Why Street Fighter's Greatest Legend Isn't Going Down Without A Fight
This article was originally published in issue 307 of Game Informer magazine.
Daigo Umehara isn’t sure he recalls the moment that made him famous. “I don’t even know if I remember it, or I know it because I’ve seen the video so many times,” he tells me.
In that video, Umehara is up against Justin Wong at the 2004 Evolution Championship Series (Evo) tournament for Street Fighter III: Third Strike. Umehara, with only a sliver of health left on his Ken, jockeys for position with Wong’s Chun-Li, who refuses to attack. Why would she? All Wong has to do is let the clock run out.
Then the screen flashes. Wong hurtles toward Umehara with a barrage of kicks, hoping to finish him off. Fully aware this would happen, Umehara bats away the kicks one by one – a jaw-dropping feat of precision timing. As the crowd erupts into cheers, Umehara unleashes a devastating combo of his own to end the round, causing an even larger uproar.
“Evo Moment #37” has gone down as one of the most captivating moments in esports history. “Being in the room was straight-up bananas,” says Seth Killian, a former Street Fighter competitor who is now a lead designer at Riot Games. “As the parry went on and everyone started losing their minds, nobody in that room was self-conscious.”
In the years since, Umehara has become the world’s most famous fighting-game player, drawing sponsorships from major game publishers and peripheral makers. He’s written books and gives lectures at major companies and universities about having a winning mindset. In the fighting-game world, he’s a legend on the level of Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky.
But as with any professional athlete, one question haunts Umehara: How long can he keep it up? Esports is seen as a young man’s game, dominated by players in their late teens and early 20s, and Umehara is 37. We followed him for an entire weekend at this year’s Evo, and it soon became clear that, for both himself and the community that supports him, Daigo Umehara needs to keep fighting.
Street Fighter Alpha
While Evo Moment #37 is Umehara’s greatest moment, it’s far from his greatest accomplishment. Though he defeated Wong at Evo in 2004, he placed second that year. And by that time, he had already been a national Darkstalkers champion at age 16, and the international champion of Street Fighter Alpha 3 at age 17. After a hiatus that saw him venture into Mahjong and working full time at a nursing home, Umehara returned to compete in Street Fighter IV, becoming the Evo champ in 2009 and 2010.
Umehara’s status reaches far past his record, however. “When people talk about Daigo, the first place they go to is straight-up religious descriptions,” Killian says. Umehara’s regularly called a Street Fighter “god,” and acts as an inspiration for any fighting-game fan looking to test their mettle. “Everyone who has played sets with him recognizes his deep dedication to the game and supernatural ability to look straight into your soul,” Killian says.
When I first find Umehara at this year’s Evo, he’s in the middle of a Street Fighter V match. After a bit of a slump during the game’s early seasons, Umehara’s been on an upswing this year, with regular top-eight placements at major tournaments. The month before Evo, he won England’s VSFighting major, defeating some of the strongest players now reaching for their moment in fighting-game history, such as Fujimura Atsushi and Sim “NL” Gun. It’s still early in the Evo bracket, and Umehara doesn’t seem phased as he handily takes the match.
Though he’s become synonymous with Street Fighter’s main hero, Ryu, Umehara credits the improvement to switching to Guile, a much stronger character. It wasn’t an easy call, however. “Whether I can win [tournaments] or not depends on the strength of the character, but I didn’t want to admit that,” he explains.
Keita “Fuudo” Ai, one of Umehara’s close friends in the scene as well as his current teammate, encouraged him to switch, believing he wouldn’t be able to place well consistently if he stuck to Ryu. “I wanted him to be the best of himself that he could be, and I’m really happy that he switched over to Guile,” he says. However hard the decisions might have been, it’s hard to argue with the results.
Grand Master Challenge
Though Umehara finishes his early matches on Friday, he still has work to do. As soon as he walks off the tournament stage and onto the convention floor, fans hoping to get a picture or his signature on their arcade stick begin clustering around him.
