Danny Peña interview: Creating a career talking about video games
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Danny Peña has one of those fairy-tale stories that the video game industry is so good at creating. He grew up in a tough neighborhood in the Bronx, the son of divorced parents, as well as the Dominican Republic.
One day, his grandmother bought him a video game system, and it changed his life. He played too many games growing up. His parents worried about his studies and what he was going to do with his life. But like so many creators and influencers, Peña decided to create his own job. He started with DJ work and then migrated to this new thing called podcasting.
In 2005, he started Gamertag Radio with his brother and was joined later by Peter Toledo and Parris Lilly. The audience grew and now his podcasts have been downloaded more than 14 million times. He showed up at the Xbox launch in 2001 and played a game with Bill Gates.
He has had a chance to interview industry luminaries such as Microsoft gaming boss Phil Spencer and Reggie Fils-Aime (former CEO of Nintendo of America). He co-emceed our GamesBeat Summit 2022 event last April and he interviewed Fils-Aime about his own post-Nintendo book.
Now Peña’s inspirational story is the subject of a self-published children’s book, Danny Loves Video Games, created by 2 Quality Kids, a children’s book company run by Peña’s cousin and his wife, Mr. Luna, and Mrs. Ani. It’s out today. I’ve seen Peña’s success grow over the years and watched him become an inspiration to diverse people breaking into gaming. He is still doing Gamertag Radio and working at G4. We talked about the book and his life.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You must be very proud to get this book out.
Danny Peña: Yeah, I’m excited. It’s been a passion project for me and my cousin. It’s coming out next week.
GamesBeat: Your cousin has a children’s book label?
Peña: Right. It’s called 2qualitykids. It’s him and his wife. They’ve been doing it for two years or so. He’s the one who came to me with the idea. He wanted to do a book based on my life, and I thought that would be great. Let’s talk about it. He asked me a couple questions, I answered, and they came back with some samples of the book a couple months after. I loved the concept.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that you can summarize your life in maybe 20 sentences or so.
Peña: The reason why I wanted to do this — it’s two things. One is for parents, to tell them not to shut down their kids’ dreams. My dad, back when I was growing up, he just didn’t get it. To this day he doesn’t really understand what I do. He’s proud, but at the time, it was one of those cases where he just needed to see results to understand and call it successful. My mom was more understanding. Just do it.
When I was a kid, I was living in the Dominican Republic. Mom knew I was playing a lot, but I always wanted to create a business out of video games. I told her, “Hey, mom, I have a bunch of Super Nintendos and a couple of Sega Genesis consoles. Would it be possible to rent a space so I could charge my friends around the block, or anyone who wants to play?” I would charge for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour. Some people, if I knew them, I’d rent them games. I was in my early teens.
GamesBeat: Did that actually work out for you?
Peña: Oh, yeah. I made pretty good money. I bought a motorcycle. But the second reason why I wanted to do the book was to show kids that dreams do come true. It doesn’t have to be video games. But you should go for it. This is the only book that I know of based on the true story of a content creator from the gaming side. My goal is to show to kids that anything is possible.
GamesBeat: Not many people could say, before about a decade ago, that they made money playing games or their career was about playing games. That’s one thing that’s a theme for us in our stories and events. This idea that you can get paid for being passionate about something that you enjoy, that’s pure entertainment, and that can turn into a career. It’s still foreign to a lot of people that something fun can be a job.
Peña: When I was a kid, I read a lot of game magazines — EGM, GamePro. I’d see pictures of E3 and all the events. They got access to early copies of games. I always wanted to be part of that. Not necessarily as a journalist, but I was always into radio and TV. I was learning on my own. My dad was a DJ, so I would mess around with his equipment. At the time I would use a radio with a built-in mic and record whatever was in the background. If the TV was on I could record it, and at night I’d listen to it and picture my own scene based on the recording.
