What's in a main? Why Ricki Ortiz might have to give up on Chun-Li

Ricki Ortiz hugs Du "Nuckledu" Dang after falling to him in the Street Fighter V Capcom Cup final last December. Ortiz is afraid recent changes to her main character, Chun-Li, might cause her to give up a character that helped shape her identity. Robert Paul/Capcom

Ricki Ortiz has a decision to make. As she sits down in front of the monitor with her fight stick at DreamHack Austin in April, she has to choose whether to keep playing Chun-Li, the character around whom she has built the majority of her 20-year career, or abandon her for a more viable alternative. It might seem like a simple choice, but Chun-Li is no ordinary character for the 34-year-old Ortiz.

Most other players have made the switch this season, since the character has been nerfed, or downgraded, in the new version of the game. (This happens frequently in esports as game developers release new patches.) But Ortiz can't bring herself to do it. Her attachment to Chun-Li goes beyond the professional: Chun-Li, who first appeared in Street Fighter II in 1991, is the first female character in the game's history, a cult figure who paved the way for more female characters and spawned multiple Hollywood movies. Ortiz is not just one of the original players in the Street Fighter scene, a pillar of her community, but also an openly transgender woman in an industry overwhelmingly dominated by cisgender men.

The severity of Chun-Li's downgrade has taken Ortiz by surprise. After one of the best seasons of her career in 2016, Ortiz has been a shadow of her former self thus far this year on the way to Evo, the premier fighting games tournament, which takes place this weekend in Las Vegas, largely because she refuses to abandon Chun-Li.

"I think Ricki wants to switch," Evil Geniuses teammate Kenneth "K-Brad" Bradley says, "but it's that loyalty and love of the character that is making her stay."

"My heart really wants me to stick with Chun-Li," Ortiz says. "I'm going to tough it out."

The first time Ortiz played Street Fighter, she was 9. She scrolled through the available characters at the arcade, big, brawny and male, and finally settled on the only girl. She loved female characters -- Barbie dolls, Sailor Moon and She-Ra. "So naturally when I started to play Street Fighter, I picked [Chun-Li]," Ortiz says. "She was the only character who was a girl."

She played only one round of Street Fighter II that day, and it was enough. She spent the rest of her childhood in that arcade, even after her cousin and her dad, who had taken her the first time, stopped going. "I never stopped," she says.

As a teenager, she started competing in the nascent fighting games tournament scene, back when the competitions were essentially groups of friends playing in malls and small arcades. She played in her first tournament outside California when she was 14, and at 17 she won her first major tournament.

At the same time, Ortiz started asking questions about herself. She had always known she was different. She loved Sailor Moon and Chun-Li not because they kicked ass but because she saw herself in them. She just didn't have the language to understand or express that connection. Growing up in the '80s and '90s, she had little access to information about gender. Today, most people can name Caitlyn Jenner as an example of a trans woman, but Ortiz did not have any readily available role models.

"She's the one who makes the game fun for me." Street Fighter pro Ricki Ortiz on her main character, Chun-Li

When she was about 15, she came out as a gay man. The first time she admitted it out loud, she was in a car on the way to an arcade when a friend asked if she was gay. Immediately she tensed, and felt hot. People had been speculating about her sexuality, but she had never said anything until that moment.

"I knew that wasn't true," she says with a laugh. "I just did it because it seemed easier." Easier than acknowledging what her identity meant. Easier just to forget about it and move on.

But she couldn't just forget. By 2006, Ortiz had recognized that she, in fact, was not just a "flamboyant-ass gay dude" but a woman. She was working temp jobs with no insurance and using her gaming career to supplement her income, which meant she didn't have the means to medically transition. "I didn't want to self-medicate because I didn't want to hurt myself," she says.

She lost herself in video games, filling her mind with buttons and combos. But with every YouTube video Ortiz watched, her identity became harder to suppress. "Normally I'm very carefree and outgoing, and I just wasn't that for a good couple of years," she says. In 2010, she signed with Evil Geniuses, which paid her enough to drop her temp jobs. But by 2012, she could think only about finding a way to transition, even while playing on the pro circuit. "It was so hard to focus on games," Ortiz says. "I just could not think about anything else."

