Standing just 5-foot-1, the warrior raises her nearly 4-foot-long sword high above her head and, quick as lightning, slices the air — coming to a perfect stop mere inches from her opponent’s face.
It’s just another afternoon at Sword Class NYC, a dojo in East Harlem. The school is one of 10 or so in the tri-state area that teach some form of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA), a centuries-old style of fighting that is making a comeback — along with tournaments in which participants dress similar to medieval knights — thanks, in large part, to video games.
The wonder woman in action is 17-year-old Liliana Klein, an Upper East Sider who has spent the past year learning to wield a Germanic longsword after falling for the game series “The Elder Scrolls.”
With real-life sword-fighting, “it’s more about technique than castles and armor and speaking old English,” Klein said. “I love that it’s more of a mind game than anything else.”
Swordplay has featured in video games since the late 1980s and early 1990s with games such as “Prince of Persia” and “Monkey Island.” But in recent years, both the games and the HEMA practitioners have gotten more advanced, making the art much more popular, said HEMA Alliance president Jayson Barrons.
“As HEMA becomes more popular and practitioners more skilled, the [better] game developers can accurately depict combat,” said Barrons, a digital designer who recently moved from New York to Colorado.
The martial arts of HEMA — which also include rapier and dagger fighting — date back to the late Middle Ages but were rediscovered in the 1990s after historians reconstructed medieval fighting texts.
“HEMA has been growing exponentially over the past five years and hasn’t shown any signs of stopping,” said Barrons, who was inspired by the video game “Dark Souls” to take up the sword.
Tournaments happen about 20 times a year up and down the East Coast and, Barrons said, can be a great way to test out the arts the way they were intended: under stress. But it’s not cheap. A good sword can cost $500 or more online, and accessories — including protective gloves and helmets — are another couple hundred each. (Sword Class NYC, which charges $160 for eight classes, loans out equipment to students.)
Inspired by everything from video games to “Game of Thrones,” men and women are donning helmets, shields and daggers — essentially, gearing up in the style of medieval knights — to compete in the Armored Combat League. Founded in 2011, the national group has grown from 29 to some 360 members, according to co-founder Andre Sinou.
Now there are about 10 competitions a year across the US, in which city leagues fight each other.
“It’s a lot of regular people trying to do something extraordinary — to follow dreams they thought were impossible,” said Upper West Side financial analyst Damion DiGrazia, who founded NYC’s now-40-person league two years ago.
DiGrazia, 36, added that Armored Combat League participants are looking for the kind of rush of adrenaline they experience in small doses when they play video games. And that’s certainly the case for Romario Prendaj.
“I wanted to see it through my own eyes — to see guys coming at me with full force so I could experience exactly what [knights] would have gone through,” said the 20-year-old Brooklyn Heights college student. He grew up with a knight obsession, driven by video games “Dark Souls” and “Final Fantasy.”
He and other members of ACL spend up to $2,000 each on armor, which includes blunted steel swords, axes, shields and metal body plates. Many buy their gear from Sinou, who lives in Bridgeton, NJ, or order from Eastern Europe, where the sport is especially popular.
There’s just one drawback: Many of the fighters say that since they’ve picked up swords, video games just can’t compete.
“The animation disgusts me [now],” said Klein, with a laugh.
In a fit of mutual inspiration, all this real-life combat is driving some game developers to make virtual fighting more realistic. One game attempting to do so is “Kingdom Come: Deliverance,” which is still in beta mode. Viktor Bocan, lead designer at Warhorse Studios, said he and his fellow developers studied HEMA techniques for months in order to more accurately depict fights.
“The professionals we consulted exactly told us how the combat should look like,” Bocan said, adding that a lot of that was just not possible for the technology available. “Every combatant in real life wants to be as fast and unpredictable as possible. In a game, however, the player needs to see what’s happening on the screen to have a chance to react properly. That’s why we have broader motions — to make sure that the player does not need to study HEMA himself before he can jump into the game.”
But no matter how advanced games get, there’s no matching the feeling of a real-life duel, Klein said.
“I still love the games, but learning [fighting] has been so much better,” Klein said. “And it’s not as much about looking cool. Though you do look pretty cool.”
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