Fighting to the top

How the world's best fighting game players get there and stay there

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The crowd is going insane. People are leaping into the air as though the floor is charged with electricity, screaming, yelling, cheering like they're about to burst. On the stage, Ryan Hart finds himself buried under lively bodies that aren't sure if they want to hug him, kiss him, or plunge a hand into his afro before never washing it again. He reaches out an arm to shake his opponent's hand, but he can't see where he's reaching; there are too many people on top of him. If one more person from the crowd jumps in, this could get dangerous.

Moments earlier, the stage was occupied only by London-born Hart and Japan's most well-known Street Fighter player, Daigo Umehara. No one dared come close. No one dared touch either of them. The two fighting game players were poised with the focus of fighter jet pilots. The buttons were their triggers, their decisions the result of a tangled web of calculations that few could understand. The crowd watched intently, sometimes forgetting to breathe. They watched as the fighter pilots of Street Fighter 4 performed the most complicated of air acrobatics, one-upping each other until someone stumbled and a jet came crashing.

That day, in London, Ryan Hart (pictured, below middle) outperformed and outmaneuvered his top-ranked Eastern opponent on home soil. That day, the UK won a kind of fighting game Olympics. Their very own had beaten a player everyone thought to be unbeatable. The crowd erupted. Everyone went wild. The world was electric.

A fighter is a dancer

Ryan Hart

It's been two years since Hart's victory against Umehara at the Super Vs. Battle 2010 in London. In his career as a fighting game player he has broken and currently holds three Guinness World Records: one for most number of wins against a human opponent in four hours (169 wins, no losses), one for the most number of video game tournaments won (more than 450 worldwide), and one for the most countries travelled to win tournaments.

Earlier this year I met Hart in the Australian city of Melbourne where he and other top players converged for Shadowloo Showdown, an annual fighting game tournament that gives players a chance to test their skills in the lead-up to Evolution (EVO), the world's largest fighting game tournament that takes place in Las Vegas in July.

Hart has just arrived from Venezuela where his sponsor, Western Wolves, flew him to compete in a South American Tekken Tag tournament. After Shadowloo Showdown he will fly to Scandinavia to compete in Street Fighter, Tekken and King of Fighters before heading to South Korea for another tournament. He's a social media manager, a Japanese tutor, a drummer in a jazz band and an amateur breakdancer — Ryan Hart is a man in demand. If there is a mold for a stereotypical gamer, Hart doesn't fit it. So when I meet him, I can't help but ask: Why? How? What compels someone to pick up a fighting game and play it at the level of an Olympian? How does one even begin? Why fighting games? Why bother?

What compels someone to pick up a fighting game and play it at the level of an Olympian? How does one even begin? Why fighting games? Why bother?

Ryan HartTekken Tag Tournament 2

"I started playing fighting games during Street Fighter 1 in the early '90s, and I entered my first serious competition in 1994," says Hart who, at 33, has been sponsored to play professionally longer than any other fighting game player. "I didn't do very well, but the experience showed me the game had a level of depth that I had never seen before. I was so sure my own community was the best there was; then we went to a new area and found that we were nothing.

"That left me with one of two options: I could quit the game because I was just playing for fun and I didn't want to get to that level of complexity, that hardcore element, or I could try and get to the next level."

Hart's curiosity led him to choose the latter. On weekends he would take the train to Central London to play at arcades. Competing against real players, he would take notes, go home and practice against the game itself. When he began attending tournaments in the late '90s, he did so unassumingly. He wanted to compete; he wanted to see what other players were made of. It wasn't until he won his first tournament against top-ranked players that it occurred to him that he was better than the average player and this was something worth pursuing.

"I just wanted to win as much as possible," says Hart. "It wasn't an arrogance thing; it was a challenge for myself. It was a self-test to see if I could perform under pressure, and I found that fun. I enjoy the psychological elements of competing with an opponent. You're battling yourself. We all have personal tests no matter what we do, whether it's video games or a driving test or buying a house. This was one challenge I was happy to overcome."

It's more than just a challenge, though. Professional athletics is a challenge. Qualifying for a medical degree is a challenge. Judo rolls are a challenge. There's more to fighting games than the challenge that draws Hart to playing at a professional level.

