It's a warm, sunny Thursday outside the Turner studios in Atlanta, Georgia, but you wouldn't know it from inside Studio J, where TNT's Inside the NBA is broadcast. Darkness presses against most areas; only a few high-powered lights near one corner provide sanctuary. Cameras dot the perimeter for the $150,000 ELeague Street Fighter V Invitational media day interviews, and illuminated under the lights is a table with a trophy. In front of it is a vacant red chair.
A heavy metal door opens out of sight, and voices flood in. Victor "Punk" Woodley, the No.1-ranked Street Fighter V player in the world and the one they call the "Alpha," walks in wearing a black Michael Jordan sweatshirt and matching Air Jordan Ones. He's ushered to the chair and removes the sweatshirt to reveal his team jersey, Panda Global. Sponsors decorate his sleeves.
The Alpha takes a seat to field questions for the upcoming broadcast. What would winning mean to you? What would you do with the money? Do you think you're the favorite? With each question, Punk's signature smile fades as he considers the inquiry. When he has an answer, even if the question isn't finished, he starts smiling again. Eye contact is seldom, but for an 18-year-old kid from Philadelphia, he looks comfortable with the media.
As the interview comes to its conclusion, one answer sticks out: "Winning don't mean anything. You got to keep winning to maintain consistency."
The players lounge at ELeague is a good-sized space, medium-lit with a high ceiling and a pair of L-shaped couches bookending the room. A pair of large TVs sit on the wall, while in the far corner a table with two monitors and PlayStation 4s are set up for the players to practice on.
Naturally, the players gravitate toward the PS4s. Eduardo "PR_Balrog" Pérez, a veteran of the fighting game scene from Puerto Rico, and Norway's Arman "Phenom" Hanjani trade verbal blows about frame data, combos, matchups and general shop talk concerning Street Fighter. PR_Balrog, Punk and Phenom have made it to the top eight of the Street Fighter V Invitational, with Punk losing only one match in the tournament so far. The Alpha and PR_Balrog will face off in the first match the next day, yet their interactions are different than you'd expect. They are not enemies; they are friends.
PR_Balrog practices in the corner while Punk and Phenom look on. He unleashes a brutal combo with his character, Balrog (also commonly known as "Boxer"), on an in-game practice dummy, deleting roughly 85 percent of his opponent's life bar. He turns to Punk with a smile.
"What if I hit you with that?" PR_Balrog jokes.
Punk shakes his head, his smile wide as usual.
"You won't. If you do, you deserve to win. But you won't."
Jabs and laughs come as easily as any button press on an arcade stick. Punk has been playing games since he was 4. He remembers playing a lot of the PlayStation 2 fighter DragonBall Z: Budokai, and he loves Dante from the Devil May Cry series. In 2009, he picked up Street Fighter IV, playing the flashy, fire-uppercutting character, Ken.
PR_Balrog remembers him.
"He used to troll me on my stream a lot," PR_Balrog says. "He used to jump and tatsu a lot and then try to beat me."
Still, Punk played only online, and it wasn't until Street Fighter V that his stock in the fighting game community began to rise. A 13th-place finish at Summer Jam in Philadelphia, his home turf, last August led to a second-place finish in a Capcom Pro Tour online event in September. He ended 2016 finishing third at the Red Bull Battle Grounds. Since then, Punk has been on a tear, grabbing three first places in a row in 2017 before an uncharacteristically lackluster performance at the Final Round in March.
Now, he's on the cusp of winning the inaugural invitational for ELeague. But first, more casual play, this time featuring Punk and Phenom. The Alpha grabs the upper hand, placing Phenom in the corner. Despite Phenom's best efforts, he is stuck.
"That's your home. You're not getting out," Punk says, foreshadowing tomorrow's matches.
It's suffocating to watch.
Media day concludes, and Punk is free to go. He jumps on a bus to head to MomoCon, an anime, gaming and comics convention at the Georgia World Congress Center, to relax a little.
"I should have dyed my hair for this. At least I would have fit in," Punk says, noticing all the people in cosplay.
While Punk, a big fan of anime, jokingly laments his lack of costume, he vehemently denies that he would dress up as Karin, his main character in Street Fighter V.
