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Photos of the Evil Geniuses Fighting Games players at EVO 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada

Up Against a Wall

Jan 042018

Most people don’t want to be put against a wall. Not me. There’s something about me that’s just a bit wrong with me — or maybe, really, it’s right! I want you to back me up into that corner. I want to be staring up the mountain. Absolutely nothing energizes me more than being at the bottom of a mountain, staring at the summit, and figuring out how the hell I’m going to get up to the top.

I think the first time that I really realized this was back before esports was even a thought in my mind, or even a concept that I had ever heard of. I had just finished up high school in 2008 and frankly, I didn’t know what to do with my life. I was facing problems at home, problems trying to go to college, and problems trying to make money. I found my escape at night, heading down to Chinatown Fair, with a five-dollar bill in my hand, and trying to make it last the whole night. I usually could. I played low tier in Marvel 2 and Street Fighter Third Strike at the time (Spiderman/Felicia/Gambit and Ryu/Sean), but I had pretty decent rushdown and knew how to find someone’s weakness.

Beyond the cadre of nighttime fiends like myself, there was another level at Chinatown. Yipes, Sanford, and Justin Wong. I knew who they were. Kind of. Back then, unless you paid attention, you didn’t really know too much. I knew they travelled and played in other parts of the country, but it wasn’t until much later that it sunk just how good these guys were. They were legendary in the game and because they were good, I wanted to beat them.


I would get into scraps with Justin every now and again. Nothing major, just two or three games before he would move on to another player, or I would get tired and play with someone else I knew. But one night, I wanted to do it. I wanted to beat him.


He never gave me the chance. Game after game, I was wrecked. By the third dollar, I was just hoping to take a round off of him. Nothing. I dug into my pocket, my backpack, my jacket, scraping together all the cash I had on me to keep at this challenge. Finally, I was wiped out. I had burned all of my money and I hadn’t even taken a single round.


It was demoralizing to an extent that I had never felt before. Sure, I wasn’t playing top tier characters, and sure, Justin was amazing. However, to me, there was no excuse for that performance; I needed to change, I needed to get better. From that day on, I hit the lab and worked on refining my playstyle. At the time, I didn’t have any aspirations of winning EVO or being the best in the world. All I wanted in that moment was to beat Justin. It just so happened that he’s the GOAT, so it would take some time before I got that opportunity. More on that later!


A few weeks after Marvel 3 came out in late 2011 and I found myself with my back up against a wall yet again. At the time, I was working a pretty trash job, barely scraping by. It was so bad to the extent that I had largely stopped spending money at Ctown and couldn’t afford an XBOX 360 to play the new game. Luckily, my man JimmyP was also hype for the game, so he threw down for a 360, a few pizzas and invited me to come over. Oh man, it was amazing. Right away, we fell into the rhythm. Testing out ideas, running through every team in the book, checking the limits of combos, trying to just eek out one more hit. But at the end of it, I could feel the dread creeping into my body as I realized that I still had to go back to my horrible job the next day.


I finally made the jump to get myself out of this hole a few weeks after the base version of MvC 3 came out. Jimmy had found out about a weekly tournament that was nearby and that it was going to have a decent amount of entrants. I wasn’t really feeling it, but he offered to stake me, so I went along with it. Worst case scenario, I play some Marvel and get my butt kicked. Best case scenario, I get some cash to buy some nicer food for the week. We rolled up to the tournament and I quickly realized it was beyond the best case that I had drawn up in my head. I burned through all of my competition with ease and suddenly found myself about $250 richer. Like, holy crap! This was more money in my pocket than I had had in years! As Jimmy and I were walking out the door to head back to his place (dinner was on me), we overheard that there was a tournament in Queens in two days. Well, two nights later, I suddenly was walking around with another $300 dollars in my wallet.

In less than a week, I had made more than I would on a normal paycheck, from playing a game that I love. As the days went by, I began to realize that I had a simple choice ahead of me. I could keep working a job that I hated — a job that was dull, unfulfilling, and downright depressing —  or I could quit and live off of playing a game that I love. I gotta say though, even though it was an easy call to make on the surface, I was still a bit terrified. How long could it last? How long could I keep winning? Would the tournaments keep going on as the game got older?


