A look inside a Sunset Park store, where one of NYC’s best gamers trains

Queens native Derek “iDom” Ruffin is a professional esports athlete and world champion of the 2019 Capcom Cup, one of the top-tier events in the fighting game world, for which he won a $250,000 prize.

Ruffin has competed in Japan, South Africa, Qatar, the United Kingdom and nearly every major U.S. city. He specializes in one-on-one fighting games, specifically Street Fighter, where he favors Manon, a character who practices judo and ballet.

He’s also just a guy from Jamaica, Queens, who plays video games with his friends.

Ruffin, 27, regularly drops in on local tournaments at game shops around the city as a way of keeping his skills sharp ahead of pro competitions like this weekend’s Red Bull Kumite, a massive, prestigious global Street Fighter tournament that’s being held in New York for the first time at the Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse.

Derek “iDom” Ruffin

Daniel Weiss / Red Bull

He visited Next Level, a nondescript trading card store located between a deli and tax preparer on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, on Wednesday to play in the Next Level Battle Circuit being held in the back of the store.

Players can pay $20 to enter a double-elimination bracket-style competition against anyone who shows up. That typically includes new gamers who’ve only been in the scene for a few months, as well as some of the best players in the world, like Ruffin.

Fighting game controllers are not like the handheld Xbox or PlayStation styles you might see at home, but bespoke programmable builds the size of large coffee-table books.

Photo by Ryan Kailath / Gothamist

“So many people show up and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, you’re just here, randomly, at this place in Brooklyn?!’” Ruffin said. “I’m like, yeah, I live here! This is not out of the ordinary for me. I’m just trying to hang out and play some games.”

As esports – also known as competitive gaming – have become more popular, the United States has emerged as a hotbed of talent, with multiple top-ranked players and leagues, as well as gaming conglomerates that earn millions of dollars in sponsorship and tournament revenue. The category has been inching ever-closer to official recognition as an Olympic medal sport.

New York City is a dominant force, and Ruffin said many top-ranked players like Teiga and Tariq Reed, hail from Queens and Brooklyn.

Pizza was served at the Next Level Battle Circuit in Sunset Park.

Courtesy Next Level

“New York has always been the most dominant because we have both the camaraderie, but also the cutthroat-ness,” Ruffin said. “It’s just the New York vibe. Like when you’re getting on the train, you’re just trying to get where you gotta go, you’re hungry to do what you wanna do.”

Ruffin has been playing competitively for nearly 10 years, and played in his first major tournament in 2017. As a younger athlete, he said, his pre-game ritual was eating candy, as he believed the sugar would give him increased focus and a faster reaction time. Now, he meditates and does breathing exercises before big competitions.

“It’s like running into pros at a park”

At the Sunset Park tournament, Ruffin’s presence at the Sunset Park tournament was welcomed, rather than seen as an unfair spoiler.

“It’s normal,” said newer player Giovanni Phillips. “You get excited if you see someone you know from TV in your pool, but you’re reminded that these are real people. They’re part of their local communities and supporting it.”

Derek “iDom” Ruffin poses for a portrait at Red Bull Kumite in New York City.

Ruffin said players in the local fighting game community mix it up, like in pickup basketball.

“It’s like running into pros at a park,” Ruffin said. “You see them in their natural habitat just grinding. And they’re usually open to play Joe Schmo from the gas station because they want to see how they match up.”

However, there is also a sense of camaraderie at the local events.

Everyone interviewed at Next Level described the local tournaments as places to sharing knowledge and skills. If another player destroys you with a set of moves you’ve never seen before, you can turn to them and ask how they did it, and, crucially, how to defend against it.

Ruffin described his style as very American: heavy, aggressive, trying to get in and overwhelm his opponents as fast as possible.

As for the most aggressive gaming culture he’s encountered?

“France,” Ruffin said. “It’s not even close.”

“Oh my God bro, why did you jump?”

As the Next Level tournament got underway, spectators crowded around the eight tables, where they cheered, traded wisecracks, noted cool moves and dispensed wisdom.

“It’s almost more important to learn when not to press buttons, than it is to learn to press them,” one more experienced player advised a newer one. “You’ll get there, you’ll get there.”

Sixteen players lined up at the eight consoles, some with traditional controllers, some using massive multibutton joystick controllers the size of a coffee-table book.

Sebastian Armendariz, who was knocked out relatively early, watched Ruffin, known there as iDom, take on another top player, Creaky Axe. Ruffin sat upright just inches from the screen with his controller in his lap, blinking only when the game animations allowed a reprieve.

“iDom’s a master of using his awareness and spacing,” Armendariz said. “Also counter-attacking. He’s using what many would consider a weaker character than Creaky Axe is. This is a really, really good set to watch.”

After nearly four hours of grueling play, only Ruffin and a player named Wet Kunai remained. In the corner, two commentators for the Twitch channel LunarPhaseLive narrated the action of the final match.

“There hasn’t been a single combo so far,” said one of the broadcasters.

“Oh my God bro, why did you jump?” he shouted as Wet Kunai opened himself up to a game-ending series of blows.

The room erupted in groans and cheers. The on-screen animations that end the match hadn’t finished playing by the time Ruffin stood up and unplugged his controller, wrapping the cord tightly. He shook Wet Kunai’s hand and headed outside to Fourth Avenue. Red Bull Kumite, the big tournament where he’ll defend his global ranking, begins on Saturday. Ruffin plays on Sunday.

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