The Singaporean OG speaks frankly about his career, the future, and the fascinating world of the Singaporean FGC
The room was hot. The feeling of tension in the air, palpable. All eyes were on two figures bathed in the warm glow of an LED screen. Hunched over, eyes screwed in concentration, the two competitors played out of their skins. The crowd, shoulder to shoulder, cheered with all their might. One thousand six hundred pro gamers had given up their weekend and entered this competition to get a chance to be called the best Street Fighter IV player on the planet. One thousand five hundred and ninety-eight of them had failed, and now there were two. The competition, Evo championship, is considered as the pinnacle of fighting game tournaments, and at that moment, Hajime ‘Tokido’ Taniguchi was playing against relative newcomer Kun ‘Xian’ Ho and wasn’t faring too well. The former was already a superstar in the FGC and was well-known for putting on a show while displaying some jaw-dropping gameplay in the process. Xian, on the other hand, was using Gen, an incredibly unpopular character whom many had predicted could never be used to win a tournament. Xian had already used Gen to win the Community Effort Orlando tournament earlier in the year, and he had dragged Gen all the way to an EVO final. But against Tokido, surely he had no chance.
As Tokido used Akuma’s air fireballs to keep Xian at bay, the Singaporean maestro waited patiently, biding his time and calculating his moves with absolute perfection. Once the opportunity presented itself, he struck— ruthlessly. At the end of the third game, as Xian landed the final blow, the room erupted in cheers— a new EVO champion was born.
Everyone feted the quiet Xian, and the message seemed to be that his life was transformed. However, while Xian kept a wry smile on his face, he seemed dazed, and most people assumed this was just the reaction of a man who had just unexpectedly won the biggest fighting game tournament in the world.
The truth was a little sadder, as Xian would later reveal; the EVO 2013 win brought along with it some melancholy about what the next step was.
Xian had reached the pinnacle; now what?
It has been almost eight years since Xian got to the top of the FGC, and he is now considered a veteran in gaming circles. With over 20 years of experience under his belt and countless tournament wins, Xian is gearing up for the truncated Capcom Cup, which will also mark his eighth consecutive appearance at the competition. He currently holds the record as the only professional never to have missed it. Now 30, Xian is a picture of confidence, and there is a feeling that here is someone who knows exactly who he is and what he wants out of life. Following what could be classified as one of the most difficult years in existence, Xian took a moment to sit down with me and discuss the things that brought him here and his future plans.
Like most fighting game cultures, the Singaporean FGC can trace its roots back to the days of the arcades. The 80s were a difficult time for Arcade centers as worries over growing addiction and truancy saw the Singaporean government ban arcades. However, they were back in operation in the 90s, and this led to a significant surge in the national interest in video games. Games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat were hugely popular at the arcades. But in Singapore, nothing compared to King of Fighters, and this was mostly the game of choice for most gamers.
This included Xian, who, as a seven-year-old, spent a lot of time honing his skills at the arcades. Things are a lot different now, and as I gazed into my screen, across thousands of miles to a wistful Xian, he mused over the evolution that the Singaporean FGC has experienced. “It started off with the arcade scene,” Xian started. “It used to be really big in Singapore. Everyone went to the arcades [and] King of Fighters was the game that everyone kinda played. Basically, every game that was new in the arcades got a big response. Compared to the scene right now, it’s more [geared] towards online, console. This goes back to eight years ago with the PS3 and X-box.”
This was the story of most arcade venues with the advent of personal computers and home consoles. According to Xian, some of the people who grew up on the arcades are still huge fans. “The community is very different [now]. The old school players are still at the arcades, but they are playing old games. The scene has different people now, but it’s still quite a big scene.”
The death of the arcades was a natural consequence of evolution, but there were still a couple of specific reasons for its demise, some of which Xian expanded on. “I think the main reason for the decline of the arcade scene was the lack of the newest games. Like Street Fighter V wasn’t on the arcade, there was no MVC at the arcades either.
"So, the lack of new games and also the pricing. Many years ago, it was 50 cents in my country, and now it’s still 50 cents, but the economy has really changed, so I don’t think maintaining the same price for the arcades really works. [Conversely] if you make it expensive, I don’t think people will play as well. So it’s a pretty double-edged sword, and it was difficult to maintain the business.”
Since Xian mentioned the prevalence of King of Fighters back in the day, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to ask about his interest in the upcoming KoF XV game coming out this year. Would he be playing it professionally? “Hmmm, I honestly don’t think I would be picking it up professionally,” Xian responded with a small twinge of guilt, seeing as KoF is what he started with. “Now that [my gaming] is a career, sometimes we have to focus on the most popular [games], which is Street Fighter, and it’s hard to go into any side games because we aren’t young anymore when I can play every game. We also have to focus on achieving results in the games we play.”
