<
>

The best fighting game moments we've ever seen

Gail Fisher for ESPN

The fighting game community is known for its authenticity.

Dozens of titles fit into the FGC, from old standbys such as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat to shiny new toys such as Dragon Ball FighterZ and Granblue Fantasy: Versus. Most, thanks to a grassroots approach to tournaments and other events, are home to die-hard fans and competitors alike whose crowning achievements stand out even compared to those in other esports.

Legendary feats are knitted into the tapestry of the fighting game community, such as Evo Moment 37, TEKKEN pro Arslan "Arslan Ash" Siddique's tremendous 2019 and former Super Smash Bros. for Wii U pro Gonzalo "Zero" Barrios' 56-tournament win streak. We asked our staff to comb through decades of knowledge of the fighting game scene and pick out the best plays, events and moments they've been part of in fighting games.

Here's what we, with some special contributors, came up with.


MKLeo wins Genesis 4

By Jacob Wolf

Prior to the summer of 2016, very few people knew the name Leonardo López Pérez. Now, the 19-year-old Super Smash Bros. Ultimate player, known as "MKLeo," is Mexico's most successful pro gamer.

I met MKLeo on his 16th birthday, as he wandered around the floor of the San Jose McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California, in 2017, keeping to himself and competing in pool matches. Coming into Genesis 4, MKLeo won ZeRo Saga, a premier tournament in which he beat ZeRo, then the No. 1 Smash 4 pro in the world, in Las Vegas. Throughout the latter half of 2016, talk around the Super Smash Bros. scene centered on a wunderkind competing in tournaments in Mexico City and throughout the country. ZeRo Saga showed that that kid -- a then-shy 15-year-old of very few words -- might be one of the best players in the world.

But Genesis 4 in 2017 was the real test. In a three-day slog of long nights, MKLeo put on a show, besting some of the top players in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, including Rei "komorikiri" Furukawa.

"Komorikiri was my best friend back then in Smash 4," MKLeo said. "He was also a Cloud main. He was the person I was spending all my time in the U.S. with. I didn't have any friends. He also didn't have any friends, so I was just spending my time with komorikiri. I didn't know English back then, and he didn't know English either, so even though we couldn't communicate, it was still a very fun time to sit down and play some games."

Genesis 4 concluded with an impressive Top 8 performance from MKLeo. He didn't meet Gonzalo "ZeRo" Barrios, the top-ranked player in the world, in bracket play, though. ZeRo had been knocked to the losers' bracket in his pool.

"In my mind, I just had the idea that ZeRo was going to win the tournament," MKLeo said. "I knew if ZeRo got to the grand finals against me, I was going to lose to him. I just felt that way. I felt I wasn't able to be the best at that moment."

But ZeRo's losers' bracket run ended at the hands of Elliot "Ally" Bastien Carroza-Oyarce in the losers' final, after MKLeo sent Ally to that side of the bracket. MKLeo faced Ally again and took out the veteran in the first series of the final in front of a packed house inside the San Jose Civic.

I sat to the side of the stage, waiting for a chance to speak to Leo. I grabbed his attention, and we went to a room to do an interview. At the time, he spoke little English, and I spoke little Spanish, but we were both up to try. ZeRo joined us to help translate, but we wound up doing most of the interview with me asking a question in English, Leo answering in Spanish and me translating it all the following day for an article about MKLeo's big win.

I've covered Leo for the three-and-a-half years since then, and I've seen his demeanor change along with the growth of his game. We've spoken a number of times, including before he won Evo 2019 and later that weekend following the trophy ceremony. I've seen him win another Genesis title (he has three now). No longer the shy kid I met at that event in San Jose, Leo is as confident as they come now, and with ZeRo's retirement a few years ago, he's the rightful king of both Smash for Wii U and Smash Ultimate, the Nintendo Switch release from 2018.

Genesis 4, however, was the start of Leo's legacy.

"Back when I won ZeRo Saga, I didn't feel like I was actually the best at that moment," MKLeo said. "Of course, ZeRo was still the best. When I won that tournament, I was like, 'Oh, yeah, well, I won a big tournament. What if I got lucky? What if I'm not really that good?'

"When I won Genesis, too, I was like, 'OK, it wasn't lucky.' It was me being really good. It was me growing up in the game. It was me with all the talent I had. It was me accomplishing my dream of becoming the best."


