World Warriors: An Insight into the Life of a Pro Fighting Gamer
The life of a professional fighting gamer is mystical and alluring. These world warriors get to travel the globe in search of their next opponent to rush down. Sponsored partially or in full, they cross continents to defend their honour at competitive gaming events. Along the way they encounter new friends and foes, they explore new cultures and taste new food and drink. The chance to travel is coveted by many stuck in their jail cells of office cubicles; the chance to do what you love, and to subsist off it, is rarer still. But still you wonder – is being a world warrior, a competitive fighting game, all it’s cracked up to be? Beyond the Kuwaiti tea, the Japanese ramen, and the American fried chicken, is this really worth it?
I had the chance to follow two such world warriors last weekend in my quest for the truth.
It is 10pm at night and the flight is delayed. Xian, Zhi, and Cameraman – inimitable YouTube stars (previously) of CrossCounter Asia and now YaoiTV – are accompanied by Street Fighter x Megaman creator Sonic and myself before one of Changi Airport’s numerous boarding gates.
We are waiting to board the plane to Indonesia, where they will be taking part in and filming the Indonesia Fighting Game Championships. In the silence of the boarding gate’s holding area Xian, Zhi, and Cameraman talk and laugh and joke. The rapport in the team is obvious – the three of them have been travelling, working, and filming together for over two years now. Even with Sonic and myself present the vibe does not change: they’re going off, world warriors, to new, unexplored territory. What are two more friends to join them?
Travel has become an everyday thing for Xian, Zhi, and Cameraman. They carry little and have packed less – most of their baggage weight is camera equipment. While waiting for the flight to board we banter and gossip about the community back home, and the drama that it’s steeped in. We wonder if we’ll get stopped at the customs on the other side. Time passes. At last the gates open, half an hour after they were supposed to. Zhi tweets Joz, a streamer from Indonesia, to let him know we’re boarding. We are on our way!
In Soekarno-Hatta Airport in Jakarta, Zhi picks up a data sim so we can be connected to the world (and so he can Instagram). It’s lucky he did because there is no sign of the Indonesian FGC outside the arrival hall. We adjourn to A&W for a bite, only to be met mid-meal by a small welcoming party.
“We saw your tweet about going to A&W,” Blazblue player Akhmad said. His brother, Taufiq, is holding an iPad that reads: DM MCZ Xian, DM MCZ Zhi. Hellos are traded and waffles are wolfed down. It’s past midnight and the tournament starts at 8am tomorrow.
As we walk to the car park, I find myself at the back of the group with Cameraman and Sonic. “This is how it usually is,” Cameraman says. “When we go to such tournaments they’re really more interested in talking to Xian and Zhi, so I just hang back.”
There are two cars to take us all to the hotel. I go with Zhi, while Sonic, Xian, and Cameraman squeeze into the other. Through the ride back to the hotel, Akhmad talks to Zhi about fighting games in Singapore and Japan. Zhi enquires about Indonesia in return. Tekken and Blazblue dominate the Indonesian fighting game community, and Japanese culture – cosplay and anime especially – is big in Jakarta. Though fighting games are picking up the pace, the size of the country prevents players from gathering as often as they like. Social media has been a great help in bringing together gamers from across the different Indonesian regions, and the growth of the community has been encouraged by introductory clinics by the better players. The Indonesian Fighting Game Championships are Indonesia’s first ‘Road to EVO’ event.
At the hotel, there are two rooms and five people. We are settled in by Bram from Advance Guard, the foremost fighting game stream in Indonesia. Later through the trip, Bram will end up being our babysitter. Now he is just solicitous – how are we going to sleep? Is the hotel all right? Do we need anything extra? We assure him that it is and that we’ll sort out the sleeping arrangements. “We share beds all the time,” he is told by our well-seasoned world warriors. “Don’t worry.” It is 1am, after all, and they need their sleep as organisers.
I end up rooming with Xian and Sonic. Zhi disappears to the other room with Cameraman, but not before we discover the frosted toilet doors are semi-transparent. Everyone’s silhouette is reflected in the mirror regardless, and the room is small enough that you can’t avoid seeing what’s happening. We laugh a lot over this, both out of awkwardness and amusement. Midway, someone is unfortunately immortalised on Instagram taking a dump.