We stumble upon a massive area of game stations and arcade cabinets, including one for Street Fighter V. Like a moth to a flame, Punk wants to play. An hour later, he has won 20 matches and lost three, never once using Karin. I step up to the plate, which pulls a big grin from his face. I tell him to watch for my Raida from Ibuki, the character I use, which brings out a laugh from Punk.
"You calling out moves, now? I knew you were hiding something," Punk says.
I never stood a chance.
Over lunch the next day, Punk and David Wu, CFO for Panda Global, grab lunch at a local establishment featuring an industrial aesthetic serving American fare coupled with old rock and roll and newer alternative music. Both are wearing Panda Global garb, iconic black and white with eye-catching, neon green trimmings.
After spending Thursday with Punk, there were more questions than answers, but there's only one pressing issue at the moment: Why is Punk's breaded chicken salad only half-eaten?
"On tournament days, I like to not eat heavy," Punk says.
"On the record," Wu says, "[Punk] is a picky eater."
Punk laughs. "But I never finish my food, though."
Like his lunch, Punk describes his upbringing as "boring" and regular. He liked school, specifically math, and got good grades. If he were to go to college, he would go for accounting, though there are no plans for that currently. He is close to his five older brothers and sisters. Punk is the youngest, and his 30-year-old brother is the oldest. His mother, a registered nurse, and father, an engineer, separated when he was 14, and both are supportive of his choice to pursue video games. They call to congratulate him after matches, and though they want him to go to college, they never pushed him one way or the other.
He adopted the name Punk after WWE wrestler CM Punk, citing simply that he likes his attitude. He's been watching WWE since he was younger, around the time that John Cena and Brock Lesnar were becoming big.
When asked to describe himself in one word, Punk pauses for a second and rubs his chin thoughtfully, his traditional smile fading away per usual as he thinks. He lights up again when he has the answer.
There's a pause for a moment.
"I think I'm pretty energetic," he affirms. "When I'm not talking to people, I'm calm. You don't see me do much. But when I'm talking to people, I'm pretty energetic."
Wu picks a different word for Panda Global's flourishing fighter. "Rookie. He's young. He has a lot to see, a lot to learn, a lot to do."
One word that continually comes up is Alpha. It's a self-given nickname that Punk said unintentionally in an interview, and since then, it has stuck, most likely because he keeps winning. Admittedly, he thinks it's a pretty cool nickname.
Speaking of names, there are seven fighters left in the tournament. Punk has a word for nearly all of them.
"That guy [Phenom] eats his burgers with a knife and fork," Wu says, smiling. "He eats the burgers with the bread separate from the rest of the burger."
Wolfkrone: "I don't know. I don't really want to say anything about Wolfkrone."
Xiao Hai: "Prideful. I see him play, and he takes his losses very seriously."
The players lounge at ELeague is busy with commotion as casters, players and analysts move in and out of the room. It's a who's who of the fighting game community. Daigo Umehara. Keita "Fuudo" Ai. Joshua "Wolfkrone" Philpot. Joe "LI Joe" Ciaramelli. Stephen "Sajam" Lyon. Reepal "Rip" Parbhoo.
With the fighting game community so close-knit, there are plenty of emphatic hellos and hugs. Punk takes a seat near the L-shaped couch, and people seem to gravitate toward him.
With Punk preoccupied, others offer insight on how real of a deal the Alpha is.
With the help of a translator, Daigo, a fighting game legend and veteran, says Punk has reinvigorated him. The embodiment of a world warrior, Daigo is constantly traveling and competing, but he admits that it was becoming "monotonous" in a way because, outside of America's Du "NuckleDu" Dang, Japanese players were dominating the scene.
"I kept playing against the same faces," Daigo says. "He came in and made me realize there's a new person, a young person who is strong, and I don't know how I'm going to match against him."
Steve "Tasty Steve" Scott, a fast-talking, excitable caster for ELeague, and Stephen "Sajam" Lyon both think "Alpha" when they hear Punk's name too.
