Faces of the FGC: Gerald “LA Akira” Abraham

By on February 21, 2020

Gerald "LA Akira" Abraham Photographed by Bryan Gateb on 09.28.2019 for the "Faces of the FGC" project.

In the late 1940s, Nellie King was just starting on the journey that would make him a professional baseball player and broadcaster. One of his first stops was a two-week minor-league stint in New Iberia, Louisiana. “The rains came nearly every mid-afternoon, but they never washed out a scheduled baseball game,” King writes in his autobiography, Happiness is Like a Cur Dog. But no game was ever cancelled on account of wet conditions. “The groundskeeper and general manager would liberally douse the dirt portion of the infield with gasoline delivered in a large tanker truck. When the infield was sufficiently [saturated], they threw a lighted match, and everyone ran like hell.” By the time the gas burned off, the field was dry and the game was on.

Just about ten years earlier, the Great Depression had decimated the economy in Iowa. For many families, the costs of running a farm amounted to 150% of revenues or more. Eventually the situation became so dire that the Iowa National Guard was deployed to quell farmers’ protests. Yet even in the face of our nation’s most catastrophic economic collapse, the competitors of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union refused to abandon their statewide basketball league. Instead, they pinched pennies wherever they could, walking hours back and forth to practice, where they would play in their socks so as to make their shoes last as long as possible.

Every human project has stories like these, the true-to-life mythologies of the pathfinders whose trials and errors built the traditions in which we now live. Even relatively young endeavors like the Fighting Game Community (FGC) have fascinating and surprising histories. Consider the practice of “arcade-busting.” Back before the FGC became connected via the internet and formalized by pro tours, fighting gamers would scour their cities for new arcades that might hold new challengers. Following the martial arts tradition of dojo yaburi (“dojo challenging” or “dojo breaking”), players who were skilled (or perhaps just conceited) would look to run the table against another arcade’s best – who, in turn, tried to defend their arcade’s honor by repelling the invader.

One of those dojo defenders was Gerald Abraham. “Back in ‘91, ‘92,” he says, “I was pretty much the guy they would call when somebody new would come [to Family Fun Arcade] and I [would] need to regulate him.” The system was simple: one of Abraham’s friends would send a “911” message to his pager, he’d call to confirm the “emergency,” and then he’d make the fifteen-minute drive down to the arcade to bust some skulls. “For two to three months it was just nonstop. Some new guy would show up and try to arcade-bust or dojo-bust at our arcade and we wouldn’t be having that.”

By defending his dojo, Abraham eventually connected with the broader southern-California FGC and, from there, the national and even international FGC. It was a journey that left an indelible mark on him: today, nearly thirty years later, both of Abraham’s businesses are related to the FGC. Yet his story is much broader than fighting games. Like any good history, Abraham’s life is both a testament to his unique nature and a reflection of the times in which he has lived.

Diligence And Design

As a child, Abraham’s first passions were visual and creative. He was the type of kid to build out his Lego sets according to the instructions and then disassemble them and build them into something else of his own devising, “something that I thought was cool.” And to a young Gerald Abraham in the ‘80s, nothing was cooler than the futuristic stylings of early sci-fi anime. His first exposure to the genre was Battle of the Planets, the US adaptation of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. From there, he saw Chōdenji Robo Combattler V, Mazinger Z, Robotech, Macross, Iczer One, Bubblegum Crisis, and his favorite, Megazone 23.

Anime spoke to Abraham on a level that was deeper than language. While many of his peers were falling in love with Disney’s sweeter style of animation and storytelling, Abraham and his friends formed a loose network of anime hunters, spreading news of the latest releases and getting together to watch older classics. “We would get a hold of whatever we could,” whatever it took.

In addition to his jones for Japanese cartoons, Abraham also nurtured an obsession with video games. His family lived in California’s San Fernando Valley, about an hour’s drive away from the city of Westminster. But when he discovered that Westminster was home to an arcade that functioned as a location test site for Nintendo and Capcom, he made it one of his regular haunts.

