On the surface, Sherry “sherryjenix” Nhan seems like the type of person you’d want to be friends with. Energetic, funny, and sharper than laminated steel, she has charisma and likability to spare. After chatting with her for just a few minutes, it’s easy to see why she’s a popular figure in the Fighting Game Community.
But under that amiable surface beats the heart of a true competitor. Growing up as “a pretty big tomboy” in Philadelphia with her mom and stepdad, Nhan’s favorite sport was (and still is) football – but because her school didn’t have a girls’ football team, she ran track and played basketball and softball instead. And that was only the start: she participated in tae kwon do tournaments; she joined her school’s dance team after moving to southern California at age fifteen to live with her dad; she’s a pool hobbyist; and she’s been a part of the FGC for almost eleven years.
Yet when it comes right down to it, Nhan doesn’t define herself as a competitor. Rather, she tells a story that puts her in a slightly different category, one that the English language has no good word for. “They’re very traditional,” she begins, speaking of her family. “My brother’s an accountant, y’know, all that type of stuff. But I feel like I push myself all the time because I was kind of forced to as a kid. Like, for example, I did these piano recitals and my mom was always busy, never had time to come to any of my piano recitals. So it was really sad because I would show up and all the kids would be with their parents and the parents would bring roses and bouquets for the kids when they’re done playing, give it to them, clap for them, whatever, and then it would be my turn. And I was the one awkward kid, I would go up there and nobody would really clap at first. They would kind of look around, and then they’d realize that no one was there for me, so they’d start clapping. And then I would play. And then, same thing: like, nobody would start clapping until they, like, awkwardly looked around the room.”
While all the other families mingled and talked to the piano teacher after the recital was over, “I would just hop on my little Razor Scooter and scooter home.” It was the same for track, basketball, and softball: her mom never attended her games, so Nhan would get back and forth on the bus or with friends’ parents. “I feel like that made me as strong as I am,” she says today. “I still feel like, no matter what, at the end of the day I still did what I wanted to do, regardless of who was supporting me.”
How do you describe a person like this? “Go-getter” is a goody-two-shoes platitude that doesn’t match Nhan’s rebellious spark. “Hustler” makes her sound like a con artist or small-time criminal, when in fact she doesn’t even drink. “Self-starter” is a piece of soulless corporate jargon that should never be applied to anyone ever.
Here are some better ideas: she’s a joyful warrior. She’s an audacious engineer. Or, as she puts it, she “rid[es] the wave.”
Coast To Coast
The tide of Nhan’s life started on the east coast, where, in between her various athletic and artistic hobbies, she would wait at the bus stop with the boys in her school and try to guess the makes and models of the cars going by. “People don’t know this,” she says, “but I was never a gamer. When I was in Philly, I never played games in my life” aside from a few casual RPGs. Instead, it was her interest in cars that stood out, and she carried that same hobby with her to southern California when her relationship with her stepdad soured.
Not long after she washed up on the west coast with her biological dad, Nhan found a new group of car junkies. A friend introduced her to the local chapter of DC5 Nation, where car heads shared and showed off the custom modifications to their Acuras and Hondas. She attended these “meets” well before she went to her first local fighting game tournament. But, being who she is, she did more than just attend.
When she first arrived in the SoCal car scene, it was losing momentum. “So I took it upon myself and I hosted my [own] meet.” Still just sixteen at the time, Nhan organized the event at a local Hooters. Her fearlessness and her willingness to step up won her a large, close-knit group of friends, and before long she was going to “at least three car meets a week.”
The meets were hardly a normal place for a teenage girl who was still in high school. “My curfew used to be, like, 10 pm,” Nhan explains. “And then I would kinda push it to 11. And [dad] was like, ‘Okay, you have midnight and that’s it,’ and then, because he gave me that little bit, I pushed it and went to 2 am, 3 am.” Being straight-edge helped, as it meant that she always came home sober and clear-headed. But the most important factor was her total refusal to be timid or compliant. The same girl who rode to track meets in the back of a city bus and played piano in concert halls full of strangers wasn’t about to give up on being a car geek just because it wasn’t a normal thing for her to be. She wanted it and she believed in it, and so she found a way to keep the wave going.
