One by one, the hoodie-clad enthusiasts stream into a brick warehouse and plunk down a $10 entrance fee. The cavernous space is bathed in a cobalt blue emanating from scores of neatly placed video monitors. It doesn’t take long for each terminal to fill up with participants ready to battle to the death.
Welcome to Wednesday Night Fights, a weekly video game tournament in downtown Santa Ana, California, where serious gamers compete in brackets for a chance to win the evening’s prize pool. On this particular Wednesday in April, a diverse group of several hundred college-aged men (and a smattering of women) mill around the floor, lugging messenger bags and monstrous stick controllers as they wait for the competition to begin. Others are simply here as casual players or spectators, watching the games projected on a massive screen while sipping on an IPA from the bar. And at home, even more fans are tuning in for the live webcast of the proceedings.
Enter 27-year-old Darryl “Snake Eyez” Lewis, one of the top Street Fighter competitors in the world. When the tall and hearty kid from Compton glides into the arena, a human perimeter forms around him, like he’s the Rocky Balboa of control pads.
Tonight Lewis is playing Street Fighter V, the latest installment in Capcom’s iconic franchise, which has been enthralling fighting-game lovers for nearly 30 years. The incredible success of Street Fighter has spawned a staggering 72 tournaments worldwide that lead up to the Capcom Cup in December and the chance to win thousands.
And that’s not the only place to compete. Evo—short for the Evolution Championship Series—is the granddaddy of fighting- game tournaments. Each year it brings together the best players in the world to Las Vegas in July. The prize pools at these events continue to skyrocket, so much so that players like Lewis can earn a nice living doing what they love—punching, kicking and crushing adversaries in a digital realm.
“Tech money is running the world,” says Alex Valle, the founder of Wednesday Night Fights. “And the new entertainment is eSports. All the young billionaires, the ones who are barely 30, are gamers. ESports is where everything is headed.”
At the ripe old age of 38, “Uncle” Valle is a seasoned eSports veteran and a legendary Street Fighter player dating back to the days when the game was played in noisy arcades in strip malls. A top competitor for more than 20 years, he is also a mentor to Lewis and other players in the local fighting game community.
Now that a new version of the game is on the market, with new characters and countless new moves to memorize, every competitor is back at square one. Players like Lewis and Valle are attempting to regain their skills, spending endless hours practicing and studying their opponents.
For both men, this obsession with Street Fighter began when they were young children growing up in tough neighborhoods, where playing video games was a way to stay out of trouble and stay focused. And in that focus, Valle and Lewis found strength in their patience—and the ability to overcome their frustrations when it felt like winning was impossible.
Valle remembers watching his teenage uncle (and babysitter) play Super Mario Brothers at his local 7-Eleven in Westminster. “I’m just there drinking a Slurpee,” Valle says, “and he had a crowd of people watching him win this game with an infinite life trick. It was awesome.”
When the NES console came out in America in 1985, it marked the beginning of Valle’s lifelong fascination with gaming. “We played whatever we got our hands on,” he says. His father encouraged his competitiveness, but it was his uncle who had one of the biggest impacts on how he played. “My uncle helped me keep a positive outlook because if I lose, I can always just play again.”
And Valle lost a lot in those early days. He knew the basics of how to win at home on his console, but the strategy was different at the arcade, where humans played humans instead of a computer. When Capcom released Street Fighter II in the arcades in 1991, Valle met players who forced him to up his game.
“When I lost, I set goals for myself,” he says. “I went back to the drawing board, tried to mirror what my opponents did and I tried to make it better. A lot of people rage when they lose. They’re in a completely negative mindset. But for me, I know I can play the game over again. Losing means there are more things to learn, and I need to keep pushing myself to overcome obstacles.”