As Xian spoke, he seemed to warm more to the idea of playing KoF. “I will play it as a side game if I have the time. We have some free time [due to the pandemic], and while every country is different, a lot of them are in lockdown. We’ll see if I actually like it [not picking it up professionally] is more of a personal reason rather than how the game itself will be.”
There was a time where the idea of making a living by playing video games seemed like a complete fantasy. But, thanks to esports, this has now become a reality. Players are now privy to various income streams, including cash prizes for tournaments, sponsorships, merchandising, streaming, and so on. Some top earners take home seven figures every year, and even the mid-sized personalities make a comfortable living from video games.
That said, the FGC has had a fascinating relationship with mainstream esports. Due to the niche nature of fighting games, they don’t get the same level of recognition from companies and brands, and the tournaments don’t pay out as much cash. Therefore, there are fewer financially secure pros within the space. However, this has begun to change in recent times, with more and more companies showing interest in the FGC and slowly making inroads.
The FGC comes with a dedicated fanbase, a level of community engagement that cannot be found anywhere else, and an authenticity that is lost in other areas of esports. This ‘pop’ has attracted the attention of esports companies, and there are now more ‘Tier 1’ tournaments being organized by companies. A recent example was the highly successful WePlay Dragon Temple tournament, which was held in Ukraine in December 2020.
On the other hand, not everyone in the FGC welcomes the romance with mainstream esports. This is partly due to being burnt in the past; also, some people worry that the continued association with traditional esports could lead to a loss of identity for the FGC.
Xian, who is sponsored by Razer, can be considered one of the lucky ones within the industry doing well for himself and has a balanced view of the situation. “I think the rise of esports within the FGC is something that is all good without any bad. I know some people don’t really like the idea of esports in fighting games, but money is something that keeps the world going.
“Esports players can have a decent living, which leads to more content. You get commentators getting paid and tournament organizers getting paid really well. Everyone in the chain gets to benefit from esports, and with this, it will only get bigger. So, I think it is a very big and good change, in my opinion.”
That said, Xian is not ignorant of the possibility of the FGC losing its grassroots feel by mixing with traditional esports, “That [the possible loss of identity] is something I know what they’re talking about as I am someone who is also from the grassroots. But the benefits of the FGC growing are better because without esports, your favorite players might have to move on to jobs, and that could just be the end of it. So, we have to sacrifice something.”
Xian’s first sponsors were Yung Tek and Lenn Yang, who helped Xian travel overseas for tournaments. This was a huge deal, and with money, not a huge worry, Xian focused on winning tournaments— and win, he did. He took Canada cup in 2012, got that infamous EVO win in 2013, and placed impressively in several tournaments in the next couple of years.
The faith placed in Xian was able to catapult him to stardom; when I asked about the importance of faith in a player’s career, bwas quick to point out that it wasn’t just faith but money and time. “They also collaborated on a lot of content with me. The kind of help they offered me, I’d say that I’m just really lucky to be able to meet people like them. This resulted in trying my best not to fail them, which also led to the big wins and the good things. So, some luck is required because in a country like Singapore, which isn’t really big, you really need to have a life-changing chance. Opportunity came, and I took it.”
Tough Cookie was a gaming cafe that Xian established, and for some, this is where some claim the modern Singaporean FGC was born. Xian used the gaming cafe as a training ground and ran tournaments while entering into competitions himself and vying for the top prizes.
The name ‘Tough Cookie’ epitomized the hustle Xian had to experience to get to where he is today, but apparently, the name of the gaming cafe was not Xian’s idea, “Lee came up with the name,” he said with a laugh “I had no idea what the thought behind the name was, I just went on with it.”
Xian did have to exhibit incredible amounts of mental fortitude as he went through something of a difficult period after his 2013 EVO win. While he didn’t slink away into obscurity, his performances weren’t always up to his very high standards, and he struggled closing out games.
This was a difficult time, and coming out of it was a struggle. Thinking back on it, Xian attributes his triumph over the dark times to a healthy dose of luck, “The struggle was real, and my decision to move on instead of staying in the same spot helped. It was all down to luck; I was so lucky that Razer picked up on me and got me to sign the contract, and I have nothing but appreciation for them.
