It started as a hobby, and grew into an obsession. I can remember it as clear as day: Street Fighter II: Championship Edition on Sega Genesis had just come out, and my cousins were washing me in the game. It didn’t matter if I picked M. Bison, or Blanka, or Sagat—I wasn’t good at all. But I wanted to get better. From the age of 8 to my early twenties, I was fascinated by the competitive fighting game culture. The agony of defeat in front of hundreds (sometimes thousands of people), the shit-talking and drama, the will to overcome your competitive demons. I discovered the Fighting Game Community (or FGC), and it is a rabbit hole of information, a den of counter culture that flies in the face of what people think is “normal.” Players don’t just trade information, they meticulously gather data down to the pixel, and practice devastating combinations without end to get ahead of the competition. In just over a decade, the FGC has ballooned from legendary arcades like the now defunct Chinatown Fair (in New York City) and Super Arcade (In Northern California) to around 200,000 viewers on ESPN2 during a special broadcast of last years EVO tournament in Las Vegas. The FGC is a rich story, drenched in Americana—these kids come from nothing, and make a living by struggling and learning with their friends. These aren’t misfits, in some ways, they are more adult than all of us.
[Featured Above :: A Super Street Fighter II Turbo tournament between the best US players and Japanese players in 2000]
In the years since that fateful day when I was handily defeated in Street Fighter II, there have been two more sequels and just almost double the amount of crossover games, spin-offs, and knock-off games. Other fighters such as King of Fighters, Tekken, and Mortal Kombat have grown as well—some leaving their 2D boundaries and going to more lush, 3D rendered landscapes. Video games as a whole have expanded even further within the competitive space; companies like Red Bull, Monster, Sony, and more have bought into making Video Games the next big spectator sport. Network television has taken notice as well, with outlets such as ESPN and Spike TV also showing love to games like Warcraft and League of Legends. eSports is now a “thing,” and it’s making the kids you made fun of back in the day into superstars.
[Featured Above :: Legendary rivals Justin Wong and Daigo Umehara battling in one of the most infamous matches in Fighting Game history]
Even though they were one of the earliest forms of competitive gaming (though not the ONLY competitive videogame), Fighting games are just now becoming the next frontier for eSports. Held back because of their crude grassroots attitude—the punk rock style of Fighting Games was seen as toxic to big companies. Commenters frequently slammed live streams and spouting racial slurs, cusswords, and problematic rhetoric. Their style of dress was unorthodox, with players dressing down completely depending on their surroundings (pajamas are commonplace at a meet-up).
[Featured Above :: Street Fighter V at the EVO World Championships in Las Vegas last year. The top eight bracket was aired live on ESPN1, gaining over 200,000 viewers]
The genre didn’t lend itself to the “look” that companies were looking for. The release of CAPCOM’s highly anticipated Street Fighter IV in 2009 changed everything. CAPCOM, Sony, and Microsoft took notice of the groundswell of support from new and old school players looking to jump into the mix, and put their money where their mouth was, funding tournaments and making sure fighting games were a visible commodity on their systems as brick-and-mortar arcades died. The community has ballooned out of the living room, and into the world—with major tournaments like EVO and Final Round being streamed to thousands of people all over the world, with money bonuses thrown in from sponsors. The players who were once hidden behind the arcade cabinet are now being sponsored like soccer players—with jerseys to match—and given a bigger opportunity than they could ever imagine. I have an extreme level of respect for the players that play these games. I spoke with four key players in the FGC who have seen it all, from the beginning to the present—to find out how they felt about the rise of Fighting Games as an eSport, and if the community is ready to take the next step into an unfamiliar future.
The OG :: Kevin “Diemenion” Landon
Starting at the ripe age of 4-years-old, Manhattan, New York native Kevin “Diemenion” Landon is one of the Fighting Game Community’s most tenured players. Growing up in the hard knock environment of New York’s now-closed arcade, Chinatown Fair, he’s taken his talents all over the globe, crafting a pretty impressive resume for defeating some of the best players of all time. Known for his meticulous mastery of Guile in Street Fighter IV, he’s come to prominence in the last few years, and is getting his second wind in the recently released Street Fighter V.
How long have you been playing fighting games?
Since I was 4.
Street Fighter II.
Did you play with your siblings?
I have an older brother, and a twin brother, and an older cousin. She was a gamer back in the day. So she pretty much introduced us to the game.
