When Danny Peña was a child, he would spend hours playing games at his local New York arcade before he received his first console, an Atari 2600, from his grandmother. Peña knew early on that he wanted to do something in the games industry, but he didn’t know what. All along the way, he was told that video games won’t pay the bills, but he didn’t let that deter him. Flash forward a couple of decades, and Peña returned to New York to show his mother a billboard featuring his face in Times Square – a monument to his success in the games industry, but not one that was easy to achieve. Now, with a new children’s book called Danny Loves Video Games about his life and career set to release this week, I sat down with Peña to chat about his road to this point.
While the 2021 Times Square billboard served as an important milestone for Peña, it’s just another in a long list of accolades for the lifelong gamer. Peña started Gamertag Radio in 2005, a time when gaming podcasts were numbered in the tens instead of the tens of thousands. In 2015, Peña was inducted into the Podcast Hall of Fame, and in 2020, Gamertag Radio became the first gaming podcast to reach 1,000 episodes. In addition to podcasting, Peña also heads up games editorial at G4TV, the revitalized gaming network that features the likes of Attack of the Show, X-Play, and myriad other iconic programs. But before leaving an indelible mark on games industry content creation, his first games-related business was a small store in the Dominican Republic.
The Times Square billboard featuring Danny Peña that ran in September 2021
“When I was living over there – this is like, I was in my teens already, early teens – I had a lot of Super Nintendos and Sega Genesis, and I brought this up to my mom and I asked her, ‘Hey, is it okay for us to rent out an office space, get a bunch of TVs, I already have a bunch of consoles… why not charge people to play my games? I could charge them every 15 minutes, every 30 minutes, or an hour, or some of them I will rent them the games,’ and she was like, ‘I like that idea, let’s do it,'” Peña tells me on this week’s episode of the All Things Nintendo podcast. “Nobody else was doing it, so at that time, I had Mortal Kombat II, Street Fighter II, Donkey Kong Country had just come out, so people were coming to my office because they wanted to play the new Donkey Kong Country. […] I had a bunch of cool games that young adults, kids… even older adults would come in and just play sports games. That was the first time that I created a business: during the early ’90s.”
Peña’s shop was so successful that he earned enough money to buy a motorcycle. That early-’90s shop in the Dominican Republic may have been his first job involving video games, but in the late ’90s, Peña received the inspiration he needed that would lead him into his true career path in the games industry. Living in Miami, Florida, at the time, Peña got involved in the local hip-hop scene. Through that, he started listening to a show that featured interviews and discussions about music. “I was like, ‘I want to have my own show, but I want to have it online,'” he says. “I tried to do it in 1998, but it was so expensive, and I didn’t have the equipment, nothing. So I couldn’t do it.”
Though he couldn’t pull it off then, Peña finally followed through on that goal around the Dreamcast launch of Phantasy Star Online in 2001. Peña put together a show called PSO Radio, which he did for a few months. A few years later, in 2005, he created Gamertag Radio, which is still running two episodes a week to this day.
With all the success throughout Peña’s career, his cousin, Mr. Luna, and his cousin’s wife, Mrs. Ani, contacted him. The couple has been putting out children’s books for the last few years under a company called 2 Quality People. Mr. Luna told Peña that he wanted to create a children’s book based on his life and career, and Peña was immediately on board. The result is Danny Loves Video Games: Based on the True Story of Danny Peña, a children’s book that recalls Peña’s lifelong experience from his childhood New York arcade all the way up to his continued success in 2022.
“There are a couple of reasons why I wanted to do it,” Peña says. “One is to educate parents that dreams do come true. Instead of the parents shutting down the kids every time their child is like, ‘Oh I want to be this. I want to do that,’ some parents might say, ‘Oh no, you’re wasting your time. That doesn’t pay the bills.’ So discouraging them. I want to educate them and show them like, look, dreams do come true. It worked out for me. And the second reason is to help kids and show them that it’s possible to achieve their dreams.”
Beyond those goals (and entertainment to all who read it, of course), Peña has grander ambitions for what Danny Loves Video Games can accomplish. “I also made this in Spanish,” he says. “This has always been my goal for years: I want to get a lot of Latinos involved in the gaming industry. It could be as a journalist, or content creator, or anything that has to do with games. I want them to get involved because if you think about it, the percentage of Latinos and even people of color in the industry is very, very small. Some of them don’t know what to do, how to do it, they don’t have the resources, and that’s been my goal: to get a lot of the people from Latin America, and even here in the States, for them to be involved with the industry.”
The book is colorful, breezy, and inspirational. It serves as a great overview of Peña’s story, even referencing some of his interviews with icons like Keanu Reeves, Danny Trejo, Snoop Dogg, and more. It portrays Peña’s career in a digestible and easy-to-understand way and delivers the important message of working hard and being persistent to achieve your dreams.
“I never gave up, even during the most difficult times in my life, which there’s been a couple throughout the years that I almost quit,” Peña says when talking about what all this success means to him. “But having good people in my life like Peter Toledo and Parris Lilly, my [Gamertag Radio] co-hosts, and even my family, they’ve always been there for me and saying, ‘Don’t quit. Keep going.’ And I think that’s the reason why I kept going for all these years. And I believed in it. I’ve felt that, since I was young, that something big is going to come out of this. Something big.”
Even with more than two decades of content creation under his belt, Peña is feeling as refreshed and happy as ever with his career. “I still don’t feel tired; I don’t feel tired, I don’t feel burnt out, I feel like I’m having a great time creating content and releasing content for my community,” he says. “I feel like this is just the beginning. Still, even after 20-something years, I still feel like there’s way more stuff coming up in the future.”
Danny Loves Video Games arrives on September 15. You can purchase the book at Barnes & Noble or Amazon (English version, Spanish version). He and the book’s author, Mr. Luna, are doing a reading and signing at the Kendale Lakes Branch Library on Thursday, September 15 at 6:30 p.m (unfortunately, the event is full as of this writing). You can follow Gamertag Radio on your favorite podcast platform.