His dedication didn’t stop there, though. “I learned how to read katakana when I was, like, eleven or twelve” because of the lists of upcoming games that were published in Famitsu magazine. Most of the titles were written in Japanese, and “I just wanted to translate or figure out what games were coming out, so I just learned katakana just for that.”

These early vignettes foreshadow much of the man that Abraham would grow to become. “I am an artist,” he says today, echoing his childhood passion for aesthetics and design. “It always comes back to art and graphics for me. That’s the one thing I really, really love.” And when it comes to the things that he loves, “I’m pretty much an addict.” Chasing down hard-to-find copies of anime movies, teaching himself an entirely new alphabet before his thirteenth birthday: “That’s just the type of personality that I have.” 

The decades to follow would be anything but smooth sailing for Abraham. But through both rough seas and calm ones, artistry and tenacity would be his twin lodestars.

Fighting Through The Economic Waves

At age 17, Abraham got a job at GameFan magazine doing graphic design. From there, he became the art director at Gamer’s Republic, which was “when I started getting into 3-D and visual effects.” But his career doing graphic design for print was knocked off-course when his field was flooded with new workers bearing mediocre skills but a willingness to work cheap. With the graphic design market shifting, Abraham decided it was time for a change.

“So my idea was, alright, I’m just gonna get into something that’s really hard to do.” He moved to Japan, went to school to learn the language, and built himself “an insane, self-made curriculum” so that he could learn how to do photorealistic CGI. “I was waking up super-early. I would walk to the gym, and on the way to the gym I would be doing my Japanese flashcards. I would work out for, like, an hour. I would walk back home [and do] flashcards again, get back to my apartment, take a shower, go to school, do my Japanese class, come back, do my homework, and then start my visual effects homework, which I just basically made up for myself.”

As if that wasn’t enough, it was in Japan that Abraham met Chizuru Okamoto, the woman who would become his wife. It took him about two and a half years (and a move back to the US) to complete his self-directed course of study, and in 2003 he was hired by a production to do photorealistic CGI effects for car commercials.

Over time, Abraham began to feel that his employers were taking him for granted. “If you’re an employee to someplace, they treat you like s**t,” he says. So he struck out on his own as a freelancer, because “when you’re a hired gun, they’ve gotta be nice to you.” Then, after another few years, he followed the process to its logical conclusion and started his own company. He founded Industry Visual Effects in 2009, and though Industry remains open today, that still wasn’t the end of Abraham’s professional journey.

Much like the graphic design market before it, the effects market cooled on Abraham. Hollywood found that they could get their effects work done more cheaply in Vancouver. When they moved their business north of the border, the US effects companies that had specialized in film work turned to commercial projects instead. This led to a domino effect, and commercially oriented effects companies like Abraham’s found themselves fighting for survival.

Thus, in 2014, Abraham and his wife had the idea to break into an entirely new area: cuisine. Chizuru had always been a natural in the kitchen, and she’d augmented her abilities by training at Le Cordon Bleu and under Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, a world-famous and award-winning Japanese chef. She and Abraham kicked around several ideas before eventually settling on the notion of starting a food truck.

For Chizuru, it would be another opportunity to bring her heritage and her skills to an appreciative audience in the US. For Abraham, it would be a fresh exercise in visual design and creativity. He decided that he’d put his own stamp on the truck by designing it in the itasha style using bright colors, appealing lettering and graphic design, and an anime-style “mascot” character.

Throughout all of these upheavals, Abraham’s grounding in fighting games kept him going. In the most immediate and obvious sense, fighting games have literally paid his bills: Industry Visual Effects has maintained a strong bond with Capcom, and Abraham’s company still does effects work on trailers for the Street Fighter series. More importantly, though, Abraham credits fighters with instilling discipline in him and making him an expert in “learning how to go about learning.” That’s how a visual effects expert with no experience in the restaurant industry managed to start a successful food truck: for an entire year straight, he learned. “I would follow food trucks around. I would just sit there and watch them, see how many sales they would do in an hour or two, go look at their menus, take pictures of their menus, and see what type of items they had and why…I had no idea of any of this stuff. I just basically learned it all, just like I learned combos and strategy” in fighting games.