What was the moment when you realized you could do this professionally?
Street Fighter IV. When the game was blowing up, I don’t think CAPCOM expected it to blow up on that scale. It blew up in a way that no one thought it could.
You played Guile in that?
Yeah. My first tournament character was E. Honda, then I went to Guile.
Did you have another job before you started playing professionally?
I used to work at numerous jobs. Dave & Busters, Red Lobster. Banks. I think the last time I had a full time job was when I was 24-years-old.
It was kind of like a double life.
For the most part. I remember going to Chinatown Fair on lunch breaks just to play Street Fighter IV.
What made you choose going pro?
In 2009, roughly around the time that [Street Fighter IV] released, an incident happened where my younger brother got killed in a party. After that, I figured that life was too short to not do what you want to do. You can go tomorrow. Life isn’t guaranteed.
Who was your first team?
The first team I played for was Empire Arcadia.
“[After playing fighting games professionally] I think the last time I had a full time job was when I was 24-years-old.” -Kevin “Diemenion” Landon
They opened up the idea that sponsorship could be viable.
Yeah, Empire Arcadia had the idea of what competitive fighting games could be as far as teams and sponsorships. But when you’re the first to invent something, you’re the first to make the mistakes. And people just kind of watch those and improve on it.
What do you think of the sponsorship model now? Do you feel like it’s the right time for big businesses to latch on to competitive fighting games?
I think right now is the perfect time. Street Fighter V is the first ordained fighting game e-Sport, so it’s in the best interest of companies to go all in on this. We’ve been playing fighting games for a long time, and we’ve watched first-person shooters and MOBAs and games of that nature rise above fighting games [on a large scale]. Fighting games are, like, one of the first competitive forms of video games. It’s about that time.
What are the biggest challenges that the fighting game community faces when trying to go mainstream?
Professionalism, appearance, and player personality.
4 or 5 years from now, will EVO on ESPN every year?
It can be. This year was a big jump, the first fighting game on ESPN2 (last summer). It was huge exposure.
The Franchise :: Darryl “Snake Eyez” Lewis
Unlike everyone else on this list, Darryl “Snake Eyez” Lewis didn’t grow up playing Fighting Games in the arcades. Honing his skills on other competitive games like Halo, he was introduced to Street Fighter through Capcom’s re-release of the older games on Xbox Live’s online service prior to the release of Street Fighter IV in 2009. This didn’t stop him from becoming one of the FGC’s most feared competitors, taking a character like Zangief, thought to be lower to mid-tier, and defeating some of the most feared competition with him. His dominance garnered him the support of Red Bull, who sponsors him. He’s one of the first gamers that has been sponsored by a big company, and is looking to take his brand to a global stage.
How did you get your start in competitive video games?
This started like nine years ago, I started off playing Street Fighter 2 Hyper Fighting on Xbox Live Arcade. And then when Street Fighter II HD Remix came out, I started playing that and I was like: “Man, this game is pretty sick.”
A 20-year old game!
Yeah, it was pretty old at the time! [laughs]
So you didn’t start in arcades?
No, I grew up playing Halo. That’s the reason why I use pad [controllers]. Most people you see at fighting game events primarily use arcade sticks. But I used to attend a [weekly fighting game tournament], and a lot of people used to come for SF2, and then they just stopped. And I was like, “Where is everyone?”
They were playing Street Fighter IV.
Exactly. I gave it a few weeks to see if everyone would stop playing, and I moved on.
From there you became the infamous Pad Zangief that everyone had to see.
Yeah, it wasn’t like I had a beginner’s introduction into SF. I had a pro introduction because I won my first tournament at EVO. But I was getting bodied in SF4. I always had fundamental [skills] so that wasn’t something I struggled with.
Would you still consider yourself a newer player?
No, I’ve been playing for about 8 years. I’d consider players like NuckleDu as more of the newer generation.
Fighting games are becoming more monetized now, with sponsorships. And you have one of the biggest sponsors out, Red Bull, supporting you. How did they approach you?
I received an email from them, and they were like, “Come hang out.” It was very casual. We went to eat, and we started discussing things—I can’t say [what it was about] [laughs]. Eventually, a product placement happened, and then a sponsorship. This was around the time when I got 9th place at EVO. I definitely work on other things to make sponsors appreciate the branding of myself.
Red Bull only sponsors you? Because a lot of e-Sports players have multiple sponsors.
