Nicknamed “The Beast”, Daigo Umehara is a legend in the global gaming community. The Japanese eSports athlete won his first national Street Fighter tournament in the ‘90s, and he’s dominated the scene since. He made his name not just by owning the competition, but by doing so with flair. Now 34, Daigo looks back on the obsessive approach that drove him to the brink of mental collapse, and the new energy in the gaming community.
THE RED BULLETIN: When did your love for gaming start?
DAIGO: I first discovered arcade games when I was 11. I was in a video rental store with some friends near my home and I decided to try Street Fighter.
Gamers had a different reputation at the time—they were made fun of and viewed as anti-social. Did you encounter that?
I had a good circle of friends and was even one of the leaders of our group. Very early on, I loved entertaining the gang, which later influenced how I played Street Fighter. I soon learned that I could beat my own group of friends and other players in the area.
The Japanese education system has a reputation for being strict and regimented. Did your parents try to curb your gaming passion?
No. My father has always been a great support to me, which is probably due to his own past. He practised Kendo as a young man—a martial art popular with the ancient Samurai—at a very high level. He dreamed of a career in Kendo, but my grandfather had other ideas and made him go for a more conventional career. Of course, my grandfather was only repeating the pattern imposed on him decades before by his own father, who shattered his dreams of playing the Japanese chess game, Shogi, competitively. One by one, they were forced to sacrifice their passion for the sake of convention. I think that by allowing me to continue, my father wanted to break the cycle. It was not an easy choice at the time, as there were no professional Japanese gamers in the early 1990s.
What attracted you to Street Fighter?
Street Fighter was the most popular arcade fighting game at the time. I loved the confrontation, the direct competition with another player. Teachers in the Japanese public school system try to limit competition between students and focus instead on encouraging all students to achieve a reasonable grade. I wanted to stand out, to be different and to be able to excel at something. I wanted to be able to say that I was the best at something.
What fed your passion in the beginning? Was it the content of the game, the lure of a large prize, or the desire to belong to a community?
Prizes were never very generous in Japan, so the prize money wasn’t my main motivation. Initially I loved the game content, the atmosphere and the characters. But when I was about 14, my focus changed and I became more interested in the gaming community and in my opponents. I spent more time observing them and studying their gameplay to come up with strategies to beat them.
By then, I had become a really good player and the only thing that mattered for me was winning. An older player—he was about 24, I think—congratulated me, but said that I should pay more attention to the quality of my wins. What good was winning without flair? Annihilating an opponent without any concern for the beauty of the game was not the way forward.
Is this when you changed your approach to competition?
Yes, I started choosing weaker or lower tier Street Fighter characters. Winning became harder, but also more fun and more exciting, and other players got more enjoyment from following my games. I saw that by putting myself in danger and creating a challenge, I had embarked on a new phase in my development. My gaming technique improved significantly and I was soon unbeatable. One year later, I was champion of Japan and I won the national title twice more, when I was 17 and 19.
In 1998, you took part in your first major world tournament in the United States against the American champion, Alex Valle, and won. You were unstoppable.
That’s what I thought. But my perception gradually changed as the victories racked up. For the first few years, I played match after match with the same enthusiasm and concentration, but without aiming for a record or a specific performance. But, when I was playing for my fourth national title in 2000, things changed. I now had a single goal: to win a record four titles. I put myself under a lot of pressure and in the end, I lost. It was one of the hardest defeats of my career. For a long time I couldn’t watch the game or even go into an arcade. I was consumed by anxiety. Players should never approach a competition with that mind set.
Did you experience this unhappiness at any other point in your career?
There was another watershed moment in 2010. By then I was a professional player, my schedule was intense and I put myself under a lot of pressure. I was playing 16 hours a day and I had set my sights on winning the big Street Fighter IV world tournament in the US. I won, but had also become unstable. Feeling mentally and physically exhausted, I lost all joy in playing the game and only later understood that this type of all-out approach to preparation could never bring me satisfaction and actually distorted the ideal of gaming.
Were there ever moments in your career where you doubted yourself?
I was weak and could see no future for my career in Japan from 2005 to 2008, so I took a break from competitive gaming. I switched to playing Mahjong at a very advanced level. Not only were the competitions more organised and more professional, but I also found the type of intellectual challenge I had always enjoyed: analysis and strategy to predict your opponent’s moves. But I also had to deal with the players who lost and whose money was at stake and I felt uncomfortable with that. After that, I spent a year working in a care home for the elderly and really enjoyed it.
What brought you back to gaming?
I thought that maybe I had disappointed my dad. He taught me that I should do what I love, but that I had to persevere and become a leader in the field. I felt that I hadn’t yet succeeded in generating this level of influence. When I returned to gaming a new version of the game came out. There were new players who were younger and better. This influx of new talent was very healthy for the gaming community and also very positive and motivating for me. I knew I had to continue to improve my own technique as a player with a very different approach and culture.
Daigo remains a strong pick to win any tournament he attends since returning to fighting games in 2008. He came second at the Street Fighter World Championship in 2015. At the end of last year, his winnings totalled more than $100,000 (£70,000). His reputation has even earned him the ultimate Japanes accolade—as subject of a Manga comic—and he’s written his own book, The Willpower to Keep Winning.
Plenty for a father to be proud of.
Daigo takes on all comers during Red Bull Kumite in Paris on April 24.