Forward, forward, jab! Inside the world of competitive gaming

Roughly 200 players make up the fighting game community, or FCG, in the Twin Cities // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

A fighter fastens his long red bandana, tightens his leather gloves, and stares down his opponent. As though a Roman sculpture, the man before him is a mountain of muscle, a feral look in his eyes. The fighter wipes sweat from his brow; he has been in this position before. Nerves and sweat conspiring against him, he reaches for the arcade cabinet’s joystick, ready to pummel Zangief with a flurry of furious fists, an uppercut, and the almighty Hadouken blast.

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This is a typical tournament for Evan Bredendick, a Minnesotan who is a part of the FGC, or fighting game community.

The FGC isn’t a professional organization—participants aren’t winning enough money to pay the bills, though tournament prize money is often awarded. Instead, it’s a group of diehard gamers who hone their skills in the hopes of climbing up leaderboards, winning tournaments, and for some, moving on up into the professional world of gaming. It’s a proving ground.

Bredendick knows this scene well. A web developer and digital marketer by day, the local pugilist has been fighting others via joystick and buttons since 2009.

“I first started as, and still am, a Street Fighter player, entering local and larger tournaments,” he explains. Tournaments can range from 100 players to over 2,000—about 200 players form the Twin Cities fighting game community.

The largest FGC in the Midwest is Combo Breaker, based out of Illinois. Not only does Bredendick fight in “Street Fighter 5” Combo Breaker events as Chun Li (there’s nothing quite like unleashing a flurry of impossible-to-see kicks Bruce Lee–style), but he helps to market the group’s events. He also helps out Community Effort Orlando, which hosts a tournament series in Orlando.

But the local competitive scene doesn’t have much money in it.

“The Midwest in general is quite behind the East and West Coast in terms of competition, as we’re not as centralized in terms of population, and consequentially our scene is much smaller and less elite in terms of competition,” he says. “It’s frustrating but our community is pretty tight-knit, comparatively, because of it. I think the general competitive mindset in the Midwest is a bit more casual than the coasts as well.”

When you head to the coasts, eSports (as competitive gaming is called) becomes a bigger business. The rapidly growing section of gaming sees professional players earn enough money in sponsorships, from companies like Red Bull and Alienware, to play games as a full-time job. ESPN even provided extensive online coverage for The Rocket League European Championship finals, a game where you play soccer with cars that refuse to uphold the laws of physics. ESPN2 televised the 2016 edition of the Evo Championship Series, which took place in Las Vegas and drew in more than 5,000 players. Lee “Infiltration” Seon Woo, the first place finisher in Street Fighter V, reportedly took home the $50,000 grand prize.

While climbing the competitive ladder has its ups and downs, pro gamer Carl White (who goes by the handle, Perfect Legend) explains that attending events is mostly fun. He would know: White has been a pro gamer for over a decade, having won three Evo Championship Series finals—the fighting game community’s marquee event—and others.

“It’s amazing,” the Toledo, Ohio-based pro says. “Who would’ve known that gaming would get to this level?” White gets to set his own hours, adding that “you kind of get to live like a rock star, traveling from event to event. There really isn’t a downside other than managing your time so you keep a good balance of work and play,” says White. “Tournaments are fun and stressful.”

While eSports may be a smaller collective in the Midwest, it’s beginning to grow a presence // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Playing video games might seem like an enviable career, but the full-time schedule of professionals can be grueling. “It takes a lot of work to compete with the ridiculous training regimes of a lot of pros,” Bredendick says. “Take a look at ‘League [of Legends]’ and how many hours a day their pro players all put in. It’s crazy.” White says that he puts in anywhere from four to 12 hours a day depending on the character he’s training with. Other pros can train for more than 50 hours a week.

But for White and other pro gamers, that type of mindset is part of the allure of being a pro.

“It’s very much like being an artist,” begins White. “If you don’t like your art you probably won’t produce beautiful art. I view fighting games as a form of art. Different play styles that characters have to use, or certain tactics to win that may or may not match up correctly with your inherent play style. Whenever a game comes out you have to soul search to find which character and strategy is best for you. Depending on your perspective and work ethic, it can be a very fun process. At the end of the day, I love to compete, I love gaming, meeting new people, and performing live on stages even if it’s just for fighting games. I love it.”

And some of those very players may just get a start right here in the Twin Cities.

“I can’t think of a single Street Fighter pro that didn’t start as a player that did well in a lot of tournaments before getting noticed and sponsored,” says Bredendick. “We all start as people that love the game—whatever it is.”

The world of eSports and professional gaming is only continuing to grow, and for these two fighting game fanatics, the bond with others who love the same genre of gaming makes attending events worth it, whether they’re small local gatherings, or the largest tournaments in the world.

After all, who doesn’t like pretending to be a skilled martial artist able to deliver energy blast projectiles?

 

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