Creating a champion: How a father's trip abroad led Tokido to the top

Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi, left, and his father, Hisashi Taniguchi, laugh in Taniguchi's office in Japan. His father's support allowed Tokido to pursue his passion for fighting games and, this July, become the Street Fighter V champion at the Evo. Imad Khan/ESPN

It was a big ask.

It was 2002 and Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi, then 17, should have been preparing for his college entrance exams. He was a student at Azabu Senior High School, one of the most prestigious preparatory schools in Tokyo. His father, Hisashi Taniguchi, was a professor at Tokyo Medical and Dental University, one of the top medical universities in Japan. But as Tokido was twiddling his thumbs with an open exam practice book in front of him, all he had on his mind was Los Angeles.

All he wanted to do was win Evo.

This was Tokido's last chance. He knew he couldn't play video games forever and would one day need to go to college, get a job and move on with his life. So he approached his dad with a proposal. By allowing him to go to Los Angeles and compete at the first Evolution Championship Series, upon his return, Tokido would be able to concentrate fully on studying.

To his surprise, Taniguchi said yes.

Tokido flew out to Los Angeles and ended up winning the Capcom vs. SNK 2 tournament and came home with $1,500 -- and spent it all playing more games at the arcades. But as per their bargain, Tokido went to work prepping for college entrance exams and was accepted to Tokyo University, one of the most prestigious universities in Japan.

But 15 years later, he was back on the Evo stage -- this time at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, in front of thousands of people, after winning a $35,000 title in Street Fighter V. He's a sponsored player under three-time NBA champion Rick Fox's Echo Fox brand. And he's become one of the best-recognized esports professionals in the world.

That "yes" more than a decade and a half ago, and a father's acceptance, got him there.

Passions breed possibilities

Taniguchi couldn't be in Okinawa on July 7, 1985. He missed the birth of his son because he was back in Tokyo working.

His wife, Yukiko, also a dentist, went back to her native Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan, during the latter stages of her pregnancy. Taniguchi, who was teaching at Tokyo Medical and Dental University, had to stay behind.

"After that, one month later, I went to Okinawa," he said in his office with his son beside him.

Taniguchi, still in his lab coat, had just finished seeing a patient. Tokido was wearing his work clothes too: a shirt with the Echo Fox logo, the team he plays for, emblazoned on the center. Taniguchi, for his part, slipped out of the business attire.

Tokido is the youngest of his three cousins and his sister, Aya. While his parents were at work, both Tokido and his sister would walk to the third floor of their apartment complex to play with their cousins. Tokido started with "Super Mario Bros." on the Nintendo Entertainment System, but in elementary school he was introduced to "Street Fighter II" at a friend's house.

He liked the game and started playing it. A lot.

Throughout junior high and high school, Tokido continued to play fighting games and attend tournaments. He earned a reputation as one of the best fighting game players in Japan. But regardless of his skill, school was always part of the plan.

Tokido majored in chemical material engineering at Tokyo University and graduated in 2008. He began a course load for a master's degree in environmental issues but found lab work too challenging and eventually stopped attending labs altogether.

Tokido wasn't sure what to do. Most students in Japan aim to land a job in their third year of college. These jobs are usually set for life, and those who aren't able to secure a job in this time period are looked down upon.

"At that time I had an idea to go to some government job; it's a very stable but not a high salary," Tokido said. "But in my opinion with a government job, I can take some vacation and some time to play my hobby, video games."

It was around this time that Tokido heard that Daigo Umehara, the most prominent gaming figure in Japan, had made the shift to becoming a professional gamer.

So Tokido, 24, consulted his father on whether he should pursue professional gaming. And again, he was surprised.

"Instantly," Taniguchi said, "I accepted him."

Taniguchi, unlike more traditional parents in Japan, didn't seem to mind that his son was so into gaming; he felt it was good to have hobbies and passions. For Taniguchi, that was music. He had dreamt of becoming a musician.

"But I had no talent," Taniguchi said with a smirk. "In that time, as for the income, dentistry is a very nice job in Japan."

Taniguchi remained enamored with the idea of a synthesizer. With one instrument, he could recreate Mozart. But synthesizers were, and still are, very expensive.

