Las Vegas may be the boxing capital of the world, but for a long weekend every summer, it becomes the mecca of a more vicarious form of combat.
Evo, short for the Evolution Championship Series, is the world’s most prestigious tournament for fighting videogames. Whether you specialize in a long-running series like Street Fighter or newer titles like BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle , Evo is the Super Bowl of virtual hand-to-hand brawling. And last August, the most dramatic moments of Evo 2018 played out in a brand-new game.
Dragon Ball FighterZ had only arrived in stores months before, but it immediately found a following among the competitive ranks of fighting-game enthusiasts. Part of the game’s appeal was owing to the beloved anime series it was based on; more was a result of the game’s well-calibrated tag-team action; all of it was palpable in the thrumming Mandalay Bay Events Center when the finals bout took place. More than 2,500 people had registered to try their hand at FighterZ, making it the most popular game of the tournament, and now only two were left standing: veteran pro Goichi “Go1” Kishida and a young prodigy named Dominique McLean.
McLean was only 20, but he was already well known in the fighting game community. Despite his age, he had taken home Evo gold three times, in two different titles. A prolific trash-talker both in person and online , his brio was backed up by his success, though it was also in keeping with tradition: While the other competitive scenes grew out of networked PC games, fighting games have been a staple of arcades of the ’90s, with players battling for supremacy on the same machine with attacks both virtual and psychological.
Less in keeping with tradition in the fighting-game community? McLean, also known as SonicFox, is an openly gay member of the furry scene, one who wears pieces of his vulpine fursuit at competitions . Yet, by the end of 2018, McLean would be named the “esports player of the year ” at the annual Game Awards. He would garner incredible goodwill in the community, promoting rising players and pledging $10,000 in prize winnings to his opponent’s father’s cancer treatment.
And he would be the heir apparent to the throne of fighting games, his moniker as synonymous with winning as greats like Daigo, Tokido, and Justin Wong. (Long before Twitch turned Ninja into a superstar, long before esports jumped the fence and made it onto ESPN, Street Fighter savants were the gaming world's one-name celebrities.)
The story of McLean’s 2018 is one of a powerhouse in the fighting game community becoming a figurehead for inclusion and diversity and the rivalry that tested and pushed him to his greatest heights yet. And on it rolls in 2019. This weekend, McLean is in Los Angeles for the finals of the Dragon Ball FighterZ World Tour —and he's looking to prove, once and for all, that the Fox stands alone.
McLean started young, playing videogames in his hometown of Townsend, Delaware, thanks to his older brother. At the age of 3, he says, he was playing Tekken 3 . By 13, he was entering tournaments, playing Mortal Kombat against opponents decades his senior. At 16 he took his first Evo trophy, for the game Injustice: Gods Among Us; he’d pick up two more in the next two years, all while wearing a hat with blue-furred ears. (Though McLean had discovered his SonicFox "fursona" around the age of 10 , he didn’t begin wearing its trappings at competitions until he was established on the circuit.)
But those were just the biggest titles at the biggest tournaments. McLean was an omnivore of the genre, learning and besting top players in Skullgirls , Dead or Alive , and more. All the while, he was becoming an icon in his own right. The fighting game world never shed the brashness of its arcade origin, but even in the sea of outsized personalities, McLean's ears and trash talk made him stand out.
To hear him tell it, he became like Dragon Ball protagonist Goku, roaming the countryside looking for competition. “I just wanna fight the top players of almost every community ever,” he says. “Even in a new game I’m just getting into, I always pick out a top player: ‘All right, let’s play.’” And in January 2018, when Dragon Ball FighterZ came out, the would-be Goku got his wish—courtesy of actual Goku.
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Fighting games and anime already share a close relationship; the genre has seen numerous titles try to replicate popular anime battles or utilize the art form’s stylish aesthetic. While a number of Dragon Ball games had been released over the years, FighterZ immediately set itself apart. Not only was it developed by one of the best games studios in the genre, Arc System Works, but it shared DNA with a foundational franchise of the competitive fighting game community: the Marvel Vs. Capcom series.
