TOKYO -- There's much pressure in Japan for kids to succeed. It comes from their peers, their school and especially their parents. The all-out academic focus and job market can make it seem as if there's a monoculture the entire country adheres to.
To hear stories of parents encouraging their kids to pursue obscure passions with little to no financial backing is outright astonishing. But Daigo "Daigo" Umehara's family did just that -- and in doing so created one of the most storied fighting-game players in the world.
Growing up in Tokyo in the late 1980s, Daigo wasn't the best at school. He was a far cry from his sister, who excelled in academics. But Daigo loved playing video games, often going far from his home to play at arcades and worrying his parents when he returned home late.
"I wasn't playing at all for a few years, let alone competitively. When Street Fighter IV came out, I started to play casually at arcades in Tokyo with my old friends, but it was just casual play," Daigo said. "There was no such thing as a professional gamer. I had no intention or notion of becoming a pro, because it simply wasn't an option."
In the late '90s and early 2000s, the early years of esports, flying to Pomona, California, to compete in a tournament at California State Polytechnic University didn't make a lot of sense financially. But Daigo did everything he could to have an illustrious career in competitive gaming and become the first esports athlete out of Japan.
He played Street Fighter until he was completely depleted. He picked up odd jobs, such as being an attendant at a nursing home in Nerima-ku ward of Tokyo, to pay the bills.
It wasn't just a drive to win that pushed Daigo to compete. His parents let him to forge his own path.
"We did think about things from a parent's perspective, but I think we always tried to encourage our children to think for themselves as much as possible," Daigo's father, Takao Umehara, said. "To not just buy into everything people say."
In a country where the goal is to get a high-earning, salaried job for life, Daigo was bucking the trend. But his parents approved because they felt he was making a decent income while also contributing to society in some form.
"People may have said things behind our backs, but we didn't worry about it," Takao Umehara said. "No one ever said anything to my face."
The Umeharas did have some apprehension, however. They were unsure if Daigo could ever make a living by sticking to his gaming passions but said they didn't feel it was their place to decide what their children's passions were.
Daigo got his big break with the launch of "Street Fighter IV." He rose the ranks and got sponsored by peripheral maker Mad Catz in 2009. Over the years, he picked up a multitude of other sponsors such as Twitch, Red Bull, HyperX and Cygames. He has so many special moments under his belt that many consider him a fighting-game legend.
But the titles, fame and money might not have been possible without the support of his parents. It's something Daigo's father hopes his son will appreciate as he gets older.
"Games present an instantaneous challenge, but life is a long-term challenge," Takao Umehara said. "I'd like him to consider his life as a whole and pursue a path that offers something to others. I think he's had a lot of support from others to get where he is now, so all the more."