii U launch?
The best part of the launches is meeting new gamers. Playing with them on my Gameboy Advance SP, Nintendo DS and 3DS. I’ve met so many wonderful people that worked at Nintendo as well. I met them so many times I sometimes felt like I was going to work. One of my most memorable experience was that the Super Mario 3D Land event where they turned Time Square into the first level of the game for the Nintendo 3DS. Nintendo went in hard on that one and it was such a great way to interact with the launch. Nintendo always finds a way to engage with their community and fans. They even did a commercial about it where they put me in it. That was one experience I can’t forget since I get to watch it over and over.
As for Hurricane Sandy… she sent me home. The Mayor order everyone to get off the street and stay indoors so I didn't have much of a choice, Mayor's orders. However, although Sandy flooded downtown Manhattan and there were no trains to take there, I still walked from Crown Heights, Brooklyn all the way to Rockefeller Center to regain my spot back in line. Here is a link to the journey.
What kind of reactions do you get from passers-by when you’re waiting in line?
It’s funny the type of reactions I've gotten from people who pass me by the line after asking why am I standing out there. When I explain it to them, many of them wish me luck or ask to take a picture with me. Nothing to what I was expecting. Many of them respect the passion and did not judge me. That’s a good sign for humanity.
"I asked him (my Dad) why does he call me TriForce instead of Isaiah and he told me that he had to respect my name, because a person’s real name is not what their parents name them but what they give to themselves"
Can you tell us about your Guinness World Record? Are you officially retired from waiting in line now?
For all my efforts Guinness, Nintendo and Twin Galaxies even awarded me the Guinness World Record for being 1st for the most launch parties for Nintendo videogames, which is at 8. The Nintendo Wii U was my last launch because it was time for me to shift gears in gaming and get more involved, along with a lot of other things that was changing in my life which would leave me with not enough time to hold the line. I had originally stopped after I got the world record from Nintendo but I decided to do just one more launch and what better way to end it than on the Nintendo Wii U. Here is a link to the official award.
How long have you been involved in the competitive gaming scene?
All my life I have been a competitive gamer. Although I started casually at 4 years old, my first experience playing video games was Game & Watch Popeye and Donkey Kong because I was too young to go outside. That was around 1981 and 82 but my first arcade video game experience was in 1983 when I played Star Wars the vector arcade machine. I had to stand on a crate to play the game. I was only 5 or 6 years old at the time. I was waiting for my Dad to hurry up so we could go home and I could watch cartoons. He gave me 4 quarters to pipe me down and I decided to play and I got to level 3 in the game and some guy told me that I was really good. From that point… I took it seriously.
What hi-score records do you hold with Twin Galaxies at the moment? Are there any which you would like to regain?
I hold a lot of World Records with Twin Galaxies in conjunction with Guinness World Records. Many of them I’m still the world record holder of. The only one record that I know of that someone beat me in is Contra the arcade. I’m still #2 in the world with only 1.6 million. I lost many records but I regained most of them to date. I think I still have 30+ active 1st place records in the world.
Please tell us a little about Empire Arcadia. When did you set it up and what are it’s objectives?
Empire Arcadia is a development company that I made specifically with the intention of helping to expand the gaming culture, community and industry. I do this by harnessing the talents of the gamers in the organization including myself to create services and products from the organization to enhance our scene as a whole in gaming. There is another part to the organization that a lot of people are more familiar with and that is our competitive gaming team named after the organization “Empire Arcadia”.
I founded the organization in 2002 and I've been the CEO ever since. As of January 1st of 2014 I no longer manage the company alone. I commissioned a management company to help me share in the responsibilities of managing the organization as a whole. My new partners such as Gregory Mondesir of Lofton Global Management and Sebastian Rothwyn of Rothwyn Consulting are helping me take Empire Arcadia to the next level in professional gaming. Known as EMP for short, the organization utilizes the talents of the members in the team to service the gaming culture, community and industry. This includes promotion, marketing and advertisement in Fashion, Art, Music, Media, Education, eSports and more; not to mention winning world championships and setting world records in all the games that we’ve played competitively since 2002. I’ve set an example when founding the organization as a competitor myself, for the members who have joined Empire Arcadia to play at the highest level. Our hard work and dedication has led us to be certified by Guinness World Record as the most winning video game team in the world.
Empire Arcadia has had a few ups and downs over recent years. Can you walk us through these, and is the organisation now back on track with its fighting division?
We've only had one major downer and that is when one of our star players at the time Justin Wong left the team to join another team. That created a chain reaction of issues for the organization and his former team mates that rocked the organization. However it was a good wake up call. Since that time we've been able to bounce back and became stronger than ever now that we learned not to rely on any one player. In fact it brought us together in a more family oriented fashion for us to work together as a team and not as a one man show.