If, as with boxing, you think of each fighting game as its own division, then FighterZ was the melting pot that saw all the divisions collide—and all the weight classes, too. Platform fighters and 3D brawlers, tag-team and classical enthusiasts: They all dove in, creating a talent pool that was nearly unprecedented in its size and diversity. It was too tantalizing for McLean to resist, and he quickly emerged as a top player. But doing that was about more than just natural ability. McClean became a graduate-level student of the game.
For the most part, fighters are no different from any other type of game: You have to move the sticks in the right direction and press the right buttons in a given order to execute the move you want, whether it’s a simple kick or an intricate combination. (While fighting games can be played with traditional PlayStation or Xbox gamepads, competitive players can also opt for personal arcade sticks or other genre-specific machinations.) But each of those moves consists of discrete animations, each of which lasts a certain number of frames—and understanding those frames is the very mathematical core of fighting games’ thrust-and-parry ballet.
Think of a baseball player trying to hit a pitch. What matters is the moment of contact, but that moment is just one small part of a longer, sequence: wind-up, swing, and follow-through. In fighting games, the swing launches a “hitbox,” which will do damage to an opponent if it touches an unguarded portion of their opponent’s avatar, or a “hurtbox.” Knowing a game’s frame data—how many frames it takes for a given move to produce a hitbox, and how many frames of vulnerability you’re left with if an opponent blocks that move—is what separates top-level players from novices.
Watching McLean compete is like watching a mathematician play free jazz: The skill he has comes from a mechanical and intellectual foundation, but his grasp of the game's frame data allows him to riff in ways that are remarkably his own.
Like most top players in the field, McLean has memorized those numbers, and can use his knowledge base to suss out gaps in opponents’ defenses, then strike. This isn’t easy; in a game running at 60 frames per second, you have only fractions of a second to respond. Knowing what moves you should execute—or should forego entirely—is just as tricky, and that’s where McLean truly shines. “I don’t see punches and kicks as punches and kicks,” he says. “I need to know, is this attack he did punishable? Does it set up a situation where I can’t really challenge him? Can I challenge him or check him?”
At their highest level, fighting games are a combination of canvas and conduit; the more you internalize a game’s frame data, the more your personal style can shine through the ones and zeros and suffuse the play itself. Watching McLean compete is like watching a mathematician play free jazz: The skill he has comes from a mechanical and intellectual foundation, but his grasp of the game's frame data allows him to riff in ways that are remarkably his own. He excels at throwing long series of attacks, designed to force his opponent into making a mistake. He might be carrying out moves in a predictable cadence—low-low-high, low-low-high—but then he switches and adds in an overhead attack, or jumps behind you while you’re otherwise occupied. It’s brutal to see, and even more so to fight.
As McLean was forging his style and dominating the FighterZ circuit in North America, the man who would become his Evo rival was doing the same in Japan. Eleven years older than McLean, Goichi "Go1" Kishida had long ago achieved fighting-game renown for his rock-solid defense and composure in the face of frenzied attacks. He excelled in Street Fighter and niche gems alike, but in FighterZ , he found a game that rewarded that impermeability; almost immediately after the game’s release, he was being recognized as the best player in the world .
SonicFox’s irresistible attacks seemed destined to collide with Go1’s immovable defense. As with any high-profile showdown, verbal foreplay preceded any actual confrontation. Kishida struck first, celebrating a tournament win in Japan by declaring “you’re next, SonicFox.” McLean replied with his own post-victory threat: After breezing through a tournament called Winter Brawl, he took the microphone to address his nemesis. “Goichi,” he said, “ Omae wa mou shindeiru .” You are already dead . A famous line from the anime series Fist of the North Star , it was a fittingly coded shot across the bow.
Over the coming months, the two fought multiple times. On their first meeting, a first-to-10 exhibition, Kishida looked to have the upper hand. His stonewall defense was impenetrable, and he won the exhibition—then went on to beat McLean again in the grand finals, and again at another exhibition. Three times McLean fell to his rival, and though the gap between the two closed a little bit each time, he still couldn’t seal the deal.
