When most people win in Top 8 at EVO, they pop off. They run around the stage, they fall on the ground and roll around in excitement, they scream and jump out of their seats. Joe “LI Joe” Ciaramelli did all that — the moment he beat Hiroyuki “Eita” Nagai, he leapt out of chair and ran a lap around the stage. But he immediately turned around to hug his opponent, and as the crowd stood up, chanting “USA”, Joe didn’t pop off for the crowd again. Instead, he raised up Eita’s hand and pointed at him as if to say, “this guy is a winner.”
Joe doesn't necessarily want the world to know about the back injury that was hurting him all through EVO 2016. He doesn't necessarily want to make a big deal of his Top 8 finish, that he got to stand next to the people he refers to as his idols. He wasn't even the person who called up his own father to get him to fly out for EVO Top 8 in the Mandalay Bay arena. LI Joe is a humble guy who just wants to play some Street Fighter, and that might be what makes him America's newest Street Fighter hero.
Joe didn't have the easiest bracket at EVO 2016. His early pools were stacked with some of North America's best players, including Antwan "Alucard" Ortiz, Henri "Chi-Rithy" Oung and Andrew "OmGiTzAndre" Howard. After beating Julian "Squall" Jones to make Top 16, Joe got knocked into the losers' bracket by Ai "Fuudo" Keita, then beat Ryota "Kazunoko" Inoue to make it to Top 8 on the losers' side of the bracket.
"Honestly every match I played I was a little bit nervous," Joe told theScore esports. "I was definitely afraid of Vagabond, he's from Texas and got third at Texas Showdown with Necalli. I've seen him play, I know he's very good. Also Chi-Rithy, an excellent Canadian player, Alucard, another really strong New York, player OMGitzandre, he uses Mika and I'm afraid of that fight, I don't like Mika at all, there was a bunch. Then obviously Fuudo, Kazunoko, Eita, I'm like, 'Damn man, this could be the one I don't get past.'"
To keep up, Joe did something he doesn't do too often before tournaments — his homework. Joe said he decided to brush up on his opponents, and instead of hanging out in the casinos and living it up in Vegas the way the average EVO participant does, he spent his time grinding out practice in his hotel room. If Joe was playing a game, it wasn't the stuff he likes to stream like Dark Souls or various MMOs, he was playing Street Fighter. If was watching anything, he was watching Street Fighter.
"I remember saying to myself numerous times, 'If I am going to do really well at EVO, this is my absolute best chance,'" Joe said. "Granted yes, I do think some people are better than others, but we all started at the same time. It's kind of a running gag that I'm really good at games when they first come out and then I suck, so I knew I was gonna be able to pick up the game fast and I was gonna be able to contend with some of these players.
"That's just something that I don't do too often, but this time, me wanting to do well in this tournament made me want to know who I was playing. I wanted to watch videos, I wanted to see habits and setups that he's gonna do. I don't know, I was so into it."
And Joe did it because he wanted to stand on stage with people he's been watching since he was a kid playing Street Fighter 3: Third Strike. Joe got a chance to share the biggest stage in fighting games history with players like Third Strike legend Joe "MOV" Egami and the current unstoppable master of Street Fighter V Lee "Infiltration" Seonwoo. As the only American player in Top 8, he was the crowd favorite in the face of the titans he was facing off against and the sheer amount of love from the crowd and the people watching on Twitch led to even Japanese fans drawing picture of Joe. According to one Twitter user, Japanese Twitch chat was referring to Joe as "shujinko" meaning "main character."
"They don't use the word good. They say you're strong. And to have these guys be like, 'Very strong. Very strong Nash.' It's amazing,” Joe said while laughing. “I feel like all the work has paid off, all the years of playing it all finally paid off."
The story that everyone was paying attention to was that LI Joe's dad, Bill Ciaramelli was in the crowd, watching his son play at the highest level in the biggest Street Fighter tournament ever. Joe says that his dad has watched him play before, but never at a scale like this, but he wasn't the one who called up his dad and told him to come down. It was his friend and fellow East Coast Throwdown tournament organizer John Gallagher.
"I'm very quiet," Joe said. "I don't really call around with my family, you know what I'm saying? Even when I'm playing I don't really tweet like, ‘Hey I got out of my bracket,’ I just keep it quiet. If people ask me, I answer them, but I just kind of try to stay… I guess out of it. I don't want to deal with the social media aspect of it while I'm playing, I just want to focus on playing.
"He's been watching me play since I was a little kid, so the fact that he was there made it all come around. He was there when I was a little kid, and now he's here watching me play on the absolute biggest stage that there ever was in fighting game history."
