How 27-year-old Nicolas Gonzalez left his home country of Chile, traversed foreign lands and found himself through fighting games.
Upon its release in 1991, Street Fighter 2: The World Warrior featured a somewhat ridiculous but now embedded premise: brawlers with unique styles battling it out in street corners and back alleys across the globe. Fueled by personal motivations, the game's characters helped establish the idea of traveling fighters (mostly) seeking something profound, whether searching to recapture lost glory, avenging a loved one or proving oneself a warrior.
In the fighting game community, 27-year-old Nicolas "Kane Blueriver" Gonzalez from Santiago, Chile has embodied that premise, leaving his home country to live nomadically while searching for his next opponent and tournament to better his play and the scene along the way. And through fighting games, Gonzalez has begun to conquer his toughest opponent: himself.
Humility and discipline
Gonzalez has been trekking throughout the United States and Japan since March — from Los Angeles to New Jersey to Tokyo without a pro sponsorship — building a reputation for his thoughtful play, unusual character choices and disarming self-awareness. In the past 13 months, he's grown from a faceless competitor into a dangerous contender, placing in the top eight at multiple major and high-profile tournaments this year. He's most well known for his play in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, though he's also a competitor in King of Fighters 13 and Super Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition, among others. Despite his budding stature as a quality player, though, Gonzalez had bottomed out before turning his focus on fighting games.
"I was a person that was pretty much frozen in life: no real aspirations, no motivation, just surviving more than living," says Gonzalez. "I had dropped out of university after trying to get through it multiple times because I kept failing." Sharp — and impressively so in his non-native language — Gonzalez had entered the respected Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (PUC) in 2004 to pursue computer engineering and mathematics. Once there, he found his academics didn't come as effortlessly as before.
"I never learned how to study. I cruised through 12 years of elementary and high school without ever having to study and get good grades, especially in math," Gonzalez says. "When I got to the university, I crushed my programming subjects with ease, mostly, but the math was completely different, too abstract. I felt lost immediately and collapsed under that."
With an astuteness that teetered dangerously towards arrogance — "Failure was mostly unknown to me," he confesses — Gonzalez was humbled. A break from school didn't help. He retooled his mindset after a second go at PUC, leaving one of Latin America's most prestigious universities to enroll in a technical school for a more direct approach to education. "I was so depressed that I thought ... the opposite option was [the only one] for me," he says. He decided to give traditional college another try, gaining acceptance to a private university on the strength of his high admission exam scores. By the end of 2010, Gonzalez had spent about six years in and out of three schools and was running his own graphics and printing business. He reconsidered his entire direction and questioned what he had really been looking for all this time; college wasn't right. "It wasn't really what I wanted in life," he says, "but what other people always thought that I should be doing and that I just took as my own reason to go that way."
Letting go of those beliefs felt like the answer.
Learning how to fight
Around the time he entered PUC, Gonzalez discovered fighting games. He had casually dabbled in fighters before, but found himself enamored with Capcom vs. SNK 2 and Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike. Though he was languishing in school and slipping in his academics, Gonzalez dove into a genre that demands discipline, close analysis and dedicated practice — qualities that helped refocus Gonzalez and remind him what he had lacked in his studies. "It's like chess with hype, action and more skill sets, and I loved that," he says. His tangible and noticeable improvements excited him and pushed him harder, and he began to compete in tournaments. Still, old habits die hard. "Even back then, I didn't work hard enough since it took me this long to become an actually decent player," Gonzalez says.
Gonzalez became aware of the international competitive scene a year later, and immediately found a goal — or at least a dream. He quickly picked up Street Fighter 4 in 2008 and later got into Marvel vs. Capcom 3 soon after its release in February 2011. The three vs. three team fighter became his best game and biggest focus, and he adopted and developed the uncommon team of Hulk, Haggar (the multi-belted mayor from Final Fight) and Sentinel (yes, one of the X-Men's eternal robotic enemies) — affectionately dubbed "Team Big Body" by fans and commentators.
