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LI Joe on why fighting games aren't more popular as esports: 'Our grassroots style sort of held us back'

by Preston Dozsa Jul 13

Podcast video topics and time stamps:

2:43 America's chances at winning EVO this year
5:11 Why isn't Street Fighter a major esport?
11:10 Making fighting games accessible for newcomers
17:43 The FGC's roots and it's future as an esport
26:13 LI Joe on balancing fighting games with his full time job
29:32 What's it like commentating fighting games instead of playing them?
34:29 Who will be Top 8 in Street Fighter at EVO?

EVO 2017 is rapidly approaching, and to help fan the flames of hype, theScore esports Podcast took some time to talk to All-American Street Fighter hero Joe "LI Joe" Ciaramelli.

Last year's Street Fighter V Top 8 sensation sat down with the podcast over Skype to talk about North America's chances at winning EVO, balancing the responsibilities of his full-time job with his FGC career and the future of fighting games as esports continue to grow.

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The biggest fighting game tournament of the year is set to get underway and for many fans, this is the best chance in years for a North American player to win it all in Street Fighter V. With this year's best players including the likes of Punk, Nuckledu, and Snake Eyez, LI Joe believes that if America doesn't win it, we're going to be waiting a long time for a chance like this to come around again.

"I honestly think that this is the best chance we have and probably the best chance that we're going to have in a while," he said. "The thing about the foreign competition is that, especially Japan and other countries like that, they don't want to lose more than once. If they do bad this year, the grind for them in 2018 or whatever is going to be off the charts. It's their culture also. So if we have a shot, it's in five days."

While the American talent at this year's EVO looks stacked, Joe was famously the only North American player in the Top 8 at EVO 2016. But in the year since, LI Joe has appeared at fewer and fewer tournaments.

Like many FGC players, he holds a full-time job that often conflicts with tournaments and practice time. Over the past year, he admits that it's been difficult to balance both sides of his life, especially with the way tournaments are scheduled.

"Unfortunately right after EVO, and this was kind of why I haven't been around much during the season 2 days and all that, right after EVO I got promoted," he told theScore esports said. "So then I had to start working on Saturday, and tournaments usually start on Friday or Saturday, it's a crapshoot or if I would be able to get to the tournament. So if I would sign up for Combo Breaker and Combo Breaker has my pool on a Saturday, and it's Saturday morning, I'm screwed. So it's really, really hard to balance it," he said.

"Honestly, it's only gotten slightly difficult within the past six months or so. And there's actually going to be more changes coming to my job in the next month or so that's going to change my lifestyle even more. I'm trying my best, I'm going to try my best this weekend for whatever game that comes out. But it's really hard to stay up there, especially when you've got the guys that are so damn good."

Though the FGC has existed in one shape or another for decades, it has not received the same attention from outside companies and sponsors as other esports, particularly games like CS:GO and Dota 2. And while esports have grown rapidly in the past few years, LI Joe thinks that the FGC's origins as a grassroots community has hampered its growth as an esport.

"I just think that we started... there's a few reasons I think," LI Joe said. "Our grassroots style sort of held us back for awhile. Especially when esports was up and coming, we had a hard time branching over into allowing companies to, I guess, sort of tame us and tell us what we can and can't do. Cause the FGC is so homegrown. It started in arcades, and who told you what to do in the arcade? Absolutely nobody. And that kind of branched off into the way we had tournaments. Not to say that they're not the same way, but they were slightly more... I want to use the word rowdy, but in a good way," he said.

"There was just a different sense of rawness that came out of the FGC. And I think that's why a lot of companies didn't really want to dive into us, so to speak. And you had a much more marketable group of players, be it Dota, League of Legends or CS:GO."

But as the FGC has received more and more attention, with ELEAGUE's involvement and the EVO Grand Finals being streamed on ESPN2, LI Joe thinks that apart from a small collection of people, the changes that are being made are necessary to help the FGC grow.

"I think there might be a small group of people that feel that way," LI Joe said. "I'm not sure why. I'll be honest, back in the day, I think I might have been one of the people who said we shouldn't do this, I'm not sure this is the way we want to go. But when you really pull yourself back and look at the way the world changed, and look at how gaming changed in general, this is the way we're supposed to go. We're supposed to walk this path. Why would we not go down this road? It doesn't make any sense."

That said, LI Joe believes that as long as people remember where the FGC came from, the community will retain the traditions and the style that made the community what it is today.

"Of course I've heard people say that 'This isn't what it's about, it's about that.' But the thing is, it's always going to be about that, because people will always be in this room right here yelling, screaming, cursing, getting into silly arguments. We're always going to go to our local places to play and mash on buttons and get a little crazy. As long as we keep it within ourselves, we'll be okay."

Preston Dozsa is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.

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