So as you may have heard me scream about for months on various social media platforms, I’m going to Las Vegas in July to compete at EVO, the largest fighting game tournament in the world. This is A Big Deal for me and so I’m going to write about it hopefully more than just this leading up to it and maybe do a couple of posts or vlogs or something from the event and a big post-mortem when I get back. That’s the plan at least.
On any given night you have at least a 60% chance of finding me in the following configuration: I’m sitting on the couch, with my dog curled up around my feet, going through something on my phone, with my laptop open on the cushion next to me. And on my lap is my trusty weapon, a big hunk of plastic, buttons, and wires that I trust to lead me to victory against an onslaught of strangers. Or at least it can help me figure out what in the world Justin Wong is doing in this video that I can’t seem to make work for me. Or maybe I’ll finally go through this frame data app that I’ve been told will make me a better player and figure out what it actually means so when I ask the guy next to me at the tournament, “Is that move safe?” I’ll know what it means when he says yes or no instead of just nodding sagely like I didn’t even need to ask in the first place. But mostly I’ll post up in the training mode of Street Fighter V and throw my Karin against the Ken I set up as the punching bag, trying to make magic out of these button presses.
I started playing fighting games when Street Fighter II came out on the Super Nintendo. I wasn’t really drawn to any particular character but I loved playing the game with (and most of the time beating) my dad, my friends that came over, anyone who would pick up the controllers with me. I had no idea what I was doing but those moments of victory after proving myself to be better than whoever sat next to me were worth so much. I fell out of the scene until I was in high school, when Street Fighter II came back as an HD Remix. I got my first arcade stick for Christmas that year and would take it to friend’s houses, finding new games to play with them and trying to be the best again. This continued in Street Fighter IV and all its variations, as I finally found a character I loved in Cody and wanted to be more than just the best of my friends.
So I would spend long nights in the training mode working on special cancels, combos, this whole new world beyond mashing the heaviest punch and kick I could find and hoping my opponent would walk into it. I saw that grey and red grid in my sleep in college, where I spent game after game trash talking my roommate, goading him into playing one more round where I would thrash him again. I started watching streams of EVO and other events and saw what these professionals could make their characters do and it felt like an art form. I loved every second of it and it made me want to work harder. Once I got to seminary, the copy of Street Fighter IV that lived on my laptop was a place I could retreat from stress and work. I would go to that familiar zone, working on muscle memory for my combos, working on my movement, it became a discipline that was almost spiritual in that I would play games, either win or lose and find myself in an intense self-examination phase as I tried to get better.
Eventually I decided to take my show on the road. I wanted to compete locally, so I found a place in Dallas that hosted a fight night and went thinking the work I had been putting in would lead me to the top. I got to the venue, played some casual games before the tournament started and won most of them. As they called my name to come play my first tournament game I felt confident, like nothing was going to stand in my way.
And I got worked. Just completely stomped in ways I could have never imagined. I went 0-2 and was out fast. I left without seeing who won, or playing any more games. I just wanted to go home. Maybe I didn’t know these matchups as well as I thought I did. Maybe my character wasn’t that good and I needed to learn someone else. Maybe I was just trash garbage and I had no business playing.
But when I got back into training mode, that familiar grid, all of those concerns melted away. I could just press buttons and learn something again. There was joy in the work that it took to get better. So when I went back I didn’t win the tournament again. In fact I only won one game, but it was against the player that eliminated me the last time. I learned something. I got better. There was joy in the work.
I would love to say that this was a story to how I rose up to dominate that scene and became someone to be feared in the fighting game community. But it’s not. I’m just a middling player at best who loves playing these games. And in those moments with my dog curled around my feet as I try to make my Karin do the same kind of things Mago’s or Justin Wong’s does I feel at peace because I know I will get better. When my fingers slip on those tricky links, when the moves just won’t come out the way I think they should, the way I see them performed on the screen, it is easy to get discouraged. It is easy to think that I’ll never be Mago, I’ll never be Ricki Ortiz, I’ll never be Justin Wong. But the point is not to be them, the point is to enjoy the process of playing these games, of learning what went wrong and doing it better next time.
I can’t go to a lot of live tournaments. There’s not exactly a thriving scene in Wilburton and most local-ish game nights are on nights I have church work or on weekends where I can’t travel so I can be there for Sunday mornings. That grid and online games against strangers comprise most of my practice. I had a rare day off so I went to a game night and got to play against real people. I didn’t do great, I ran into my problem matchups early, but when I hit my big Karin combo that I’d spent all that time in the Grid working on that ended with her laughing in my opponent’s face, it was hard not to crack a smile. There is joy in the work.
The first year of being a pastor has felt a lot like those days in training mode. I go out, I preach, I teach, I learn, I do something in the community, I talk to my congregation, I try to meet their needs and eventually I come and try to put it all together. I try to see what I can do to be better, to serve in a way that shows love to others and changes lives for the better. There are moments where I can look at what I’ve done, or see what my congregation has done together and feel the utmost joy knowing that we’ve accomplished something. There are sermons that I finish and know that God was present there. And sometimes I make mistakes, and I have to work out what went wrong and what we can repair. Sometimes there are habits I need to break in order to be more effective. Recently I went up to the big dance and found out that I didn’t know the matchup as well as I thought I did. I gave it my best based on what I had worked on and found out it wasn’t good enough. And I admit that every now and then I have those moments where it feels like a character crisis, and I wonder if I need a bigger change than a smaller tweak. But then I remember those moments, that there is joy in the work, that there is joy upon joy in getting to share this grace that I have found with other people, and I think that maybe it’s time to get back to that work. Because if there is joy in the work, there is work to be done.