But Gonzalez had his sights set on international competition, particularly the traditionally strong Japan and U.S. scenes. "Back at that point, being competitive was more of an escape option to not think about what was going wrong with my life," he says. Fighting games provided a tethered source of focus and accomplishment, and competition only fueled his hunger. Capcom released UMVC3 that November, and Gonzalez kept training. Then, in late 2011, he heard of a tournament in the wealthy mining and port city of Antofagasta. The winner earned a paid trip to Evo 2012, the world's largest fighting game tournament in Las Vegas, Nev., the next July.
The dream was right there for the taking.
Gonzalez arrived for the tournament in Antofagasta in January 2012, training and boarding with fellow Chilean player Pedro "Gintoki" Lopez, and won the event [seen above] in a fury of emotion. "I did cry and lie on the floor for a bit after winning," Gonzalez says. "I was like, 'Whoa, so it's really going to happen.'" Gonzalez prepared a month-and-a-half long visit to the U.S. to get his first taste of international glory. New challengers awaited him.
The unrestricted nature and open tournament registrations in the fighting game community create a dynamic ecosystem for competitors: a player can rise from nowhere, score some high-profile wins or make a deep tournament run and earn sudden recognition. Unlike the concrete barriers or ranking systems of, say, League of Legends (and its infamously inescapable yet possibly phantom "Elo Hell"), any player can sign up for a fighting game tournament and potentially duke it out against a legend like Justin Wong. Better yet, a big matchup on a stream can bring wide and immediate exposure. The top echelon flows fluidly, and titans can fall or fade away almost as quickly as new challengers arise (though some stay on top for eons; see: Justin Wong).
Notable players, especially those with fresher reputations in the streaming age, often cite a particular win or series of matches that served as their breakthrough; not only do they gain confidence and validation in their unproven skills, but their peers and the community at large take notice too. Gonzalez arrived in Long Beach, Calif. in June 2012 to prep for Evo as an unheralded competitor, but he can point to three moments last year that announced his arrival: a win that month against Loren "Fanatiq" Riley, a longtime top player in the Marvel series, at the weekly Southern California tournament The Runback; a close, tense loss to Peter "ComboFiend" Rosas — who is now a community and outreach leader at Capcom — at Evo 2012; and taking part in a five vs. five World vs. U.S. exhibition at Season's Beatings: Ascension in Ohio last September, where he was flown out from Chile to compete and faced off against the game's elite in Wong, Ryan "Filipino Champ" Ramirez and Christopher "NYChrisG" Gonzalez, among others.
"I managed to take down a lot of names, and people noticed me because I beat Fanatiq through a shenanigan [the strategic trickery seen here] that no one would dare to pull off against a player of his caliber at that point," Gonzalez says of his initial breakout match against Riley.
Other players took note. "I heard about the defeat of Fanatiq after it happened, and I made an effort to study up on his play style to make sure I was ready for him since Evo was coming up," says Chris "DJ Huoshen" Miller, a top-level player from Maryland. "His play exposes poor gameplay and bad habits, especially with those big bodies ... so you really must be on your toes to face him. You can't let yourself panic versus him."
Gonzalez's peculiar style turned heads: his signature Team Big Body — which he adopted early in the game's lifecycle without direct influence from other players — was viewed as low-tier, or weak, yet he continued to score riveting wins. Backing teammates in UMVC3 provide assists for the character on-screen, and while most players use Sentinel's drones projectile assist because of its versatility and almost universal effectiveness, Gonzalez instead opted for Sentinel's sparsely used and comparatively limited rocket punch assist to extend his savage combos. He wields the Hulk like he's the relatively diminutive Storm, another Marvel character in the game, controlling the brute with unparalleled grace.
Gonzalez performed well at Evo 2012, surviving pool play and making it one match outside the top 32 among over 1,200 entrants in UMVC3. Armed with a handful of big wins, a smattering of highly visible matches and a newfound wealth of experience, he returned to Chile with his head held high. "I learned ... my place in the world," he says. "I learned that I wanted more of this. [It was] what I always thought it would be and more." But while he was coming into his own on the international scene, the community back home offered no hope.
