Throughout our youth we are taught to cheer for the underdog, like the puny kid trying to play baseball or the small farmer trying to stave off a greedy cattle rancher. In America, we are taught something far more specific: We are the underdogs.
Whether it be Rocky coming back to knock out the hulking Ivan Drago or a ragtag college hockey team beating out the mighty Soviets, we are spoon-fed the notion that the American spirit prevails over all. The most recent generations however, has learned this notion is a crock of sh*t.
As Americans have become more educated and open minded, we have quickly learned to dismiss false caricatures of evil such as the Soviets. Being the richest nation on Earth, athletes from all over the world now flock to American to compete from Japan’s Daisuke Matsuzaka playing baseball to Yao Ming playing basketball. The U.S. is the world’s last remaining superpower, and even our own citizens (myself included) tend to view us as the bad guys in world conflicts. Simply put, America is now the bad guy. WE are the spoiled supposed-to-win villains
If one looks hard enough however, they will find that the American underdog is alive and kicking in the unlikeliest of places: Professional Street Fighter IV.
Gaming doesn’t carry quite the stigma it used to; video games are now so mainstream that talking about Call of Duty during a frat house party is considered somewhat acceptable. Fighting games, however, still carry a heavy stigma. With their disproportionally busty females and absurdly muscled males jumping around using colorful attacks with high pitched voices, it’s not surprising that the people who play these games at a high level have a heavy stereotype attached to them. The image of the bucktoothed Asian man attempting to straighten his glasses while wearing tube socks up to his knees is ever prevalent in the uneducated layman’s mind.
I’m here to tell you right now that the stereotype is false.
The hipster, the thug, the prep school snob . . . literally every combination of every class of person is present at the Street Fighter IV tournaments. It was as though people took 200 random people from a college campus, plopped them into the middle of a hotel ballroom, and gave them controllers. It was then that I realized that these gaming professionals were not bottlenecking an already stereotyped culture; they were expanding it.
The beauty of these competitors is that they aren’t just admirable; they’re loveable. There’s Ryan Gutierrez, a tall and lanky Asian/Hispanic foul mouthed goofball with an infectious laugh whose affable personality makes him someone you’d want to invite out to a bar even though he’s a professional gamer. Mike Ross is a baby faced version of Tiger Woods and while I have yet to meet him, he is one of the politest human beings regardless of sport. Ricky Ortiz is an openly homosexual and flamboyant who also happens to be last year’s Evolution Tournament (EVO) finalist with fans everywhere. Even the U.S.’s most notable player Justin Wong, who comes closest to fitting the gamer stereotype, wears loose fitting jeans with a hooded sweatshirt and New Era cap cocked off to the side.
In comparison to the traditional overpaid American athlete with ego issues, these gamers are a refreshing change of pace. Even as they compete for the same prize money, they function more as a fraternity, a group of friends who coincidentally pursue the same interest. Fat or skinny, short or tall, slick or awkward, good or bad, the professionals of Street Fighter IV are a motley crew of loveable individuals who have made their passion into a career. Truly they embody the American spirit.
For this to be an underdog story however, there must be a villain. Enter Japan’s Daigo Umehara.
Without exaggerating, Daigo Umehara is essentially the Michael Jordan of professional fighting games; he is the standard of excellence to which all other Street Fighter players are measured up to. In fact, he’s the only big name professional Street Fighter player right now that you can look up on Wikipedia, and he is in the Guinness World Records as the “”the most successful player in major tournaments of Street Fighter”. He is one of the few Japanese players who has consistently made trips to the US to compete against the best international players.
And he wins . . . a LOT. The past two EVO events have been won by “The Beast”, and his 2011 tournament run indicates that he is the favorite to repeat.
“In turn however, Daigo dispels the stereotype of both the professional gamer and the movie villain. Despite being an absurdly thin, silent Japanese gamer he also happens to be college educated (nursing) and is social enough to where he participated in drinking games with American players before. Contrary to most people who dominate the field of competition (I’m looking at you Lebron James and Roger Clemens), Daigo remains surprisingly humble even as his popularity soars among mainstream audiences since the release of Street Fighter IV.”
In turn, his American opponents are equally respectful. There are some who are rude, talking trash about the Japanese juggernaut and insulting him, but it is often fringe players who engage in immature antics. The US’s true gaming elite such as Justin Wong and Mike Ross offer reserved but accurate praise to Daigo. They have found a balance between accepting the considerable abilities of “The Beast” without selling themselves short; they acknowledge that Daigo is the statistically better fighter but wholeheartedly (and accurately) believe that they have the capability of dethroning him in any given match
On July 29th, Daigo Umehara will once again make his assault upon EVO 2011, flanked by other Japanese gaming legends such as Mago and Kindevu. Hot on their heels are Korea’s elite such as Infiltration and Poongko, all looking for a piece of the prize money.
Not if American gamers have anything to say about it.
I’m not trying to provide some epic drama, or promote professional gaming because of some benefit to myself. I write this because I find the competitive gaming scene rather charming, free of the vices that normally grip any sort of international competition. I want people to get exposed to this entertaining sport and its competitors before they judge it as being for “losers”.
This non-mainstream sport has given birth to the most palatable and believable underdog story. On July 29th, the diverse brotherhood of American gaming will stand up to the juggernauts of Asia as they try to wrestle the Street Fighter IV crown away from Japan.
If you’re a patriot, a sports fan, or even have a casual fan of Street Fighter do yourself a favor and tune into streaming channels such as Team Spooky or iplaywinner so that you can see the unheralded professionals of America defend their most prestigious title.
Give it a try, these gamers will do you proud.