There are fathers who grab a football and go outside to play catch with their kids. I used to play catch with my dad. When I became a dad, I tried doing the same with my son Zak, but neither of us were that interested in sports. I never forced Zak to go outside and swing a bat, shoot a free throw, or throw a football with a perfect spiral, because our bonding agent was video games, specifically Street Fighter. It was an activity that brought us closer together in a way nothing else did.
Zak grew up with separated parents. I was a weekend dad. At first, video games were his babysitter while I selfishly spent my own time invested in other virtual worlds, but I eventually got my act together. I wanted to find a way to improve our relationship, and we played various games together in person and online, but Street Fighter was the key. He spent countless hours watching my best friends and me play Street Fighter. I’d often find him bashing buttons on my controllers and joysticks as a toddler, trying to replicate what he saw on the screen.
In 2008 when Capcom released Street Fighter IV, Zak was finally old enough to grasp the technical and communal aspects of fighting games and that was when the bonding really began. We found we shared a passion for these games. We practiced together, competing against our friends, both his and mine. I taught him how to perform special moves and combinations. He exhibited a zeal for becoming deeply involved in something for the first time. He went from a toddler mashing buttons to an adolescent pulling off expert moves and combos.
On weekends, we dragged the expensive arcade-style joysticks out and competed in match after match. When he wasn’t visiting, we got online and did the same. It was like a virtual arcade where we hung out, caught up with each other, and played some matches. He told me one of his favorite memories was playing Street Fighter with my long-time friends through the night until late in the morning.
There was a definitive moment during the time we spent playing as he was growing up when I realized I was no longer the best Street Fighter player in the family. Zak and I were in an online lobby with my brother and we battled it out with our shared favorite character as we had done many times. It wasn’t just that Zak had won. He had beaten me using my favorite character. I could have taken it badly, but instead I felt pride.
I rarely get to see Zak in person anymore. We live some distance apart and he’s a 19-year-old man finding his own way in life. Catching up online can be tricky with conflicting schedules. When we do get to see each other, I’m sure to remind him to bring his arcade joystick so we can go a few rounds, even if I know I won’t offer the greatest competition.
But another way we’ve been able to connect is through following Street Fighter competitions. Zak’s interest in live streaming and Let’s Plays led to him paying more attention to fighting-game tournaments and events. At first, I never understood the idea of watching someone else playing video games online, but after paying more attention in the last couple of years and viewing high-level tournament play, I get it now. There are nights when I spend hours watching other players battle it out and I don’t have to worry about the stress that comes with being in their shoes. We follow players like Daigo “The Beast” Umehara and Justin Wong like sports fans follow their favorite players. We’re often texting each other results of matches during Evolution Championship Series or the Capcom Cup, two of the biggest Street Fighter tournaments in North America.
I don’t believe fighting games are about gratuitous violence; they’re about friendly competition and the communities that surround the games. Street Fighter taught Zak how to win and lose with grace and humility in the same way sports teaches those things. I learned something from playing against Zak as well. My reflexes and reaction times aren’t what they used to be. It might have something to do with age, but I can’t keep up with him anymore. In the time I spent trying to perfect one character, Zak had mastered multiple characters, including my favorite. My son had grown into an accomplished fighting gamer and I took part in that. I imagine it’s like a father watching his kid hit the game-winning home run.
Zak is grown up, but he has two younger half-brothers. I’m fortunate I can look forward to a future of bonding with younger sons. They’ll grow up bashing on my arcade joysticks too. If I’m fortunate enough, I’ll get to teach them how to play Street Fighter, or maybe how to throw a fastball. I’ll let them decide.