A Golden Age
One of her friends in the car scene was named Dan “SHGL BMX” Tam. A member at the time of a car group called Team Innovate, Tam suddenly stopped going to meets. Nhan reencountered him almost a year later at Arcade Infinity (AI), where she and some friends were playing Initial D, a racing video game based on the street-racing anime of the same name. The two quickly caught up with one another, and Tam explained that he had dropped cars for a new obsession: fighting games. In fact, he was at AI that day to participate in a Street Fighter IV ranking battle or “ranbat,” one of a series of tournaments that tracked players’ results over a season of competition.
Not having any background with the game herself, Nhan didn’t join the ranbat. But she did agree to participate in the upcoming Ladies of AI tournament, for which Tam would be her mentor and sensei. “Obviously I got washed when I went to the tournament,” but the experience was still enough to draw her into a new niche: the FGC.
Though she was in college at the time, her classes quickly took a back seat to her two other interests. During the day, she’d go to the arcade and play for hours. At night, she worked at a Famima!! (a Japanese convenience store chain) that doubled as a location for car meets. This was a golden time in Nhan’s life, and it’s easy to imagine why. Instead of listening to a professor’s flattened drone, she was surrounded by the sound of digitized combat, people slapping buttons and clattering joysticks, growling cars, and a constant stream of conversation. After everything else closed, she and her friends would go to a diner until five or six in the morning, and then she’d go home, sleep, and wake up in the early afternoon to do it all over again.
Fighting Unlocks The World
When she graduated, Nhan’s life shifted. For a year, she traveled and competed using a sponsorship from GamerGear. But “I have a very expensive lifestyle…So, after that year, I was like, I need a job.” Continuing the path she’d started years earlier when she did small after-market auto customizations under the table, she started working for a wheel manufacturer.
Once more, her boldness and her work ethic saw her through. She told her boss that she could only work part-time because “I always have to take Friday and Monday off for tournaments, and that’s not something I’m willing to sacrifice for a job.” He hired her anyway, and now, following the usual pattern in her life, “I do kind of everything…I manage the websites, I do sales, I’m head of marketing.”
With her finances in place, Nhan was free to ride the wave even further. Growing up, “I would always think, y’know, What was out there in this world? What exists outside of Philly?” Even now, “I’m always about wanting to go out. I literally go out every single day when I live in SoCal.” So, with the income from her job and a recent sponsorship from Canada Cup Gaming, she set her sights on a new way to satisfy her ravenous hunger for new experiences: international travel. In the past few years alone, she’s been to local fighting game communities in Mexico, France, the UK, Singapore, China, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica. “It’s amazing to me that I can go basically anywhere in this world and there’s a fricking FGC there to take care of me,” she says.
Her plans for further travel – to Kuwait, Dubai, Belgium, and Australia – may now be delayed due to the spread of COVID-19 (a.k.a. the coronavirus), but she’ll get back out into the world before long. And when she gets there, she’ll be far more than a tourist.
A Wave That Lifts All Boats
In Mexico, Nhan met and played against Sebastian “ElTigre” Aguilera, a Laura specialist who was known for being a threat in online matches. He impressed her so much that she tried to talk him into coming to the US to compete. In response, he told her that the process was prohibitive. He would need a visa in order to enter the country legally, and there was a nonrefundable $160 fee just to apply for one – and, of course, his application might get rejected.
To American ears, that amount of money may not sound like a lot. But $160 is roughly 14% of the disposable income for a typical Mexican household. The equivalent cost for the median household in the US would be well over $500. In other words, even for a middle-class Mexican family, a temporary visa would be a significant expense. Combined with the emotional costs of applying, Nhan understood why Aguilera held back.
The more she thought about it, the more she considered just giving him the money directly – that is, until she had the exact same experience with Lenny Alexander “Crossover” Almanzar in the Dominican Republic. Then she realized that it had to be a bigger project. That bigger project is known as eFightPass, and it’s responsible for one of the best esports stories of 2019. Using only donations (including a very generous offer from Justin Wong to cover most players’ airfare) and the information she picked up in a free hour-and-a-half-long consultation with an immigration lawyer, Nhan helped six international players apply for visas, four of whom were accepted: Aguilera; Phael “Zenith” Maia, a Street Fighter V player from Brazil; Ana “Anya” Riojas; Ana “Anya” Riojas, a Tekken 7 player from Mexico; and Arslan Ash, the Pakistani Tekken player who made esports headlines across the world with his win at the 2019 Evolution Championship Series.