Gonzalez returned to Chile after Evo 2012, and outside of Seasons Beatings: Ascension and a tournament in Mexico immediately after, he remained in his home country. Most local scenes give reliable support to their fellow players, but much of the Chilean scene was unkind to Gonzalez — who had just brought them more exposure on a global stage. "People always were [saying], 'Stop dreaming, it's impossible, it's not going to happen, ever, because of how hard [and] expensive it is, and because you don't have what it takes,'" he says. He had now tested himself against the very best, yet the players in his local community wouldn't push themselves or each other. "Down there, no one really works to improve," Gonzalez says. "Everyone just grinds, but nothing really smart."
"People always were [saying], 'Stop dreaming, it's impossible, it's not going to happen, ever.'"
His determination wasn't easily deflated after his latest successes, and after again winning this year's Evo qualifier in Antofagasta, Gonzalez planned to secure a tourist visa and proactively began to plot the bold nomadic journey of his dreams.
As it has in rap music, regionalism has long defined the fighting game community. Different areas breed different games of choice, or styles of play, or commonly used characters; regions become known for signature elements. "When you're playing in your local scene, you're influenced by who the best players are," says David Philip "UltraDavid" Graham, one-half of the popular commentating and broadcasting team UltraChen TV and a former competitor himself. "In the olden days [of Street Fighter], Alex Valle was the strongest player in SoCal, and he was decidedly rushdown [a relentlessly offensive style]. But around the same time, Eddie Lee was the strongest player in New York and he was the most defensive, turtle-style player ever. Those guys influenced the players around them just by beating them."
Tightly knit communities not only offer regular training grounds and shape a player's style, but they provide important moral, friendly and sometimes monetary support and an overall sense of belonging. "In Maryland, we try and instill this whole family thing; that's a big deal for us," says Miller, whose community, though smaller and outside the established (and sometimes more fractured) areas like New York and Southern California, also boasts notably strong players like Jahi "Unkn0wn" Skerritt and Daniel "PZPoy" Benitez. "Our local area, it's like competition between each other, but whenever we go to any event ... we're family."
Without that level of support, Gonzalez was forced to go against the traditional fabric of the fighting games community, looking to the rest of the world to further shape his gameplay and to find a better sense of home.
King of the road
Gonzalez's travel itinerary could wear out a rock star, or at least a legacy rock act in 2013: after arriving in Los Angeles in mid-March, he left for Final Round 16 in Atlanta, Ga. later that month, where he finished just outside the top eight. He made his way to Japan (like basically all rock bands do at some point) at the start of April, staying with top players in Tokyo for weeks and battling it out in marathon kumites. He returned to Los Angeles but left immediately for NorCal Regionals in late April, where he placed fifth and defeated Evo 2012 champion Ramirez in a hotly contested and controversial match.
Gonzalez next visited Pittsburgh, Pa. for a couple of weeks, then headed to New Jersey for East Coast Throwdown V, placing 13th and toughing out an exhilarating, down-to-the-wire First to 15 exhibition against Arty "Fooblat" Tsipursky, a strong New York-area player also known for his Hulk/Haggar play. After stops in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, he traveled to Chicago, Ill. for Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament 9 in late May, earning fourth place. He next journeyed to Seattle, Wash., placing second and nearly snatching the UMVC3 crown from Ramirez at Northwest Majors in early June (he claimed the throne in KOF13, though), and has spent the remaining time going back and forth from San Diego, Calif., Los Angeles and Phoenix, Ariz.
Prior to Evo, he brawled in Curleh Mustache West in Irvine, Calif., an invite-only UMVC3 tournament curated by Marvel great and beloved commentator Michael "IFC Yipes" Mendoza. Gonzalez emerged a very respectable fourth amongst the best in the West.
