A hulking brute in matching wrestling tights and boots marches forward across a crowded street. He patiently judges the space in front of him using a few feints to find an opening. An outstretched hand grabs hold of his opponent and the entangled pair spin into the air with gravity bringing a devastating end to his opponent.
When the character known as Zangief poses for victory in "Ultra Street Fighter IV," Darryl "Snake Eyez" Lewis pumps his fist after winning another round. Unfortunately, the latest victory comes as "Ultra Street Fighter IV" makes way for "Street Fighter V" and a year of uncertainty. In an interview with International Business Times, Lewis discusses why starting from scratch can be a good thing in the emerging arena of eSports.
Snake Eyez is arguably the best American "Ultra Street Fighter IV" pro and probably the best Zangief in the world. Having won his first tournament in 2010, the Compton, California native's professional career is barely older than the game he's made his name playing in tournaments around the world. The original incarnation of "Street Fighter IV" was released on July 18, 2008 with a series of updates leading up to "Ultra Street Fighter IV" on Aug. 5, 2014.
Zangief, Lewis' character of choice, is a powerful grappler with a limited moveset capable of depleting any life bar with just a few hits. The Spinning Piledriver, EX Green Hand and Body Splash are staples in Lewis' arsenal. Physical appearance aside, Zangief is the embodiment of Snake Eyez the competitor. Intimidating, bold and unafraid of what it takes to be the best in the world. For Lewis, he welcomes the burden of being crowned "the best." In fact, he absolutely loves that pressure.
The Year That Was
In 2015, Lewis solidified himself among the ranks of the best "Street Fighter" players in the world. "Street Fighter" provided the challenge he craved. And it's when he found Zangief, a not-so-great character compared to the fireball flinging Ryu or the teleporting M. Bison.
After finishing just outside the top eight of EVO 2013 — the largest annual fighting games tournament — Lewis placed fourth in Evo 2014: his best showing to date. Part of that was due to a change in training that continues to pay off. "I had to theorize certain matchups. I had to think, 'What if this player already knows what I want to do' and how can I have an edge on him if he knows every possible outcome of every action I want to take," Lewis said. "The way I go about certain matches is in a very, very meticulous, safe, way where I don't allow a lot of openings."
Lewis talks about matchup knowledge and how important it is to know how his preferred Zangief stacks up against different characters. When he started traveling to different tournaments, Lewis realized he was becoming a player to watch. Lewis didn't have elaborate training sessions or a large group of players to hone his skills against. "In some tournaments, I had 10 players grouping up to eliminate me. They were sharing different strategies and everything," Lewis said.
"Mind you, I'm just a guy from the West Coast to the East Coast. I'm traveling by myself and they're sharing all this information. When you have five people sitting next to your opponent on stage, you have to be on point against these guys. You have to be on your A-plus game."
Despite the odds, Lewis said it was fun. The challenge knowing that his opponents wanted so badly to beat him in a tournament pushed Lewis to get even better. A great showing at Evo 2014, where he was knocked out by eventual champion Luffy, was followed by a disappointing Capcom Cup 2014 — the year-end tournament of the pro tour — where he was eliminated in the first round by soon-to-be champion Momochi.
But the victories and grinding set him up for a 2014 where he was expected to advance far in every tournament he entered. "When I was trying to become the best Zangief, I wanted to make every decision I made with Zangief an extension of my will," Lewis said. "Everything had to make sense and emotion had to be removed from the equation."
Frustration and nerves can break even the best players. Performing in a tournament as large as Evo means a packed room with hundreds of people watching two competitors on a stage. That number grows exponentially to the hundreds of thousands that are tuning in on Twitch and other streaming sites. "I just go full throttle when I'm out there," Lewis said.
Lewis highlights the intimidating nature of Zangief as part of his success. "I think I play him because of how scared he makes other people. There were a lot of opponents I sat next to — especially KnuckleDu [another top-ranked player] — where, as he's putting the USB port in the console, his hands are shaking. It feels like you already have the player beat before you even play."
As part of his continued growth, Lewis became more ingrained in the "Street Fighter" community, crediting Wednesday Night Fights, a weekly event in Southern California, and tough competition from players like Online Tony and Alex Valle. Lewis also began watching videos of himself to also improve his game. In July 2015, Lewis signed a sponsorship deal with Red Bull. The additional resources from the sports drink behemoth meant traveling overseas to Japan and a documentary chronicling his year leading up to December's Capcom Cup 2015.
The hard work mostly paid off. At the double-elimination Evo 2015 tournament, Lewis couldn't match his success from the previous year after losing to the legendary Japanese player Daigo in the Top 16 Losers bracket of the tournament.
The biggest prize was yet to come with what Lewis called "Capcom Cup training jail." The year-end tournament featured a grand prize of $250,000. A first round stumble to Keoma put Lewis in the losers bracket. After eliminating Tonpy, Gackt, Humanbomb and Shiro, Lewis avenged his first round loss to Keoma. Unfortunately, Snake Eyez once again faced off with Daigo and lost. Tied for fifth place, Lewis earned $10,000 — his biggest tournament earnings to date.
The Year To Come
December's showing in Capcom Cup 2015 marked the end of "Ultra Street Fighter IV" and the beginning of "Street Fighter V." The latest entry in the iconic fighting series will be released on February 16.
Each game brings new variations in animations, movesets, speed and handling of a character. The Zangief in "SFV" is much different from the Russian wrestler in "Ultra SFIV." That means a whole new round of training for Lewis. It's a whole new year of grinding, figuring out spacing and how to play against different characters. For Lewis, that's a great thing to experience. "Starting at square one will be a lot of fun," Lewis said.
"SFV" means everyone is on the same page, Lewis said. He has only played the game a few times during Capcom exhibitions. The other pro players will experience the same learning curve as casual gamers when the game is released in February. "I'll definitely continue to play as Zangief and maybe two other characters. A character that can maneuver fast and a fireball character," Lewis said. "'Street Fighter V' at Evo 2016 is going to be crazy. I'm not sure I'll do well."
His main goal in 2016 is to win Capcom Cup 2016, which is just the beginning for Lewis. He wants to host several "Snake Eyez" tournaments, stream on Twitch and share more digital content on YouTube and other social media channels.
There's one dragon Lewis wants to slay in 2016. Daigo, arguably one of the best "Street Fighter" players ever, has knocked out Lewis in several tournaments using Evil Ryu. "It's a very strange matchup to me. In "Street Fighter V," hopefully Zangief will have something to deal with these types of characters. If not, I'll start early with an alternate character and not be stuck on an island with Zangief."