In the Fighting Game Community, role models come in many different flavors. High-level players exercise dedication, patience, intelligence, and a truly incredible level of mental resilience. Tournament organizers give selflessly to their communities and to a cause greater than themselves; content creators show off their humor and artistry; and indie developers expand our ideas of what the genre and the community can be.
Amid all of this, there’s Henry “Golden” Cen. The owner of New York City’s legendary Next Level arcade, Cen isn’t your typical FGC role model. Instead of pursuing values that are aimed at some external goal (a championship, a successful event, a large viewer count, etc.), he offers something more inward-looking. Now entering his forties, he lives his life in pursuit of rectitude, a virtue that’s rare enough in the world at large, let alone in the niche community of fighting game players.
But while his outlook may be unusual, his results speak for themselves. Despite emigrating to the United States as a young child, he’s managed not only to achieve his own dreams but also to sustain one of the most vital local scenes in the country. He may not have the flash or the fame of your favorite FGC superstar, but it’s no exaggeration to say that the FGC wouldn’t be where it is today without the leadership and professionalism of one Henry Cen.
The Land Of Opportunity
Starting in 1966, the Chinese government embarked on a program that it called the Cultural Revolution. Spearheaded by Mao Zedong, the Cultural Revolution was a blot on China’s history. Irreplaceable historical artifacts were destroyed, countless Chinese citizens were either exiled or sent to “reeducation” camps, and as many as twenty million people were killed.
In the midst of these tragedies, many Chinese people chose to flee their home country altogether. Among them was Cen’s grandfather, who left for the United States after he was targeted for persecution by the ruling Communist party. Fearing that the regime might target his family as well, he urged them to follow. Though it took them nearly twenty years to do so, they eventually emigrated as well, bringing their young son Henry with them.
Once he’d made it to the states, it only took a few years for him to know which path he would pursue. “I’d always wanted to own an arcade business. When I was younger, I loved the sounds and lights of the machinery and I was fascinated with how they operated.” His first love was the quintessentially American game of pinball. Around the age of eight, he and his friends would go to the iconic Chinatown Fair arcade and share pinball games, each of them taking responsibility for one ball. “The reason why we played pinball was actually because it was the only game that gave out free games if you had a specific score. [You could] literally play all day,” he explains with a laugh.
For his parents, this was a challenge. Though they were now safe from governmental persecution, they found themselves in a new and unfamiliar society. “Success is not determined by your wealth but your status in Asian societies, because the family unit is [considered] more valuable than money,” Cen explains. “My family didn’t want me playing any video games at all.” Instead, they wanted him to become a doctor. But their opposition taught him a valuable early lesson in human nature. Even though they still don’t support his career choice today, he says that he has “a great relationship with my parents. I know they love me but they usually can’t express it properly.”
These are the two factors that shaped his life: as an individual, he’d fallen in love at first sight with the arcade environment; as a member of a family, he was learning to see into others’ hearts. Though there would be more challenges ahead, Cen was already learning how to make the most of the opportunities his family had won for him.
A Lesson In Humility
In his early days as a pinball junkie, the young Chinese native quickly learned that machines had limits. Due to heavy use, his favorite games would occasionally break down. This is how he discovered fighters: when a pinball game was out of commission, he “usually went to play fighting games because [they] had more of a social aspect.” In the same way that he and his friends would take turns on a pinball machine, “you could also share games in fighting games also: I’d play round one and a friend would take round two.”
His first character was Guile, “because he had specific glitches that no other character had.” These glitches appealed to the doer in Cen. “I like problem-solving,” he says. “It’s still my forte. Problem-solving gives me satisfaction that I know I can do something without someone’s help.”
As the years passed and he explored fighting games more deeply, he also grew as an all-around arcade expert. A technician named Tony would come to Chinatown Fair to fix the machines, and Cen “would always [ask] him what the issue was with the machine he was repairing.” He laughs as he remembers that, while Tony would explain his work, “he mainly found me annoying.” By the time Cen was about 16, he would “tinker with machines when Tony wasn’t [there] to repair them.”
But his successes, especially the ones that happened in-game, had started to go to his head. “When I was younger as a competitive player,” he says with the benefit of hindsight, “I was very arrogant. I was a top player and I thought nothing of other players except the ones that could beat me.” To an extent, his feelings were justified. Cen is a skilled competitor who would go on to finish inside the top eight in Super Street Fighter IV at Evolution 2010. (That’s how he earned his nickname: Evo gave out custom golden joysticks to the entire top eight that year.) But in 2000, he was taught a lesson when he traveled to Japan as an alternate for a major international exhibition. Not only did the United States team get blown out, Cen was personally scolded by one of the Japanese players.