"I understand that people who don't really have much experience with fighting games will look at what's happening on the screen, see these pixelated characters fighting and wonder what it's all about. They probably find it really boring because it looks like there's nothing behind it," Hart says. "But there's actually a lot of depth that goes into each move that you see on the screen. It can get into an area that can be described as rather geeky, but this is our passion — this is our sport — and we love it."

It's this depth and complexity that tickles people like Hart into wanting to pursue it beyond casual play. To the average player and onlooker, Player 1 is throwing kicks and punches, fireballs and combos, and 90 seconds later someone wins. For Hart and his fellow high-ranked players, every move seen on screen is the result of a myriad of thoughts and considerations that flash by before they even press a button. Hart tells me it's about knowing the game and knowing people so well you can predict your opponent's moves. It's a psychological mind game where one player tries to predict the other's strategy. It's no longer about whether you can pull off a move; it's about predicting what move your opponent is going to pull.

Ryan Hart

It's no longer about whether you can pull off a move; it's about predicting what move your opponent is going to pull.

Ryan Hart

"Another example I can give is as a dancer, I know that when you first start dancing it's really difficult to just concentrate on what you're doing without just thinking about yourself," he says. "You're concentrating on whether your body is looking a certain way because you're not quite there yet. You're still getting used to what you're doing. When you've advanced, you're no longer concentrating on what you're doing; you're just focusing on what's around, the environment. It's the same in games."

Once a player understands the moves and the combos and can pull them off every single time without resorting to button mashing, then they can start dancing.

"The difficulty of playing fighting games is it's all in real time. It's not like chess where you have time to think while your opponent has their turn and you can look at all the pieces and picture a scenario to set up for them. In fighting games, everything's happening right there and now, so you have to react right away.

"That's where your reactions come in. That's where hand-eye coordination comes in. That's when being patient and waiting for the right moment comes in. That's where you can use aggression to attack your opponents. There are all these elements — you could even call some of them emotions — to express yourself in the game. That's why it's interesting to so many millions of people, because everyone can have their own way of playing."

What have you done for me lately?

I meet Ryan Ramirez (pictured, far right), a Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Street Fighter player from the U.S. sponsored by Complexity Gaming.

"That guy," I am told by Chee Seng Siow, one of Shadowloo's event organizers moments before being introduced — "that's Filipino Champ." Siow points at Ramirez, who is walking around the tournament space at Shadowloo Showdown, watching others play. His face gives little away. It's difficult to tell if he's impressed by a player, worried, surprised or nervous. He mostly looks bored.

"Champ is probably one of the best Marvel vs. Capcom 3 players in the world. You definitely want to talk to him," Siow says.

As I make my way towards Filipino Champ, who is mostly known by his gaming handle, Siow stops me. "One more thing," he says. "He's known for being a bit arrogant. He can trash talk really well."

"Oh," I say, unsure how to proceed.

"But he can back it up. He might be arrogant, but it's because he can be. He has the talent to back it all up."


I quickly understand what Siow means. Not two minutes into my chat with Filipino Champ, he openly admits that he's always been cocky and arrogant when it comes to his ability as a player. He's an outspoken character who fires off words without worrying about what others will think. Here is a confident human being: confident in his thoughts, confident in his words and, as Shadowloo will soon see, confident in his game.

"I always believe that if I really put effort and attention and my heart and soul into something, I know I'm always going to be good at anything I do," he says. "That's the kind of person I believe I am. I may be bad right now if I, say, play soccer, but let's say I put the next five years of my life into that. I think I could be pretty decent and competitive."

Filipino ChampMarvel vs. Capcom 3Marvel vs. Capcom 3

You need determination and you need to take losses in your heart. You have to care. I care ... I put so much time into it that if I lose, it's really disappointing.

Competitive is a word that comes up a lot in our conversation. It's not enough for Filipino Champ to be good at something; he needs to be the best. He says where many players would be thrilled to be placed in the top 16 or top eight at a tournament, anything less than first place would be a failure for him. To be the best in the world, he says, a player needs to consistently play the best in the world.

"You need determination and you need to take losses in your heart. You have to care. I care," he says. "When I lose, I care because I put so much time into it that if I lose, it's really disappointing. When I come home I ask, 'Why did I lose?' I watch the video of the game over and over again and I won't be able to sleep until I've identified why I lost. Then I tell myself, 'Next time I'm going to win.'"