Later at night, before he drifts off, Xian says our sleeping arrangements remind him of his school days, when his friends slept with him. His tone is wistful, and comes from another world.
We are woken at daybreak by a wild Zhi, who tells us we are going to be late. Confused by the lack of sleep, Xian and I stumble to the corridor for a morning cigarette. There, Xian looks at his phone and asks: “did he really wake us up at 6.40am?”
Another hour is spent rolling around in bed after we verify that Zhi is operating on a different timezone. Cameraman joins the three of them and I contribute to the #YaoiTV hashtag on Instagram. YaoiTV is the name of their new show; no longer are the Desperation Move-Mad Catz YouTube stars part of CrossCounter Asia. After Xian decides on whether to put his lucky red underwear on, we stagger down to breakfast, running on little sleep. Bram, Akhmad, Taufiq, and Wilson come to take us to the venue, but not before Bram is sure we’re all right with the hotel breakfast. “We can take you elsewhere if you don’t like it,” he says to the fighting game superstars, but they reassure him the breakfast is fine.
The Indonesia Fighting Game Championships are held on the second floor corridor of Jakarta’s Binus University. The business university counts IBM and Microsoft as some of their partners, and its interior is done up in cool greens, greys, and glass. A Japanese convention is running concurrently – the IFGC is part of the CosUta Matsuri, an anime and cosplay convention organised by the university’s student body. We arrive before the con really opens, and Bram takes advantage of the peace and quiet to brief Xian and Zhi on their sponsor’s requirements.
GS Shop is Indonesia’s largest videogame chain store. With 30 branches across Indonesia, it even has its own media outlet – Video Games Indonesia. The two shops we visited have a minimalist feel, and are given a geeky christening by way of strategically placed game collectibles. One store had a steel Capcom cup, while another had a PSOne Onimusha sword controller made by Hori. One of GS Shop’s partners is a Street Fighter player, and he has given back very generously to the community by having both GS Shop and Video Games Indonesia sponsor the Indonesia Fighting Games Championships. GS Shop are also the ones responsible for flying DM MCZ Xian and DM MCZ Zhi (and Cameraman and myself) down for the IFGC.
And sponsorships have to be accounted for. Bram tells both Xian and Zhi that photos with fans have to feature the GS Shop and VGI banners, while interviews are exclusive to VGI only. They also have to let him know if anyone wants to grab a picture with them, so he can get the banners ready. And they have to don the event’s shirt, with the sponsors’ logos on it.
The tournament gets started in earnest, as does the CosUta Matsuri. Gamers and cosplayers alike start pouring in; we even saw three players from as far away as Surabaya wandering the festival grounds on the first floor.
Blazblue is up first, so Xian catches a nap on a nearby sofa. I follow Zhi and Cameraman to, as they say, “make content”. “Mic up,” Cameraman tells us. He launches into directing mode, and we follow.
It is a fierce day of competition. The tournament cannot overrun so schedules are tight. At around 2pm, Zhi wraps up an interview with a lovely female player, Katalyss of Indonesia, and Xian and I sneak out with him for a quick lunch. We feasted on street food, ordered via the limited Bahasa I can speak and Xian’s ingenuity. S$4 for 25 sticks of satay? Life doesn’t get any better than that.
Cigarettes, too, are cheaper in Indonesia than Singapore, and that makes Xian very happy. A box costs slightly more than S$2, and I accompany him on frequent smoke breaks. Nearly no one else in the Indonesia fighting game community smokes. With each cigarette it’s clear how Xian, Zhi, and Cameraman have bonded so well over the course of their two years together. With just two or three people, you’re more inclined to open up. Xian drops unwitting nuggets of wisdom as he tells me about his life on the road and the people he meets, the best of which was this:
“You’re only a good player if you understand what makes other people good.”
Later at night, Xian and Zhi are introduced to Ah Chau, the GS Shop partner who made the trip possible. In Ah Chau, Xian finds a kindred spirit. Sponsor and sponsored player both smoke like fiends, and they both speak Hokkien. They bond instantly.
