The first time Daigo Umehara stepped up to a Street Fighter II arcade cabinet, he was instantly drawn to Ryu—the stoic travelling warrior who's served as the game's iconic hero since 1987. However, at the urging of a stranger at the arcade, the man who would eventually become known as The Beast ended up picking E. Honda.
“I wanted to choose Ryu, but an older person at the arcade, who was a total stranger, told me that he was not fit for a beginner and picked Honda for me despite my own intentions,” the champion fighting game player told theScore esports.
In that initial session with the game, Daigo only managed to beat the first stage of the Arcade mode by abusing Honda’s Hundred Hand Slap. An auspicious beginning to a legendary career. But Honda didn’t stick, and Daigo would go on to win countless tournaments with Ryu, including back-to-back EVO championships in 2009 and 2010.
More than just a collection of increasingly refined sprites, more than just a tool integral to his sport, Daigo said Ryu has become a part of him.
The character has become so closely tied to his identity that fans were shocked by his decision to switch to Guile in early 2017, during Street Fighter V’s second season, due to severe nerfs.
“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my life as a player,” he said. “I agonized over it for months and months. As I said before, since my philosophy is not to focus too much on winning, I felt like a hypocrite. Like I’d be lying to my true self and betraying my fans if I were to drop Ryu just because it was impossible to win. I’ve also been with Ryu for a long time so I felt a personal attachment to him too, which some may find strange. I liked his story, his personality, and his look.”
It’s much rarer to see these deep player-character relationships arise outside the FGC. In MOBAs like League of Legends, between such large casts and the constantly shifting meta, it’s difficult for a player can support a signature character for long.
While League of Legends streamer and former pro player Marcus “Dyrus” Hill was once known for his Singed play, he’s relied less and less on the champion due to a variety of factors, including his position in the meta, unwillingness to force a composition on his team, as well as the fear that a bad performance on him could affect his confidence.
“It's a double-edged sword because if you do bad on it, you're just going to be like, ‘I'm so good at this and it's going so bad? What the heck?’ You have to really have the right mindset,” Dyrus said. “Back in the day, I didn't play Singed because I thought he was bad in a ton of scenarios against Vlad, Cassio[peia], Kennen. There's just so many bad matchups for him and my chat, my viewers, my fans, they'd be like, ‘Why don't you just play Singed?’ And there's scenarios where you can make him work, but it's just like I have to be selfish to make it work and that kind of kills the team composition.”
Nonetheless, Dyrus said you can never count a League pro playing his pocket pick out of the game, citing a quote from the great Bruce Lee.
“[You do] have other champions, but it's just never going to be as effective as that one champion you put a bunch of hours in,” Dyrus said. “It's kind of like that saying where ‘I fear the man who has practiced one kick a thousand times compared to the man who has practiced a thousand different kicks one time." It's just one of those things.’”
In esports journalism, we often do our best to emphasize the similarities between esports and traditional sports, rather than the differences. The storylines between teams and players, the endurance and physical toll of training, the urge to win and the excitement of the reverse sweep.
However, the actual competition is mediated through the games themselves. Their aesthetic and characters that exist independently of the competitive scene. No football has an intricate lore explanation for getting kicked into the other team’s endzone, no baseball bat has a tortured backstory involving dead family members and a quest for vengeance.
Of course, character design and lore are window-dressing, they aren’t integral to competition. Many players are successful just playing the meta of their particular game and picking characters based on where they fall on the current tier list.
But then you have players like Daigo. Players who synergize so well with a character they can achieve things no one else in their esport can.
Take Daigo’s fellow Japanese Street Fighter legend Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi. Tokido’s love for Akuma is the stuff of legend. For instance, At the 2010 SoCal Regionals, Tokido was so enthused by a victory that he jumped up and reenacted the character’s signature Raging Demon pose in front of the projector. It was a moment that’s still spoken of in hushed tones with giddy smiles.
While he played Ryu in SFV prior to Akuma’s addition to the game and performed well, Tokido switched to Akuma when he became available and stuck with him, despite many others in the community rating him second tier.
Akuma shot up in the rankings after Tokido won EVO 2017, tearing through the Top 8 with innovative strategies that pushed the character to his limits and then sweeping tournament favourite Victor “Punk” Woodley in the Grand Final.
In League of Legends, G2 Esports owner and former pro player Carlos “ocelote” Rodriguez said a player with a signature character can still be a force to be reckoned with, even if his champion isn’t top tier on the moment.