When I was living in Miami I’d get invited to a lot of hip-hop radio shows. DJs wanted me to co-host. I learned from that. But in 1998 — I was in my early 20s at the time — was when I found out about this company called Sudo. I don’t know if you remember that. I went to a friend’s house and I was using his computer. He had a 56K modem. I saw this network, Sudo, where they had many different shows with video or audio. I was watching a hip-hop show where they interviewed one of my favorite artists. I thought that was pretty cool. I didn’t realize people could just do this online.
That’s when I wanted to start my own radio show. But at the time I had no PC. It was still so expensive just to stream through RealPlayer, back in the early days. Then I discovered MP3.com, though. It was designed for music artists, but I figured out a way to upload my content there. For every person who listened to you, you could get paid on MP3.com. I put up my content with that free hosting and a lot of people started listening to my show. My first check was about 500 bucks. That was really cool.
GamesBeat: Would you consider that the beginning, then?
Peña: Yeah, that was the beginning for me as a content creator in internet radio. But podcasting started later, around September 2004. I launched Gamertag Radio in February 2005. There were no applications like iTunes, though. We had to depend on a third party application that the community was creating. You’d get the new episode, but you had to get it through your PC.
I remember I got invited to Xbox Unleashed, a couple of weeks before the launch. I got hands-on. The crazy part about that event, I showed up with a tape recorder and a video camera, because I wanted to create content. But I also wanted to compete, because they were giving away free trips to Cancun, giving away a car and everything. So I turned up to compete for 48 hours, and at the same time I got a media pass, because I went to them and said, “Hey, I have a radio show, I’d love to interview the team.”
At the end of the event I didn’t win, but I got a lot of content out of it. They were giving away consoles, though, to people who were there for 48 hours. They saw my badge and thought I was just a journalist. I said, “No, no, I’m competing! I have proof!” I showed them my video recording and so they said, “Okay, put him on the list.” They sent me an Xbox early.
When I got the console, Xbox called me and told me they wanted me to go to the launch event in New York, at the Times Square Toys R Us. I remember it, to this day. Across the street there was the WWF restaurant. But when I went to the Toys R Us event they had tons of security. I wondered why they had so many people there. And then when I got in they said, “Oh, Danny, we want you to play against Bill Gates and give some feedback to the media about the console.” Of course, I’m young, I’m excited. We played Fusion Frenzy. There’s pictures of it online.
Right after that, I just got inspired to create Gamertag Radio. I launched it in February of 2005. But that year is when iTunes first added podcasts. It was around July of 2005.
GamesBeat: It’s too bad you didn’t get to give a lot of this kind of detail in your book. Maybe that’s for the high school version?
Peña: Yeah, yeah. This was more about keeping it simple for young kids. You can have your dreams. Anything is possible. Show them that I’m a huge fan of games, starting from the arcades. Getting my Atari 2600 for the first time. Creating Gamertag Radio. But I want to do a series in the future.
I’m releasing this on September 15, in Hispanic heritage month. I’m also trying to get more Latinos into the game industry. When I started, I’d go to events and be the only person of color there. Now things have been getting a lot better. But back in the day I was the only one. That’s another thing I’ve been trying to do, just to change the mindset of other Latinos, especially the older generation. From the industry side, it’s all about entertainment, media, musicians, sports. I want to show that there is a path to gaming as well.
GamesBeat: Was there a certain point where you felt like you were going to make it, as opposed to thinking this was a gamble that might not pay off?
Peña: It was a crazy experience, but I’ll give you a perfect example from when I launched GTR. That year I went to E3 for the first time. I’d never been there. I didn’t have connections with game companies. I had no appointments. I created a press kit with my brother. I put down all the money I had to print that up with a CD, pictures, bio, everything in this folder. When I went to E3 I gave that to every single game company, and I said, “We have a podcast.” A lot of people looked at me weird, like, “What’s a podcast?” They ignored me, never gave me a chance. I think Xbox was the only one that gave me an opportunity to meet the team, to interview people. That was the year 360 was coming out, so they had a lot of events going on.
But besides them, nobody else gave me a chance. I went home to Miami feeling super discouraged. Right afterward, though, that’s when Steve Jobs announced they were adding podcasts to iTunes. Suddenly I was getting all these calls from game companies. Now they knew what was going on. Now they knew about podcasts. A year after that I was getting interviews left and right at E3. Even at home I was getting opportunities to attend events or interview people remotely.