With the growing popularity of Street Fighter, tournaments started popping up everywhere in arcades, liquor stores and pizza parlors, all advertised through word of mouth. When Valle realized winning tournaments could be a source of income, he started to take them more seriously. “I was taught that you have to work in order to survive,” says the Peruvian-born Valle. “Coming from an immigrant family, I wasn’t a citizen yet. I had no free rights. I was trying to figure out how I could make money at such a young age.”
Growing up in the 1990s, Valle explains, the kids in his neighborhood had three options: play sports, play Street Fighter or get sucked into gang life. “I had some friends who were gang members,” he says, “but I didn’t think it was cool to get into trouble. I just stayed in the arcade and played games while my friends were getting locked up. I knew where the good life was, and I minded my own business.”
His formula worked. By the time he was 15, Valle was winning money at tournaments. “My dad noticed I was getting extra income, and he didn’t believe it at first,” Valle says. His father encouraged his playing, but his mother had reservations. “She just wanted to make sure I had a good life. My dad had to convince her that what I was doing was better than the alternative.”
By 1998, Valle was the best Street Fighter player in the United States. In November of that year, Valle competed in the Street Fighter Alpha 3 world championship in San Francisco. In the final round of competition, Valle faced Japan’s national champion, Daigo Umehara the world’s best Street Fighter player. Valle lost, but he continued to be a top-ranked player through his young adulthood.
In those early days of competitive gaming, the prize money was a nice perk for a teenager but not enough to earn a living as an adult. “I didn’t have a picture of me being a professional player,” he says. “I still wanted to play Street Fighter, but what opportunities are out there for somebody who’s good at playing video games? I was getting older and I had to start thinking about what I wanted to do.”
Valle started taking sales jobs to pay the bills. Then around 2006, he realized that his status as a seasoned player could work to his advantage. The up-and-coming players in Southern California wanted to learn how to play the older versions of Street Fighter, so Valle stepped in as their trainer. Soon the players under Valle’s tutelage were becoming some of the best players in the world, and those training sessions became the genesis of Wednesday Night Fights.
When Street Fighter IV came out in 2008, it was the perfect time for Valle to ramp up his training sessions. The arcades had almost entirely disappeared and players had moved online, but major competitions like Evo still happened in person. Playing at home alone felt abnormal.
“Fighting games were born offline, in the arcade,” Valle says. “It feels far more natural when you can play against someone and see their reactions.”
Valle sent out invitations to come practice at his apartment. Before long, more than 50 people were bringing their consoles to the garage and chipping in money to pay the electricity bill.
By 2010, Wednesday Night Fights had moved to a bigger venue, and it added another layer of expansion: web streaming. Now thousands of people were tuning in every week to watch Wednesday Night Fights, and Valle was repositioning himself to make web streaming and the production of fighting-game events a full-time gig as the president of his new company, Level Up. Valle was winning tournaments and finding a way to work in the industry he loved.
Today Valle’s presence at Wednesday Night Fights feels like that of an elder statesman. He strolls along the concrete floors of the arena, shaking hands and giving hugs before heading upstairs to the balcony. As he looks down on the lively scene he has fostered for two decades, he smiles and folds his arms.
Just around the time Alex Valle was hitting the arcades with his uncle, Darryl Lewis was born in Compton in 1988. Lewis’s father was largely out of the picture, so he was raised by his mother, who worked as a custodian at a college while raising six children on her own.
“I saw how strong she was all the time,” Lewis says, “and it made me feel like I could be a strong person, too. It made me realize I shouldn’t be getting tired from the things that I did because she was doing so much more.”
Like Valle, Lewis learned that playing video games was better than the alternative: falling in with a gang. One day while walking home from school, Lewis thought he heard the sound of firecrackers. But they were gunshots. Someone was shooting at Lewis from across the street.
“I just ran,” Lewis says. “I found out later that the guy who was shooting at me was one of my friends from elementary school. And he thought I was someone else—a rival gang member. Why would he shoot at me without even knowing who I was? After that, I didn’t really hang out on that street anymore.”