"We knew something was going on," says Justin Wong, Ortiz's close friend and former Evil Geniuses teammate. "But we respected her privacy and knew that if she wanted to tell us, she would tell us."

Ortiz had not shared her struggles with her identity with anyone for seven years. But in late 2013, she'd had enough. She started telling others she was transgender, and in October 2014, she started her medical transition thanks to the Affordable Care Act. She felt as if the day would never come. "I knew what I wanted, but I didn't know how to get it," she says. "Once I got the means and the ability to transition medically, I jumped at the opportunity."

But there was one thing missing: Chun-Li. The character had gone through another downgrade in Street Fighter IV in 2008, and Ortiz had given her up. And she missed her.

In 2016, two years after Ortiz started her medical transition, Capcom released Street Fighter V. She could feel it in her bones that Chun-Li was going to be good again, and she was right. She played Chun-Li to the grand finals of the Capcom Cup, where she finished second -- her best finish on the Capcom Pro Tour.

All of which makes giving up Chun-Li now, a year after her highest point personally and professionally, even harder. "She's the one who makes the game fun for me," Ortiz says.

As Ortiz begins to play her next match at DreamHack, comments start to roll in on Twitch, the site where fans watch pros play.

"Go Ricki!"

"Is Ricky a boy or a girl?"

"Ricky is such a f-g."

These types of comments have become the norm for her. Ortiz throws her hands in the air and lets out a deep sigh. "Stream monsters give the community a terrible name," she says. "You can be f---ing Jesus and there will still be some haters out there. You just have to do you and have fun regardless."

"Ricki is braver than a lot of people," says Ryan "Filipino Champ" Ramirez, a top-20 Street Fighter player. "There are trolls who tweet pictures of her before [transitioning] and now, and it doesn't affect her. She's amazing."

Her friends and teammates treat her no differently now than they did before she transitioned. She is still their teammate and fighting game OG, respected for her skills and her experience. "She is clearly one of the best players in the world," Ramirez says. "I think she's top three all time in North America."

Ortiz's story exists in such a positive way largely because of the uniqueness of the FGC, which boasts a more racially and economically diverse community than many other esports. It is much smaller than games like League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, with far less structure and regulation. Most players live and practice on their own instead of in team houses. Because fighting games were originally played in arcades, even with the migration to consoles and fight sticks they are still cheaper than gaming computers.

But since her transition, Ortiz has struggled with being known for her transgender identity rather than for her game play. She is no longer just Ricki Ortiz, the fighting games legend; she is a transgender woman in gaming, and the pressure takes its toll. "I'm not over talking about it because I'm all about people understanding who I am and the trans community," she says. "There's not a day that goes by where a female player doesn't reach out to me. [But] sometimes I'm just like, 'Ugh, again?' "

Ortiz pauses. "I don't want people to feel sorry for me."

In Austin, Ortiz drops her winner's quarterfinal match against Kun Xian Ho. She faces Victor "Punk" Woodley in her loser's bracket match. If she loses, she goes home. Ortiz's fingers dance over the buttons of her fight stick as Chun-Li battles on the screen. Her finger hits the empty space between two buttons, which wrecks her combo. Chun-Li gets sucked into a vortex and is not able to recover. Woodley goes on to win the tournament, and Ortiz finishes ninth. It's an improvement from two tournaments earlier in the spring, when she finished 33rd and 17th, but still a disappointment.

She takes a deep breath, frustrated but defiant. If DreamHack has shown her anything, it's that she can still be competitive with Chun-Li. In the three months between Austin and Evo, she has started trying out other characters, but she still says, "I want to keep [Chun-Li] for certain matchups."

It remains to be seen how much Ortiz will use Chun-Li at Evo and where that loyalty will lead her. She might not look like the player she was last year, but she still believes she can make a deep run at Evo. The results don't show it, but she insists she never has been better: "I'm playing the best Street Fighter of my life."