Fyter Fest a big moment for the marriage of esports and wrestling

Kenny Omega, left, made his offline fighting game debut at CEO Orlando in 2016. His performance was definitely memorable as he brought an element of pro wrestling to the stage. Now, he's back for an even bigger event, Fyter Fest, at CEO Daytona. Provided by Robert Paul

DAYTONA, Fla. -- For years, the worlds of esports and pro wrestling have been adjacent to one another, every once and a while connecting to create something special.

Last year, wrestling archrivals and friends Kenny Omega and Xavier Woods came together to face off in a Street Fighter V exhibition at E3 in Los Angeles, with the losing side having to eat habanero peppers. Over on the East Coast, CEO, one of the world's premier fighting game tournaments, teamed up with New Japan Pro Wrestling to put on a wrestling exhibition in conjunction with the weekend gaming event.

In 2019, CEO organizer Alex Jebailey wanted to go bigger.

In co-promotion with the newly founded All Elite Wrestling, owned by Jacksonville Jaguars co-owner Tony Khan, CEO is putting on Fyter Fest, a one-of-a-kind wrestling experience that once again coincides with the CEO. During the day Saturday, thousands of battles with the best fighting gamer players in the world will take place at the Ocean Event Center in Daytona, and starting at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fyter Fest will feature a slew of the best wrestlers in the world taking center stage.

"Bringing together the wrestling world with the fighting game community has been a dream come true," Jebailey said Friday on the eve of Fyter Fest. "Also, being a part of AEW's second show and performing in front of nearly 5,000 is something I'll never forget, and I hope I can entertain people from both worlds. Seeing this all come together is an experience that has inspired myself to continue CEO's growth for even the next 10 years."

Jebailey won't just be in attendance for Fyter Fest, he will be in one of the night's marquee matches, facing off with Michael Nakazawa in a hardcore match.

Up in the commentary booth calling that match and the rest of the show will be Alex "Goldenboy" Melendez, a staple of the esports industry and, like Jebailey, a lifelong wrestling fan. Goldenboy grew up watching the "golden era" of wrestling, in the 1980s, that was considered a watershed moment for the industry -- not so unlike the surge of popularity competitive gaming has seen in recent years.

The likes of Jake Roberts and The Undertaker captured Goldenboy's imagination and eventually took him down the path of being an entertainer himself in the world of video games.

"I would watch Jim Ross and Michael Cole and learn from them," Goldenboy said. " I also learned how to do interviews by watching the mic placement and posture of people like Jonathan Coachman and Cole. They are the best of the best. They put on a quality product week in and week out, and for any aspiring broadcaster in esports, there's a lot to learn there."

Goldenboy began his career casting Call of Duty before eventually winding up on Blizzard's Overwatch League production as a featured host for its inaugural season. Following his success in esports, he transitioned to the world of network television, where he worked with a wrestler he watched growing up on television, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, on NBC's "Titan Games."

Fyter Fest will be a kind of culmination of Goldenboy's journey, as he is getting the chance to call the show alongside Ross, the legendary announcer who recently signed a deal with All Elite Wrestling and commentated their first show, "Double or Nothing," in Las Vegas.


Kenny Omega plays Street Fighter

Pro wrestling superstar and avid gamer Kenny Omega stops by the ESPN Esports studio to play some Street Fighter and dish on his involvement with the series.

While other competitive gaming leagues and tournaments are trying to become the next NFL or NBA, Jebailey doesn't want to turn away from the pro wrestling roots that have been in esports since the very beginning. In South Korea, where esports first blossomed in the early 2000s with StarCraft: Brood War, the production was more akin to a WrestleMania than the Super Bowl, with light shows and theme music accompanying players as they strutted out onto the virtual battlefield.

"In esports, we're constantly trying to chase this sports-like ideology, but the reality is that we're more connected to pro wrestling," Goldenboy said. "We go through all this effort to make every broadcast feel like a show, and that's what pro wrestling companies do every week. I think Kenny Omega, Xavier Woods, Kofi Kingston, etc., get that more than most, and it's about bridging that gap between esports and entertainment. I also feel both businesses operate with a chip on their shoulder that allows them to push the boundaries and make even crazier shows."

Where CEO wants to be more like pro wrestling, All Elite Wrestling wants to use what esports has done to capture millions of fans worldwide.

Wrestling, though still one of the most-watched things on television with WWE's Raw and Smackdown, isn't where it once was in the media hierarchy. Arenas that would have been sold out years ago for WWE events are now occupied by a couple thousand fans, with tarps placed over empty seating to make the crowd look better on camera. The fans who once turned on wrestling every Monday night are now on their phones or laptops, some watching streams of people playing video games on Twitch.

Omega, one of the executive vice presidents of All Elite Wrestling, knows this all too well. The opposite of Jebailey and Goldenboy, Omega is a pro wrestler that grew up with a love of video games and all things nerd culture; his character and moves inside the ring are inspired by the video games he grew up playing.

Along with Young Bucks -- Matt and Nick Jackson -- Omega has used social media and YouTube to push pro wrestling into the new world, where fans can interact with their favorites in the ring just as fans in esports can chat to their favorite gamers.

Fyter Fest is as much a love letter to pro wrestling and video games as it is a showcase of the future of both industries. For the performers putting on the show like Omega and Goldenboy, it's a childhood dream realized.

"'It means everything to me," Goldenboy said. "I love professional wrestling, and the influence it has had on my life and career is profound. I'm nervous but ecstatic to get to commentate with one of my personal heroes, Jim Ross. The card is stacked top to bottom, and I'm grateful to Kenny Omega for believing in me to do this."