But the Fox kept training, and kept getting better. “I’m willing to grind religiously, for hours on end,” he says. While McLean was a full-time student majoring in computer science at the New York Institute of Technology, he spent massive chunks of time playing the game, mostly against other players in casual in-person matches, as well as dissecting different move combinations in the game’s training mode and watching other players’ replays. (He has since left college to compete full-time.)
Finally, in late May, at the Chicago-area tournament Combo Breaker, McLean found his footing against Kishida, beating him twice in the double-elimination format: once in the winner’s finals, and then again in the grand finals. Though the two would clash again within weeks, with Kishida taking back the mantle, the storyline leading up to Evo was clear. Many talented players were heading to Las Vegas to compete in all manner of fighting games, but this particular pairing, in this particular game, had become the marquee match.
Despite lacking major corporate backing like many other competitive events, the Evolution Championship Series enjoys an unmatched prestige within the fighting game community, largely due to its open registration. In 1996, the event began as Battle By the Bay, a Street Fighter -only tournament in Sunnyvale, California. Twenty-two years later, its name had changed and its competitor pool had swelled from 40 to thousands, but one thing remained the same: Anyone who wanted a shot at the top could put down their entry fee and make their case in the tournament’s massive bracket.
That put-up-or-shut-up structure is faithful to fighting games’ arcade days, when anyone with a quarter could get in line to play the reigning champ. It also meant that to take Evo’s first-ever crown for Dragon Ball FighterZ —just one of eight titles receiving main-stage competitions at the mega-tournament—McLean would have to outlast one of the biggest fields in Evo history.
By the second day, the pressure was already setting in. McLean had survived his pools—preliminary matches meant to thin the massive crowd of players down to a more manageable bracket—but now the real games were starting. He had made it to the finals for the game Injustice 2 , but also needed to stay on the winner’s side of the double-elimination bracket for Dragon Ball FighterZ , his main focus for the weekend.
Many competitors enter multiple titles at a single fighting game tournament, and it’s common practice for McLean. But then, a fumble: After losing a high-profile Injustice 2 match he was faced with a disappointingly early exit, eliminated with a mere third-place finish.
Watching him from the floor, I saw McLean walk from the finals area back to the area where the preliminaries had taken place, his expression stony. He sat down at an empty game console and monitor and started playing, practicing his combos and getting his hands used to the mechanical repetitions he’d be employing in his coming FighterZ matches.
An organizer approached to let him know where his next matches would be taking place—and while they spoke, McLean kept playing. His gaze wasn’t even on the screen, yet he was having a full, involved conversation, while executing long hit-string combos flawlessly. The moment stuck with me, but as I shadowed him I’d see that focus throughout the day: Whether talking with top players, watching a match, or just relaxing, it seemed like some part of his brain was there, in the game itself, mastering those combos to utter perfection.
By the time his day was done, McLean had spent somewhere in the vicinity of seven to eight hours playing or preparing to play. The day before had been no different, and the coming day, Sunday, would be the big event, the final showdown between the eight competitors still standing. Yet it was like a burden had been lifted off McLean. For most of the day, he had been wearing only pieces of his fursona: the tail and furry-eared hat that he wore for so many Evo victories before.
But when a WIRED photographer and I approached him to ask for some shots, he smiled and went to get his fursuit—and when he returned in full regalia, was swarmed by fans asking for selfies. (Amid a flurry of promotional shots and passersby, I asked him if he enjoyed it. "The first few times," he said with a laugh. "Maybe not the next hundred.") One weight had been lifted from McLean, but another was being hefted onto his shoulders. He’d survived the gauntlet; now came his rival. Kishida was alive and well.
Sunday. Grand finals day. All eight games at Evo would be playing out their championship rounds on the main stage of the Mandalay Bay Event Center, and with each new title match, more people flooded in to pack the arena’s 12,000 seats. " Cell Yells ," war cries popularized by one of the FighterZ characters, rolled through the audience; announcers keeping the cheers alive. After a few FIghterZ matches, it became clear that the dream matchup was going to happen: Kishida and McLean would clash in the winner’s finals.
