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Daigo Umehara: The icon, beast and breaker of cycles

Daigo Umehara is the breaker of cycles and will compete in the ELEAGUE Street Fighter V Invitational playoffs.
Daigo Umehara is the breaker of cycles and will compete in the ELEAGUE Street Fighter V Invitational playoffs. Photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE

So I always ask the question ‘What would you like to do if money was no object?’” – Alan Watts

The meaning of life is inevitably a journey of self discovery. That journey ends in the questions of “What do I wish to do? Who do I wish to be?” At that crux, many people realize they haven’t been living their lives so much as simply flowing along.

For most of our lives, we have little control over our destiny. We are born and raised, then set off into the school system to learn the basics of society and what is expected of us as responsible citizens of the community. Throughout that period, ideology, culture and a way of life are passed down to us via osmosis; most of us are too young to reflect on the veracity of this wisdom or our place within the world. So we eventually hit a moment where the individual and society are at loggerheads whenever the former desires something outside those norms. Society must refuse because it cannot accommodate the contradiction.

That question plagued Daigo Umehara’s father. So when he learned his son wished to spend his life playing video games, it was the father’s turn to impose society’s whims upon his son. He refused.

“My father, he liked things like martial arts and philosophy,” Daigo said. “But these things wouldn’t make enough money to live in that age. So my grandfather told my father, just as my grandfather’s father told my grandfather, that he should get a proper job. My father regretted it, so he wanted me to do what I was really into.”

That decision is rare. Even today, when esports is a burgeoning industry with millions of dollars poured into it, parents are reticent to have their children become a pro player or even take time off to test their chances. It was even more groundbreaking back then when video game players were being attacked by the media as truants, deviants and psychopaths. Daigo’s father set an example by breaking the cycle that permeates from generation to generation, and soon the son would follow.

Daigo quickly became the best and was near unstoppable in every game he played. At the time, the only thing that concerned Daigo was winning. The critical moment came when an older gamer congratulated him on his victory, but told him to pay attention to the quality of his wins.

“What good was winning without flair?” he said. “Annihilating an opponent without any concern for the beauty of the game was not the way forward.”

For Daigo, the game was no longer just a passion but art, the best way to express who he was as a person to the world outside. He took on lower tier characters and forced himself into new challenges to become an even more exciting player to watch. That eventually led him to two famous moments that made him known worldwide: his victory against Alex Valle in 1998 and, much more famously, EVO Moment 37.

Many things that make the latter special. It was the culmination of a battle players and fans in both Japan and America wanted to see in a long time. The showdown occurred at EVO, the tournament with the highest prestige of any FGC tournament in history. It came at a time when interest in the FGC was on the decline, and the sheer grandiosity of the act resparked passion throughout the community. It was the moment that defined both Daigo and Justin Wong’s careers. The impact of the moment is shocking as it is still the one of the most watched clips of any Street Fighter round to this day.

For Daigo, it was the culmination of what he was at that point. The moment came to define him, his art and his game; Moment 37 was the pinnacle of Daigo’s competitive drive and his art against one of his greatest rivals in the game. Henceforth, the community elevated Daigo is the status of deity, and he became a cultural figure in his own right. Evo Moment 37 was a source of inspiration for new players around the world. Most famously, NuckleDu watched it and said, “I could do that.” The young player went on to become a pro Street Fighter player, and eventually one of the best players in the world.

It was also a turning point for Daigo. With the elevation of his status came extreme pressure from both the community and himself. He was no longer a competitor but the competitor, and fans expected him to match the reputation they bestowed upon him. He became obsessed with winning and that focus stole away the joy he had initially found playing the game. As he admitted, “I lost all joy in playing the game and only later understood that this type of all-out approach to preparation could never bring me satisfaction and actually distorted the ideal of gaming.”

Perhaps that is why Daigo Umehara had such a conflicted view of Lee “Infiltration” Seon-woo during the Korean titan’s early days in Street Fighter 4. Back then, Infiltration was very much what Daigo was in the early 2000s: someone obsessed with winning. Infiltration didn’t care about the beauty of the game or creating excitement for the crowd; his gameplay was constructed around optimizing situations and cutting off his opponent’s options. He was perfectly happy lameing someone out for 99 seconds or smothering them in one-sided beatdowns. For Daigo, Infiltration was a shade of his past self.

Eventually Daigo came back after a stint of playing Mahjong and decided that his time wasn’t over yet. There were still goals yet to achieve. His reason for coming back was simple: “My dad taught me that I should do what I love, but that I had to persevere and become a leader in the field. I felt that I hadn’t yet succeeded in generating this level of influence.”

So Daigo continued onward, except this time he led by example. He became one of the first players in Japan to go full time as a pro gamer. The news was shocking, especially for his rival Tokido. Tokido has graduated from Tokyo University, the best college in Japan and was planning on going to graduate school.

“I thought I’d get a regular job and play as a hobby,” Tokido said. “Then that’s when I heard the news that Daigo was going to make a living being a pro game player.”

Daigo showed his contemporaries that there was an alternative path by which to live. One could survive as a pro player instead of relegating the pursuit to an ambitious hobby. Tokido had a choice between a lucrative normal life where he could get money and then go on to getting more money. It was a life many in Japan dream about. But he wasn’t satisfied with that and chose to chase his passion, just as Daigo had.

So then what is Daigo? What is his legacy?

Daigo is a living legend, a veteran who leads by example. He elevated his game into art, the truest form of self expression imaginable. He is the rock whose career spans across decades, who regularly partakes in exhilarating matches against the best of any era. Unsurprisingly, a competitor with his success has earned numerous rivals across multiple games and eras. It’s impossible to imagine Street Fighter without the narratives that have sprung up between him and other competitors. Alex Valle, John Choi, Infiltration, Xian, Tokido, Justin Wong, Filipino Champ — the list of his rivals is endless, their clashes unforgettable.

That list is surpassed only by the number of players he inspired. Perhaps most telling of all is the adulation he receives from contemporaries and fans alike. More than any other esports community, the FGC disdains the notion of “celebrity worship.” Events are almost always organized via grassroots efforts and competition is inherently egalitarian; pros are merely ordinary people who have risen above the pack of other ordinary people. No one enjoys preferential treatment, hence why the Smash community has gotten so much flack for creating a walled community between the top players and the rest. Everyone can be blown up, mocked, challenged, and interacted with on a one-on-one basis.

Yet Daigo is the exception. He represents something more than just individual success. He is an ideal of what fighting game players could be, of what the community could become. Daigo’s legacy has impacted the FGC in ways no other player can match and spreads far beyond the limited boundaries of the community. He is the figurehead of the FGC to the larger world. He has a book, a manga, a statue, documentaries, and TV specials about him. Yet for all of the media done about him, this one quote above all others rings truest to what Daigo is and what he stands for.

“This year I turn 35. 25 years have passed since I began playing Fighting Games, but compared with myself as a child, I’m not doing anything differently. I hope I’m able to continue my foolish way of living, so for this year as well I guess I’ll keep on doing my best.”

Daigo will continue his foolish ways tonight in the ELEAGUE Street Fighter V Invitational playoffs.

Cover photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE

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