Just Red Bull. In the FGC, there are probably about two people that have multiple sponsorships. That’s definitely an option for me. A lot of sponsorships don’t work that way in general, but partnerships do.
Are you able to get more than one?
Yeah, the way this sponsorships works I can.
So they pretty much look after you as far as getting to tournaments, etc?
Red Bull looks after me 100% [laughs]. If you see me at a tournament, it’s because of Red Bull.
Were you working before you went pro?
I was. But this was half a year before [I got sponsored]. I realized that having a day job, for me, was a waste of time. There’s so many other ways to make money. It’s hindering my professional career, as far as practicing and being able to play with the right people. It wasn’t paying enough, either. Going with Street Fighter, and gaming in general, was a better idea.
“I definitely work on other things to make sponsors appreciate the branding of myself.” -Darryl “Snake Eyez” Lewis
Is this something that you feel that you’ll be a part of for a long time?
I feel like when I’m a part of a brand, I’m in it for the long haul. I don’t want to do temporary partnerships. It’s not something I look forward to. Me and [Red Bull] click, so I want to build my brand with them.
How does your family feel about it?
My mom didn’t like it at first. When she saw me win EVO, she didn’t say anything after that.
How do you feel about companies latching onto the scene? Do you feel that players need to be more mindful of this?
I feel like players need to make a big change. They grab on to the first sponsorship that approaches them.
You don’t think they’re modeling their career after what you did?
Nah, I dont think so. They don’t feel like they can get that opportunity. It’s not the easiest thing. You have to have a very clean personality. The FGC [Fighting Game Community] gets kind of rowdy.
The FGC has had a lot of negatives, in the past.
It’s a grassroots community. [That type of attitude] is going to come with it.
Do you think that’s going to hinder it from being more accessible?
That could be it. When you sponsor someone, and you present them to someone else, you don’t want them to think that the company is representing that type of look. I can understand if that’s what will hinder it, and I’m not entirely sure—but it could be. Other competitive games have a lot of kids playing and spectating. the average age range in fighting games is like 25 years-old. You play Call of Duty, and it may be lower [than that].
Do you see yourself on ESPN in 5-6 years?
Absolutely. That was a huge opportunity for LI Joe. I played him in a ton of matches before EVO, and I was like: “This guy’s not good.” And he makes Top 8 at EVO? From the amount of matches we played, it wasn’t close.
Most Hated :: Chris “NYChrisG” Gonzalez
Chris “NYChrisG” Gonzalez knows you hate him, but he’ll keep winning anyway. The Californian transplant from Brooklyn, New York has mastered many games, but found his calling with CAPCOM’s popular sequel Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3. Garnering the ire of the FGC during his legendary run in Marvel by using a mainly projectile oriented team (which is frowned upon), Chris has dominated the leaderboards for years and finally won first place at EVO last year.
What borough of NY are you from?
I was from LES, but then I moved to Brooklyn.
You started playing competitively relatively early, right?
Yeah, I was like 17. I’m 25 now. Compared to the other guys, I haven’t been doing it that long. I used to see guys like Diemenion at Chinatown Fair. While I was playing casually, and getting better, those guys were winning tournaments. It only took a certain amount of time before I was like: “I can do this too.”
When did you figure out that you wanted to take it seriously? When you were with Empire Arcadia?
EMP was just a pass through for me. Growing up, I did love video games but things were a little hard. I did struggle growing up, and video games were the escape for me. I used to just walk to Chinatown Fair every day with $5 in my pocket and I wouldn’t leave [until it closed]. I used to get kicked out of my house a lot, and so that was the escape for me. When I tried to go to college, I had no financial aid or anything—I was going to be, for lack of a better term, a statistic. A Puerto Rican kid, struggling with no college education, and a random job. And that’s what I did for a couple of years.
So you were doing odd jobs, and then going right back to the arcades?
I would just take that money and go back to the arcade and learn. I had already moved out of my parent’s place at 17-years-old. I just wanted to break away, and do my own thing.
It must have been hard to find your place competitively in New York—guys like Justin Wong [Ed. note: Justin Wong is a popular competitive player in the FGC] were still in the area then.
Yeah, Justin and everybody were still there. My big break was an accident, almost. It was Marvel vs Capcom 3. When I first played it, I hated it.
“Everything I’ve done has been by myself pretty much my whole life.” -Chris “NYChrisG” Gonzalez
Everybody did [laughs].