There were moments where I felt like this was looking really good. But even in the years after there were times when it seemed like it might not work out. I was in a really dark place around 2018. I felt like things just weren’t going to work. Opportunities were going away. Then the pandemic happened. That was a little tricky. I was living in New York, and suddenly I started getting a lot of calls from game companies. Everybody was at home, so it was a lot easier for me to just create content with them. And the past few years, 2020 until now, things have been incredible for me. I never would have thought I’d be involved in doing a book. The podcast is still doing great. I did some gigs for Telemundo. I got to interview Reggie, which was a lot of fun. It took me 10 years to get that interview. I got Phil Spencer on the thousandth episode. That was amazing. Keanu Reeves. There’s been a lot going on. Now I’m feeling better than ever. I just recently bought a house. My wife and I got married. It’s been great.
I’d been trying to get Reggie on the podcast for a decade. You know how Nintendo is. “Nope.” Every year. I was really cool with the PR people there and I’d pitch different ideas, but Nintendo declined everything. “Nope.” The way I finally got Reggie, it was right after the thousandth episode where I had Phil Spencer. Again, you manifest these things. I tweeted, “One day I’d like to interview Reggie.” And then Reggie replied, “We should make that happen.” It took another year after that, so make it 11 years.
I tell this to creators. You never know who’s listening and you never know who’s reading. Be smart about what you post online. You don’t want to be negative. It’ll go around. The industry is so small.
But once I recorded the podcast with Reggie — I was asking him more personal questions. What was it like being up in New York? Are you going to work on a book? He gave me the heads up in advance that he was working on the book. He gave a kind of sneak peek on the podcast. Once that was done and I shared it–he really enjoyed the conversation. And the rest is history.
GamesBeat: Talking about Gamertag Radio itself, was there an arc to it as far as how it became popular? Were Peter and Parris always on it with you?
Peña: I started it with my brother. But Peter and Parris have been with me for more than a decade. I met Parris first in 2006. He saw a video where I was featured at an event with EA and Xbox. He saw that video and he was inspired to do a podcast too. He hit me up and he helped him out, gave him some tips. He started his own show, and then years later joined GTR. With Pete, I met him because of his wife. She and I used to work together at the Discovery Channel in Miami. She said, “My boyfriend is really into games!” He came to my house and we became really close after that.
GamesBeat: Are there particular things in the book that you felt like you had to have in that small number of pages?
Peña: A few things. One was showing when my grandmother bought me my Atari 2600. That was a very important time in my life when I was a kid. She didn’t know anything about games. She passed away a long time ago. But at the time — 1984, 1985 — she bought three 2600s, one for me and the others for my other cousins. I got Defender and Pac-Man, a couple of games. Having that console at my house, it was awesome. It was life-changing for me. I wanted to show that. A gift can completely change a kid’s life, and that’s what happened to me. I felt it was important to show that about my grandmother.
I also wanted to show my dad saying, “Hey, games don’t pay the bills.” That type of thing. Him being worried that I was playing a lot, while I knew what I wanted to do, knew that was my passion. I felt like that was also important. I wanted to show that to other parents, and show the success I have now, where I’m at. I know I couldn’t really fit everything in there. I have a long history with games and podcasting. But I hope in the future I can do more different stories, more about me getting into podcasting and doing interviews. I have so many things I want to share.
GamesBeat: It does feel like you grew up at the right time for when podcasting came into being, when content creation became an opportunity. A new career emerged and you jumped on it. You had all this experience by the time it became much more viable.
Peña: Definitely. When I started, I didn’t have a mentor or anything like that. I had to learn everything on my own. The technology was different back then. I didn’t have any equipment. I just had a tape recorder connected to a computer. Anything I had on the cassette, I pressed play and recorded that on the computer. It was all in real time. That was the only way. If I wanted to edit anything I had to do it on the cassette.