His travels have crucially brought him the support and the training he craved. Without a pro sponsorship, Gonzalez has gotten by on scrounged-up savings, modest tournament winnings and the goodwill of the fighting game community — regardless of locale. He's faced off against diverse competition in his travels, exposing himself to more strategies and technologies along the way: waves of Zeros (of Mega Man X and Mega Man Zero fame) from Florida and Texas, armies of Magnetos in the New York area, masses of point — or lead character — Dr. Doom teams in San Diego, and so forth. His lack of a home base has afforded him a special perspective, defying the regional traditions of the scene; he in turn shares his knowledge across different communities.
"Everywhere he's been, people have had to adapt to his style," says Graham. "And he brings not just his characters, but the way he thinks."
Gonzalez's play and open-minded attitude have already left deep ripples in the fighting game community. His Team Big Body immediately endeared him to fans and almost always wins him vocal support from spectators. "That's kind of how it goes in fighting games: you play an unusual character or a character that's perceived as interesting or not scrubby, you can be a hero," says Graham. "If you come from nowhere and do well, you can be a hero."
He's even forcing players to reconsider the strength of his team and to re-evaluate the UMVC3 metagame. "Hulk/Haggar/Sentinel seems like it should be low-tier, but it's plainly not low-tier ... it's at least high-mid, if not high-tier," says Graham, who as a Hulk/Haggar player himself has begun to adopt some of Gonzalez's strategies. But some of the game's elite remain salty about his style and quick rise in stature. "Interestingly, he's hated on by quite a few top players. They think he's winning because of his team and that he's not actually very good, which I find hilarious," Graham says. "That's how top players always are — when someone they don't know starts beating them ... acceptance by some other top players takes a while for some reason." Miller, however, gives due credit to Gonzalez. "He's pretty godly with his Hulk [and] he's pretty good with his Haggar," he says. "There might be players that are better than him on an individual level with Haggar, but his Hulk is easily the best Hulk out there."
Gonzalez has naturally found much more than just a way to get better at fighting games, or an avenue to connect with the scene he long admired from afar. "It has definitely taught me that the dream is not impossible, that the world is way smaller than I thought. Places I thought so distant now feel just beyond my fingertips," he says. "I find Redrapper's work very inspiring and in one of his fighting game-related songs ["Prime"], he mentions that 'you either fear legacy or you take its place.' That strikes me deeply because I used to be in the former, and now I'm slowly becoming part of it ... I'm now part of something I always just dreamed about." Still, he remains steadfastly humble — perhaps a relic of his past personal defeats. "I don't have talent," he says flat-out. "I'm not a gifted player."
Wandering has given Gonzalez direction. "I'm definitely more optimistic, I feel I have way more potential to realize," he says. "I feel way more confident in myself than [a year ago]." Perseverance and mental toughness have pushed him beyond his doldrums, but he still has more to overcome. "I've only slowly been getting [my confidence] back lately," he says.
After Evo, Gonzalez will head to the Video X Games in St. Maarten near the last weekend of July, spend a few more days in Los Angeles and then return to Chile, his family and his girlfriend of almost nine years. His shaky future raises tough questions; the competitive fighting game scene doesn't sport the five or six figure payouts of other competitive games. And most fighting game sponsors can't give the relative financial security or bona fide contracts that professional multiplayer online battle arena, real-time strategy or first-person shooter teams can offer. "I'll be back without a dime in my pockets, but a happy man," Gonzalez says.
His nebulous future isn't holding him back; his invigorated spirit burns too hot for that. Gonzalez wants to create a think tank for the fighting game community, bringing together progressive minds, vocal opinions and committed players to push the scene towards positive growth "unbound by common limitations in the fighting game community like regional or personal egos" — as well as establish the group's dominance. "I want to show that by working together, a group of focused, intelligent people can dominate over raw talent," he says.
Gonzalez is already pursuing a Canadian visa to visit friends and to seek more international competition, eyeing the Canada Cup in late September. He's always looking for his next fight.