Daigo is on a mission to save Street Fighter

Regarded as the best Street Fighter player in history, Daigo “The Beast” Umehara's next chapter in his storied career is to revive the game that made him famous. Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY

To be labeled legendary in any competition means more than just winning. It means dominating at the highest levels and making it look easy. Basketball had Michael Jordan. Baseball had Derek Jeter. And in the world of competitive Street Fighter, no one is more deserving of being called a legend than Daigo "The Beast" Umehara.

But unlike the NBA and MLB, Street Fighter is in trouble. Despite a show on ESPN2 two weeks ago and a fighting game record $230,000 given to Team Liquid's Du "NuckleDu" Dang for winning the Capcom Cup the day before, the uneven release of Street Fighter V earlier this year has many in the community questioning the game's viability. Combine that with the fact that the top players lean toward the older side of the esports spectrum, and Daigo has made it his mission to keep his beloved game from dying off.

"Everyone [should] be mindful that if there isn't a new generation after my generation, the FGC [fighting game community] will basically become extinct, so it's important to think about the future," Daigo told ESPN.

Daigo is a Japanese Street Fighter player and was on track to become a professional gamer long before professional gaming was mainstream. As a kid, Daigo struggled with what he wanted to do in life. His father didn't push him toward traditional salaried careers, as many Japanese parents do. He just wanted his son to pursue something he loved and planted a seed that sprouted Daigo's obsessive love of gaming.

When Daigo's classmates would play sports, he chose to visit arcades. There, he practiced with the intent of becoming the best. Daigo's philosophy was simple: practice three times harder than anyone else.

"If I didn't play games, I couldn't, like, stay still, couldn't be calm," Daigo said. "Now it's my job. Back then it was my addiction."

As Street Fighter continued to dominate arcades, tournaments invariably started to pop up. That's when Daigo was finally able to showcase his talents on the world stage. In 1998, after becoming the Japanese champion in Street Fighter Alpha 3, he flew to California to play against the best from the United States. Once there, Daigo made a name for himself internationally and became the world champion, beating Alex Valle.

In 2002 and 2003, Daigo won the U.S. vs. Japan exhibition in Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike and took the Street Fighter II: Turbo title at the Tougeki fighting game tournament, both in Japan.

But the Evolution Championships 2004 cemented Daigo's legacy. Playing against Justin "JWong" Wong, now with Evil Geniuses, Daigo had only one pixel of health left. Just one hit would mean defeat. JWong unleashed his Super Art, a barrage of 15 consecutive kicks. Daigo had only one option, to parry each kick with frame-perfect accuracy, and finish JWong off with a counter.

Daigo did just that, and the crowd went wild. The "Daigo parry" quickly became the first viral video hit for the Street Fighter community.

Interestingly, while Daigo defeated JWong, he didn't actually win Evo 2004. The title went to Kenji "KO" Obata, but everyone remembers the moment when Daigo did the impossible and came back from certain death.

After a three-year hiatus, Daigo returned to competitive Street Fighter in 2008, with the release of Street Fighter IV. This began another era of domination for Daigo, as he continued to place high at tournaments. Daigo went ahead to win two subsequent Evolution Championships, in 2009 and 2010. This cemented him as the best player in the world once again.

That was the heyday of Street Fighter. Daigo is now 35, a Red Bull Athlete and Twitch Global Brand Ambassador, and he's trying to use his prestige and status to keep the game he loves from disappearing.

Street Fighter was the king of arcades in the '80s and '90s, but it has fallen out of the limelight in recent years. The online viewership that Street Fighter receives pales in comparison to PC-centric games like League of Legends or Counter-Strike.

Some of SF's woes have to do with the uneven launch of Street Fighter V. Many considered it an incomplete game. As an overall $60 package, it was missing an arcade mode, trials and challenges, and live spectating. That initial wave of negative buzz turned off potential buyers, possibly hurting its future as an esport.