Fast forward to 2005 when I launched GTR, I was using the Halo 2 lobby as the hub for me to do interviews. Everybody had Halo, so we would meet up in the lobby and people could join. I’d record the audio from there. The quality was terrible. But I managed to create a lot of content like that. The technology is so much better now. It’s so much easier to upload and create content. But thank God I went through that experience, because that helped me to become a better creator.
GamesBeat: Part of the lesson is that you had to stay on the edge of technology.
Peña: Yeah, big time. Back then, in podcasting, for me and for a lot of others, we had to update our RSS feeds manually. It wasn’t the way it is now, where a website or a host would just take your content and create that RSS feed and update it all for you. Back then we had to write everything on our own. It would take forever.
GamesBeat: And that part of the lesson is that there’s a lot of hard work here. It’s not just being lucky or being at the right time.
Peña: Everything takes time, too. There are a lot of creators, and a lot of them, I feel like they want to see success so quickly. It takes time. It’s good to pay your dues. Networking and getting to know people personally at events, meeting them face to face, that’s something that helped me back then. In the early days I couldn’t attend a lot of events, but if I could go to an event in Miami–I’d just show up and pass out flyers to let people know. “I have a radio show, check it out.” I never used the word “podcast.” Then they’d say, “Oh, I need an iPod?” I always just called it internet radio. But meeting people face to face helped me so much. It helped me get better as a creator. I learned to conduct conversations. I was very shy as a kid. But after a while that went away, because I was being really active in doing this stuff.
GamesBeat: How difficult was it growing up where you did? Did you ever feel like your family was poorer than a lot of others?
Peña: My dad, he lived in the projects in New York City. My mom was a single parent. My parents divorced when I was five or so. I was always visiting back and forth. My dad lived in the Bronx and my mom lived in Manhattan. It was hard. Mom couldn’t afford the latest games, obviously. By the time I was in my teens, I wanted to get a computer, and I couldn’t afford it. That was tough. When I went to college, that was when I finally got one, with my student loans.
It wasn’t easy for me. But I’m glad that I experienced that, because it helped me to appreciate life. The struggles that my mom and my dad went through to come to this country. I’m first generation in my family. I also lived in the Dominican Republic for a while, so I got to see how it is over there too. I’m thankful for everything that my family has done. But I’m glad I went through all that. It’s an eye-opener. Here, a lot of people–we’re spoiled. We always have electricity. We always have internet. It’s good to experience what happens if you don’t have that kind of money, if you don’t have the connections or whatever it is. It helped me become a better person.
GamesBeat: I feel like that’s a big part of the high school version of your book.
Peña: Oh, definitely. I want to do way more with the books, for sure. There’s so much I want to talk about. But I felt good about this story for kids. You see me growing up, working hard, getting that award. Getting inducted into the Hall of Fame there, the first Latino–it was the first group that was inducted, so you had me, Adam Curry and so on.
GamesBeat: And your wife is in the same business?
Peña: She used to work at Xbox as part of the marketing team. She worked on Halo 5. Her last game was–not Life is Strange, but the Life is Strange developer. Tell Me Why! She worked on that game. That was her last game before she moved to California. We met during the pandemic. After that, I started living here. She used to work at G4, and then I moved to working at G4 in October of last year, for the relaunch. I’m still there.
I’d never lived in Los Angeles, and she’d never lived here. She used to live in Seattle. It was life-changing for me to come here. I’ve been very successful ever since I moved here. It provides much easier access for me to work with a lot of people.
GamesBeat: I notice that you’ve gone to at least one classroom to talk to kids directly. Have you done a lot of that?
Peña: No, I’m actually doing that next week. My cousin’s wife is a teacher. Like I mentioned, the publishing company is called 2qualitykids. The author is Mr. Luna, and that’s my cousin’s wife, the teacher. She read the book to her students back in July and they loved it. For me, next week is going to be my first time seeing people, getting the book, signing it and reading it. We’ll be doing a release event. We’ll meet a lot of the parents of the kids there at the public library in Miami.
GamesBeat: You have to do a lot of legwork to get something like this off the ground.