Filipino Champ believes he is the best in the world at Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and there are few people in the fighting game community who would outright disagree. There's some fierce competition in the fighting game space: his rival and friend Justin Wong also competes in MvC3 and, as far as household names are concerned, Wong is probably the most well-known fighting game player in the world. Then there are lesser known players who often unexpectedly rise to the challenge at fighting game tournaments, snatching titles from veteran players. Tournaments like Shadowloo are very much like the Olympics — everyone goes in with their favorites, but no one knows who will win gold. Like the Olympics, there is also no definitive ranking system that determines who is the best in the world. An athlete may win a gold medal, but that does not mean they are the world's best.

"There's no point system to it," says Filipino Champ, who admits that when it comes to fighting games, surprise victories do happen. But if a top player is beaten by a beginner, what happens then? Do rankings change?

"Fighting games is like 'What have you done for me lately?'" he says. "Lately I've pretty much been winning every tournament I've entered. I've been all over the place, so I didn't just call myself the best in the world; a lot of people did. I didn't believe it until I started seeing the results."

A player can win EVO, and they would certainly gain attention for it, but unless they can keep play at a high level and consistently win tournaments against other top players, then their EVO win will not count for much. It becomes a game of who can do the most in the most impressive way as consistently as possible.

Filipino Champ is clearly a passionate man who doesn't let go of things as soon as he latches onto them. So well has he performed as a professional fighting game player that it has become his full-time job. He runs streams from home where thousands of viewers can subscribe and watch him play online. The streams have so many subscribers that Champ doesn't need a day job — his fans are paying for the chance to watch and learn from one of the best. So I ask him: If he really believes he can be great at anything he puts his mind to, why fighting games? Why didn't he choose to pour his heart and soul into soccer or StarCraft, Call of Duty, or any other game that can be played competitively?

"It's different," he says. "I'm a very social person. I like to go out. I like to party. I like to meet new people every single day, and I actually get to meet new people and see their faces when I play fighting games.

"In StarCraft, it's not like that. You play in the house every day. You stay online every day until there's an event where you can come out. In fighting games, it's not like that. I don't think of myself as a gamer because this is my job. It's a job that I like to do. I don't just sit at home playing games, eating chips, and getting fat. I compete and I get paid for it. I'm a normal person. I love what I do. I love that I'm my own boss."

He pauses. His eyes are impassive but his attitude is clear: "You got a problem with that?"

Technical masters

Street Fighter 4

Fighting game tournaments attract people from all walks of life. Rame Jeboo, an IT technician who is also running the Tekken tournament at Shadowloo Showdown, points out the different kinds of people who turn up to tournaments, fighting sticks in hand, ready to give it a shot. On one side of the room, he looks at a few businessmen who have turned up to Shadowloo after work, still in their suits. To the other side he points out a lawyer, and at the back, one of Australia's top Street Fighter 4 players is a tradesman. There are 500 people at Shadowloo Showdown with more than 20,000 people watching the tournament through online streams. At a bigger event like EVO, there are thousands of attendees with millions of people watching online. Of these thousands of competitors, only a handful will make a name for themselves, and the general consensus among fighting game enthusiasts is it takes something and someone special to make it to the top.

"There are some people who simply excel at gaming — I've seen some people come into the scene and six months later they're a top-level player, while others have been in the scene for years and they've stayed at a mediocre level," says Jeboo.

"Determining a top player really depends on the game, but for example in Tekken a top player would have to understand the game on a level where they can perform the best move in a possible situation to maximize damage or to maximize what they're going to do next. Everything is a mind game. You have to outsmart and outmaneuver your opponent."

Jeboo says successful players have a combination of practice and brains. Any player needs to practice so that they know all the moves and can execute them every single time. There is no room for fumbling or hitting the wrong button. But there's also a lot about the game that can be studied, such as frame knowledge. The human eye can see perfectly at 25 frames per second (give or take) — anything less than 25 frames appears to stutter on the screen. A good player will understand this and then go further and understand how many frames are required for certain moves. Advanced players can evaluate what to do based on their knowledge of frames – if their attack requires 15 frames and they need five frames to recover, their opponent might take the opportunity to attack them during their recovery period. With this in mind, they can determine what is the best move to do in a specific situation so that their opponent cannot hit back. The average player or viewer may only see two characters having minor seizures on the screen, but a high-level player will recognize the smallest actions as the result of a complicated thought process.