His goal was to use the income he would make with a private dental practice to buy synthesizers and to compose a symphony -- and he accomplished that goal, to the benefit of his colleagues and office-goers' ears.

"Three years ago, this office had many synthesizer systems," Taniguchi said.

His love of music helped inspire his work, too: Taniguchi's understanding of sound, and his expertise in prosthetics that helped cancer patients who had their jaws removed during treatment, helped him advance research in teaching patients to speak again.

He always looked to bring his passions together. And his desire to pursue those passions, however separate they might seem, made him open to the possibilities in front of his son.

A break from tradition

Japan is by and large a very conservative country, and many parents raise and push their children to pursue more traditional careers.

As such, Taniguchi's decision in 2002 was, in some ways, alarming. To him, though, it was the logical choice.

"In that time I was vice president of this university -- I was in charge of student affairs. Many, many students consulted me on troublesome matters," Taniguchi said. He would often hear of strife between students and their parents, which gave him perspective on the issues students face when planning their futures.

"I thought he was crazy. Typical parents never say something like, 'Just do it, just go your way,'" Tokido said.

Tokido was the youngest Japanese player at the event but found a way to connect with the older players. He had learned a decent bit of English at school, and "almost no players from Japan can speak English," so he became the de facto interpreter for the Japanese players.

Tokido admitted his English was bad, "but somehow I communicate with them, so it made me happy and just a little bit confident."

This was long before the Evo or Capcom Cup finals were being broadcast on ESPN and for hundreds of thousands of viewers on Twitch. But Tokido saw the continued growth of Street Fighter. The first Evo, which took place in a university gym, soon moved to Las Vegas and eventually to the Mandalay Bay events center.

Taniguchi wasn't able to see his son compete at Evo this year, but Tokido's accomplishment made it to news sites. Many of his staff members came up to congratulate him on his son's achievement the following day.

"It's very hard to be the champion of the world," Taniguchi said. "To me, being a dentist is very easy."

March will be Taniguchi's 38-year anniversary at the university. That's also when he plans on retiring -- and immersing himself in Tokido's passion.

"If possible, I would like to be the manager of him," Taniguchi said, "and I want to go around the world with him."

That was news to Tokido. He squinted his eyes and turned to his father for a long stare. Taniguchi looked back at his son and laughed.

'I hope I die playing fighting games'

Tokido is now 32. He's been playing fighting games competitively for more than half his life. And with major sponsors and tournament wins, his future looks promising.

"I don't want to retire," Tokido said. "For me, the Evo winner doesn't mean the best player. I know there are better players than me in the world."

But if winning Evo, or even the Capcom Cup, doesn't make one the best, then what does?

The answer, Tokido said, comes from a hypothetical.

"Aliens invade the Earth from the fighting game planet," he said. "If they win, we lose fighting games; we cannot play fighting games. Only one player can fight as a representative of the Earth. Who did you vote for?"

Tokido sees only one figure who could take on the challenge: Daigo. Until Tokido can, without hesitation, put himself in those shoes, he will not consider himself the best. And even if he gets there, Tokido won't be sated.

"I hope I die playing fighting games," he said.

Even so, Taniguchi thinks Tokido is at a point in his life when he should be looking to make the next major step.

"I would like him to get married, have a good wife," Taniguchi, who got married at 28, said. "I would like to say to him, that if you have a wife, you will be a much stronger player."

Tokido chuckled at the thought of marriage, then gave his dad another squint and lengthy look.

Composing a champion

If Tokido was born into a typical Japanese family, fighting games would have been nothing more than a fleeting high school passion. But he was not. His father has made an indelible impact on his son's esports career.

Taniguchi knew life was more than studying and working. It took things like living abroad in Chicago, like buying synthesizers to compose music. Life, like a composition, needs crescendos, movements, tempo changes, codas.

Without that understanding, Tokido might have been sitting in a cubicle rather than standing proud like Akuma, his arms to his side and back flexed, as he showboated for the crowd in Las Vegas this July.

"He's 30 years older than me, has a lot of experience and can watch not only myself, but my circumstances," Tokido said of his father. "He gave me good advice."