“Y’know, honestly, I’m really, really happy that I did have the experience with games, because the analytical thinking ability I owe 100% to Street Fighter and Virtua Fighter.”

A Painful Homecoming

No matter how diligent and intelligent you are, there are some hardships that sidestep your defenses and hit you where it hurts. 9/11 was one of those hardships for Abraham.

At the time of the attacks, Abraham was still living in Japan. When he thinks back on it, he recalls it as one of the most distressing days of his life. “My mom called me and she said, ‘World War III just started.’ Just imagine being five thousand miles away and hearing your mom say that and thinking that’s the last time you’re ever gonna [talk to] her.” To make matters worse, many of his peers seized the opportunity to pile on. “My school was an international school, and there were a lot of international students, a lot of people that hated America…I mean, I was literally getting into shouting matches in the middle of class.”

By January of 2002, the pressure got to be too much and something in Abraham buckled. Still living overseas, he had a panic attack. “People that’ve never had real panic attacks have no idea what that feels like.” He was taken to the hospital, struggling for breath the whole way. “I was literally f****d up for, like, an entire year and a half.” All of his projects fell by the wayside: “I was [just] thinking about breathing.” He couldn’t steady his pulse or slow his breath. He couldn’t sleep. “It was a friggin’ nightmare.”

Abraham had already entered a self-imposed gaming hiatus before 9/11 happened, but the attacks made it that much harder to resume his favorite hobby. After moving back to the US later in 2002, Abraham was visited by a friend on his birthday. He “was just trying to cheer me up,” Abraham says, so “he brought Virtua Fighter 4 over. We were having fun for, like, an hour, just helping me to take my mind off it, and then I just couldn’t calm down. I ended up in the hospital that night. So I was scared of games. I was scared of playing anything which, like, brings the beast out of me.”

Happily, Abraham found the support that he needed. After helping to settle his remaining affairs in Japan, Chizuru came to the US as a student, bolstering Abraham’s network of emotional support. He also found a nutritional and pharmaceutical regimen that helped him to rebalance himself neurochemically.

This chapter of Abraham’s story was a sobering reminder of how ugly and senseless the world can be. As an artist and designer, Abraham specializes in beauty; as a competitor and a professional, he specializes in erudition. Those two facets of his personality are inspiring and powerful, but they’re also utopian, in that they function best in a kind and humane world. This is not to say that Abraham is fragile or that he has his head in the clouds. On the contrary, it’s to say that no amount of goodness or inner strength can ever make us completely safe. Instead, we can only shepherd our virtues and cherish the moments when we can exercise those virtues to their fullest. And for Abraham, many of those moments arose – and continue to arise – in the context of the Fighting Game Community.

So Much Wealth

Well before he got his first “911” page, Abraham and his friends were dedicated fans of the Street Fighter franchise. The first time they saw Street Fighter II, they drove to the arcade three days in a row to play “from the moment they opened to the moment they closed.” And they weren’t the only ones, either: at the time, Family Fun Arcade had twelve or so cabinets, and Abraham doesn’t remember ever seeing one unattended.

After some time, Abraham grew in skill and the “911” messages started coming. One of those messages put him directly in the path of Roger Chung, at the time the country’s number-four ranked player. For an hour, Chung dominated Abraham, only losing once. But he was impressed enough with Abraham’s level of play that he introduced Abraham to the Pico Rivera FGC, home to some of the first weekly fighting game tournaments in the world. At Pico Rivera, Abraham met the nation’s top three players, Tony Tsui, Willie Lee, and the untouchable, thirteen-year-old Tomo Ohira.