"Everything has a tactical advantage and disadvantage in the game," Jeboo says. "In Tekken, there are 'pokes' [when a player performs a weak punch or kick without hitting the enemy], and sometimes people will throw them out to bait an opponent. It's a bit like fishing. If you throw out a rod and slowly reel it in, you're baiting out the fish to make it think it's a moving worm. It's all about outmaneuvering your opponent."

"I've seen some people come into the scene and six months later they're a top-level player, while others have been in the scene for years and they've stayed at a mediocre level."Street Fighter 4
"You can know all the moves, you can know all the combos, but if you can't put them into use, what's the point?"Street Fighter 4

Aside from understanding frames, top players also need to understand what all the moves are, how they can be used, and when they should be used.

"You can know all the moves, you can know all the combos, but if you can't put them into use, what's the point?" Jeboo says.

"Just because we only use our fingers in fighting games does not mean our knowledge has to be any less than any other game or sport. For example, in Tekken there are more than 40 characters, but let's say there are 40. And let's say each of them has a minimum of 100 moves — they have more than 100. Now multiply 40 by 100 and you've got 4,000 moves.

"I can tell you how to do those 4,000 moves in the game, whether they're high, mid, low, and most of their frame data. This definitely takes study. What people see is just the tip of the iceberg."

Daniel "Berzerk" Chlebowczyk is a product manager at Madman Entertainment. He is also one of Australia's top Dead or Alive players who has followed the achievements of some of the world's most well-known fighting game competitors. He says the top players are incredibly focused and can always do something unexpected.

"Everyone's seen a game of Street Fighter. They know what happens when you sit down and play a match," Chlebowczyk says. "You may have seen a match between Ryu and Ken or any permutation of characters over and over, but you haven't seen Justin Wong's Rufus against Heavy Weapon's Sagat."

It's the small things that make the difference at the top level. Anyone can mash buttons or execute the most basic of moves in the same way anyone can pick up a violin and make noises, and most people will be able to identify those noises as coming from a violin. The top players don't just hit the right notes — they're virtuosos.

"There are small situations — small interactions between moves, and at a high level that's what makes all the difference," he says. "Any good sports person has to know what they're capable of, know how to deal with pressure, and [know how to] deploy their tactics. They need to know when they're being fooled into doing something predictable by their opponent and change things so as to not open themselves up to something worse."

Chlebowczyk says there's a point where the game turns into an unspoken psychological interaction between players. It's a human interaction, a mind game, and that's why it's challenging, thrilling and so much more than just a game.

Creative geniuses

Shadowloo Showdown

Justin Wong (pictured, above right) is without doubt the most intimidating player at Shadowloo Showdown. To non-fighting game enthusiasts, walking around the tournament floor with a hoodie and backpack, he could be mistaken for a college student. To the fighting game world, he's the child prodigy who never lost his shine. Wong began playing fighting games at his local arcade when he was 12. After consistently beating everyone he played against, he was invited to tournaments where he left a trail of defeated opponents behind him. At 14, he won his first world championship. When Street Fighter 4 was released, he won the GameStop national tournament, beating more than 100,000 players from around the United States. He has competed in hundreds of tournaments, won EVO multiple times, is sponsored by Evil Geniuses, and shows no sign of slowing down. He's been playing at a professional level for 12 years. He's a fighting game veteran, and he's only 26.

Over the Shadowloo weekend, fans approach Wong many times for photos and autographs. A few tournament attendees even ask him to sign their $200 gaming sticks. Despite his high profile, he doesn't brag often. He's focused, articulate, and quietly confident.

"I started playing fighting games because I couldn't afford a console at home," Wong says. "My local arcade back at home in New York was called Chinatown Fair and they had games like Marvel vs. Capcom 1 and Street Fighter 3: Third Strike, and I just played for fun. It was like 50 cents to play. I would play from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and I didn't really lose often so I spent maybe three dollars a day."

Justin Wong

He would put in hours over his summer vacations, on weekends, and after school. This level of dedication in his early years paid off. Wong says he doesn't spend much time practicing now — most of the moves have been committed to muscle memory, all the lessons he has learned from earlier iterations of fighting games have carried over to newer titles, and he has played against so many people he has become a kind of mind reader when it comes to matches. Like Ryan Hart and Filipino Champ, it's all about the psychological mind game. When these players pick up their gaming sticks, they're not thinking about hitting the right notes or executing the perfect technique. They're conducting an orchestra.

