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Son of Dominican immigrants finds hard-won success in booming video game industry

Danny Peña builds a reputation as a trailblazer for video game journalists

(Courtesy of Gamertag Radio)

MIAMI-DADE, Fla. – Danny "Godfree" Peña took a risk when he was 27. He used his savings to fly to Los Angeles to go to the biggest video game industry trade event of the year. After buying the plane ticket, renting the car and paying for the hotel, he only had $20 in his pocket for the rest of the week.

Peña, now 41, knew then that networking at The Electronic Entertainment Expo could open doors. The event, better known as E3, allows developers, publishers and manufacturers to show off the products that will be sold the next year. 

Peña had already gotten a taste of the growing multi-billion-dollar industry. Before there was podcasting, he had an online gaming radio show. He arrived at a Microsoft's Xbox event with a tape recorder and a video camera. Microsoft gave him an Xbox to review before it was released. 

"I take it home, and a couple of days later I get a call from Microsoft, and they were going to have a launch event at Times Square hosted by The Rock, the WWE," Peña said. "I got to meet Bill Gates and I got to play games with him."

Peña, the son of a taxi driver from the Dominican Republic, used digital self-publishing and distribution to build a gamers' community, establish advertising revenue, position himself as an industry expert and become an Academy of Podcasters Hall of Fame inductee.

Peña started Gamertag Radio -- which has had about 9 million lifetime downloads -- shortly before iTunes launched its podcast platform in 2005. He was working for the Discovery Channel Latin America, where he started as a library coordinator in 2002, and was later the host of a gaming show.

"The download's growth was slow at first," Peña said. "But over time the downloads went up faster, because of content, technology and podcast apps."

Most people, including his parents, had no idea what he was doing to make money. When Michael Pachter, a financial analyst with Wedbush Securities, first met Peña, he referred to him as a "Microsoft-friendly blogger."  

Nelson Rodriguez says Peña showed him that he could take his love of gaming and turn it into a career. Rodriguez is now the global director at Akamai Technologies, a content delivery network and cloud service provider. 

Yamilia Avedano, the publisher of Twinfinite, a site that gets over 10 million visits a month, considers Peña a mentor. Peña would later see his colleague and her team reporting on the E3 conference and the smaller PAX Prime conference. 

"Being a woman in gaming, five years ago, like no one cared about me, but Danny was one of the few," Avedano said in tears.  

Peña's first love was the Atari 2600. His grandmother gave it to him for Christmas when he was 8 years old. By his early teens, he was charging friends to play with his consoles. He grew the business and eventually had enough consoles to open up his own arcade and found a business partner. 

"I think it was called Super Nintendo Club or something like that. A friend of mine painted video game characters inside the office," Peña said. "It was open to the public and people had to pay to play, per controller. It was more my friend and I. My mom just helped me to launch and buy games."

While he was a student at Miami Sunset Senior High School in Kendall, he sold mixtapes, a compilation of different hip-hop songs that he recorded onto a cassette. He said his years of working as a hip-hop event promoter during his late teens in Miami and when he was a Touro College student in Harlem also contributed to his success. 

"I learned how to promote because of hip hop," Peña said. "I learned editing because of hip hop, but I was always a gamer."

The trailblazer knew there was money in gaming, an industry that is growing faster than movies and TV. Some 2.3 billion gamers around the world are expected to spend about $138 billion on games this year, and games on smartphones account for the majority of the market growth, according to Newzoo's Global Games Market Report

Danny Peña, left, Peter Toledo, center, and Parris Lilly, right, are the hosts of the Gamertag Radio podcast.

Peña's twice-weekly Gamertag Radio podcast is now a team effort with co-hosts Peter Toledo and Parris Lilly. They partnered with San Francisco-based Twitch TV, a popular social video service and community for gamers. They are also part of the Audioboom Network, a global platform that helps them monetize their content. 

Peña is often invited to share his journey. He is the star of the film "Gamertag Radio: A Podcast Story," which recently won the Super Geek Film Festival's Best Feature Film Award at the Florida Supercon in Fort Lauderdale. The film will screen July 27 at the Dominican Film Festival in New York City and will be competing in the category of "The Latino Experience in USA."


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