Fei Long and Justin Wong

Watch this video.

I was there, three years ago, when that video happened. It happened at Cal Poly Pomona, as part of Evolution 2004, the biggest fighting game tournament in the United States. I was eating a Famous Star from Carl’s Jr. at the time.

The match would later become legendary, immortalized on YouTube and occasionally parodied: Justin Wong, an American player known best for winning four consecutive national championships from 2001-2005 in Marvel vs. Capcom 2, was pitted against Daigo Umehara, arguably Japan’s greatest Street Fighter player, in the tournament semifinals for Street Fighter III: Third Strike. Watching Daigo coolly parry Justin’s 15-hit super combo and retaliate with his own counter to win the round with zero life remaining … well, you just had to have been there.

But being in that crowd was a funny thing. Somehow, the crowd always knew who it was rooting for, and, more curiously, why. I knew, too, as part of the crowd, but I couldn’t quite articulate it. Sometimes it made sense to root for Justin, sometimes it didn’t. Of course, the crowd loves upsets, underdogs and spectacular combos. But how did we always know who to cheer for? And how did race tell us who to cheer for?

Maybe we should rewind a bit.

Street Fighter II was widely credited with providing a much-needed shot in the arm to the arcade game scene back in the early 1990s. The graphics were awesome, and the head-to-head gameplay hadn’t quite caught on full force until then. But, perhaps more significantly, Street Fighter II demanded a social experience. In order to get better, you had to play against someone else, and – unlike Xbox Live – you had to play with someone who was actually standing right next to you. It caused communities of players to form around local arcade machines, and those communities would interact with communities around other arcade machines and have tournaments, and so on.

This, by itself, isn’t notably different from any other game. There are competitive communities around pretty much any game out there, from Gears of War to Scrabble. But what is notable about Street Fighter II is, unlike Gears of War, the only thing it takes to enter SF2 community is the willingness to put up a quarter, wait your turn and get your ass beat. Unlike computers or videogame consoles, which require a comparably massive outlay of cash to start playing, the barrier to entry for Street Fighter II is simply $0.25. And since it’s hardly a secret that people of color in the United States, generally speaking, tend to be less economically well-off than white Americans, the average Street Fighter II gaming environment tended to be a few shades darker than, say, the equivalent computer gaming circles of the time.

This legacy has stuck with Street Fighter II. Evolution attendance seemed to be roughly equal parts white, black, yellow, brown and so on. Since these communities are built around physical locations, Street Fighter II players become accustomed to building class and race into their common-sense knowledge. Like Evolution, tournaments that we held at the UC Berkeley arcade were attended by all kinds of people, but it was a fair bet that most of the college-age Asian and white people either came from UC Berkeley or another nearby school; black players mostly came from Oaktree Arcade, located in downtown Oakland, which is predominantly black; older Asian players mostly came from Sunnyvale Golfland, located in the South Bay Area; and so on. In this way, race held certain implications within the Street Fighter II community.

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Many veteran arcade gamers, particularly those who were around during the early ’90s, can recall a stereotype of an Asian or Asian-American kid, usually a male, who is unusually gifted at videogames. He is young; he can be loud and vivacious or soft-spoken and patient. He is known simply for his skill; his fingers glide over the buttons of the arcade machine with practiced agility and impeccable reflexes. Black, white and brown players dutifully line their quarters on top of the machine, each waiting for their chance to defeat him and prove themselves to the rest of the group, but they’ll inevitably find themselves digging in their pockets for another quarter after two short rounds, perhaps three if they get lucky. He is found in arcades, movie theaters, family restaurants and 7-11s across the country. When he is defeated, it is usually by another Asian player, most likely a close friend or maybe even a cousin of his, who plays the game with him often enough to win.

People don’t always agree on why “Asians are better at videogames,” but it remains a particularly complicated issue in the Street Fighter II community, no doubt because this perception of Asian and Asian-American players is reinforced by the very real presence of international competition from Japan. Very, very good international competition.