“I almost gave up, so it was kind of luck that I got signed, and there was a snap, I could get something off my hard work, I wasn’t just a world champion who had to go home and retire. The timing was really lucky for me, and I just managed to hold on.”
He added, “I don’t have much advice because I was really confused at the time.”
Now he’s with Razer, and he’s charged with winning regularly, which is a pretty big ask considering how many awesome players are on the scene right now. This is also really difficult when you have more or less made it to the top of the FGC, as complacency is something that could creep into your gameplay. Interestingly, Xian is of the opinion that complacency is just a regular part of life. “I know Daigo came out with a book, ‘The Will to Keep Winning.’ I never read that book, I wish I did, but I feel the title didn’t really cater to everyone. I definitely lost a lot of motivation compared to the past [after my win].” Xian said candidly.
“I guess it’s kind of inevitable,” Xian added about complacency. “Once you reach the top of the mountain, sometimes you want to take a rest; it’s just part and parcel of life. In every industry or career, people get demotivated once in a while. I don’t think it’s a bad thing; it’s just how life works. We still want to win, and we motivate ourselves here and there. But, not being as motivated after winning the crown is pretty normal. Like if you won a million dollars, you won’t work as hard anymore, will you?”
Xian once wrote a love letter to the arcades that pretty much molded him into who he is today. One of the most striking things about the piece was how he talked about how the Singaporean arcades frowned at grabs, and it was considered a cheap move. There are a lot of those today (Sheeva’s stomp, anyone?), and I asked if there are any moves that Xian considers cheap or ‘broken,’ “I think this era is different. Back then, people just listened to their friends or what their local arcade banned or considered cheap because there is no patch to a game. In this era, I don’t think there is a problem [with cheap or banned moves] because if there is something so broken, then it’ll be fixed in a patch. If it isn’t fixed, then you have to look at yourself because it wasn’t recognized as broken using world standards.
“In the past, if something was broken, it was definitely broken, and there were no patches. If there’s something broken, just post it on the internet; the amount of retweets will let you know if it’s broken or not.”
Speaking of world standards, Xian took the stage with some of the best players in the world during Street Fighter League, where he represented Team Psycho Shinobi which also contained Caba and HotDog29. Here he had to play with teammates in a situation where his actions affected not only him but those on the team.
Apparently, Xian relished the SFL format and claimed it increased his motivation. “I think team tournaments, personally, for me is really, really fun. This is because there is a lot less stress. I’m a kind of person that if my team is winning, I feel a strong morale, and usually, I don’t lose in those situations. But, if my team is losing and I can carry them, I feel happy as well. There’s just the relief of not playing for myself, and that’s a great feeling.”
While Street Fighter League was entertaining on so many fronts, it was also missing fans, which was pretty glaring. As a professional who is used to having the crowd at his back cheering him on, Xian admits that he still isn’t used to not having them around, “I still struggle through it [lack of fans], but once it became a career, it became a responsibility, almost like a job. So you know you have to play, you know you have to practice, you know even when it isn’t fun for you, but we’re still doing something better than 90% of people out there [playing games]. So, I guess appreciating what we have is something to look at to make ourselves happier.”
With an enviable career in esports, for Xian, constant motion seems to be the key to maintaining his focus. So what are his plans for 2021? “If there is no CPT this year, I have plans to trying out card games again. I do play Shadowverse and Legend of Runterra, so I might step into playing some competitive card games. But let’s take it one step at a time.”
Even with no Capcom Cup, Xian still has a special exhibition match against fellow Singaporean SKZ (he won btw) to contend with. That said, it is likely that even with a pandemic, fighting game tournaments will still find a way.
At this point, I had already taken up quite a chunk of Xian’s time, but there was one question that had nagged at me all day: What was his deal with Ovaltine Milk Tea?
“It’s just something I loved to drink when I was young. It wasn’t a common beverage, so when I realized 10-20 years later that people sell it as a milk tea...it’s just sweet, and I just kinda like it,” he said with a shrug.
“It reminds me of childhood,” he continued. “And it might not be a good sign; it might mean I’m getting old.” Xian quipped.
And with that answered, it was time to say goodbye. As the call ended, I smiled a little to myself as his love for Ovaltine was something I understood; I’m an Ovaltine man myself.
In 2013, Xian climbed to the top of the FGC hierarchy with a stunning EVO win, but in 2021, he finds that there are still other pinnacles to reach, other mountains to conquer, and further adversaries to vanquish.
It promises to be an exciting year!
News, longreads, memes – the best from esports world is right in your inbox
Rocket League Invitational TournamentKnow more
News, longreads, memes – the best from esports world is right in your inbox