LetCindersBurn: The Nigerian F.A.N.G Main's Journey
LetCindersBurn discussed a variety of issues including mental health, the Nigerian esports scene, and so much more in this engaging interview
When Oluwamayowa Gbadamosi left the shores of Nigeria in 2017 for the United States, he probably had no idea that he would go on to, in a very short time, become the country's biggest export in the FGC circuit.
Mayowa, who goes by the name 'LetCindersBurn' or 'Cinders' for short, is a phenomenal F.A.N.G player who has played against some of the top North American talents, including Punk, END Shine, and Rob TV. He has paid his dues in the NLBC and was a somewhat familiar face in a number of Reddit tournaments. While he is yet to compete on the truly big stages, Cinders has already shown that he is a top talent that can rub shoulders with the very best in the business.
Therefore, it was with unabashed glee that I got to talk to him about his career to this point and his plans for the future. The affable Cinders was willing to talk and spoke wistfully about his time in Nigeria, his beginnings as an FGC player, and the dreams he hopes to achieve in the future.
Cinders' eyes are focused on something more than just playing fighting games for a living, and I got to meet not just a passionate Street Fighter V player, but an incredible human being with several other facets to his life.
As we sat across from each other, half a world apart, but connected by the magic of technology, Cinders recalled with some nostalgia a childhood filled with videogames. "I've been playing video games for about as long as I can remember," he said, ruffling through his mental files to come up with an exact age. He soon gave up and kept talking, "My dad was incredibly supportive of my hobbies." This was surprising to me considering how video games are generally perceived in the West African nation. My surprise must have been evident because Cinders gave a short laugh before continuing, "Yes, my dad supported my hobbies and bought me video games regularly. Every week or so, he'd come home with another video game, and I had basically everything I needed. It was like a dream come true for a kid my age."
Soon video games became an integral part of the young Cinders' life. "I know this sounds cliche, but video games were a sort of escape for me." This is an understandable notion as very many people feel the same way about the medium. However, his love for fighting games will come later while he was a student at the University of Lagos, where he studied Computer Science. As he sat at the back of a class playing on his laptop, he got to meet two fighting game enthusiasts, Zod and Yemi. These two would go on to introduce young Mayowa into the world of fighting games. "I didn't even know about Sonic Fox until 2015/2016," he said with a nervous laugh. His love for fighting games only grew from there. "Zod and Yemi showed me just how deep fighting games are. Fighting games are so deep and strategic, and I fell in love with the rich depth of the games." Soon Cinders was playing Street Fighter every day and getting pretty good at it. He left Nigeria soon after to embark on the next stage of his evolution.
I didn't even know about Sonic Fox until 2015/2016
Culture shock and finding a home in the NA FGC
Moving into a new environment is always going to take some getting used to. For Cinders, the first thing he was struck by was how nice everyone was to him. "One of the guys around handed me a screwdriver; I still have the screwdriver to this day. He said 'you're a man, so if you need to do a few things around the house you'll need this.'" This wasn't the only thing that surprised Cinders as the homeless population in his home state of Indiana shocked him. The Eastern state has a homeless population of over 5,000, which has only increased due to the pandemic. "I was so surprised to see homeless people; it wasn't something I was used to." Nevertheless, Cinders' transition from Nigerian to American life was pretty smooth as he was showered with support from all sides. It was also around this time that he started getting noticed on the competitive fighting scene. "Kevin [Dual Kevin] Barrios reached out to me. He would drive all the way to my house and take me out to play games, sometimes even to different states. I went to a couple of tournaments due to peer pressure, but I usually don't play competitively much."
Why though? That was the question that hung in my mind. Why would someone so talented refuse to focus on a professional career?
"Playing Street Fighter V competitively stresses me out," was his candid response. This steered our conversation towards a sensitive area, but Cinders was welcoming and happy to discuss the subject of mental health. Mental health as a concept is only beginning to gain some traction in Nigeria, and Cinders bemoaned the lack of attention such an important topic was getting in the country. "In Naija (colloquial slang for Nigeria), no one really talks about mental health. Like if you visit the doctor and say I have depression, he'll look and you and ask 'what's wrong with you?'" While conversations around mental health are taking place more in Nigeria, there is still a gulf between the West and Africa in that regard. "I dated someone with mental issues, and there were a few things she'd do that seemed strange to me, but she always explained why and this helped me appreciate the topic of mental health more. Mental illness isn't debilitating or means that there's something wrong with you; it just means that we all have issues we need to deal with."
This is true for everyone, including Cinders, who took a step back from competitive gaming after a traumatic defeat to END Shine at the NLBC online edition #5. In a closely contested match, Cinders was unable to prevail against Shine's Ibuki and was knocked out of the losers' bracket 4th round. "I hate losing. Like, I could be on a 15-game win streak, and one defeat messes up the rest of my day.
"I get so angry when I lose, I don't throw stuff or anything, but I keep asking myself, 'why did you do that move?' 'How could you make that mistake?'"