I loved low-tier Marvel vs Capcom 2. But when I first saw Marvel 3, I was like: “Why are these combos so easy? This sucks.” Then my friend got me into it, he’s like: “Yo, I got an XBOX, let’s go play some Marvel.” So we [practiced a lot], and the first tournament I entered—I won. At the time, I was working. So I’d make $200 a week working 40 hours a week. It was depressing.
It was depressing! But I won that tournament, and made $300. I really just worked 43 hours to make [practically nothing], but I only worked a few hours to make more than that. After [a few tournaments], I had made at least $4,000 within a month.
It came easily too you, too. It seems like whenever there’s a new game, you’re always top 5 at every tournament in multiple games.
It’s a hustle. When I first started going to tournaments, that’s how people treated it. Even going to EVO—that’s a hustle. It’s just a little bit bigger than the others. We never thought it would be this big thing, on ESPN and all that. When I won a tournament for Mortal Kombat 9 in 2011, I thought I’d just get a few hundred dollars—but I left with 2 or $3000.
Were you like “Forget this regular job shit”?
I’m not knocking anyone who does that. I still want to do that, doing something that I love to do. Probably involving gaming.
Why is that? Do you get tired of the hustle, or do you just want something more stable?
Absolutely. There was a time where I was winning everything, and I became money hungry. And then something happened to me personally, and I started to lose every tournament. I went from making so much money to struggling to pay rent. I learned to focus and got back on the grind, but at that moment I noticed that if you don’t have a sponsor, then you can’t do it on your own.
Do you have a sponsor?
I’ve been trying to find a good sponsor. I don’t trust these other wacky teams.
What do you feel like is the problem with sponsors?
The problem with Fighting Games as an e-Sport as of right now is that no one knows their worth. Do you think Justin Wong will accept nothing? If you don’t have what he needs, he’s not going to represent you. But a lot of the mid to high level players will accept anything. So what happens is that you have ten thousand teams with ten thousand players who are making no money. Why should they pay you anything when they can get three low level people for just a handshake? Maybe a bus ride.
They won’t even cover travel expenses?
Sometimes, yeah. There are so many teams that I’ve had approach me, and I don’t even ask for a lot. They’re like: “Yeah, I don’t know if we can do that.” Then why are you here!? I’d rather just be me, and do me. I won Ultimate Marvel 3 at EVO with no sponsor. Everything I’ve done has been by myself pretty much my whole life. Until a [sponsorship] that is [beneficial] to me appears, then that’s how it’s going to be.
You’re thinking of this a lot further than a lot of players who think they can do this forever.
You ever have someone say, “You’re the next...”? There’s a big problem with that statement [in the Fighting Game Community]—these guys are still there. How can you be the next anything when these guys are still winning? You can do this forever, but they are older than you, and better. I’m going to be me.
“At some point, especially at EVO, where they boo me—it takes a toll on you. But that turns into my passion.” -Chris “NYChrisG” Gonzalez
Your move to Southern California was a big move for you, what spurned that decision?
I was living with my friend Nelson Reyes [ed. note – Known as EMP Remix], and he passed away. The lease was in his name, and I had to move. They tried to say I was a terrorist and I was holding the place hostage, things were getting serious. I was dealing with the fact that one of my best friends died in front of us. Everyone in EMP saw it. And right after that, the sponsor that I had at the time folded and released the entire time. In my head, everything was going right—and in an instant it all went away. And I didn’t know what to do. There was a lot of issues after his funeral, and things were getting bad so I left. A person I knew [in California] said that there was an opening and I could come there if I wanted to. In my head, I was like, “Nah, I’m going to live in Brooklyn,” and I tried. Everyone I tried to move with had no ID, no working papers, nothing. I told my landlord, if you give me $1800 right now, I’ll move out tomorrow. I packed all my stuff, and left the East Coast.
You seem happier.
Yes, I am doing better. Do I wish things were differently? Of course. But I still have faith that everything is going to work out.
I always respected that you don’t let people get to you, regardless of where you are.
At some point, especially at EVO, where they boo me—it takes a toll on you. But that turns into my passion. You start to realize, no matter how good you do, there’s going to be someone that doesn’t like it. But I put that in the back of my head. Recently, everyone was rooting for me. Even half of the people who hated me. Having that support was a good thing.
