Whisper it, but Jeannail Carter (aka Cuddle Core) might be the best thing to happen to competitive fighting games in a long time. The Chicago, Illinois, native has risen to the upper echelons of esports on her own terms, defying the odds to help change the face of a male-dominated scene and prove that players outside of Japan can have a seat at the top table, too.
Carter has been obsessed with arcade games since she could walk (her nickname actually comes from her days playing Dance Dance Revolution Supernova), but of course, it was via the Tekken series that's she's played from the age of six where she would eventually find her true calling.
"It was a pretty gradual process," she says of becoming a pro gamer. "I'd graduated from art school and was doing pretty well selling my work, but I was balancing it with Tekken tournaments." By 2018, she made the leap to becoming a full time esports player when she signed with North American outfit Equinox Gaming, with whom she's since qualified for some top-tier tournaments and taken a few big scalps along the way.
But what did it really take to become a Tekken pro in the US? What's it really like to play in competition against a training partner? And what did it feel like to recently see herself on a billboard in Times Square?
Here, the 26-year-old, who featured on a live stream for Anakin's Red Bull's Class in Session series, reveals all.
You finished second at the North America Season 1 Finals earlier this year. How was that?
I was very proud of myself. Many of the players used Fahkumram, an overly strong character in the game, but I refused to do it. There are two types of thought right now: do you stick with your mains and tough it out, or do you choose the character with the best stats at that time? It depends how easy you want the road to be and I felt like my character [Xiaoyu] could get it done.
You must be looking forward to getting crowds back. How does it feel playing in front of a live audience?
It's a crazy feeling – the adrenaline, your heart feeling as though it's beating 1,000bpm, the way the air almost stops circulating because everyone's dead silent. There's an energy, a rush that you get when you make a good decision, because the sound of the crowd actually pierces through your headphones and you feel the sound vibrate the floor and your body.
Do you have any mental rituals?
I do. One of my rituals includes taking two naps before I play. It's funny, I've been competing as a pro for three years now and still get tournament anxiety. It's wild. I'll also have chewing gum next to me during a match and I'll try to breathe in and out a lot between rounds – it helps me to centre myself again. A lot can happen in 60 seconds.
You don't have to play like people from the 'land of Tekken' to be amazing and there are so many of us who are proof of that
Can you think of your favourite esports moment to date?
In 2018, the Tekken World Tour had a last-chance qualifier in Amsterdam. I'd only been with Equinox for three months and they flew me out there for my first time outside the United States. Anyway, somehow my luggage got lost by the airline, so I didn't have any clothes or my game controller.
Bless Emily [Tran, CEO of Equinox Gaming] and the team, as they gave me a controller and took me into town to buy some things. I actually wore Emily's jersey at the LCQ and played pretty well, beating some of the best players in the world. I finished 4th out of 320 people overall. To rise to the occasion without everything I needed meant a lot. When I finally lost, I was like 'dang' and got off the stage, but Emily, the team and all the fans were cheering for me.
Were you surprised to see yourself on a billboard in Times Square recently?
I don't know if I had to pinch myself, but I felt like, 'I earned this'. The billboard was showcasing Twitch creators and I happened to be one of them. I love what I do, but I know I've changed a lot about how the fighting game community is seen. I've given competitive Tekken a certain look and it's great to know it's not just one type of player that exists, or that it's not just male-dominated. I'm a top player for a reason and it's so nice to see new faces being represented.
Japan has long been seen as the spiritual home of FGC. Would you consider yourself part of a new wave of American talent?
The more that teams take chances on American players with potential, the less we will hear those same conversations about Japan and Korea being top tier. I will never say they have the blueprint for how the game should be played. Pakistan is a huge example of this, as there are players over there, like Arslan Ash, who've come out of nowhere and who I watch a lot. You can never count America out, either. We have some phenomenal players. You don't have to play like people from the 'land of Tekken' to be amazing and there are so many of us who are proof of that.
Where did your love of Tekken first come from
There were many evenings when my dad would get off work and play fighting games. Tekken was something we played a lot together. It's cool to see your parent involved in a hobby and watch their eyes light up. You think, 'this is cool, I want to play'. Tekken 2 was one of the starting points for me. There's a photo of me around the age of six with a controller in my hand, it's so cute.
When did gaming become more serious?
In my teens I played a lot of online with Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and started making friends online. Eventually, I started to go to local offline events and once I gauged where everyone's skill level was, it gave me a good idea of where I was and what I had to do to get to there. I saw players who would punish certain things or move a certain way that I didn't. They were backdashing all the time and situationally aware. I just didn't move like that, so I started applying that stuff online to get better. I've also probably been twice as hard on myself, because there's not a lot of women who play high level at pro.
Was that why you once said you had to develop a thick skin?
That came with the territory. With smaller scale tournaments early on, it wasn't hostile, as everybody knew everybody from those regions. But with the more exposure I got and the more I got on stage and beat people, then the more the insults would come out and the assumptions that it was a fluke that I won, that they were going easy on me. 'Oh gee, it couldn't be that they were a little fearful of me, because I'd shut them down before', I thought. That's down to their own insecurities. Definitely, though, with the the more exposure I got, I had to develop that thick skin.
It must help having a female boss in Equinox CEO Emily Tran?
It's amazing. The sensitivity she has towards some of the concerns and things that occur in this space really helps. When somebody can relate to your experience, because they're also a professional woman in this space, it really helps. She's such an ally and she's got my back. I can literally talk to her about anything. She also asks how I am, because I'm not just a product, not just a number, I'm a person. I'm also fortunate because my training partner [Shadow 20Z] and I live 50 minutes from each other and he's one of the best.
Training for Tekken is about not overdoing it so you don't burn yourself out and it's also about watching and learning
What happens when you play your training partner in real competition?
It makes it twice as hard, because you almost have to think three steps ahead. People love matchups like this, because each player knows how the other plays, but it's made for some amazing moments.
You have a coach as well, right?
I do. He's an old school former player who's taken on the role of a coach. The relationship I have with him has helped me see things differently and also to trust the process of how I play. He believes in me a lot and I feed on that. I'm not sure he knows how much he means to me. Once he told me, 'OK, great session, see you in Grand Finals next week', and then the following Wednesday I reached the grand finals. Emily showed me a text he'd sent them saying 'I never doubted her'. It meant a lot.
You're something of a role model yourself now. How does it feel when people say they're inspired by you?
It feels good. It hits a little different when a girl says it. I'm honoured and I'm glad to be that for someone, the same way my parents were for me, because we deserve to see ourselves in the spaces we want to thrive in. When I've been on panels talking about women in esports, or when I talked about Black History Month with Riot, they're conversations that need to be had. I'm one of the only top players who's a black woman in esports, so let's talk about the solution to that and what other people can do.
How do you make the most of training?
The amount of hours I train can vary. Sometimes it's about not overdoing it so you don't burn yourself out. It's also about watching and learning. You have to be prepared for anything. When I play ranked match, I come across everybody, all types and styles, and this helps pros preparing for tournaments.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
To my ninth grade self it would be, 'Who you are is more than enough. It's okay to not be a social butterfly, come into things on your own time, because you’re going to be amazing and you already are'.
What does the future hold?
For the next few years I'll continue to expand my brand, getting deals with bigger companies while continuing to be a pro gamer. I want to diversify what I'm doing, such as coaching, teaching, the public speaking and giving more of my expertise to communities, but also being financially stable in doing so.