As he tells the story, “I was bragging to our Japanese host about how good American players were. I was arrogant and made claims that even though we lost, we would return better and stronger. But my Japanese host at one point got upset at me and said, ‘Why do you always boast and think you’re better all the time?’ He said with all that time complaining, you could have spent it improving. I look back at that time when he yelled at me and felt ashamed. Not only did I not achieve what I wanted, but I made a mockery of myself.”
On his flight back to the US, Cen vowed to change. “I said if I want to get better, I need to be better at everything,” not just games. This lesson in humility would be the final piece of the puzzle. He’d already had the skills of a technician and the open heart of an immigrant. His experience in Japan gave him the knowledge that all of us have something to learn no matter how skilled or heartfelt we are. With the first two alone, he had the aptitude to succeed in life. With all three, he now had the integrity to help others succeed as well.
In his words, “the main focal point is to have skepticism, to make people investigate not only your opponents but yourself also. One issue for a lot of gamers is the failure to acknowledge mistakes. Bad decisions made in-game can reflect bad decisions made in real life.” Cen believes that it’s only possible to reach one’s highest potential through honest, humble introspection. “So I hold myself to that principle and try to teach [it to] other people.” He could have run an arcade one way or the other; plenty of people have. But without humility, he could never have filled the role that his local FGC needed of him.
The Right Path
When Cen was at his competitive peak, there simply wasn’t enough money in fighting games to persuade him to consider it as a career path. Moreover, “I had my taste of attention when I was competing really hard, and I didn’t like it.” At the time, almost all of the communication in the FGC took place in person. Cen often found himself “at a table with six to eight people for discussions,” but with so many people around, “the conversation becomes diluted and we can’t get to the point.” He believes that “the battle of education starts with one-on-one dialogue,” which is one of the many services he offers at Next Level.
He opened his arcade (or, as he calls it, his store) in May of 2011. And while his store is all of the things you’d expect from a major arcade in the nation’s largest city, it’s also a place where he can have those one-on-one conversations. “I always try to correct people, meaning setting them on the right path,” he says. “I try to be that beacon of light that guides them.” Whether it’s about their gameplay or their life, “at the store, we talk about everything, nothing is off-limits.”
This advice is especially important in gaming communities such as the FGC, which skew young. People will always need sound counsel when they’re entering into adulthood, and Cen does his best “to give another opinion, in a rational manner.” He also encourages an atmosphere of respectful conversation and mutual accountability so that his players can balance out one another’s perspectives. “The most important thing about improving in gaming is having [a] dialogue with people,” he says. “And that’s where humility comes when you’re in a social setting.” One of the lessons he stresses the most is the one he learned the hard way: introspection and self-judgment matter far more than outward displays of strength.
In this respect, Derek “iDom” Ruffin is the perfect advertisement for the way Cen runs his store. A longtime competitor at Next Level Battle Circuit, Ruffin shocked the Street Fighter world by winning Capcom Cup 2019. When asked about Ruffin’s success, Cen says, “Of course I take pride [in it]. I do it because I want New York to be represented as where the best players are. Sustaining the community is the duty that comes along with that motto.” To do that, Cen works about fifty hours a week, only taking Sunday off. “Sometimes I keep the shop open so the guys can get an extra bit of fun,” he adds. “Especially when people are in the heat of the moment, I don’t want to deny them that excitement.” Whether that means staying open for another hour or staying up until six and then going to get breakfast with his players, the most important thing is that he continues to reward his players for challenging themselves and staying together. It’s hard work, but, in exchange, Cen gets to see the effects of his labor ripple out across the entire FGC.
Take Every Chance To Improve
Along with many other small business owners, Cen’s livelihood has been put in danger by the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, though, his good works have returned to him. “From a financial standpoint,” he says, “I’ve had a lot of help from the community and Team Sp00ky, which has been running online tournaments for revenue for the store. Of course, Matcherino, the crowdfunding site, has also contributed greatly in our donation drives for the players and the store on a weekly basis. I’m really grateful to everyone for chipping in during these rough times.”
Meanwhile, Cen is keeping up with his other hobby, long-distance cycling. To keep himself healthy, he and his friends go for rides of up to 100 miles. When it’s finally safe to reopen, it’ll be business as usual for Cen, which means supporting his players both as competitors and as people. He knows that some of them will listen to the wisdom of their community leader while others won’t. Even when it comes to the simple things, there will always be a few people who have to learn the hard way. As one simple example, he says that “lots of customers complain that I have healthy junk food and I should just go ham and replace it with real junk food.”
But in the long run, there’s a good chance that his experience, his reputation, and his noble-mindedness will win them over. After all, as he himself likes to say, “gaming has a lot of correlations to life.” And if there’s anyone whose life has taught him about both sides of that equation, it’s New York’s one and only Henry Cen.
Eli Horowitz (@BODIEDnovel) once did a thirty-mile bike ride and felt pretty good about that. Then again, he lives in Pittsburgh, which is significantly more hilly than New York. Anyway, he writes novels, the first of which is set in the FGC and which will be for sale soon at his official website.