"That's a mental game," Tasty Steve says. "He's not saying he's the best -- he's saying he's undoubtedly the best. He's saying, 'I don't think I'm better than you. I know I'm better than you.' That says a lot about character. You take that confidence, and you take that to the game. That's part of the combination of playing fighting games now."
"I think it was interesting that he evolved with the title," Sajam says. "He started talking trash about how he was the Alpha, then immediately actually became the best. It's a fitting name. A lot of people talk the talk, but he walks the walk."
PR_Balrog thinks it's because of Punk's humility. "I think one of things why we're pretty cool friends is I'm pretty humble, and I feel like he respects that way, and I respect him that way. We're both pretty humble towards each other."
The first matches are set to start at 5 p.m. live on Twitch.tv before the semifinals are broadcast live that night. Punk and PR_Balrog are up first, and Punk handily wins 3-0. PR_Balrog drops to the losers bracket. Back in the players lounge not 30 minutes later, they are laughing and joking about what flavor Doritos are the best. They both agree on Spicy Nacho.
"See?" Punk says. "Me and Rog are so alike."
Shouldn't PR_Balrog be upset that he lost?
"There's never bad blood," PR_Balrog says matter-of-factly.
At 10 p.m., the ELeague Street Fighter V Invitational hits the air and internet. The stage is lit, the crowd is hyped. Red and white lights reflect wildly off the slick, ink-black stage and center station (which is wiped down during commercial breaks after each match by the same person, and the crowd chants "MVP!" every time). The front row is occupied by top-tier cosplayers emulating Street Fighter characters. Surveying the crowd on the Punk vs. Phenom match, Punk clearly has home-field advantage.
"Punk because he's the Alpha!"
"I'll say it's gonna be 3-1. I think Phenom will get one game because he's pretty solid. But Punk is the god."
"Oh, Punk all day."
But for the first time, the Alpha bleeds. Punk shows no emotion during the match, but after, he shakes his head and walks off the stage, accepting his 3-1 loss to Phenom. Punk has to go down to the losers finals, and the air in the arena goes stale, the crowd silent.
This means there's a chance for a rematch for PR_Balrog, but first he has to get through Fuudo. Unfortunately, PR_Balrog gets caught off-guard by a move even he hadn't seen from Fuudo, and he loses 3-2 in what many will claim as the best set of the tournament. Fuudo moves on to face Punk.
Fuudo has claimed recently that he wants to face the Alpha, wanting to measure himself against the best. During the match, Punk shows a side of himself that the world hasn't seen yet: nervousness.
Punk clutches his chest after a close round. He pauses for a moment between matches to compose himself. But he pulls off a 3-2 victory to move on to a rematch with Phenom in the grand finals.
ELeague puts on a show. The final two competitors walk out of a tunnel, WWE style. Punk high-fives the casters on the desk and hugs LI Joe, who claims that Punk is his favorite player. Phenom walks in and goes to high-five a crowd member, pulling his hand back at the last second as if to fully embrace the heel persona he has being given.
Phenom is up 1-0 before they start this best-of-seven because that's how the bracket works; it's Punk's punishment for coming up from the losers side.
They set up. They pick their characters. Punk wins the first match, and it's tied 1-1. He breathes a sigh of relief.
Punk takes the second match. He's up 2-1, and the mood in the arena shifts from trepidation to excitement. The Alpha smells blood in the water. You can see it. He isn't shaking his head. He isn't clutching his chest. He's the Alpha from earlier in the day. Composed. Measured. Calculating. Optimal.
Phenom succumbs to the pressure, and in a crucial moment, he drops a combo that allows Punk to close out the entire game.
Punk wins 4-2 and $150,000. The entire broadcast, Punk didn't wear headphones; he relied only on visual cues of the game to perform. Punk says he likes to hear the crowd and feel the crowd.
He handicapped himself. That's just what alphas do.
Backstage, Punk is all smiles while carrying around the heavy ELeague trophy, taking photos until he hands it off to Wu for safekeeping.
During a brief news conference, Punk says he could have played better, his anti-airs were off, some reactions were slow.
"I guess I'm kind of tired, but I won't use that as an excuse because I am a pro player. I can't really make an excuse for how I play," he says.
"I still pulled it out somehow. I'm happy."