"My mum and my sister are back at home watching this tournament. They can see how big it is, so now they know I'm not just wasting my time."
Benjamin Simon, a.k.a. "Problem X," is the only Street Fighter IV player from the UK to qualify for 2015's Capcom Cup in San Francisco. The early December competition wraps up the yearlong Capcom Pro Tour: 43 events across the globe where players can earn points (and, in the case of 16 "Premier" events, an automatic qualification spot), with the highest-scoring 32 duking it out for a staggering $120,000.
He's come a long way since his first steps in the competitive Street Fighter scene, only a few years ago. He's risen from something of an outsider to perhaps the UK's finest Street Fighting man.
"I started late on Street Fighter IV," he tells me after being knocked out of the running in San Francisco. "I'm not an arcade guy! I used to play MLG Call of Duty—that's where I came from. I jumped in on Super Street Fighter IV, not even the first one. I actually started by playing online a lot and some people on there said that I was 'fairly good,' and that I should go to this tournament called SVB in London. I didn't know anybody and I came in the top 32. I lost to Ryan (Hart, UK fighting game stalwart and the first-ever sponsored fighting game player), before knowing it was Ryan! I was invited to the Winner Stays On weekly and I got bodied.
"I asked people how I could get better, and everyone was kind of snobby to me and didn't really give me any answers. They were kind of horrible! So I was like, 'Look, just because I don't play this game don't think you're better than me. If I did play this game, I'd be better than you. I'm going to come back and beat all of you.' And now look at me."
Problem X takes on Luffy at the 2015 Capcom Cup
There's a real confidence to the way that Problem, who generally plays with the characters C. Viper and Seth, talks about this stuff. He's aware of his position within the UK scene and the very real fact that, out of all of the players in the country, he's the only one who qualified for the Capcom Cup. He's also one of only three European challengers, placing him the upper echelon of Street Fighter players in the world.
Problem qualified the "hard way" for the Capcom Cup, by traveling to a load of events across the globe and performing well enough to get a points total of 178, netting him 27th place overall. All of this was done without sponsorship (although he does sport the "sponsor tag" KiG, representing friend Logan Sama's Keepin' It Grimey label), entirely off of his own back and out of his own pocket. This year, he formed his own Problem X Promotions and signed his first fighter, the brilliantly named A_F0xy_Grandpa, who is one of the best Mortal Kombat X players in the world.
"I just found that that I got really unlucky with sponsorships! No one really wants to sponsor me—I don't know why. I don't really put myself out there like that, I guess. High-profile events like the Capcom Cup will help, I hope. So, rather than waiting around, I decided to do something myself. I mean, I'm spending my own money anyway, so I might as well put a name on it. If I had the opportunity to be fully sponsored by someone else I'd be happy with that. Obviously, I'd still do my thing, but it'd be nice to have the help. F0xy wasn't getting out there because he can't by himself right now, but he's really talented, so let's push him forward."
At the Capcom Cup, Problem faced French EVO 2014 champion Olivier "Luffy" Hay in the first round, a man he has had a backwards and forwards battle with across Europe during this Pro Tour season. While Luffy had beaten Problem three times in 2015, in the States it was the Brit who won out ahead of ties against eventual tournament winner Kazunoku and another Japanese player, Itabashi Zangief. He might've lost those two, but Problem wasn't expected to get the better of Luffy, making his triumph an early upset of 2015's Capcom Cup.
"I would've liked to have done better, but I'm happy because Luffy has been beating me for a while now," Problem tells me. "He 'gatekept' me at VSFighting in 2014, causing me to miss the Capcom Cup that year. In 2015, I got through on points, but barely, because Luffy beat me at Dreamhack Summer—where I came second—and at VSFighting again, where again I came second. So to get him in the first round… Well, first I was unhappy that I've come all the way here to play him again; but then I looked at it the other way. If I can beat him here then anything that happened before doesn't really matter!
"I would've liked to have done more in this tournament. I wanted different match ups. I wanted to play Daigo. I wanted to play Bonchan. I think my character, Viper, beats their characters. I've played lots of games with Ryan (Hart) so I know the Sagat match well. You get who you get, though.
