“My goal is to qualify for the Capcom Cup,” Richard Melendez, who goes by Michael, told me over the phone. He had just been apologizing for the delay in doing an interview because he was preparing for his high school graduation.
Going on 18 years old, Michael will soon be taking the next step into his adult future, just like most kids his age. He wants to go to college in New York City and major in Criminal Justice, but he also wants play a competitive video game on the world’s biggest stage. Michael, known as “Native Impact” in the fighting game circles, plays Street Fighter at the highest level.
Michael and his dad, also named Richard Melendez, flew from New York to Des Moines, Washington (near Seattle) for Michael to compete in Ultra Street Fighter IV at Northwest Majors 7. If you see him at a tournament, you won’t find his dad far off. I sat next to Mr. Melendez in the front row while we and thousands of online spectators watched Michael compete on the big stage.
“Stay focused! Keep your head in the game,” Mr. Melendez shouted as we looked on. You’d think he was talking to his son while at bat in a baseball game. Competitive fighting games are an individual eSport, so there are similarities between the two. I completely understand the Melendezes’ bond through video games. I wrote about how games replaced sports in my own relationship with my eldest son.
“My dad gives me positive reinforcement. He doesn’t play the game but he understands the meta behind it,” Michael says, adding that his dad sees things Michael might not see while engaged in a match. “He wouldn’t push me so hard if I wasn’t so talented in fighting games.”
Michael’s dad isn’t the only one who sees his potential. He did well in the first day of tournament pools play, but heading into days two and three, Michael faced stiffer competition. That’s where veteran competitive gamer and fellow New Yorker Arturo Sanchez came in. During one of Michael’s matches, Sanchez made his way over and began coaching him between rounds.
“I always see him at East Coast and New York events with his dad,” Sanchez said in a phone interview. “I saw him in a high-pressure situation and I was like, ‘I should probably be in his corner.'”
The competitive scene is different than it used to be back in the ’90s when Sanchez started, before Michael was even born. It was a tougher time because players had to prove themselves through winning. Strategies were closely guarded secrets because there was no mainstream Internet to refer to for gameplay videos. Esports wasn’t even a word in the video-game lexicon back then. But times change and, despite the fact that everyone is competing to win, there is a strong sense of community among players from the same region.
Michael plays a lower tier Street Fighter character (T. Hawk), but he’s studied Japanese player Kazuyuki “KojiKOG” Koji, who is considered the best T. Hawk player in the world. He’s put in hours and hours of practice to be able to compete with the best. “I spent seven hours a day for two weeks straight preparing for EVO 2013,” Michael said. Seven hours a day to prepare for the biggest annual fighting games event in Las Vegas. That’s more practice than a player gets in a high school sports.
Michael’s competitive maturity and poise belies his age. “He’s pretty exceptional and nobody was expecting him to do that well,” Sanchez said, adding he didn’t want to tell Michael what to do. He just wanted to offer up his perception of players’ tendencies to give Michael the best chance to win.
Both Michael and Sanchez ended up having phenomenal weekends. Each wound up in the top eight of the double elimination tournament, with Sanchez in the winner’s bracket and Michael fighting out of the loser’s bracket. Unfortunately, things went awry and the most ironic battle of the weekend took place.
“It wasn’t in the plan for me to play against him,” Sanchez said. Sanchez lost in the top eight winner’s semi-finals, sending him to the loser’s bracket to go head-to-head with the Michael. It almost didn’t seem fair because Sanchez hadn’t just been studying everyone else; he had been memorizing Michael’s tendencies, too.
“I have a terrible track record against Art,” Michael said. “He’s an amazing player. I’m glad I lost. I was upset because I got knocked out of the tournament but I got to learn a lot more than if I had won.”
Michael’s going to college and he’ll get more chances to qualify for the Capcom Cup and a shot at the $250,000 prize purse. And no doubt you’ll find his dad right there with him, guiding and supporting him the whole way.
“He sees how passionate I am about the fighting game community,” Michael said. “He understands my love for it and understands how big the scene is and wants to support that.”