Ah Chau ends up taking us all out to dinner at the swanky mall opposite the venue, where we had Indonesian food. The conversation at dinner is either in Bahasa, or centered around Xian. While Zhi is undoubtedly part of the dynamic duo, Xian is the real Beast-slayer. The rest of us – Cameraman, Sonic, myself – sat at the end and watched the spotlight hover over Xian. Dinner is a veritable feast. At its tail, Ah Chau and Xian head out for a smoke, and I tag along. Sitting by the smoking corner of the mall, Ah Chau tells Xian about the cultural differences in Indonesia, and asks him if he’d like to see the nightlife or play more games. Xian declines on both counts – “I’m very tired,” he tells Ah Chau, citing the previous night’s lack of sleep. Tomorrow is the grand finals, too. We head back to the tournament venue and go back to the hotel from there. Bram sends us back in the hired car – Jakarta traffic can get crazy – before heading back to the venue to wrap up the Soul Calibur V pools.
Worn out by the long day and the lack of sleep, we all shower and hop into bed, but end up watching a couple of horror movies before finally turning the TV off. Sleep is not easy to come, perhaps because it’s a foreign land. In spite of tomorrow being the grand finals of the IFGC, Sonic, Xian, and I end up talking for an hour before we drift off to sleep.
At breakfast, Xian does not eat. We head to the tournament venue slightly later than the previous day. Persona 4 Arena is in full swing. Xian, Zhi, Sonic, and Cameraman go off to their respective stations to play and I am left to observe.
The tournament is even longer and more drawn out today, and breaks are ever so much more infrequent. Xian’s smoke breaks are rushed, and the entire university building is so full of cosplayers it’s difficult to walk. The air smells of hype. On the first floor there is a cosplay competition which will later segue into a karaoke competition and band performances.
The acoustics of the mostly-glass Binus University are jarring and the bands, however good, echo maddeningly. Combined with the tap tap of buttons and the sound of characters being bashed up, the noise is overwhelming. The timing of your next match depends on when you’re called up, and the long wait can be tiring. I spot one of the Malaysian players sleeping under a desk.
But grand finals day is also a day of cheering and yelling for your friends. The Indonesian fighting game community is out in full swing, and they go insane when their female player Katalyss bodies all Singapore players – Xian included – at Puzzle Fighter.
The finals last till nearly 8pm. Xian skipped lunch as well; “I’ll eat after I win at Marvel,” he said, and went on to win first place for King of Fighters XIII, Super Street Fighter IV AE 2012, Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3. Sonic, Cameraman, and Zhi pick up their own shares of glory (and rupiah) as well.
At the end of the day, as the tournament organisers tear down the venue and pack up, we sit at a corner of the university and Xian and Zhi talk about leaving this world. They outwardly contemplate a life outside of gaming, beyond spending entire days, weeks, or even months on the road, stuck in convention halls and events, with nary a woman in sight.
“You have a wife and kids to go home to, Cameraman,” Zhi says, of their frustrations. “We don’t.”
Dinner is yet another feast. At 11pm we finally leave the venue and head to a local joint: Pondok Ikan Bakar – literally, roast fish hut – for dinner. We dine with the organising committee and the Video Games Indonesia crew, who want to interview Xian, Zhi, and Sonic. The cuisine here is even crazier than the mall restaurant’s. We sample what looks suspiciously like a box fish, with its innards taken out and fried in nuggets, and are introduced to roasted pete – a bean that makes your breath stink. Dinner ends late, just as the restaurant is about to close, and VGI ask if they can do the interviews at the hotel instead. It is 12 midnight on a Sunday.
Everyone heads back to the hotel, and they interview Sonic separately from Xian and Zhi. Sonic’s interview is nothing new – he has said these words almost a dozen times to a dozen gaming media, but Xian and Zhi decide to be a little more honest.
When the VGI interviewer asks them if they have any advice for gamers in Indonesia who want to go pro, Xian says: “don’t do it.”
You give up your life for it, he says, revealing how top players like Daigo and Tokido live their game. If you don’t put everything into what you have, then you won’t be at the top. To not be at the top is to just be mediocre, to be yet another player who has to juggle his game with his day job. And to simply be mediocre?
“It’s not worth it.”
Tomorrow there will be some free time in Jakarta before the late night flight home. Tomorrow Xian and Zhi, and the rest of us by default, will be hosted so hospitably we will not want to go home. But tonight they will sit in bed and count their prize money after that long, long day of gaming, and contemplate a future with no games in it.