Punk rock(s): 18-year-old Street Fighter V star earns place as pro

Street Fighter V pro Victor "Punk" Woodley has struggled with nerves in the past, but he's had every chance to shake the jitters ahead of Friday's ELeague Group A play live on TBS at 10 p.m. ET. Provided by ELeague / Turner Sports

On March 27 at the Turner broadcasting studio in Atlanta, two words reaffirmed that Victor Woodley is among the best Street Fighter V players in the world:


Woodley, known in-game as Punk, had just beaten Yusuke "Momochi" Momochi, a player Punk considers one of the best in the world. The thing is, Punk has earned that title, too. He beat Momochi twice in March.

At ELeague, in one of the most public-facing settings in SFV this year, he did it without taking a hit.

Prior to Red Bull Battlegrounds in October, Punk did not consider himself a professional Street Fighter V player. He was known within the game and had eight years of Street Fighter experience thanks to the previous version of the game, but the 18-year-old Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, native had never placed within the top few spots of a major Street Fighter tournament.

His meteoric rise into the competitive Street Fighter V scene as a top professional bucks the game's traditional path to greatness. Street Fighter is known as a game of legacy, one in which many professional players have competed in the game series for decades.

Punk's youth isn't showing nowadays, though. Most recently, in his debut at the TBS-broadcasted ELeague, Punk defeated all his opponents except 2016 Evolution Championship Series champion Lee "Infiltration" Seon-woo.

"There are a lot of fans who look up to me now as a player, and it's actually pretty cool," Punk said. "I have a lot of top players acknowledging my skills, so I like it.

"When Street Fighter V came out, I wanted to compete more, so I tried to compete as much as I could. I did OK, and this year, I guess we'll have to wait to see how it goes."

Here's how it's gone so far: Punk impressed enough to meet a personal goal and get picked up by a professional esports team, something he achieved ahead of SXSW in March thanks to Panda Global.

"Victor first came onto our radar with his explosion at Red Bull Battlegrounds last year, and we had a close eye on him since," Panda Global CEO Dr. Alan Bunney told ESPN in a statement at that time. "With his recent performances and standout personality, we think Punk is going to be one of the dark horses of 2017."

Another priority for Panda Global: supporting some "new blood" in SFV.

And since his splash in October, Punk has become a considerable favorite even against tough odds. At SXSW Conference's Fighters Underground in March, Punk was placed in a group that contained some familiar faces to fighting game fans: Capcom Cup 2016 champion Du "NuckleDu" Dang, Momochi and top North Americans Ryan "Filipino Champ" Ramirez and Kenneth "K-Brad" Bradley.

Throughout that group, Punk impressed, taking an undefeated record, dominating his competition and even throwing some trash-talking jabs with K-Brad outside of the game. A truly impressive feat, Punk moved on to the group stages a victor, a favorite to win the tournament and, most importantly, reaffirming a respect he's earned in the last few months.

"He's just so talented," Filipino Champ said at SXSW. "He just came out of nowhere, started taking out Daigo [Umehara], beat me, beat Justin [Wong] -- he's just one of the best players right now, and you can't discredit that. You have to accept he's one of the best, and you have to prepare for that."

After groups, Punk's performance buckled, quickly bottoming out of the event entirely after bracket-stage losses to Justin and Filipino Champ.

"I was really nervous when I woke up [that day], and I couldn't perform as well as I expected," Punk said. "Nerves really got to me. I've never had that in the past, so it's really weird. But I guess that it just comes with experience; someone's going to have nerves eventually, so I guess that was the day of my first time experiencing it."

Nerves are nothing new in a competitive setting, but something Punk said unhinged him from his earlier, stellar performance. As the teenager prepares to compete on TV for the first time Friday, he'll need to overcome those nerves and his inexperience in a tournament setting. One of the largest prize pools in the history of fighting games, $250,000, is on the line. Punk recognized the importance of the tournament and changed his preparation.

"I have to study footage," he said. "I don't ever study footage before matches, but now that I have a team professionally, I feel like I have to do that. I'm going to start studying footage before matches if I know who I have to play. I have to start doing that."

With a pro contract already checked off his list, Punk has some other goals in mind.

"I really want to make Capcom Cup," he said. "I just want to be there to experience it. Winning a premier event is really what I want to do next. I feel like I have to prove myself still. Winning a premier event is on the top of my list of what I have to do this year.

"My results are pretty good, so I think I can do pretty well as long as I don't slack off and stop practicing and things. I think I can do pretty well, make a career for myself."