"The Pro Tour has been really good. I've learned a lot just from watching the other players. I don't get to see all these top Japanese players too often. I think my characters are really good, that's why they got me here, but for the pressure and the format of the tournament, maybe they're too risky. Viper is high-execution so it only takes one error to lose a match—and I made one error against Kazunoko. And against Itabashi Zangief, like, he can just keep doing stuff because Zangief has so much health. Every time he jumped in I'm anti-airing him, but it doesn't really hurt so he can keep doing it. I slip up once under the pressure and he's in.
"I'm going really evaluate my character choice with Street Fighter V (Capcom's next iteration in the series, out in early 2016). I think I lost here because my knowledge is limited compared to the others. Like, I'm matched against Kazunoko and before our fight he's playing first to tens with Tonpy, who is a great Viper player, and then a first to ten with Dashio, just in case I pick Seth. I can practise against Yun with R.M.Z., but he's not on the same level. When I play Justin Wong I'm so confident because I play Andreas a lot and they both play as Rufus. If the UK scene can become like that, then I'll feel like I'm on more level ground."
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Problem's drive to get better isn't just talk. After the Capcom Cup finishes we're whisked away to an after-party—a big warehouse full of free pizza and an open bar, with plenty of drunken socializing taking place. There's a who's who of fighting games players cutting about; but I find Problem sat at a PS4, challenging American Guile player NuckleDu to a money match. The opportunity to face a player he wouldn't normally get the chance to play was too good to pass up—and this is an attitude he feels puts him above a lot of the other players in the UK scene.
"The thing about the UK is that I think people are lazy," he says. "They want easy results. They don't want to put the time in, instead looking for the cheapest, scrubbiest ways to win. Then, at the highest level, you come up against people who know how to counter that. Ryan Hart, who qualified [for the Capcom Cup] last year, he still plays as stale Sagat. Nothing's really changed and it just wasn't enough this year. As much as the characters I use are very hard to win with at this level, they're also very capable of it if you have the execution and ability. You need to go that extra mile. At this level, 'ABC' doesn't work. The UK focuses on 'ABC' to win. They won't take losses in order to get better in the long run. For instance, we don't have any Gen players. No Juris. No C. Vipers, except me. We don't have any Evil Ryus or Akumas! We don't play top tiers. I'll tell you who we do have: loads of those characters where you can see how to play as them just by looking online. You don't have to think outside the box. We have a load of Fei-Longs. We have a load of Dictators (M. Bison). ABC characters.
"I think now, if you look at fighting games in general in the UK, especially after this Capcom Cup, I'm going to be seen as 'the main guy,' and I'm looking to push the scene forward with things like getting F0xy out there and stuff. The person who is the main guy at the time, their agenda will dictate the growth of the scene. I think it is growing at the minute because I'm a lot younger, I socialize more and I try to push people forward. I've started traveling to more competitions. That's a huge part—you have to travel. More people have started to travel now. You can't just stay in the UK. We've got a WhatsApp group chat where I'll ask, 'This tournament's coming up, who wants to come?' And we'll split hotel rooms and that. This year has witnessed the most traveling I've ever seen coming out of the UK."
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With Street Fighter V coming out early next year, the whole Street Fighter scene is about to have a fairly radical change. All of the veterans will be forced to learn new things, while an injection of new talent is set to come rushing into the mix. Capcom and Sony—the game will be PS4-exclusive for consoles—have made no secret of their desire to chase lucrative eSports money, and that's something that Problem embraces.
"Make it bigger. Then you can feel like an athlete. The smaller it is, you're stuck in that mindset of, 'Can I take this seriously, or am I wasting my time?' But if it all pushes forward, then you'll see the respect for being a fighting games player get bigger, like a League of Legends player. Then you can say, 'I'm an eSports athlete.' As far as getting better, you're either going to do it or you're not. I didn't get here from being half-hearted. I went to Summer Jam, I went to Defend the North. Add me on Twitter! I'm always going to answer anyone's questions because the better they get, the better I get. The better the scene gets, the better everyone gets.
"I think it helped, that I was kind of rejected by the scene. So I hope people see that I was shunned, but that I went up and did it anyway."
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