The People’s Champ :: Steve “Tasty Steve” Scott
Steve “Tasty Steve” Scott has seen the FGC rise from its humble beginnings, now he commentates on it from behind the camera. The STL native has traveled far and wide, calling the community his family, and now he’s become one of the biggest faces in the expansion of it becoming a legitimate e-Sport. Commentating on games like Street Fighter V, Tekken, and the Guilty Gear series, he’s managed to cross over from grassroots, to household name.
You used to live in St. Louis, what was the Fighting Game Community like there?
Every state has its own personality, and my upbringing was the STL Tekken community there.
Yeah, Tekken is really big in the Midwest, right?
Nah, actually in the Midwest we played multiple games. I originally started off playing Guilty Gear, and Tekken was in the arcade. We’d go there to play Marvel Vs Capcom 2, but ended up playing Tekken. So when we’d go to someone’s house, it’d be five different groups of people playing different games in the same vicinity. So I know about these games, and care about them. I’ve been traveling since I was 16, lying to my mom about where I was [laughs].
“Being in the Fighting Game Community was the best teacher I’ve ever had.” -Steve “Tasty Steve” Scott
So your mom was not aware you were traveling around, playing video games?
Nope. Even with my bullshit [part-time jobs], I’d save money with my friends and we’d pitch in for a car and gas [to get where we were going], and pitch in for hotels or sleep on floors. It was just road trips, with your friends. I’d tell them I’d be staying with a friend for the weekend, and I’d be in Nebraska or something. That’s where it started at—I traveled and played with the same people for so many years. It’s part of the reason I’m in Southern California now.
How did you make ends meet?
When I was in Missouri, it was just one job and I’d compete [in fighting games too]. I worked at Target, I worked at Subway, and saved up my pennies to add to the pot so we could go to [tournaments]. You want to go with people that you’re cool with, so we put our money together and that’s how we traveled.
It’s almost like you grew up really fast.
You had to. It made me more responsible. It wasn’t even something that I had to do, but it’s something that I wanted to do. Being in the Fighting Game Community was the best teacher I’ve ever had.
Who taught you the most within the community?
This guy named Tim Casey, who still lives in St. Louis. He got me my first arcade stick, and helped me get into the mentality of playing like a tournament player. He was my beginner’s guide, he’d tell me: “You’re doing this wrong.”
What made you go from the front line as a player to becoming a commentator?
When I first got to [California], things weren’t going too well. My [game system] broke on my way here, so I didn’t even have anything to play games on. But you have to take in that information if you want to be relevant. So I watched and kept track of the latest media for games like [Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, etc.] I could recall everything that happens [during a match]. So if they want me to get on the mic at an event, it made it easy for me. I also used to commentate with my friends, and we used to talk shit...
Now it’s thousands of people on a stream.
I know, right? [laughs] I went to [a Nashville, Tennessee-based National tournament called KIT] once, and the tournament runner, Ian, let me commentate Tekken. And that was the first time I did anything like that. Some people can do both, but I commentate for a living. This is my career now. I’m not going to be able to enter every tournament or enter one game, even though I play five.
“I worked at Target, I worked at Subway, and saved up my pennies to add to the pot so we could go to [tournaments].” Steve “Tasty Steve” Scott
You came from an era where you had to save money and go on road trips, now companies are starting to sponsor more players in the community—which eliminates that need. Are you against that?
At first, I was against it. I was against any company coming in and putting their stamp on what I’ve been doing for most of my life. I was afraid—like, maybe I want to just hang out and talk shit with my friends. Maybe sometimes, they’ll want to smoke. And when you go down the route of being 100% e-Sports, there are certain personalities that have to go out the window if you want it to grow.
But you’re cool with it now, right?
I’m 100% cool with it at this point. It’s more than one idea that makes this great. It wasn’t just one idea that created this—it was multiple. So any investment that comes out of that is good. There’s no half-stepping that.
A lot of people wouldn’t even see you as a “bad personality” in the FGC. How hard was it for you to switch roles?
The thing is, I have the worst potty mouth [laughs]. And anyone who commentates with me will freak out, but I’ll ask: “Are we running PG? PG-13, or rated R?” and I’ll [adjust to that]. Other people have slipped up, but if they say no cussing, then I won’t do it. That’s how I was raised. I don’t even cuss in front of parents and I’m a grown man [laughs]. If I meet your parents there will be no “damn,” no “asses,” none of that [laughs].
Photos by Sos Adame