Daigo Umehara. All photography by the author.
Somewhere at the back of the Birmingham NEC, a stage, a hundred chairs and a row of PS4s take up a comparatively modest amount of space on EGX 2016's show floor. A Street Fighter V tournament, part of Capcom's official Pro Tour, is nearing its conclusion and Daigo Umehara, arguably the world's most famous Street Fighter player, has just been eliminated.
I watch as he dutifully signs t-shirts and game boxes, posing for selfies and receiving compliments with a gentle, deferential demeanour. It makes me chuckle to think he's earned the moniker "The Beast" as I watch him potter bashfully around the stage area, tapping away at Hearthstone on his phone and drifting to and fro with no particular destination in mind. On a number of occasions I nearly send him flying when, as I talk to friends and gesture excitedly about the on-going competition, he scoots past me.
It suddenly hits me how strange this situation is. In the eyes of a fighting game fan like me, Street Fighter is huge. It's the most famous fighting game series in the world, the very definition of a household name, and gathered here are many of the world's top players all milling about in the same hundred square feet of space. But there's no security, no barriers, no PR reps – there's just the players, and the fans.
"Oh look, there's K-Brad," I whisper as he nudges past me to play a few casual games offstage with a fan. Pro Fluke cheers on his UK peers from his position in the middle of the audience, Problem X bounces around excitedly with his mates following a big win against Japanese legend Bonchan, and it's all happening three feet away from me. If a bomb went off in here, I reckon I could make the top eight at EVO next year.
The setup for the show is the nicest I've seen in the UK. London-based Unequalled Media are the hosts, a fighting game event company who have grown from the humble beginnings of plugging in some PS4s in a pub to being given the responsibility of hosting a spot on the Capcom Pro Tour. It's starting to dawn on me just how grassroots everything is about the scene. The players themselves, with the rare exception of players like the Red Bull-sponsored Darryl "Snake Eyez" Lewis, often have to pay their bills with a day job, only making money from Street Fighter if they achieve a winning place in a competition. When you compare this to the top League of Legends players, some of who earn six figures a year before prize money is even factored in, there's a huge gulf in terms of money spent and earned, despite both games being considered premier eSports.
Darryl "Snake Eyez" Lewis
Capcom themselves could be partially to blame. With the release of Street Fighter V, the studio's plan was to entice a swathe of new players in order to grow the series' popularity. There were tweaks to the gameplay to improve accessibility and a huge focus on online play. Unfortunately, the game was released feature incomplete, as well as suffering from a host of lasting online issues. This meant the opportunity to snag a more casual or fighting game curious audience alongside the faithful hardcore was missed and, as a result, the series became more of a niche interest.
Then again, maybe that's what makes Street Fighter so unique in the first place. There's a rawness and a realness to the scene. People play the game and get involved in it for the love of it, not for the money. Then there's the ever-seductive appeal of being in a clique, winking at each other when the in-jokes start rolling in, throwing clandestine terminology around and jumping up and down at a moment which, in the eyes of the uninitiated, looks like nothing. There's a real camaraderie and brotherhood amongst players – especially those from the same part of the world – as well as fierce rivalries between others.
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Let's not forget that the game itself is a masterpiece, a thing of beauty. Each character in the game is a musical instrument; you find the one that suits you best and you practise over and over until you become fluent. Some people play a character in one way, while another approaches them in a completely unrecognisable fashion. It's a concept solidified when you hear members of the audience, in hushed tones, whispering things like, "Did you see Ryan Hart's Guile? It was incredible!" I'm fascinated by different pro players' influences on the same character, and how uniquely they can make that character behave. They are the puppeteers who breathe life into these mannequins, creating mini-stories, playing out tense, 99-second dramas, one round at a time.
These are all quite selfish reasons to enjoy the scene as it is, though, as the truth of the matter is that many Street Fighter players are on the younger side, and are lone wolves who are taken advantage of. This tends to come in the form of half-baked sponsorship, often amounting to little more than a free t-shirt and the permission to associate their brand name with yours. They may have a passion for the scene, and that's great, but it would be beneficial both to the players and to the scene as a whole if they were smarter about getting proper sponsorship and being paid for their time and abilities. After all, they do consider themselves professional video game players.
For a photographer, journalist and fan, though, the Street Fighter scene couldn't be more exciting right now. Being able to stroll off the street straight into EGX and into the thick of the fighting game community, or the FGC as it's known, is like a dream. There's nothing like feeling the electricity and excitement first hand, devoid of interruptions, cooped up amongst a congregation of fighting game fanatics, roaring, cheering, reacting, applauding. It's a totally different feeling from sitting countless rows back, peering at a row of dots on a stage. It's more human, more relatable. You can feel the anguish of a semi-final knockout, you share the sting when someone makes an unforced error or drops a combo. You can sense the emotions of the players, feel the swing of momentum, know when someone is on the road to losing and buzz with excitement when there's no way of telling who will come out on top.
To see those same players whose skills you idolise unceremoniously stepping down from the stage, meeting with friends, sitting around eating the same slightly overcooked canteen pizza you just had is exciting and novel. When that blend of unprecedented hype meets the modest size of the community, nothing feels quite as special.
A gallery from the EGX Capcom Pro Tour event continues below.