At his peak, Abraham was ranked on the top-ten board along with Chung, Tsui, Lee, and Ohira, “which meant a lot, because the top four players actually ended up being the top four players in the United States” and won both the first and second national Street Fighter tournaments. Abraham even followed the game to Japan, where he competed in the qualifiers for the Japanese national championship. Yet for all his experiences with Street Fighter, it was Virtua Fighter that gave Abraham his nickname. Following the tradition of the Japanese FGC, Abraham combined the name of his home with the name of his main character. Thus was “LA Akira” born.

From his time as a competitor to his long gaming hiatus to today, fighting games have been the air in Abraham’s lungs. “When you’re in it, you’re just a part of it,” he says of his lifetime in the Fighting Game Community. And the FGC will always be a part of him, too. In a way, Abraham will always be that teenager who’s rushing to the arcade to defend its honor. For example, speaking of well-known southern California player and tournament organizer Alex Valle, Abraham says, “People call Valle ‘uncle’ – Alex is a kid, dude! I will always look at him as a kid. We were playing years before him.” Then he laughs, enjoying a rare moment of levity in an otherwise serious interview. “I just literally laugh under my breath every time I hear ‘uncle.’ What am I, a f*****g grandpa, then?”

Abraham hasn’t dedicated himself to the games in some time. In the parlance of the scene, he’s become a family man. But he still watches every event that he can, and he finds joy in watching the FGC continue to thrive. “I think it’s really amazing to see how far it’s grown,” he says. “I’m just happy seeing how far it’s come.”

His favorite part of being an observer is watching the rise of a new generation. “For the longest time, no one was beating the pro old-schoolers, and it was actually a little bit sad for the community. Because when you see something like that happen and people that’ve been playing for fifteen, twenty years are the only people that’re winning, that means your community’s not growing and it’s got no legs.” But in recent years, that trend has reversed itself, and Abraham rattles off a laundry list of young killers: Victor “Punk” Woodley, Du “NuckleDu” Dang, Ryo “Nauman” Sato, Derek “iDom” Ruffin, Naoki “Moke” Nakayama, Arslan Ash.

Yet there’s one thing that’s even more important to Abraham than the games themselves, and that’s the home that they’ve given him. “One of the greatest things I could say is that I have so much now because of video games. And I’m not talking about wealth [in terms of money] but so much wealth in terms of friends and friendship and community because of video games, and I think that’s the most fantastic thing, honestly.”

One Inch Ahead

From his childhood in southern California to his time overseas to his changing career arc and all the ups and downs in between, the one constant in Abraham’s life has been change. When I ask him about this, he says, “I just go with the flow…I like a lot of different stuff, and we only live once, we’ve gotta enjoy it while we’re here. If you have any type of interest in something, you’ve at least gotta try it to see if you like it or not.”

Abraham can’t say where he’ll be in the future or what he’ll be doing. Maybe that’s because his life has taught him not to make plans. Maybe it’s simply a piece of wisdom he picked up in Japan, where they say issun saki wa yami: “darkness begins one inch ahead of you.” Or maybe, at some level, he senses the innate unpredictability of history. After all, who would have foreseen the hundreds of Iowan high school girls who played basketball in their socks while their parents struggled to put food on the table? Who would have foreseen a baseball field drenched in gasoline and then set on fire? Who would have foreseen 9/11 and all that followed?

For Abraham, the dream is simple: “to be alone in a dark room just doing design all day…I just wanna make cool s**t, that’s it.” Of course, the reality will always be murkier. But Abraham won’t walk into that darkness alone. His family, his friends, and his community will be with him every step of the way.

To learn more about Abraham and the early days of the FGC, check out his interviews with UltraChen TV. To support Okamoto Kitchen, follow them on Twitter and visit their official website.

Eli Horowitz (@BODIEDnovel) is a writer and software professional who lives in Pittsburgh. His first novel is set in the FGC.

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