Street Fighter 2 at the EightyTwo barcade

By Daniel J. Collette

The best esports I've ever seen doesn't involve a stadium, a roaring crowd or superstar players. It takes place every week in a crowded corner of EightyTwo, Downtown Los Angeles' premiere arcade bar.

Every Friday, a small group of 10-15 regulars gathers around the Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting cabinet to compete in what is likely some of the highest-level competitive play of that title in the world. In its years of existence, EightyTwo has become the go-to spot for Southern California's best Street Fighter II players. There are a number of other arcade bars in the L.A. area, but the regulars at EightyTwo are drawn by its unique, club-like vibe, its well-maintained cabinets and, most importantly, its commitment to the Hyper Fighting scene.

For those unaware of the Street Fighter II series' incredibly confusing naming convention, Hyper Fighting was not the final version of the game. That title belongs to Super Street Fighter II Turbo (commonly referred to as Super Turbo).

Super Turbo and its predecessor, Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, are among the more common cabinets left in the wild. They're the versions of SF2 you're most likely to find at your local dive. EightyTwo made a name for itself by being the only spot in town with a Hyper Fighting cabinet instead of the more popular iterations. Although there's a lively competitive scene for Super Turbo to this day, Hyper Fighting remains one of the more obscure entries into the SF2 series, forgotten by time in place of its successor. However, it is still preferred by some due to its differences in pacing, balance and character roster from Super Turbo.

The Hyper Fighting scene is effectively a niche within a niche, the game of choice for a small number of Street Fighter 2 players in an already small community. It's safe to assume that the majority of the competitive Hyper Fighting scene lives in Los Angeles, and watching them compete at EightyTwo is nothing short of incredible.

There are rarely ever tournaments at EightyTwo. Most Friday, it's a winner-stays-on rotation of friendly matches. The regulars joke with one another, talk about their families and their lives, and share drinks and cigarettes while duking it out in some of the highest-level Hyper Fighting play around. There's no score being kept and no prize money on the line. It's just a bunch of locals sharing a common love for Street Fighter.

The Hyper Fighter masters of EightyTwo are not your typical esports athletes. Many of them are in their 30s or 40s and have been playing Street Fighter II since its release in 1987, never moving on to other entries in the Street Fighter franchise or other video games for that matter. They don't have Twitter accounts, they don't use gamertags, and they don't stream on Twitch.

At 24 years old, I'm probably the youngest regular in the scene. I got into esports by competing in the modern entries of the Street Fighter franchise, such as Ultra Street Fighter 4 and Street Fighter 5. When I discovered EightyTwo after moving to Los Angeles a couple of years ago, I had little experience with Street Fighter II, which actually differs quite greatly from the modern titles. Nevertheless, the EightyTwo community welcomed me with open arms, teaching me and helping me relearn my favorite game from the ground up. Their passion and mastery of the game inspired me to keep coming back over and over again, no matter how many times I lost, and as a result, Street Fighter 2 has become one of my main competitive games. I've even gone so far as to build my own arcade cabinet to host matches at home.

Whether you're a competitor or spectator at EightyTwo, it's incredible to watch such masterful displays of skill in such a casual and friendly way. It's fascinating to see such a high level of competition occurring totally out of plain sight. In the modern era of esports, it's hard to imagine that being incredibly good at a competitive game wouldn't draw a great deal of attention, but the privacy of the EightyTwo community is part of what makes it special. There's no audience save for the other patrons of the bar, who are mostly there to drink, dance and play pinball -- not spectate masterclass Street Fighter 2. There's no pomp and circumstance to be found here. It's esports in its rawest form, with a group of friends drawn together by their love for the game.


LI Joe dazzles at Evo 2016

By Arda Ocal

In 2016, I was just starting my esports journey with ESPN. One of the first events I contributed to was the Evolution Championship Series, the world's biggest fighting game tournament, which I watched on ESPN. That's when I, along with many across the country, was introduced to Joe Ciaramelli.

Better known as LI Joe, he is a charismatic guy -- affable, fun to be around, the kind of guy you want to have a beer with. At Evo 2016, Joe found himself the lone representative of the USA going into the Top 8 in the Street Fighter V tournament. This wasn't unusual, as Asia dominated the scene, and it had been several years since we saw an American player finish as a runner-up at Evo in the latest Street Fighter release.