First, though, McLean sent Kishida into the loser’s bracket in their first meeting—a long, dramatic match filled with all the offense and impervious defense fans had hoped for. McLean crafted long and devastating combinations of attacks on the fly; Kishida rejected them with seeming clairvoyance. In one dizzying demonstration, Kishida blocked McLean’s ever-varying tactics, one after the other, for more than 20 seconds.
Ultimately, Kishida fought his way through the loser’s bracket, even overcoming his own teammate to earn another shot at McLean. And once the grand finals started, the Japanese champ took three games from McLean in rapid succession, leaving the competitors facing the ultimate tiebreaker, one more first-to-three. Since each had suffered one elimination, a final bout would settle it all. The hopes of fighting-game fans everywhere were coming true.
It was then that McLean, his back against the wall, lived up to his fursona: He invoked an arcane rule that allows the competitor who just lost to request a “side switch,” the two combatants physically switching chairs, controllers, and the side of the screen their character begins from. This isn’t a commonly used rule. In fact, it was confusing enough that referees and organizers had to come up on stage to sort out the procedural niceties. Meanwhile, in the audience and among the thousands of people watching the streaming proceedings online, speculation raged. Was this a ploy to halt Kishida’s momentum, like a coach calling time out before an opponent’s field goal attempt? Was somebody’s controller malfunctioning?
It was neither. Sly as the move seemed, the fox just needed to center himself. “It was the first time I forced myself to stop,” he says. Call it what you want, but it worked: McLean swung the dynamic drastically back in his favor, sweeping Go1 in three confident games. When he emerged victorious, he leapt up triumphantly and donned his head and paws—then pulled out his phone to make sure the world knew who he was. Exactly who he was.
In the postgame conference room, SonicFox was jubilant, but before he granted interviews to the games press that was gathered, one thing took precedence. McLean approached Kishida and motioned for his translator. After typical good-game banter, the two shook hands and posed for a few pictures together, and you could sense their combative history coalescing into a new kind of rivalry: two champions pushing each other to be better.
In the time since Evo, the Dragon Ball FighterZ circuit has mostly gone quiet. It’s given McLean time to process, dip his toes into new fighting games like Soulcalibur VI and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate , and prepare for the forthcoming release Mortal Kombat 11 , which he’ll doubtlessly be playing in tournaments.
It has also given him time to deal with the many horrors of the internet. Fighting games have long heralded themselves as a meritocracy, where anyone with a quarter and a will to fight can be part of something greater. But comments like the ones McLean made at the Game Awards in December , which included proud acknowledgements of his sexuality (“as you guys may or may not know, I’m also super gay”) and his furry identity, have a tendency to inflame corners of the gaming world, even while those corners continue to shrink.
The world of fighting games has always been more inclusive than the larger esports landscape in certain ways: racial diversity is a hallmark of the scene, due in large part to its roots in urban arcades . Yet, casual misogyny and homophobia linger still, energies that help to make McLean a target of resentment as much as an emblem of progress. “My notifications get blown up every day,” he says. (But as Omar Little once said on The Wire , if you come at the king, you best not miss. McLean isn’t just unapologetic—he’s schooled in the art of the clapback, returning fire at folks who attack him online.)
Sound familiar? A young kid finds his footing by outthinking and outlasting his opponents. He studies both the game and the structure of the game. Now, in some very real ways, like Neo exerting control over the code of the Matrix, SonicFox is the game. Not just Dragon Ball FighterZ but virtually any title he puts his mind to. Simply getting your mitts on SonicFox is an accomplishment most can only dream of—and when he goes on the offensive, it’s a matter of time before you find yourself walking away in defeat.
McLean once saw himself as Dragon Ball ’s Goku, roaming the land to test himself against the best. Now it’s hard to imagine who’s left to challenge the young Saiyan. To dominate at a young age is one thing; to do so with good will another. Doing so consistently, though, may be the final opponent the fox has to face. And with the World Tour finals arriving this weekend, that opponent is waiting on the other side of the battleground.
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