Peña: This is all self-publishing. We do everything through Amazon. The book is in English and Spanish. If Barnes and Noble gets enough requests to order through their website, though, if they see that it’s getting a lot of sales through the site, then the book will be available in their stores based on that. But for now you can just buy it through Amazon too. It’s available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook, Spanish and English, starting September 15.
GamesBeat: It sounds like a big project, despite the fact that it’s a short kids’ book. A lot of work goes into this.
Peña: I’ve watched my cousin getting the drawings done, getting the story done. Doing the interview with me so we could grab the right story for the book. Then I’ve just been promoting it myself. We don’t have any PR and marketing. It’s all been just us. So far it’s been doing great. A lot of people have been pre-ordering. Hopefully this will get the word out even more once the book releases.
GamesBeat: You’ve always been the underdog, though.
Peña: Always. I love it. I used to be a hip-hop street promoter, running events. I worked with a lot of music artists and labels back in the ‘90s when I was in high school. That helped me get better at promoting, in-person or any other way. It wasn’t easy. But I’m glad that people have been reaching out and telling me they were interested in the book. Some people have bought a bunch of copies to donate to their local libraries. I have a friend who’s about to see her first granddaughter be born, and she asked me if I could sign her copy, because she’s going to read it to her granddaughter. I’ve gotten a lot of messages like that. People from the U.K. are buying it, people in the Caribbean. It’s exciting.
GamesBeat: Do you tell people that there’s more to the story?
Peña: Oh, yes. I’ve been doing that in my interviews and on social media. I want people to understand that I want to do more than just this book. Of course I want to do one for an older crowd, but my focus is the kids right now. I want to inspire them to be the next content creator, the next podcaster, the next gamer. There isn’t anything like that right. I didn’t have momentum or anything like that back then. I want to give that to kids so they can see, hey, dreams do come true.
I told you the story about going to that Xbox event for the first time, meeting Bill Gates. One day, a while back, in our old apartment I was just thinking. I came up with the idea that I wanted to surprise my parents with something. I told my wife, “Hey, what do you think of this? Someday I want to surprise my mom and day. I want to have a billboard in Times Square. I want them to see that. I know they’re proud, but I want to show them something where they say, ‘Wow, that’s so cool.’”
My wife said, “Danny, you should manifest that. You should post that on Twitter.” I didn’t want to. It was just me saying that. But she said, “No, no, you should do that.” So I posted it, and then I got a message about a day later from Twitch. They said, “Danny, we’re planning to have a campaign. We’re expanding our coverage and we’d love for you to be part of it.” I said, “Sure, I’d love to be part of it.” That was the summertime. Right before September, the end of August, they said, “Danny, we’d like to get some pictures of you. We want to add you to the billboards we’ll have for the campaign in Times Square.”
I just said, “What?” They said, “Yeah, four billboards, all across.” It was exactly the same spot that I was at 21 years ago. It was like everything coming full circle. I put that picture in the book, because that’s part of the story. It’s not completely the story – hopefully there’s more to come in the future – but that’s the same location where I went to the Xbox launch in 2001. I surprised my mom. She went to Times Square and got to see it and take a picture. My dad couldn’t travel to New York at the time, but I sent him some pictures and videos of it. They were both super proud.
GamesBeat: Are there any other milestones you look back on about how popular the show has become? Anything that helps show the kind of success you’ve had?
Peña: I always mention this to people, the download numbers, getting sponsorships from different companies on the podcast, and other business opportunities. Getting gigs to host not only events, but even TV shows. I had a show on the Discovery Channel in the mid-2000s. I did that for a year. I’ve been a host for esports and for conferences, not only in gaming but also in podcasting. Getting into the podcast hall of fame, multiple awards–the list is so long.
We’ve been through multiple podcasting hosts over the years, but in total from when I started until now, it’s close to 14 million downloads. We were part of the CBS Radio podcasting network for a few years. Now we’re doing stuff with Audioboom. It’s been great for us. It’s been a wild ride. I feel like this isn’t the end for me. I’m still going at it. I still feel like the same kid when I just started. I’m excited to record every time. I can’t wait for the future.
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