Casuals: James Chen, the Voice of Street Fighter
How a Street Fighter player became one of the most recognized voices in FGC commentary.
Emotions ran high in the waning moments of the Grand Finals at Evo 2015. Bruce "AverMedia GamerBee" Hsiang had just lost one of the most memorable matches in the history of Evo and Street Fighter to Evil Geniuses' Yusuke Momochi. James Chen got to play a part in that historical moment, and it pained him to see another player eliminated in such a gut-wrenching way. He was in tears after the conclusion of the broadcast, and that’s one of the reasons Chen is special to the fighting game community. He is a man who has been passionate for the scene he’s loved since the days of popping quarters into Street Fighter 2 cabinets at the local arcades.
The golden age of Street Fighter
James Chen has been around Street Fighter and the fighting game community for a long time. He’s seen some of the best and worst Street Fighter matches first-hand, beginning as a competitor with Street Fighter 2, but more notably as a commentator for major Street Fighter events. He became one of the biggest personalities in the fighting game community through his ability to narrate a Street Fighter match to livestream viewers. That said, Chen wasn’t always one of the most respected voices in the FGC. It took a lot of hard work, but it’s paid off: Now he's influencing a new generation of commentators in fighting games, something we didn’t have some 20 years ago when Street Fighter 2 hit it big.
Chen grew up in the Southern California area. He was a teenager when Street Fighter 2 kicked off the fighting game craze in the early ‘90s. His brother was attending UCLA and on his visits home on weekends, he told Chen about a new game at the UCLA arcade that involved two combatants battling it out until only one was standing. When Chen finally got to try it out, it would ignite a passion that has burned for over two decades.
“My favorite Street Fighter is still Super Turbo,” Chen said. “A lot of people live off of nostalgia with fighting games. I’ll be the first to tell you how flawed that game is. Fighting games are so beautifully flawed and if they didn’t have flaws, they would be less interesting.”
Picking up the mic
Chen wanted to be a great Street Fighter player. Once he got to UCLA, his competitive drive really kicked in because it was a thriving scene for Street Fighter in the early days. Chen admitted he wasn’t the best, but he was a player who could sneak up on opponents and take a victory if they weren’t prepared for him. After his time at UCLA, Chen fell out of the fighting game scene for a while.
It wasn’t until Capcom vs. SNK was released that he came back, and when he did it was with even more vigor for the scene than before. He wrote guides and FAQs for Capcom vs. SNK. He participated in forums and discussion boards in the early days of the Internet. He helped give back to the community by talking about the games and eventually talking over matches in the early days of livestreaming competition. He was as much a teacher as he was a competitor. That’s why Alex Valle put him on the commentating duties for Wednesday Night Fights when they first took it online with livestreams.
“Valle said we needed someone to do commentary. ‘I know you like to teach. I know you have FAQs, jump on the mic.’ I enjoyed it. The more Wednesday Night Fights I went to, the less I played, and the more commentary I did,” Chen said.
Working out the kinks
As fate would have it, a guy Chen used to debate with online about fighting games, David Phillip Graham, aka Ultradavid, would become his commentating partner. Together, they are considered the most popular commentating duo in the fighting game world.
Commentating wasn’t easy in those early days. There was no precedent for fighting game commentary. Fighting games weren’t considered a spectator eSport at the time. Chen had to work hard to find a balance in commentary. He tried to mix different aspects into his commentary like humor and excitement, which didn’t always work out. But the worst part was when he’d lose a match and get back on to commentary, still salty from his loss.
“I take losing very hard. When I lost in tournaments and returned to the commentary desk, I was just the worst commentator because I would whine and cry about everything because I was mad,” Chen said.
There was a time when Chen almost left the scene again, just as he was coming into his own with his Wednesday Night Fights partner Ultradavid. In 2008, after nearly 10 years since Street Fighter 3: Third Strike released, Street Fighter 4 hit the scene and it single-handedly resurrected the fighting game scene. Street Fighter 4 kept Chen around, and the community and competition flourished. Production values increased as Street Fighter became a legitimate eSport, and commentary became a bigger part of the competitive scene. Chen made the conscious decision to step away from competition and focus on the commentary.
“I figured I could do better at helping grow the community by commentating than I would by continuing to play,” he said.
Many people have been inspired by Chen to get into commentary as competitive fighting games have grown. He’s humbled by the influence he has on people who want to be a bigger part of the fighting game community. But when people say they want to be like him as a commentator, he tells them" "Don’t."
“I give everyone three pieces of advice,” Chen said. “No. 1, focus on the why, not the what. Don’t say ‘Nice uppercut.’ Talk about why it was a nice uppercut. No. 2, always be yourself. No. 3, you’re going to get a ton of hate. You have to go through the hazing and it’s rough.”
Street Fighter 4 may have had its best run ever in 2015, with Street Fighter 5 on the horizon. As the scene continues to grow, Chen wants to see it happen in a way that the community keeps what makes it unique while still being professional. He fears compromising too much for the sake of becoming a bigger eSport may mean losing the identity that makes the scene so special. Aside from his contributions as a commentator, his solution to the best way for the fighting game community to grow is to stick together.
“I’m on this crusade to preach the concept of a 'rising tide lifts all boats,’ ” Chen said. “I don’t want us to blend together so that we’re all the same. Smaller scenes have to work harder and larger scenes have to be more welcoming and friendlier. We’re all in this together.”
Check back next Thursday for another installment of Casuals and follow @RedBullESPORTS on Twitter for more Street Fighter coverage.