That period in the Empire has made a lot of people over look the other games that the team played and the other things that the organization does. A lot of people are not even aware that we play more than just fighting games. We had a Gears of War 2 team that won the WCG National Championships, we’ve played WOW Frozen throne competitively at Gamers Life in 2007, we have players who compete and have won at Command and Conquer, Halo 2, FIFA, Call of Duty, Yu-Gi-Oh and even Mario Kart.
Despite all of that many people remember Empire Arcadia because of our historical dominance in the Fighting Game genre and with 13 Evo World Championships, 2 of them coming from Phillip “KDZ” Atkinson and Job “Flocker” Figueroa from Evo 2013 it’s hard not to focus on that aspect of our competitive game resume. Empire Arcadia is now expanding into Hearthstone and League of Legends.
In the competitive gaming scene, which titles are currently strong-points for Empire Arcadia?
To answer the question directly: Super Smash Bros., that’s the strongest game for Empire Arcadia because of Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman and Adam “Armada” Lindgren. I don’t like to bottle Empire Arcadia to any specific game or genre. We are strong in a lot of other games but due to certain situations it’s hard for the organization to step into other games. Gears is no longer viable and we’re missing 2 or 3 players for Call of Duty and League of Legends. Thus some of the games we want to expand in will take time for us to break into. During that time we stick to the games that have kept us relevant in eSports.
How do you feel about the way you were portrayed in the King of Chinatown documentary?
The King of Chinatown had a lot of promise for the original message that we were trying to deliver. Originally it was set to show the life of Justin Wong in his gaming team Empire Arcadia and how he started from the Arcades and went into competitive gaming to get sponsorship. The purpose of this was to show the potential eSports had so that the film would do for eSports what The King of Kong did for Donkey Kong. However the director became a fan of the competition, like many other FGC documentaries and lost all purpose to the film.
From there, with no story to work on that the director thought was going to be good enough to release the film on which I thought would have been fine, he then sought to demonize me as the villain who misguided Justin. Which makes no sense because I pushed him from a community player to a pro-player. I got him his first endorsement deal and sponsorship with Evil Controllers. Which begs the question, what did I do to him that was wrong? From there it was downhill as Justin fell short of defeating Daigo and with no ‘bad guy” to turn to in the film, I guess that is where he thought painting that picture of me being the bad guy would help turn the film around. As you can see…. It did no such thing.
Are you appearing in any more documentaries in the future? Can you tell us a little about these?
There are a couple of documentaries that I’ve worked on but I’m not sure when they will be released. One of them is Power Glove. There is another one called The King of Arcades which you can see here. The other is called The NES Club but I just feature in it I don’t know if they will add me in the final cut, but I did do an interview with them.
There is one more documentary by a film maker from TIME Magazine named Jack Schurman, he has been working on it for almost 2 years now. I’m not sure if it’s shelved or not but I know its the most in-depth coverage of my life ever. Down to the passing of my Mother.
"My favorite games currently on the 3DS is The Legend of Zelda: Link Between Worlds, Tetris Axis and New Super Mario Bros. 2. I like how it’s the same three [favourite] series even after so many years"
To focus on current games, what are your favourites on Wii U and 3DS?
My favorite games currently on the 3DS is The Legend of Zelda: Link Between Worlds, Tetris Axis and New Super Mario Bros. 2. I like how it’s the same three series even after so many years. For the Nintendo Wii U, I’m waiting on Smash Bros. 4. For now Wind Waker HD, Nintendo Land (yup after all this time) and Monster Hunter. Although I have not been on my Wii U for almost 3 months now. I've been travelling and working on the team since January of 2014. I don’t have much time to game like I would want to but that is what a 3DS if for. Nintendo to the rescue.
What do you think of what you’ve seen of the new Super Smash Bros., so far?
So far so good. Little Mac, Sonic, Mega Man. All that is left is to announce Pac-Man and we’re golden. This is going to be the game that Nintendo smacks back the industry with and also reclaim their position in competitive gaming. People forget that Nintendo was one of the pioneers of eSports. Nintendo World Championships… don’t be surprised if you see a comeback in 2015. Hint, Hint!
Aside from Smash Bros., which Nintendo games are you most looking forward to this year?
The new Zelda, Metroid and a Mario and Sonic co-op Adventure. It would be nice to get a 2 player co-op simultaneous Star Fox and a Pokémon on the Wii U. All Nintendo has to do is follow through with those games and they're good to go. A lot of the stuff they've done for the N3DS they just need to make mainstays on the Wii U. Like GOLDEN SUN!
Do you have any final messages you’d like to share with our readers?
Yes I do. Thank you for all those who have supported me and to Twin Galaxies, Guinness World Record, Most Valuable Gaming, Nintendo, Reggie Fils-Amie, The Golin Harris of Nintendo group and more. Nintendo 4 Life.
Thanks to TriForce for taking the time to speak to us.
Ninterviews are a series of interviews where we get to know interesting people with a passion for Nintendo. Please contact us if you have any suggestions for future Ninterviews. Click here to see the full series.