LOS ANGELES — Growing up in Mexico City, Fernando Reyes Medina was involved in video games "every step of the way."
As a teen, Medina — now an award-winning game designer at 343 Industries, the Microsoft studio that creates Halo games — and his friends would rent an Xbox for 50 cents an hour at internet cafes to play Halo 2 split-screen. After connecting to Xbox Live, Microsoft’s online multiplayer gaming service, he saw how gaming served as a tool to connect people from across the world. As a result, his passion for Halo and gaming grew into a career ambition.
But with few visible Latino gaming figures to draw inspiration from and limited gaming-related pipelines in Mexico, Medina's dream of working for the Halo franchise seemed increasingly out of reach.
“I didn’t understand how difficult the path was going to be,” he told NBC News. “I was just like, this is the thing I want to do and I just don’t see myself doing anything else.”
Medina, one of two Latino gaming trailblazers NBC News spoke to recently, is drawing from his experiences and helping to increase Latino representation across the global industry by providing mentorship opportunities and access to resources, events and a centralized hub for Latino gamers.
"I felt like I was the only person there"
Danny Peña, better known as "Godfree," is the founder and co-host of the award-winning video games podcast show Gamertag Radio and the first Latino to be inducted into the Podcast Hall of Fame.
He was introduced to gaming when his grandmother purchased an Atari 2600 for him. He later started his first gaming business as a teen, charging people per controller to play video games on his Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis consoles in the city of San Francisco de Macoris in the Dominican Republic.
Shortly after the release of SEGA's Dreamcast, he began experimenting with internet radio and finally decided to pursue gaming and podcasting as a career after playing Fuzion Frenzy with Bill Gates at an Xbox pre-launch event in New York.
"He's not a great gamer but it was fun playing with him," Peña said jokingly. "That moment was when I realized like, you know what, I want to really do this and take this serious."
After launching Gamertag Radio in 2005, Peña began attending more events and handing out media kits and CDs of his broadcasts. At events outside of New York, he noticed he would often be one of a few people of color in attendance.
"I felt discouraged because I felt like I was the only person there — that was different than everybody else," he told NBC News. "I felt like I had to work 100 times more than anybody else."
Hosted by Peña, Peter Toledo and Parris Lilly, Gamertag Radio is now in its 17th season with more than 1,000 episodes released and has earned millions of listeners since its inception.
Peña credits companies like Microsoft for giving him a chance. Now he wants to do the same for the next generation of creators through mentorship and by speaking at schools and colleges.
"I learned everything on my own. There wasn’t someone there telling me what to do back then," he said. "Right now everybody is trying to become that No. 1 creator — I think the best thing to do is to be yourself but, at the same time, stand out."
"A golden age of video games"
With no signs of slowing down, the gaming industry has grown into a market worth more than $180 billion with mobile game revenues accounting for 52 percent of the global market.
While diversity remains an obstacle, 72 percent of U.S. Hispanics aged 13 and older self-identify as gamers, with 40 percent saying they had used multiple devices for gaming, according to a Nielsen report.
“Technology has become a lot cheaper, tools to make video games have become a lot more accessible” Jose Zagal, a professor at the University of Utah’s entertainment, arts and engineering program, which features video game education and research, told NBC News.
“I do think we’re living in kind of a golden age of video games, in the sense of how many video games are out there and how much access you can have to video games that are free,” he said.
Game design tools like Unity or Epic Games' Unreal Engine, once worth thousands of dollars to license, are now free, opening the doors for rising game developers in Latin America.
In the U.S., Hispanics or Latinos accounted for 8.1 percent of video game developers. Comparatively, their white counterparts accounted for more than 70 percent.
Pathways to gaming-related careers have traditionally been haphazard where people "were falling into games" through technology, friends or nerdy hobbies in the 1980s and '90s, Zagal said.
"If you're not connected to any of these networks, it's going to be really hard for you to land in them," Zagal added. "This applies extra for Latin America where it's not Silicon Valley."
Despite not being able to formally study game design, Medina's education at the Monterrey Institute of Technology gave him an edge as he was still able to learn programming and earn a bachelor of science degree in computer, technologies and engineering.
After several summer internships at Xbox, he was able to become a full-time engineer on the Xbox platform and eventually landed his dream job of helping shape multiplayer experiences on the latest Halo game, Halo Infinite.
"I got very lucky that my family supported me in this decision — it's not as common, especially in Latin culture," Medina said. "It was such a drastic dream that there was no way of knowing if it was a good thing or a bad thing, if you would make a lot of money or not."
Like Peña, Medina noticed the lack of Latino representation and visibility across the industry. He helped co-found Latinx in Gaming, an organization dedicated to help other Latinos break into the industry and gain access to education, competition and networking opportunities through career fairs with recruiters and friendly social events.
“The door shouldn’t exist, but while it exists, we’re going to teach you how to open it,” Medina, who serves as the organization’s Latin America director, said. “It’s just basically try to offer all the resources that we wanted to have when we were starting our careers and that would have made it easier for us to to succeed and to be where we are today.”
For those interested in a gaming-related career, Medina recommends finding a part-time job or internship earlier in one's college education to boost the chances of finding a full-time position post-college.