As his prominence in the community exploded, autographs and photos became a regular staple of Umehara’s experiences abroad, which at first made him bashful. “I come from the arcade scene, where we played against each other, but it’s not like people came up to me and asked for an autograph or anything like that,” he says.
Umehara understands his unique position as someone who can make a living playing a fighting game. While he’s fully sponsored, makes deals to promote game peripherals, and sells books, those things are only possible because people are inspired by his story and aspire to be like him. “When they come up to me, sometimes I’m tired or rushing to the next place, but I remember quickly, ‘Oh, I have to treat them well, because I’m here because of them.’”
After signing several autographs, he heads back to his base of operations: the booth for Cygames, Evo 2018’s biggest sponsor. Part of the sponsorship includes the creation of Umehara’s latest team, Cygames Beast, which includes several top players from around the world.
Next on his schedule is playing an hour of exhibition matches with fans onstage, who have a chance to win a headset if they can beat him. To fight them, he puts on his newly minted Cygames Beast jacket, which reads “DAIGO THE BEAST” and bears an image of Ryu on its back. For the challengers, it’s a chance to fight someone who could make their day just by beating them. This time around, however, no one gets a free headset.
Though it’s taken him time to adapt to Street Fighter V, Umehara enjoys playing it and thinks it’s come a long way in terms of balance. He still thinks it could use a bit of work, though. “The old-timers like myself would like to see defensive acts be rewarded,” he says.
That said, the positives outweigh the negatives for Umehara, especially when it comes to expanding the reach of the fighting-game community. “The simplicity of Street Fighter V allows players from all over the world to come to tournaments, and they can have a chance to win,” he explains. “Before that, the environment, whether they had access to arcades, whether they have access to the internet, all of those things mattered... but regionality doesn’t matter too much anymore, and that’s a good thing for the community.”
The New Generation
The next morning, Umehara is running at full speed to his next match. Separate from Evo’s convention area (which hosts the Cygames booth) is a sea of numbered game stations for each of the tournament’s mainline games, and station 101 needs Umehara before it can play out its next match.
At this point in the tournament, most aspiring amateurs have been culled, leaving only prominent players to battle it out for a spot in the finals. Each station is immensely crowded as former contenders-turned-spectators huddle around top players like Justin Wong, Alex Valle, Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi, and Ryan Hart, as well as Umehara’s own teammates like Ai. Many of these competitors are also friends, having spent enough time playing Street Fighter together that they’re watching each other out of genuine curiosity as much as to pick up on potential weaknesses.
It’s especially important to watch players they’re not familiar with. Throughout the years, dozens of favorites have fallen to relative unknowns, so even the best players have to watch their backs. At a tournament the size of Evo, the field is your biggest opponent. While Umehara is famous for his ability to hone in on a single player (he’s undefeated in longform exhibition matches as of late), the field always hosts a few surprises.
As a ring of spectators obscures the view of Umehara’s matches, I’m able to catch one by peeking at the phone screen of someone standing on a chair. Umehara is playing against Marcus “The Cool Kid93” Redmond, an up-and-comer with a few notable tournament placements under his belt. He plays Abigail, a screen-filling grappler Umehara isn’t too familiar with. Redmond, on the other hand, is intimately familiar with Guile. He’s confident about winning, but tells me he has to tune out that Umehara is his opponent. “That’s the easiest way to lose,” he says. “You psych yourself out, [thinking] ‘This specific thing won’t work because it’s Daigo.’”
Their set is fairly intense, but Umehara’s lack of experience facing Abigail is clear. While he’s able to keep him away with his regular flurry of sonic booms, Abigail can easily close the distance, and Redmond regularly cooks up some surprising mixups that catch Umehara off guard. As Redmond continues to take more rounds off Umehara, the crowd begins to cheer louder and louder. Some of Redmond’s friends are in the audience, cheering him on. Eventually, Redmond takes the set. The crowd erupts at the upset. “I’m texting his wife,” someone in the crowd yells.
