Welcome to your friendly neighborhood Waypoint Cafe

Waypoint Cafe in New York City. Photo by Jacob Wolf

NEW YORK -- It's a calm day in The Bowery neighborhood in Lower Manhattan. Adjacent to colorful Chinatown and the artsy Lower East Side, adults waltz up and down narrow Ludlow Street. The sight of young adults and teenagers gathering inside a small front-facing, open-windowed coffee shop stops some in their tracks. As they peer inside, a look of confusion often appears on their faces.

The youth inside aren't reading books -- many aren't even drinking coffee -- and behind the counter stand two tall and slim identical twins. One sports a megaphone and a buzz cut, and the other dons long hair and is facilitating food orders. "What is this place?" a puzzled elderly lady asks.

This is Waypoint Cafe.

Since it first opened in September 2017, Waypoint Cafe has changed gaming culture in the largest city in the United States.

From the outside, it looks like a normal coffee shop, except for the fact that League of Legends, Overwatch and various other gaming and geek culture memorabilia decorate the walls. In the back, 31 gaming computers are available for rent at $5 per hour, with various gaming consoles available to pair with a set of TVs at the front of the store.

New York City gamers are welcome daily, with the shop becoming a popular after-school (or after-work) visit for students of all backgrounds, adult enthusiasts and gaming industry notables who live nearby and don't have their own setups at home.

The twins, Bryan and Ryan Battle, don't own the place, but their presence -- nearly every single day -- has become both comforting and memorable to their customers. Gaming isn't just a job for them -- it's a lifestyle. Since landing jobs together at Waypoint, the two have become the face of the operation, running tournaments, hosting watch party events and even sitting down to get in games of Apex Legends and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate with those looking for a challenge.

"At the end of the day, we like making sure that people always feel welcome and they always have a good time," Ryan said.

Every other week, Bryan and Ryan host a Super Smash Bros. Ultimate tournament at the cafe, capping it at 32 players to prevent the 1,750-square-foot facility from becoming overcrowded. The PCs in the back remain open for venturing customers to use as long as the door remains unlocked. But on the release night of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate in December, moving throughout the cafe was nearly impossible. Everybody wanted in.

But Smash isn't their only forte. The twins are also involved in helping host and organize events for the 5 Deadly Venoms, the largest fan group of the New York Excelsior Overwatch League team, and other events with Super League Gaming, a nationwide organizer that hosts local amateur events in 16 major cities around the United States.

Waypoint is one of only two gaming cafes in Manhattan, something often attributed to high rent and lack of space in the center part of the city. Of the two, Waypoint is the most popular, drawing hundreds of customers on a daily basis and often filling long waitlists for just an hour of access to a PC. A familial atmosphere, good food and drinks and a lot of trash talk go into the Waypoint experience, and the Battle twins are an integral part of that.

Since they were infants, the Battle brothers were positively exposed to video games. Growing up on Coney Island, Brooklyn, in a multifamily home owned by their grandmother, the Battles often played "Sonic the Hedgehog" or "Street Fighter" against their four siblings, several cousins or other family members. Even the famous beaches of Coney Island weren't enough of a distraction to veer them away from games. When at home, with any time to spare, it was time to boot up their favorite console and compete.

At 2 years old, the Battle twins lost their mother to what their family explained to them was cancer. Nearly 20 years later, the two discovered that it wasn't cancer when they attended an AIDS Walk in Central Park with their family; she had died of complications related to HIV. The family created shirts with the twins' mother's name and portrait on them.

"Despite the fact that I don't have any memories of my mom, but I feel the way me and my brother carry ourselves is a reflection of who she was as a person," Ryan said. "Me and Bryan are very happy, joyful, playful. We're positive people. We love hanging out with people and making them feel good. Granted, we always tell jokes and push buttons. We're known to rag on people." The brothers laughed.

"But at the end of the day, we like making sure that people always feel welcome and they always have a good time. I think that carries on into what we do hear at Waypoint as well."

After the death of their mother, the twins leaned on gaming as a positive, safe and effective coping mechanism, something both say has lasted into adulthood. Like with many others, gaming provides them stress relief in vivid moments, such as selling their grandmother's house after she had a stroke and Hurricane Sandy destroyed much of it in 2012.

Gaming has become a necessary part of their lives, with both playing several hours a day either during or after their work.

At first, neither brother was sure what his career aspirations would be. While studying at the City College of New York, Bryan met Luigino Gigante, a video game review journalist who, without much prompting, frequently explained his aspirations to open a gaming cafe. When Ryan transferred, he also met Luigino. Both brothers maintained a close relationship with him during and after their collegiate careers came to an end.

A few years later, Gigante sent Ryan a message with a picture of a long and narrow retail space in Lower East Side.

"I did it," Gigante told Ryan.

"You did what?" Ryan asked.

"We're in business," Gigante responded.

"We?" Ryan replied, as he slowly started to realize what was going on.

Gigante had just signed a lease for the space, and the cafe that he had once dreamed about was now a reality. Gigante hired Ryan as a manager.

Ryan went to work in February 2017 when Gigante had just started to set up the cafe. It underwent construction throughout the spring and summer before opening that September.

Bryan, who had known Gigante the longest, didn't start at the cafe immediately after it opened. Instead, he continued to work with youth at a child care center. But then he said he became stagnant, and internal changes had him working with toddlers rather than kindergartners, with whom he felt he excelled. Bryan wanted to continue to work with youth but in another capacity.

When Bryan approached Gigante nearly a year after he and Ryan opened the cafe, Gigante initially didn't have a role for him. But Bryan was determined -- he put in his two weeks' notice at the child care center anyway with hopes that Gigante would give in and let him start working in the cafe.

Gigante had become overwhelmed with managing the influx of event requests at the cafe. Bryan was the perfect fit for that job and started just one day after the cafe's one-year anniversary on Sept. 26, 2018.

The cafe started off small, with just a few customers here or there, but has since grown into a gathering place for board, console and PC games alike.

"It was a quiet day [the first day open]," Ryan said. "Compared to then now, such a huge difference."

"I remember coming the first day. It was us, five other people Gino already knew," Bryan said. "People just walked by, the PCs were empty and it was a really nice place. Nowadays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, it's always packed."

The cafe has become an integral part of the gaming culture in New York. Influenced by PC bangs in South Korea -- the gaming centers that have served as gathering places for youth in that country since the early 2000s -- Waypoint is among a small number of facilities striving to make gaming more accessible for all. Ryan and Bryan understand the influence they have; customers often seek them out for conversation and advice about life and goals.

For them, it's important their customers don't feel like customers, but rather, they say, like guests -- just like the friends they used to host back at their grandmother's house as kids.

"Whether it comes down to tournaments and events, I like making sure I can get as many people smiling and happy when they leave out of that door as possible," Ryan said. "When I come here, when I gotta do what I gotta do, whether it's a tournament or just a regular day, people here, they're not customers -- they're guests. 'Cause this is like a house to me -- some of these guys we see here every day. We always greet them, treat them with respect. They're always here for a reason, and so are we."