“Look at Froggen and Anivia, right? Even if Anivia wasn't the best champion precisely for a long period of time, whenever he had Anivia, there was some psychological factor behind every game,” he said. “Every opponent was like, ‘Anivia is not that good, but you can never push against this motherf**er!’ Because he's the wall and you can never push. So then you start thinking defensively and reactively on the next moves, instead of proactively.”
Outside the realm of competitive play however, ocelote said aligning players with a certain character sets them apart and provides something for fans to latch onto. The same way the back of the hockey net became Gretzky’s office or how boxers today mimic Muhammad Ali’s famous shuffle, a signature champion can become part of a player’s identity in the minds of fans.
According to ocelote, when fans embrace such a connection, it creates a “circle of virtue” that attracts more and more people to that player’s — and his team’s — banner.
“It really helps in terms of branding because how many artworks have you seen of Froggen and Anivia? How many artworks have you seen of myself and Cassiopeia? Of xPeke and Kassadin?” ocelote said.
“When fans relate [one person to a champion], chances are fans will be generating content around it, which you can use on social media and show the fans that the other fans care. Then you create a circle of virtue that leads to more fans creating more content about more players. I don't know how many of those things I've seen already.”
'It's unviable, absolutely unviable'
Though some players have seen great success thanks to their signature character, both competitively and in terms of popularity, none of that is to say it's always a viable approach.
For instance, it’s particularly rare to see a so-called “one-trick pony” succeed in the League of Legends Championship Series without widening their champion pool significantly. While some players have pocket picks they’re associated with, such as Echo Fox’s Henrik “Froggen” Hansen’s Anivia and Royal Never Give Up’s Jian “Uzi” Zi-Hao’s Vayne, several factors make true character-maining nearly impossible.
First and foremost, with so many characters in League of Legends, perfect balance is unworkable and every champion is at the mercy of the patch cycle. Some champions like Aatrox and Yorick have been too weak to see regular competitive play for years. Secondly, a player with a small champion pool always runs the risk of seeing their best picks get banned out by the opposing team.
“It's unviable, absolutely unviable. You need to at least be able to play seven champions properly,” ocelote said of character-mains in the LCS.
“You look at Faker, you look at Bjergsen, you look at Perkz, these people, they probably have 7-9 champions almost to perfection. They mastered them. And once you are so good at the game, just like them, you understand exactly how much damage you do, just perhaps with 10-20 games per hero.”
Contrary to Daigo, EVO 2017 Super Smash Bros. Melee champion Armada has a much more utilitarian approach. Originally known for being the best Princess Peach player in the world, he has used Fox McCloud as a secondary character since 2014.
Armada said he has no philosophical or personal reason for playing the characters he does, but that he started playing Peach because he felt players were under-utilizing her skill set and picked up Fox to help him deal with difficult match-ups, such as against his arch-rival Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma’s Jigglypuff.
“I would say they're tools. When people say that I inspire them to play Peach or something like that, it feels good, but Peach has never been my main character in any other video game period,” he said. “I like her design in Melee specifically, I think she's a lot of fun. And the same with Fox. But as I said, I don't play Peach in any other game and I never grew up playing Starfox either. So for me they're more… I'm not sure if I want to say 'tools' because that sounds so impersonal in way (laughs), but I enjoy their character traits.”
Despite his pragmatic point of view, Armada does concede that certain players do have a relationship with their characters that impacts their play in a tangible way, even if those characters aren’t considered top-tier.
'He feels like more than a just character that I play'
Though it was a rocky relationship at first, Daigo has come into his own with Guile. While the 36-year-old couldn’t make it to the Top 8 at EVO 2017, he did win his first event in the Capcom Pro Tour 2017 season at the Abuget Cup in July and took first place at the Hong Kong Esports Festival in August. Still though, it’s not quite what he had with Ryu.
“I would go back to [Ryu] anytime, if he is improved,” he said. “And that's not the case now... But I do like the play style I get to showcase with Guile, so I've been enjoying playing Guile quite a bit.”
Considering his recent victories with Guile and past success with characters other than Ryu—his famed “Daigo Parry” at EVO 2004 was performed with Ken—the question remains, why does Daigo have the relationship with Ryu that he does?
According to the legend himself, it’s a simple matter of motivation and comfort. No other character makes him as eager to win.
“He does fit my play style, and I feel most comfortable with him in SF. People may find it funny—and I don’t blame them—but he feels like more than a just character that I play,” he said. “I am attached to him, and I feel motivated to conquer any difficulties I face when I play with him. Giving up is not a thought that comes to my mind. When I play other characters, I am not as driven to solve problems. And I end up going back to Ryu and tackling the problem with him.”
Sasha Erfanian is a Kassadin one-trick for theScore esports. Follow him on Twitter