Instead, Lewis found a safe haven playing video games indoors, and he spent time with friends who liked to do the same. One friend in particular, Dave Douglas, brought out Lewis’s competitive side.
Douglas, who’s five years older than Lewis, took no mercy on the younger player. He beat Lewis constantly. One day, Douglas was up 30 games in a row, and he turned to Lewis and asked, “Why aren’t you quitting yet? Aren’t you getting tired of losing?”
“Dave showed me that it takes a lot of losing before you get good at a game,” Lewis says. “If you play basketball, depending on your height, you have certain handicaps. With video games, the only thing that’s naturally beneficial for you to have is a good reaction time. But the thing is, you can improve your reactions with practice. I feel like with video games everyone can have a chance to be good. There’s nothing that can hold you back unless you can’t play that often,” he adds with a laugh.
Lewis realized that in order to win, he needed to change his strategy from offensive to defensive. The Street Fighter character that clicked with him the most in this regard was Zangief, an imposing, barrel-chested Russian who looks and moves like a professional wrestler. As Zangief, Lewis would shuffle back and forth like a boxer, patiently waiting for his opponent to make a move. As soon as the other player was within close enough range, Zangief could just bear-grab him and pound him into the ground.
It was this technique that helped Lewis win his first match at his very first tournament, when he faced Valle and won. That win caught Valle’s attention, and it introduced Lewis to the fighting- game community in Southern California.
Lewis started attending Wednesday Night Fights, and his career flourished under Valle’s coaching. Since 2012, Lewis has been one of the top-ranked Street Fighter players in the world. Today Lewis travels everywhere from France to Japan, living the life of a professional gamer. He now lives in a three-bedroom house in Torrance—a comfortable city in the South Bay just 10 miles from Compton. He shares the house with two other gamers and his girlfriend, Denise Tan, who manages his busy schedule.
Back at Wednesday Night Fights, Lewis sits down for his first webcast match of the evening. As Zangief in Street Fighter V, he quickly eliminates his opponent with a flurry of moves. After his win, he lets out a small yawn and returns to a row of folding chairs where he waits for the next game in his bracket.
Winning at WNF has been easy for Lewis, though that might not always be the case as more competitive players move up the ranks. For now Lewis is focusing on his performance at the major events coming up this year, such as Evo in July and the other tournaments that will help him qualify for Capcom Cup in December. Last year, Lewis came in 13th at Evo and 5th at Capcom Cup, but that was before Street Fighter V hit the market. The game, literally, has changed, and that means Lewis will have to keep practicing to stay at the top.
While Lewis awaits his next round, another gamer sits down next to him. It’s Christopher Gonzalez, one of the top players of Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Lewis and Gonzalez launch into a lively dialogue about Super Street Fighter II Turbo, a game that came out in 1994, when both of them were barely out of preschool. They’re chatting about which character is considered the “cheapest,” meaning a fighter who can deal damage more easily than the rest of the cast. They agree that T. Hawk, an indigenous Mexican warrior, is the absolute cheapest character in the game, but surmise that T. Hawk would have a hard time in a match against Sagat, another “cheap” character hailing from Thailand.
As if to test that theory, the two players head over to a station with an old CRT TV that just so happens to be hooked up for the very game in discussion. Lewis selects T. Hawk; Gonzalez, Sagat. This time it is a close match, with Gonzalez meeting Lewis with every punch and kick.
And then it happens: Lewis loses. But there’s no smashing of the controller or stomping off in a huff. Both men are chuckling and having fun. After all, this is just a video game, even if it has become a form of high-level competition. Losing is just a part of playing.
“It’s not easy to become a pro gamer,” Lewis says later. “I had to go through countless frustrations, and it took me a very long time to reach this level. I can get nervous in front of a crowd, but I’ve been shot at before. It’s not the same. I’m not going to die from playing this game. When you look at it that way, you begin to feel calmer. It showed me that I can do almost anything.”