"I play well because I don't crack under pressure," says Wong. "The reason I don't crack is because I don't care if I lose [and] I don't care if I win. I just do it for myself, not for the people around me. A lot of players want to do well because they want the people around them to praise them. That's a step right there where you're thinking about 'if' you crack. 'If I crack, what will people think?' If you're thinking that, you will crack."

There are no 'ifs' for Justin Wong. Winning is always the goal, and winning is always an option, even when it seems unlikely.

The other thing he attributes to his success is creativity.

"In a match, after the first couple of seconds or based on what character the person chooses, I can tell what kind of game plan the opponent is going to use because I've seen so much and there's so much familiarity," he says. "You have to be creative. You can't be predictable. Back in the day before there was YouTube you couldn't scope out matches; you just had to create your own stuff. I think a lot of people now lack creativity because they're just waiting for someone to make the video and then they'll watch it and study it instead of coming up with anything themselves. They close the creative part of their mind off.

"That's why I played against the computer when I was younger. The computer may not be the best competition, but it's still given a certain amount of information to show you what a character is capable of."

Ryan Hart says it's the ability to be creative that draws him to fighting games, and only by being creative can a player perform at their best.

"Inside of what can be done combo-wise, there are millions of combinations you can do. There are only six buttons on Street Fighter, but whether you do the move standing or crouching or close or far from the opponent, these all have different properties," Hart says.

"You can't be predictable. Back in the day before there was YouTube you couldn't scope out matches; you just had to create your own stuff."
Yuko KusachiHajime Taniguchi

"All these things are about what you put into the game to create those scenarios and that's why it's interesting," Hart says. "I think if it wasn't for the creativity, it wouldn't be that interesting. Just the fighting doesn't interest me. If I wanted a fight, I'd watch UFC. But the fact that I can be interactive with a person psychologically and have this area where I can play around with the passion I have in the game to create a way of fighting that I find interesting is really appealing."

It is this creativity, this technical ability, and the determination to succeed that has landed all these top players sponsorships. Like professional sports, sponsorships can range from companies covering travel costs and meals to paying players' salaries so that they can compete full-time. Hart's team, Western Wolves, receives sponsorship from Mad Catz, the arcade stick maker. Justin Wong's sponsor, Evil Geniuses, is supported by Intel, Monster Energy Drinks, Sapphire Technology and a range of other hardware companies.

Over the weekend I meet Yuko "Choco Blanka" Kusachi (pictured, upper left), one of Japan's top-ranked players who is also sponsored by Evil Geniuses. After being noticed at Japanese gaming tournaments for her ability to beat even the strongest players using Blanka, she is now paid to fly around the world competing in tournaments. When she's not competing, she's a bartender in Japan.

Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi (pictured, left) is another sponsored player at Shadowloo Showdown. A rising star of the Japanese fighting game scene, Tokido's sponsorship allows him play fighting games full-time, devoting eight hours a day to every fighting game played at a competitive level. Justin Wong is sponsored to play full-time. Then there's Bruce "Gamerbee" Hsiang from Taiwan who is the first fighting game player to ever be sponsored by hardware company AverMedia. Hsiang was flown to E3 this year to play fighting games in front of a crowd of thousands.

It's the olympics

Shadowloo Showdown

The room is packed with more than 500 fighters. Some came to compete, some to be spectators. It's late in the night. It's the final match of Shadowloo Showdown 2012, the finals of Super Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition. The two finalists sit at their arcade machines, focused like fighter jet pilots, fingers tapping away frantically as the crowd watches, almost forgetting to breathe.

In the final moments, the crowd erupts and the room is electric. Who are these people? What are they doing? Why are they cheering?

These people are the world's best virtual fighters — virtuosos of their field, conducting symphonies of high kicks, low kicks, Hadokens and dragon punches. This is their Olympics — a chance for the best to shine and for their world to celebrate their skill, their performances, their creativity. They're playing at a level that few will ever achieve, they're passionate about the games, and they love what they do. This is a celebration. Why the hell wouldn't they be cheering?

These people are the world's best virtual fighters ... This is a celebration. Why the hell wouldn't they be cheering?

Image credits

Polygon, Namco Bandai, Capcom