But this was Joe's magnum opus -- the furthest he had gone in a major tournament, with the home country crowd firmly behind him -- and he was embracing the moment.

Joe fought hard against Japan's Hiroyuki "Eita" Nagata in the losers' bracket, secured the win and brought the crowd to a frenzy. The American leapt out of his chair, walked around the stage and roared, with his father and friends cheering along with the crowd.

"The Hyper Fighting scene is effectively a niche within a niche, the game of choice for a small number of Street Fighter 2 players in an already small community."

Joe's Cinderella run ended with a loss to Atsushi "Fujimura" Fujimura, then known as Yukadon, but I will always remember what happened next. LI Joe was gracious, bowing to the crowd and giving props to his opponent in defeat. While Joe was being interviewed on the broadcast, his father made his way toward him, and they embraced. The crowd once again exploded, and our hearts filled with joy at home.

When we spoke last year, Joe reflected on this moment and where it ranks in his career.

"It's easily No. 1. I don't know if anything I could ever do would surpass that," he said. "I guess if I won would be the only thing. Everything I ever cared about happened in one weekend, between the people that were there, the timing of it. [My dad] being there from literally the start of my fighting game career -- he was the one that took me around to arcades -- my friends that were there that were playing with me forever. It couldn't have been any more perfect unless I won."

play
1:05

Long Island Joe and his dad at Evo 2016

Long Island Joe representing the US at Evo 2016 with the support of his father.

I always loved playing Street Fighter 2. I used to get $3 in allowance every week for doing chores around the house, and the entire $3 would go to the Street Fighter 2 Champion Edition arcade machine at the convenience store down the street. But I had never seen this game played at this competitive level.

LI Joe was really the first player who opened my eyes to a whole new circuit of competition through his will and character. I bet he did that for many others as well.


An NPR conversation with SonicFox

By Emily Rand

I knew of Dominique "SonicFox" McLean before I met them. When joking with friends in esports media, we would often say SonicFox was too good for the gaming community. They were the hero we needed but certainly didn't deserve.

Last year, I was invited to speak about the esports industry on NPR's 1A podcast. SonicFox and esports attorney Barry Lee (a friendly acquaintance of mine through League of Legends esports) were the two guests. Although I had heard SonicFox's voice before onstage after a variety of victories and had heard SonicFox give powerful, emotional speeches moments after winning, this was different.

It was a quieter assertion of who SonicFox was and what they stood for. As they told their story of coming up through fighting game tournaments, I couldn't help but be inspired. If SonicFox could speak consistently -- not just on this podcast but also at every event -- to who they were, who was to say that I couldn't do the same?

I'm not there yet, but SonicFox continues to be an inspiration to me.


Wheels faces Valoraxe at Combo Breaker 2017

By Thomas Tischio, as told to Arda Ocal

I would have to say that one of my favorite moments is Dayton "Wheels" Jones vs. Rob "Valoraxe" Doherty in the Killer Instinct Grand Finals at Combo Breaker 2017. Wheels is a Gargos/Sabrewulf player, and he has spinal muscular atrophy type 2. Basically, the part of his nervous system that controls voluntary muscle movement is completely gone. So he plays in a wheelchair.

I want to say that for two or three Combo Breakers, he finished in the top eight, but he was never able to make it through to the finals. Finally, he got there against an English player called Valoraxe. What made that set special wasn't the fact that Wheels got to the finals. What made that set special was the crowd. Esports crowds are known for being rowdy and loud. I've covered a lot of esports events, and that was by far the loudest crowd I've ever seen.

Wheels was coming from losers. He 3-0'd Valoraxe, just making literal work of him. Every single thing Valoraxe did, Wheels was there. I'll never forget the crowd and the commentators.

Combo Breaker is an extremely special atmosphere, in the sense that it celebrates fighting games for three days. When I mean celebrates it, I mean that it is a true celebration of people coming together to beat the s--- out of each other. It is such a special place. It's almost like a sacred ground. People view Combo Breaker as a bigger event in terms of prestige for them than Evo.

Rick Thiher, the event director for Combo Breaker, has always taken special care of (Killer Instinct) because KI is such a fun game to watch, and it is such an amazing game to play. It has always held its own spot at Combo Breaker, and it has almost become their finals, in a way. To win KI Combo Breaker is a massive deal.

