By Ronald Gordon
I didn’t know of the impact that Minecraft could have on a community until I was right there witnessing it. While NYC may be separated into boroughs, there’s no separating the passion that can be experienced when all the parts of the city are brought together. On the majestic USS Intrepid I got to see first hand what could happen when groups of young gamers from all five boroughs compete in a friendly manner, and just how far NYC is willing to go to bring gaming and education together as a whole.
The NYC Battle of the Boroughs, partly produced by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, is one of many new events to be hosted by and for NYC. Many schools within each of the boroughs trained their students to use Minecraft as more than just a game, which led to over 2000 participants from each borough competing against one another. Whichever team would win this challenge would be invited to compete in the Mayor’s Cup, an opportunity of a lifetime as it would grant them the stage to prove themselves as champions at a huge venue. The most notable team was the Theatre Arts Production Company (TAPCo) School from my home borough the Bronx, which was formed and coached by my former Geometry teacher (and NYVGCC educator) Steve Spera.
While I didn’t know them personally, I sought to find out just who these young champions were as gamers and people first and foremost. Their names are Seth, Starlyn, Melady, Kaylei, and Jacob, and together they stood proud as Team Connected and fought for the chance to take home the trophy for the Bronx. In fact, Starlyn is the same Starlyn Infante who won a scholarship in TAPCo games narrative playwriting class. When they arrived I had a chat with them and asked about the types of things that go into preparing for such an event. Months before this, Steve Spera started the Minecraft club, where every Tuesday they’d get challenges from Steve and do their best to build according to the task at hand. Not only did it encourage creativity and teamwork that led to become best in the Bronx, it also prepared them to do the same thing on the big stage at the USS Intrepid.
The event was full of people from all ages, ready to celebrate not only the winners but the brave and talented participants as well. I arrived early enough to get a glimpse at the first half of the event, seeing the Junior Cup right as it culminated in its final moments and watching as elementary school kids built things I couldn’t even think to build myself, this time, using Minecraft as a showcase for how NYC’s transportation could improve. An hour or so afterwards when the Senior Cup was taking everyone’s attention, I watched as teams from all boroughs stood at their stations and took to the blocks. Their prompt was deceivingly simple, but complicated when it came to thinking of how to build something to match it. It read”
“This is the city that never sleeps. What kind of spaces will encourage New Yorkers from across the city to connect with others outside their neighborhood? Parks? Museums? Food Courts? How can we ensure all New Yorkers are able to be connected equitably, safely, and sustainably to those spaces? Consider digital connections and physical transportation. Think about what services need to exist in a space for many people to keep them healthy.”
Teams were given 40 minutes to brainstorm and then one whole hour to build to their heart’s content. There were all sorts of things made to fit the prompt: a park, a community center, a food stand, but the most impressive was Team Connected’s all inclusive idea. Using the space they had, the team set out to encapsulate all of New York by representing each of the boroughs in different potions of their build. They built an outdoor theater with wheelchair accessibility, a plaza with Pride flags to represent diversity, an art exhibit, a food court, and even a small farm. It all, um, connected to show all sides of New York and what the city can do when they come together as a team under one idea and one space.
Sadly, Team Connected didn’t win in the end, beaten by Brooklyn’s Team Blockhampton which took first place for their build of a community center surrounded by a bustling park. Despite this, Team Connected wasn’t entirely dejected, and as I went to chat with them while the event was coming to a close, I could tell that they had fun regardless. “We’re coming back with a vengeance!” was the sentiment that was shared when I posed the question of seeing them in the future. The event gave every participating team their own medals of honor and custom controllers. Adding that to the knowledge that they were Top 3 in the end made the team all the happier to be returning next year.
I had no doubt in my mind that they meant those words, and told them I’d be more than happy to cover any event they were at to show support. Not only did they do amazingly well during this event, but having chatted with Steve for a while, I knew that this wouldn’t be the last time I’d see him or his students at the main stage of a competition. I could feel their teamwork and camaraderie from behind their screens as they took on the challenge at hand, and seeing each of them honed in and ready was like seeing a team of professionals do their absolute best.
The Battle of the Boroughs is one of the biggest and best starts to a long series of forthcoming gaming events in NYC. From the way that the schools banded together to compete, to the level of funding due to the event’s direct contact with Microsoft, it felt like much more than just another gaming competition. I watched as Mayor Eric L. Adams took the podium at the event to bolster everyone’s hopes, hoping that New York would no longer be taking gaming as just another hobby. His words from the podium solidified this hope in my mind, “Gaming is going to be the future way of how we indirectly learn things in a very real way. This is an amazing opportunity, we are taking off from the deck of the Intrepid to start this amazing Health & Wellness initiative. Thank all who are responsible, but most importantly: Thank the Gamers!”
Ronald Gordon is a New York Videogame Critics Circle Member & Mentor. He was the first of our writers – or any intern anywhere – to complete an internship at Rockstar Games.