On the other end of things, Joe was also dealing with hand pain the entire tournament, caused by a bulging disc that's pinching the nerves on his right arm. He says that it often made his arm feel numb or dead, and whenever the camera caught him shaking off his right arm, it was because he was trying to make it feel better.
Joe says he was sleeping in awkward positions all weekend, and between rounds his hand would often ache before going numb for a bit. One of his friends even texted him during Top 8 to ask what was wrong, noticing that he kept shaking his arm on-stream. Joe explained it, but he isn't necessarily happy with how the news got around.
"I kind of, I don't want to say I hid it, I just didn't really want to talk about is per se," Joe said. "But if people ask questions and people see, people hear about stuff when I have to go to the hospital, so they start asking questions. I don't want it to be a mainstream media thing. Unfortunately it is, but I'd rather it not be. Now that people know about it, I have to say here's what's going on, because then you get people saying, 'Oh his back, oh his head, no it's his hand,' you know what I mean? I just want to say, 'This is what's up, everything is fine. That's it.'”
And Joe is fine. He went to the hospital to get injections between his C6 and C7 vertebrae that will prevent him needing surgery for what is not necessarily a very severe injury. Joe just wants to keep his focus on living his life, doing his job and getting better at Street Fighter V. Joe is known for being strong at a game when it first comes out, and while he saw EVO as his big shot, now that he's gotten Top 8, he has the opportunity to go further.
"I don't do certain things with Nash, honestly," Joe said. "I don't utilize a couple of his escape options, and moves in general. I watch Infiltration play, and he sacrifices everything for positioning. Everything. But he's also so confident in his game where he can waste all his resources just to get out of the corner and be okay. It's kind of hard when you're not that good, but I feel like he does give up everything for positioning, which is actually a great way to play because Nash can really control a lot of the match. I do want to adapt more of his style honestly."
Joe doesn't really play the sort of control-oriented playstyle that Infiltration made Nash famous for. In his own words, he likes to "get in there and press some damn buttons." He doesn't really use Sonic Boom to zone, the way he would use Sagat's Tiger Shots in Street Fighter IV, instead he likes to use Nash's quick dash to close distance, and hit hard with the buttons that lead to longer, more damaging combos. Nash doesn't get too much off of crouching middle kick, but he gets a lot off the stubbier standing middle punch, and Joe wants that damage.
But that wasn't what initially drew him to Nash. He says he liked that we was different from previous incarnations of the character, and even though he hasn't mastered the playstyle that the character is best known for, Joe has huge potential for the rest of the Pro Tour. The 64-point jackpot for placing fifth at EVO jumped Joe up to the Top 40 of the Capcom Pro Tour standings, and he's not too far from the Top 32 cutoff. If he picks up more points at Premier Events, he has a very real chance at making it to the Capcom Cup finals. However, Joe isn't necessarily looking to find a sponsor and fly out to every tournament. He manages a furniture store, and the post-EVO offers aren’t good enough to make him give it up.
"The problem is that I get paid pretty decently at my job, so to kind of not do that to play games, it's a little rocky," he said. "Even now, I feel like it's not as stable. What am I going to do in the future? Dude, I've got health benefits, I've got a 401K and stuff like that, I'm just gonna leave that all behind? It just doesn't seem plausible for the future right now. Hopefully soon it gets that big, but right now it's just still a little scary to dedicate that much.
"There's been a couple of organizations that have approached me, and yeah there are some deals going on, but as of now, I haven't heard anything that would even make me think of quitting my job. So it's not that serious."
But, that doesn't mean Joe isn't going to try. He was at Defend the North last weekend, and he'll obviously be at East Coast Throwdown in September. It even seems likely that he'll be attending the Tokyo Game Show premier event as well, which could give him another chance at qualification and a windfall of points if he places well. Joe's been a popular player for a long time, but the Capcom Cup finals are a reality now, and the fanbase he got from EVO is behind him.
"I'm gonna try my best," Joe said. "It's really hard with work and stuff like that, especially after EVO. I hate to say the word, but there's a lot of fans that are like, 'You have to get into Capcom Cup, please get into Capcom Cup.' It's cool to have that drive from other people who want me there, so I'm gonna try my best."
America wanted a hero at EVO this year. After months of Asian players dominating the field, Street Fighter V was looking hopeless for the Western crowd, so they latched onto Joe’s incredible run. But even after beating Eita, Joe caught himself before he popped off for the crowd. He stopped in the middle of running around the stage to hug Eita and after he lost to Fujimura “Yukadon” Atsushi, Joe shook his hand and bowed. The crowd stood up and clapped after the loss, though there wasn’t as much chanting that time. Just excitement and hype for Joe: the best, most likable player NA had to offer.
Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.