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Daigo is on a mission to save Street Fighter

To be labeled legendary in any competition means more than just winning. It means dominating at the highest levels and making it look easy. Basketball had Michael Jordan. Baseball had Derek Jeter. And in the world of competitive Street Fighter, no one is more deserving of being called a legend than Daigo “The Beast” Umehara.

But unlike the NBA and MLB, Street Fighter is in trouble. Despite a show on ESPN2 two weeks ago and a fighting game record $230,000 given to Team Liquid’s Du “NuckleDu” Dang for winning the Capcom Cup the day before, the uneven release of Street Fighter V earlier this year has many in the community questioning the game’s viability. Combine that with the fact that the top players lean toward the older side of the esports spectrum, and Daigo has made it his mission to keep his beloved game from dying off.

Daigo is a Japanese Street Fighter player and was on track to become a professional gamer long before professional gaming was mainstream. As a kid, Daigo struggled with what he wanted to do in life. His father didn’t push him toward traditional salaried careers, as many Japanese parents do. He just wanted his son to pursue something he loved and planted a seed that sprouted Daigo’s obsessive love of gaming.

When Daigo’s classmates would play sports, he chose to visit arcades. There, he practiced with the intent of becoming the best. Daigo’s philosophy was simple: practice three times harder than anyone else.

“If I didn’t play games, I couldn’t, like, stay still, couldn’t be calm,” Daigo said. “Now it’s my job. Back then it was my addiction.”

As Street Fighter continued to dominate arcades, tournaments invariably started to pop up. That’s when Daigo was finally able to showcase his talents on the world stage. In 1998, after becoming the Japanese champion in Street Fighter Alpha 3, he flew to California to play against the best from the United States. Once there, Daigo made a name for himself internationally and became the world champion, beating Alex Valle.

In 2002 and 2003, Daigo won the U.S. vs. Japan exhibition in Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike and took the Street Fighter II: Turbo title at the Tougeki fighting game tournament, both in Japan.

But the Evolution Championships 2004 cemented Daigo’s legacy. Playing against Justin “JWong” Wong, now with Evil Geniuses, Daigo had only one pixel of health left. Just one hit would mean defeat. JWong unleashed his Super Art, a barrage of 15 consecutive kicks. Daigo had only one option, to parry each kick with frame-perfect accuracy, and finish JWong off with a counter.

Daigo did just that, and the crowd went wild. The “Daigo parry” quickly became the first viral video hit for the Street Fighter community.

Interestingly, while Daigo defeated JWong, he didn’t actually win Evo 2004. The title went to Kenji “KO” Obata, but everyone remembers the moment when Daigo did the impossible and came back from certain death.

After a three-year hiatus, Daigo returned to competitive Street Fighter in 2008, with the release of Street Fighter IV. This began another era of domination for Daigo, as he continued to place high at tournaments. Yet in Street Fighter IV and its two subsequent iterations, Super and Arcade, he was ranked second to JWong and Team Razer’s Ai “Fuudo” Keita. It wasn’t until Daigo started competing in Ultra Street Fighter IV, the third offshoot of the base game, that Daigo once again became the world champion.

That was the heyday of Street Fighter. Daigo is now 35, a Red Bull Athlete and Twitch Global Brand Ambassador, and he’s trying to use his prestige and status to keep the game he loves from disappearing.