Redmond is ecstatic about beating him, particularly because he had had a close encounter with him earlier in the year at CEO, the last major event before Evo, but Redmond ended up losing before he could face him. “To beat him here, it was just indescribable,” he tells me.
After the loss, Umehara has some time to regroup and can watch a few matches on stage, away from the crowded stations. Since Evo is a double-elimination tournament, he’s technically still alive. His next opponent is Toi Bridges, an M. Bison player from Texas. The Bison/Guile matchup is a bit of a tossup for both players, but Umehara takes the set with ease.
His next match is against Cristhoper “Caba” Rodriguez, a player from the Dominican Republic. Umehara jokes that his odds are 50-50 – Rodriguez also plays Guile. Umehara’s aware of Rodriguez. “He’s a well-balanced player, he’s not as reckless as so many other young players may be,” he says.
The match starts up squarely in Umehara’s favor, as he’s able to read Rodriguez’ approaches between sonic-boom exchanges and counter them while exerting his own pressure, taking the first game. Normally, this would lead an opponent to change up their style to compensate for how they lost, but Rodriguez maintains his course, unafraid to take risky bets, even when he’s punished for them. This takes Umehara by surprise, and this strategy begins to pay off. Rodriguez eventually takes the match. Umehara is now just another spectator, tying for 13th place in Evo 2018, putting him just out of reach of the finals tomorrow.
If Umehara’s elimination takes away from his esteem as a player, his fans either don’t know or don’t care. Having made room in his schedule to make it all the way to the finals, he’s got some time on his hands, which means being able to take lots more photos with fans. Then he heads off for Bar Fights, a series of exhibition matches at the House of Blues where he’s got top billing later that night. By the time all is said and done, only one of the Beast team, Ai, makes it to the finals.
Cygames Beast may only have one member partaking in the finals, but that doesn’t mean Cygames itself is taking a break from the event. When I meet up with Umehara, he has a couple of things to take care of before rooting for Ai in the finals. He’s scheduled for interviews throughout the day, mostly taking place near a box-seat suite the Cygames crew is holed up in.
There are also plans for Umehara to conduct a backstage livestream using a streaming backpack made by Twitch, which allows him to easily broadcast to thousands of viewers (see sidebar). Umehara’s path through Evo’s backstage takes him to the room where the final eight contenders in Street Fighter V await their turn on stage as they watch the Dragon Ball FighterZ finals unfold. Redmond and Rodriguez, the two players who defeated Umehara, are both here. Both are relatively recent upstarts in the world of competitive Street Fighter, the kinds of competitors who now get to demonstrate their strength due to the wider accessibility of Street Fighter V.
Street Fighter V is, like many modern fighting games, part of a slow but steady trend. Where Japanese players previously dominated Evo’s top placements, competitors outside the nation have begun questioning the previously set-in-stone commandment that Japanese players are king of the genre. In four of the five finals today (excluding Super Smash Bros. Melee, which has a long history of Western dominance), prominent American players have made strides to show the home team is nothing to scoff at. Dominique “SonicFox” McLean, a fighting-game prodigy who’s been taking the scene by storm, further reinforces this notion when he overcomes Goichi “GO1” Kishida to become the world champion in FighterZ.
Umehara is fully aware of this growing trend, and acknowledges the rise of international players. Ai is aware of it as well, and even credits it for Umehara’s recent upswing, if indirectly. As players like Korea’s Lee “Infiltration” Seon-woo and America’s Du “NuckleDu” Dang were taking major events like Evo and Capcom Cup, the Japanese community felt left behind. “That woke us up and made us realize just because arcades are dying out and [Street Fighter V] isn’t available in the arcade scene doesn’t mean we can’t practice together,” he says.