Those worries subsided as I soon discovered Morrigan/Doom in late 2011 and found a great rhythm in my tournament play. There were ups and downs, but I was on an overall upward trend. I had started to find steady success over West Coast players — who had been my bane for some time — and I was even making strong runs in nationals. But nonetheless, in 2013 I found myself back in that corner again. My roommate Nelson had just passed away, I lost my sponsor, I was about to get kicked out of my apartment, and I was starting to get sick of how things were becoming here.


All of this brought me to an impasse — I needed to move. I was told going to west coast would be my best bet If I wanted make it in the gaming scene. So, with the help of some friends, I dove in headfirst. In only 2 days, I packed up what little belongings I had — giving away everything that was nonessential — and hopped on a plane to California. Even there, I was in a corner. There was less money, the competition was fiercer, and I didn’t vibe with the community that same way that I did in New York. Despite all of this, I kept fighting and fighting, remembering how dark it had been, and I climbed up that damn mountain.


Eventually, the breakthrough came. It was EVO 2015. I was playing UMVC3, and I was one match away from Top 8. Here’s the thing about Top 8: at the time, I had always gotten it. Since 2011, I’ve always made the finals on Sunday. This time was different. I found myself face buried in hands wondering what just happened. I got 9th.


At that moment I realized that I needed to make a change. So a few weeks later, while talking to my girlfriend about going to a few tournaments, she turned around and said “Well… why don’t you just not go next week? And skip the tourney on Friday also! Let’s just go hiking instead.” It was so simple, but that ended up being the change I needed. I had gotten so caught up in the minutiae, in dedicating every second to the grind, worrying about winning so much, that I had forgotten why I had done so well in the first place: I was having fun. 


With my lifestyle changes, time seemed to rush by and I suddenly found myself in the car going to EVO in 2016. The contrast was so obvious. In the preceding weeks, I wasn’t fretting over every last detail of my play, over-analyzing combos late into the night. I wasn’t grinding out double digit hours of play every day. Instead, I was just playing a few hours a day, taking the odd weekend off to hike or something, and even spent a few just playing Third Strike. To be honest, I was considering not going to Vegas at all. 2015 had been rough, and the memory still stung. But a buddy had been able to book a suite, so he offered to house me and my girlfriend for free.


That EVO was just so much fun for me. I was removed from the usual exhilarating highs of victory and the sometimes crushing lows of defeat. Instead, it was more like I was just playing at a big festival, riding the vibe of the whole weekend. The best part of EVO that year was waking up that Sunday, putting on a really nice outfit, and going down to play my Top-8 match against Justin. When we were duking it out, I wasn’t thinking about meeting KaneBlueRiver in the Grand Finals. I wasn’t thinking about getting a one-up on Justin, calling back to when he beat me in Grand Finals in 2014. Frankly, my mind was back in Chinatown Fair, remembering being $4 down against Justin, but damn, I just wanted to keep going and take a round. And here I was, almost a decade later, putting up with the same damn pressure from the guy — albeit with a bit more than $4 on the line. My back was against a wall.


When I finally beat KBR and won EVO, the payoff was sweeter than anything I had ever tasted. It wasn’t the money, nor the trophy that did it for me. It wasn’t about achieving something at my job. It wasn’t just something that I needed to add to my resume like all the other tournaments had become. I had accomplished something incredible, doing something that I loved. I had realized a dream.


Despite all of that, here I am again with my back up against a wall. This time, instead of the competition or myself, my battle is with Capcom. Infinite isn’t that fun. It isn’t strategically deep. It isn’t very conducive to my playstyle, and most teams are stale already. But I don’t care. I’m ready to meet the challenge, to find a way to make it fun. I can’t wait to force my playstyle onto the game, to push harder than anyone else in the world. I’ve realized that it’s not about money, it’s not about the titles. I’m in it for the laughs, for the long nights grinding with friends, and for the hellish car trips to tournaments. Fighting games are my life, and bad design is never going to ruin that. I will keep going anyway and I will get my back off that wall.