Casuals: Xian, a Singapore Street Fighter Miracle
We caught up with the Evo 2013 champ to talk competing, personal struggle, and being an inspiration.
Ho Kun Xian may be from Singapore but he’s the embodiment of the American dream. Through hard work, he made it to the pinnacle of Street Fighter as an eSport, winning an Evo championship. It was a miracle the young man from Singapore won the tournament playing Gen, a low-tier character everyone overlooked.
Nobody gave him a chance in hell to succeed as a pro Street Fighter player, let alone to win the biggest fighting game tournament in the world. All the while, since turning pro, the reserved competitor continues to win, clawing his way from nothing to a stable full-time pro gaming career thanks to Razer’s sponsorship. He wants his hard work and determination to inspire people but his perseverance through a personal and gaming identity crisis may provide an even bigger inspiration.
You Can't Win Evo
“Have you ever seen America or Japan win the World Cup?” someone once asked Xian. At the time, he didn’t really understand the analogy to his desire to play Street Fighter professionally. But like Xian’s friends and family back in Singapore, that person questioned his judgment. ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ He was barely making $10,000 USD a year and they questioned how long he’d be able to survive off the meager earnings. ‘This is not going to be a job. You should go to school.’
“It’s discouraging because people don’t see I’m doing what I love for a living,” Xian said, brushing his hair to the side as he does between rounds in competition. “It is almost impossible. I tried not to admit that to people.”
Xian was determined to prove that a player from Singapore could win Evo and he wanted to do it with a character unique to him. That’s when he switched mains from Yun, widely considered one of the highest tier characters at the time. Gen appealed to Xian because of his multiple stances and move sets. Gen was more challenging to play and gave Xian more options.
“The potential of the character wasn’t even close to anything being shown now,” Xian said.
“People treated Gen like Dan. ‘This character is too weak. I don’t need to know anything to beat him.’”
“I spent a lot of time with Gen, even though I lost a lot in the first year. If I managed to find a way to play this character strong, no one will be able to figure him out.”
Playing Games for a Living
And so Xian trained on a lackluster Xbox Live connection and with a dwindling arcade scene. Singapore didn’t have the luxury of Street Fighter IV cabinets connected to high-speed internet for the latest updates. Traveling overseas was a scary thought because the prize money wasn’t worth it for the struggling player paying his own way. Even winning didn’t always cover travel costs. Xian was scraping together a living running a gaming café called Tough Cookie. He trained, live streamed, and held tournaments at the shop as a side gig to competing in tournaments. Life as a pro certainly wasn’t what he had hoped.
Things started to change when a sponsor finally approached Xian, who assured the sponsor he could win tournaments worldwide. That sponsor, who Xian asked not to be named due to privacy, gave him hope.
“He said he was willing to spend the money. I didn’t know anything about fighting games and sponsorship,” Xian said.
Someone finally believed in Xian and all he asked for was for was that Xian try his best. His airfare and hotel were covered. He had a little spending money so that he could treat the traveling like a vacation. Xian started winning more. He took first at Canada Cup 2012 and followed that up with numerous top eight finishes through 2013 and 2014.
Winning Isn't Everything
Street Fighter commentator James Chen once asked, “You don’t think winning Evo like this changes your life?” This was right after Ho Kun Xian won the Evo 2013 Street Fighter IV grand finals. There’s a perception that winning Evo can change your life, and in many ways it can. But for Xian, it was the beginning of a slide that would affect his physical and mental health.
“I was really discouraged after winning Evo,” Xian said. “I was at my lowest point. When you win, your mind starts wandering. You do the most predictable moves. People figure you out easily. You can’t think properly about the risk versus reward of the moves you’re doing.”
Xian was surprisingly candid about what he perceives as a breakdown in his game. As a viewer, it’s hard to notice. He competes at an extraordinarily high level. He punched his ticket into the Capcom Cup this year with a win at Final Round 18. But he admits he’s had a hard time closing out matches lately. He pointed to recent losses at Evo 2015 against Red Bull Athlete Darryl "Snake Eyez" Lewis, and eventual Evo 2015 champion Evil Geniuses Yusuke Momochi, where he finished in 17th place, as examples.
The Internal Struggle
“I nearly closed out Snake Eyez but I couldn’t clutch it out. He had less than 10 percent of his life and he clutched it out,” Xian said. “Worse was the Momochi match. I had match point and I had more than 50 percent and I couldn’t close it out again.”
“He got that comeback and I saw his face.” Xian let out a deep sigh. “Oh my god, how did he make this comeback?”
He gave Momochi credit for the win but that didn’t make it any less of a painful finish. It made Xian question himself as a player. If he goes into a game with a proper strategy and game plan and it works, how could he possibly be losing consistently with his opponents at low health? Xian felt it was impossible that anyone could adapt to him within the last 10 percent of their life during a round. Maybe it’s being clutch. Maybe it’s their patience.
“If it happens once or twice, I would think its luck,” Xian said. “As it happened more and more, I started thinking it’s a problem with me. It puzzles me at this moment as I’m talking. I think about it a lot and I wish I could improve on it.”
A Better Quality of Life
Xian admits he didn’t know specifically what the problem is but it has been demotivating lately, just by a little. He hasn’t been exercising since his Evo win. He spent more time at his shop, where he would eat and play most days. He lost his balance between body and mind.
How does one improve on something when he doesn’t necessarily know what the problem is? For Xian, it could start by getting healthier but he also believes the quality of life could be better for pro gamers. Athletes with salaries or contracts still get paid, regardless of wins or losses. In eSports, the top few players in the world are living on a salary and sponsorship. Daigo and Justin Wong are the two leading examples in the FGC but they’re the one percent. Accomplished Japanese player Naoto Sako brought his wife and baby to Evo.
“You know he’s not surviving playing fighting games. He has a job in Japan,” Xian said.
Reforming the FGC
The FGC’s growth is difficult because players want more money and more recognition for fighting games as an eSport but many players fear growing too fast or losing its grassroots identity. Xian wants to see the money spread around more as the FGC becomes a bigger eSport. Out of over 2200 entrants in Ultra Street Fighter IV, the top eight players get a payout.
“If you are 9th and below, you get a high five!” according to the Evo website. Unfortunately, that’s the typical format for most major events.
“If you get top 16 or 32, you should get money,” Xian said. “It’s not easy for a tournament like Evo to get top 32. You need more for placing 17th or 9th place.”
The players spend well over 14 hours playing through pools, the top 32 and top 16, in order to get a chance at a payout on the final day. The players are pushed to their physical and mental limits. Just look at Evo 2015’s finals as an example. But Xian has come too far to give up on his dreams and he knows his life could be very different without competitive Street Fighter.
Be an Inspiration
Xian used to tell people who asked him how to become a pro gamer to do something else. It just wasn’t worth the risk, especially if you have family or obligations. He realized that people should do what they love, just like he wants to. He urges people to follow their dreams now, but to do it wisely.
Razer stepped in with a sponsorship and he has what he needs to live a more comfortable life as a Street Fighter competitor. He’s gained an appreciation for his status in the FGC. He hopes to inspire people with the story of a kid from Singapore who pulled off a miracle and won Evo, maybe even write a book someday.
“Inspiration became a very meaningful word to me and I want to pass it on,” Xian said. “I still use that World Cup reference now. I hope the person who told me the World Cup thing will see this interview.”
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