Japanese players began organizing more readily, meeting up several times a week to play and practice together, creating a new training ground. “I think that’s the biggest reason that Daigo has also improved,” Ai says. It seems Umehara was right: As the world of Street Fighter diversifies, it produces a tide that gives everyone the motivation they need to improve, and Umehara has helped galvanize his local community to keep up.
Once Street Fighter V’s finals are under way, Umehara and the rest of Cygames Beast’s roster are seated in the front row. In their hands are cardboard cutouts of Ai, which they use to cheer for him whenever he’s mentioned or up on stage.
The event takes frequent breaks between matches, cutting to “blast from the past” matches from previous Evo tournaments. One of them, of course, is that famous match between Umehara and Justin Wong. Though he’s watched the match dozens of times by now, and discussed it ad nauseum during interviews, watching it with a crowd of that size, which once again erupts during the pivotal moment, is new for him. “I felt grateful and glad it was something people enjoyed so much,” he says.
As the rest of the finals progress, one player captures his path to glory: Benjamin “Problem X” Simon, a longtime UK player who manages to retain his undefeated streak against the likes of Ai and last year’s champion, Taniguchi. Ai ends up finishing third. Simon becomes the first player outside Asia to win the Street Fighter V championship, and the first person from the UK to ever take the title in the Street Fighter series. Try as Japan may have to recollect themselves and build a stronger scene, it seems the field has overtaken them for now.
While Simon has managed to carve his own path in the world of Street Fighter today, some small trace of Umehara’s legacy is a part of his story. Simon began taking Street Fighter seriously after watching a match between Umehara and Hart, two of the first professional Street Fighter players in the world. Hart is from the UK as well, which made Simon believe players from his region could compete. “It was amazing to me that this guy was on the same level as Daigo, and he won that set,” Simon tells me.
For his part, Umehara is proud of his team’s overall performance at their first Evo outing – most teams don’t get anyone from their side to place in the finals, let alone third. But for now, it’s back off to Japan to examine his losses and keep training. He may not have made his mark this year, but that’s no reason for him to stop anytime soon. Capcom Cup, the other prestigious Street Fighter V tournament, worth over $250,000, is at the end of the year, and Umehara still has enough points from winning events throughout the year to qualify for it. This means he’ll have to level up, lick his wounds, and prepare for his next opponent.
A Warrior’s Dream
While Olympic athletes can clutch championships before they can legally drink, many fade into obscurity in the years that follow. Umehara could have had that same problem. “When I started playing Street Fighter II, at age 11, I loved it so much that I saw myself as becoming world champion,” Umehara says. “And pretty soon, that dream came true.”
But over the years, he’s been able to find new reasons to keep playing, improve, and hone his skills as a Street Fighter master. For one, it’s his job. “Competitions and tournaments are still the primary reason for much of Daigo's travel and public appearance, so in that basic sense, it's what his sponsors are paying for,” Killian tells me. Fighting games haven’t quite reached the point to where Umehara could retire and become a coach or panelist on a TV show. To keep his name out there, he has to compete.
Beyond his own personal gain, however, that Umehara continues to compete matters. As many of esports’ most prominent players age, it’s important for him to prove playing video games competitively is a career, not just something you do until you age out. And as players like Redmond and Simon climb the ranks, having someone from the old guard to test themselves against acts as a motivator; what’s cooler than saying you beat Daigo Umehara at Street Fighter?
But when I ask Umehara why he’s still playing, he tells me he’s holding a torch for people who had to give up on their dreams. “10 years ago, there were different guys that used to play against me at the arcade, and now they’re gone, they’re not playing,” he says. “But they’re still great supporters of mine, and they root for me. And five years ago there was another group of guys who used to play... [so] I look at myself as a sort of representative of each generation.” So while he may not have taken the crown at Evo this year, Umehara, more than 20 years after becoming the world champion of Street Fighter, still has a fire lit under him.