Sales aside, Street Fighter as a game is incredibly technical. Requiring frame-accurate responses and quick button combinations, it can be challenging for newcomers to get involved.

"In the beginning, when I started streaming on Beast TV, I wanted to negate the skill gap between top players and lower players, and I did that by doing a lot of strategy streams," Daigo said.

Unfortunately, discussing strategy didn't make it easier for newcomers. His streams ended up catering to an already established audience.

"One of the biggest hurdles into our scene is how to get into it and learning the fundamentals. I want to make more content regarding that in the future," Daigo said.

Capcom, the video game company that created Street Fighter, knew it had an accessibility problem when it came to the SF franchise. Over the past few iterations, strategy grew exceedingly complex. With Street Fighter V, however, Capcom tried to mitigate that complexity by lowering the execution factor required to pull off fancy combos. And while the intention was to broaden the game's appeal, that decision came at a cost to professionals.

"Everyone [should] be mindful that if there isn't a new generation after my generation, the FGC will basically become extinct, so it's important to think about the future." Daigo "The Beast" Umehara

"There is some concern that Street Fighter V is boring or not as exciting as IV was," said James Chen, a Street Fighter commentator.

Now that midlevel players can pull off the same combos as high-level players, Street Fighter has lost some of its technical edge.

"One of the things that people do like to see when they watch esports is people doing things that are hard to do, that they can't normally do," said Chen. When Daigo pulled off a crazy 25-hit combo last year in Ultra Street Fighter IV against Yusuke Momochi of Evil Geniuses, people got excited.

Lowering the execution factor wasn't the only thing that Capcom reworked. Capcom intentionally added extra frames of lag. This meant that when a player presses a button on the controller, it won't execute on Frame 1 but rather on Frame 8.

"One of the benefits of lag is that the online and offline experiences are the same, and in that sense, the quality is a very good thing," Daigo said.

Daigo is ultimately accepting of some frames of lag if it means that the online and offline experiences are similar. Having a strong online presence will be necessary for the game's survival.

Many players, however, aren't too thrilled by a less-than-responsive competitive game.

"There's a lot of randomness, and there's a lot of situations you're not in control of," NuckleDu said. Capcom has tried to help appease hard-core players by reducing input lag to six frames, but even then, while NuckleDu thinks it helps, he would prefer "as less lag as possible."

Daigo's mission is to keep Street Fighter alive, and he's putting much of his focus on attracting new blood.

While Daigo might be considered the Michael Jordan of Street Fighter, he doesn't have the same celebrity that Jordan had when he played with the Chicago Bulls.

"I didn't know Daigo when I started playing Street Fighter. It was, like, two or three years 'til I knew about tournaments or anything, so he didn't influence me at all," said Anbu's Victor "Punk" Woodley, 18, an up-and-coming player from Philadelphia.

Daigo's celebrity can take him only so far in attracting new players. It will fall on Capcom's marketing department to pique interest in new players.

That's not to say Daigo has no influence. Daigo has been an inspiration for many to pursue careers in pro gaming.

"Daigo instilled in me that continuing to play fighting games into adulthood is acceptable, and that it can garner the respect of many people," said Echo Fox's Julio Fuentes, 24. According to Fuentes, Daigo "is a constant reminder that there is always room to improve and that I can always reach new heights with hard work and dedication."

Daigo might not be the sole vehicle to bring in new players, but he can make sure they feel safe within the Street Fighter community. He wants to ensure that when newcomers come to their first tournament, they have fun. Right now the talent pool is so experienced, often new players get annihilated.

"In the past I didn't think the seed [float] system was necessary or good, but recently, looking at the results, I've realized that top players are pretty much going to get past their pools," said Daigo. "It would be good, in my opinion, if that would allow for pool play to focus more on new players, on younger players; that would be worth it if it had those type of benefits."

Just like Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter before him, Daigo too will one day retire. But that doesn't mean his role in the FGC will end. If he wants Street Fighter to survive, Daigo will have to play a critical role behind the scenes once he leaves the game.