We could simply watch the Justin vs. Daigo video as another instance of amazing gameplay. We could also watch it as Justin Wong, a Chinese-American, playing and very narrowly losing a game of Street Fighter III: Third Strike to Daigo Umehara, a Japanese national player, and begin to unpack the elements of race and nationality within. Justin Wong is, in some ways, the textbook example of the Asian arcade-whiz-kid outlined above: He’s significantly younger than most of his opponents in the American Marvel vs. Capcom 2 scene, where he made a name for himself. But his reputation as a dominant force is equaled by his reputation as a boring player.

He is not a crowd-pleaser. A Shoryuken.com forum thread entitled “I Think I Have A Plausible Reason Why Justin Is The Greatest!” yields the following insights: “Justin Wong has god-like execution, awesome mindgames, and unrivaled blocking skills,” “justin wins because hes a fuckin robot,” “Justin is the best at mvc2 because hes a demon from the 7th layer of hell in human suit.” Like the archetypical Asian whiz-kid, any discussion about Justin’s ability in Marvel vs. Capcom 2 evokes comparisons to superhuman abilities. Justin has robotic precision, mechanical reflexes and a methodical style of play that simply grinds down his opponent.

But these adjectives – “mechanical,” “methodical” and “robotic” – don’t merely apply to Justin. The depiction of Asian and Asian-Americans as tireless workers is not new to Street Fighter. This kind of description, generally known as the “Yellow Peril,” has a long history ranging from American World War II-era propaganda to the American-Japanese automobile rivalry of the 1980s. So while Justin is seen as robotic and methodical, Japanese players are viewed similarly. That is to say, the Street Fighter community’s common sense places the robotic, methodical Asian player as the dominant force, opposite the underdog. The underdog is, in opposition to the dominant Asian player, aggressive, risk-taking, occasionally rash and, ultimately, American.

Even though Justin is presumably American by nationality, his play-style has been attached to words normally reserved for Asian players, painting him as “less American” than his non-Asian opponents. And so, when people boo and hiss while he cleans up Evolution’s Marvel vs. Capcom 2 tournaments, they don’t just boo and hiss at Justin Wong, they boo and hiss at Justin Wong, an Asian player dominating non-Asian and therefore American opponents. Justin is the Yellow Peril.

The reason the Justin-Daigo video helps us understand all these intricate constructions of race in the SF2 community is precisely because they are not playing Marvel vs. Capcom 2. MVC2 is mostly played in the U.S., probably because the comic book heroes from the Marvel Comics universe aren’t popular in any of the other countries in which Street Fighter games are widely played (most notably, Japan). There is no Japanese threat in MVC2 to displace Justin’s position as an Asian robot.

In Street Fighter III: Third Strike, however, Japanese players like Daigo are the robotic and mechanical Asian players. Virtually everyone who chimed in on the “Amazing Daigo Comeback” thread from the Shoryuken.com forums call Justin “cocky,” “flashy” and “impatient” – terms that seem to resonate with the underdog, “American” position Justin’s opponents occupy when he’s playing the American-friendly MVC2.

As long as Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is in our Dreamcast, Justin is dominant and un-American, but once we switch the game to Third Strike, Justin is representing the good old U.S.A. against the real Yellow Peril, Daigo Umehara, who has come all the way from Japan to take our money in a Street Fighter tournament. Depending on what game he’s playing, Justin is alternately Asian or American as they correspond to “winner” or “underdog.” Perhaps more significantly, though, lines of race and nationality are crossed here, and Asian is posed against American – not white or black, but American.

Of course, when race and nationality enter the fray, there’s no easy solution to any problem, especially problems like stereotyping and rank classification. Understanding why and how people like Justin Fong bounce back and forth between American hero and Yellow Peril, in a videogame community no less, is key to finding a way to overcome racial issues. Maybe that’s another edge the Street Fighter arcade scene has over the Gears of War online model: We actually have to face the people we demonize.

Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long. Stop by his blog, Token Minorities, for more on race and videogames.

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