A bunch of people from the development team come to watch this because it's so much fun. I think what made this match special was the reset -- and the USA cheers. Wheels didn't end up winning the match: Surprisingly, Valoraxe took it 3-2, but it was the closest 3-2 I've ever seen. I was photographing it, as I've done since 2016. It takes a lot for me to put down a camera and just watch the spectator.

I think that's why that Wheels vs. Valoraxe set epitomizes Combo Breaker to me. It's people throwing out everything they have. All of their passion comes out, and it is on full display at Combo Breaker.

When I say people are nerds for fighting games at Combo Breaker, I mean nerds. Combo Breaker is one of the few events that adopted a 24-hour venue early. During the event's run time, it never closes. I did an experiment on my own time: I went there at midnight, 2 a.m., 4 a.m., 6 a.m. The main ballroom had anywhere from 100 to 500 people in it all the time. People sleep in the ballroom, they wake up, they play fighting games, and they pass back out.

I think that's what fighting games are, right? It's not this very produced thing. It is people who love the community. And that's what Combo Breaker is: It's people who love the community.


An inside look at The Sea Salt Suite

By Tyler Erzberger

To pull back the curtain a bit, every year at Evo, I work alongside one or multiple of my editors to brainstorm a big-picture feature I can work on while I'm at the event. Some years that has been doing a long-form piece on a prolific player, and other years it has been following a specific game from qualifiers to finale.

In 2018, my boss at the time suggested what story I should work on in the most elementary way possible: "You're going to go to Evo but not actually go to Evo."

What seemed odd at first turned into a whirlwind adventure when I met up with the group that ran The Sea Salt Suite, an all-weekend party in a hotel suite in Las Vegas, where the best players would hang out and practice following their matches during the day. After arriving in the city, I found my way into the most exclusive party on the Las Vegas Strip, nestling myself in a corner and being a fly on the wall while players from around the world paraded their way through the doors, with some carrying fighting setups in convenient gaming suitcases and others lugging hefty CRT televisions into the room.

Over the next few days, it was pandemonium, with old players and new coming together to laugh, party and practice from when the sun went down until it crept back up over the desert's horizon. By Saturday night, hours before the finals of the event's biggest games would begin at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, with thousands of fans packing the venue, I was still in The Salty Suite, watching players bet on grudge matches to get bragging rights. It didn't matter if the players spoke the same language when they sat down to play their favorite game: Currency and what characters the players selected were the only things that mattered.

That Saturday, I didn't leave the suite until 6 a.m., a few minutes before police showed up to warn the partygoers of noise complaints from their neighbors. After Ubering to my hotel and getting 40 minutes of sleep, I was out of bed to take a shower before heading to Mandalay Bay for the final day of matches, wondering if I could keep my eyes open the entire day.

Fortunately, I did. I made it through Sunday's festivities and a post-event dinner with my colleagues, running half on adrenaline and half on energy drinks. When I fell asleep that night, I didn't wake up until Monday afternoon, with a few hours to myself before I flew out later that day.

There's no place like Vegas, but there's especially no place like Vegas during Evo weekend.


Lil Majin rocks Mandalay Bay at Evo 2018

By Amanda Stevens, as told to Emily Rand

I've covered myriad fighting game events in addition to broader esports events, but the moment that stands out to me the most is TEKKEN player Terrelle "Lil Majin" Jackson's run at Evo in 2018.

At that time, TEKKEN titles predominantly belonged to South Korean pro players, along with a few Japanese players. The U.S. was not known for its strong TEKKEN performances.

We look back and say Lil Majin was definitely a strong player, but he definitely wasn't a top-eight favorite that year. We had our first American in a winners final in years. As someone who was there covering Evo, I remember my ears still ringing the next day from how loud the crowd was. I've watched the VOD from that run, and it's one of the few times that you can hear the crowd through the house mic over the commentators.

You could hear the crowd through the booth chanting Lil Majin's name, getting hype on every hit confirm, every conversion. Now, he lost in winners' finals and then in losers' finals, but the run itself was something most people thought was impossible, especially on a character such as King.

It was also rare to see a fighting game live audience back one player that uniformly. In those moments, the entirety of Mandalay Bay was cheering for Lil Majin during his unexpected run. Despite his eventual losses, the crowd remained behind Lil Majin for every one of his EVO matches.

It showed how hype TEKKEN could be.