Coupled with school, work, and life in general, the idea of competitive gaming just didn't seem as important. When asked about how the North American FGC treated mental health, Cinders was quite complimentary, "Some people understand but aren't willing to accommodate others; meanwhile, there are people who try to make it work.
"The American FGC is probably at its healthiest point right now, and people reach out regularly and are willing to help out. Now when people want to be toxic, they are attacked, not physically, of course, but with words of reason."
So, what would Cinders rather do? "I don't want to make competitive gaming as my primary source of income, but I still want to remain active in the FGC. It is a space I am comfortable with and can navigate effectively. I've considered content creation as a way forward. I still want people to know that I'm a good player, but I don't think I'll play much competitively." Content creation IS a viable means of staying relevant in the FGC even if you aren't playing professionally, and Cinders is confident that he can make way for himself. This was especially evident when I asked if he could possibly gain popularity as a content creator without some infamy as a pro player. "There are a lot of people who don't play professionally but still have decent followings on the internet. Also, with the improvement of Street Fighter and the upcoming LoL (League of Legends) fighting game, the FGC could be changed forever since League of Legends will bring a lot more money to the table. I can see the likes of SonicFox getting into the game and creating content around it." Cinders also professed admiration for the design of LoL characters. "I haven't really played the game, but I love the lore and character design. I also watch a lot of content around it, so I could make content around when the fighting game comes out."
Watching Cinders use F.A.N.G is a joy to behold. He fights in a very balanced way making use of taunts, baits, and so on while waiting for an opening before executing a series of combos against his opponent. While a balanced fighting style isn't in any way new or rare, his seamless ability to switch between defensive stances and aggressive bouts of pressure is remarkable. Also, F.A.N.G isn't the most popular character, and you will find very few pro players using him as a main; however, this only makes the character more appealing to Cinders. "The player base for F.A.N.G is about 0.8%," Cinders quipped as I looked on with wide eyes. "F.A.N.G is a 'bad' player for most people, and he has to work really hard to win. But, once you get the hang of it, he is a plus player and can get away with way more. He is also well designed. In fact, I think he and Gill are probably the best-designed characters in Street Fighter history." As for his fighting style, Cinders explained that F.A.N.G's frame advantage enables him to fight in a way that other characters just can't.
"F.A.N.G is really incredible, and while there are things he can't do, his flexibility makes up for it. I also really love his personality, and I like the fact that not many people use him."
The Nigerian esports scene
The Nigerian esports scene is small but has been growing slowly, with more and more tournaments taking place in the country. While the stock of popular games like VALORANT and Dota isn't as high as in Europe, fighting games and sports are incredibly popular in the West African nation.
Cinders is optimistic about the prospect of esports in Nigeria and is staunchly of the opinion that it could grow exponentially. "I think it's easy to grow the FGC in Nigeria. I think all they really need is some money. And I think the university scene is the key to growing the scene." Cinders might have a point as the University of Lagos from which he graduated has an average of 55,000 students; doing some rough maths, you could see how about 5-10% of that crowd will be interested in fighting games, which is a decent player base.
Cinders is also confident that fighting games could be really big in the country, "There was a competition organized by tech plus. Once MK 11 came on, everyone turned to the screen to watch what was going on. Games such as MK 11 are visually stimulating, and people are drawn to the noise and colors. Also, MK is a relatively easy game to get into, so you can imagine how easy it could be to convince someone to get into the game." His enthusiasm for the esports scene was evident to see, and his eyes shone as he talked about how students and younger players could be introduced into the FGC with the promise of making some money.
"Imagine organizing a weekly competition with a 1st place prize of N10,000 (about $25). That's huge for a student! So if someone kept winning, he could easily make about N40,000 a month ($103), and that's a lot of pocket money. The promise of such a huge amount will cause a lot of players to train and get better at the game, which could, in turn, make it easier to attract sponsors."
As our conversation began to wind down, Cinders gushed about the other games he is playing at the moment, including Ghost of Tsushima, Fall Guys, and Mortal Shell.
As I thanked him for his time, I found that I wasn't as disappointed as I initially was over his reluctance to play video games as a pro. Games were created as an escape and means to have some fun. True, the esports scene has opened a world of opportunities for several people worldwide and has provided a viable means of income for hundreds of people around the world who might otherwise be working jobs they do not enjoy. But, is there anything wrong with putting games to their original use — a means to relax? I think not. So, while you might never see Mayowa at an Evo tournament, his credentials remain rock solid. LetCindersBurn is undoubtedly a name we're going to be seeing a lot more of in one way or the other, and I, for one, can't wait to see what he does next.
As a final question, I asked who his dream opponent would be. "Daigo Umehara!" he said without hesitation. "I don't say that because I want to beat him or anything, I just want to be able to tell people I faced Daigo."
And who can blame him, who wouldn't want to play Daigo?