Right now, eFightPass is a one-woman operation. Even with donations from the community, Nhan shoulders some of the financial costs herself, and she does all of the labor, from building and maintaining eFightPass’s online presence to working with players on their applications to soliciting letters of recommendation from game producers. In short, eFightPass is a true charity.
“Not a lot of people want to take four hours of their day to help somebody they don’t even know at all,” she says. But she does it because “I like meeting the local players from everywhere and scouting out who’s really, really good.” It would be even more accurate to say that she runs eFightPass because it’s just the way she is. Whatever needs to be done, she does it; whatever she wants to see in the world, she creates. Along the way, she lifts up all those around her, be it in the car community, the FGC, or her job.
“Only If I Win”
There is, however, a flip side to the coin. Nhan is the type of person who gets a thrill from learning how to do something and then doing it. This is why she prefers physics, her college major, to math.For some people, the joy of math is its abstract beauty. For Nhan, taking matters into her own hands helps to understand “what the equations [are] trying to get me to do.”
She especially loves doing things that other people are too intimidated to try or too skeptical to pull off. “The thing that’s amazing about physics is you do all this stuff in math and you don’t really know what it applies to, right? [But with physics,] it is real life…It makes you expand your mind, it makes you open your mind to what people are limited to.” The deeper she goes into her self-described “nerd rant,” the more the Philly in her voice comes out. It’s clear that something in the world of physics speaks deeply to the child in her, to the young girl who only cared about finding a way to keep going where others would have given up.
But not everything in life is like physics. In some cases, the only way to achieve what you want is to get hurt without giving up. This is “something that I’ve been dealing with a lot my whole life,” Nhan says. As soon as she started attending DC5 Nation meets in southern California, men in the scene referred to her in online forums as “jailbait” and an “attention whore,” baselessly assuming that she was too young and too female to be interested in cars. She says that they only changed their attitude over time. “And it’s the same thing in the FGC. When I first started, I was obviously complete trash in the game, but I enjoyed the community, I enjoyed the competition, I was always a competitive person…so I stuck with it.”
Frustratingly, her introduction to the FGC hasn’t been a one-time process. “Every new game brings new people. So when Street Fighter V came out, there was, like, a resurgence of that [sexist] attitude, and I haven’t seen it in a while.” The examples that she gives are so familiar as to be tiresome. While walking through Jebaileyland, the free 24-hour arcade at Community Effort Orlando, a male attendee stopped her and asked, “So, are you here with your boyfriend?” At another tournament, “There was a guy who sat down next to me [at a casual setup] and started playing. Terrible f*****g Ryu, terrible – and, y’know, we’re having fun. He keeps jumping and I keep anti-airing him, and he’s just, like, laughing hysterically. And I’m like, What is wrong with this guy?” She found out when the Ryu player turned to his friend and said, “Dude, she actually knows how to play, it’s crazy.”
Yet this is a type of adversity that Nhan is willing to bear. For one thing, she hears and appreciates the people in the community who support her. She also approaches the issue from a philosophical perspective. “I get how it can be offensive, but a lot of times I give people the benefit of the doubt…It sucks that it has to be such a surprise now, but that’s kind of what you want the reaction to be, like a pleasant surprise.” Just so long as it isn’t “coming from a place of intentional disrespect,” she believes that it can be “their situation with me to learn.” And her advice to other women is refreshingly straightforward: “just kick their a**. Just beat their a** and let them know.”
For her, it’s worse to face a hardship that has no formulaic solution at all. This was the situation she encountered in the 2019 season of Street Fighter League. Unlike in standard Street Fighter competition, the SFL is team-based, with one player on each team as a captain, one winning their place via an online qualifier, and one winning a popular vote. Nhan fell into the third category, which immediately led to blowback in some parts of the community: “‘Of course Sherry got voted in, she’s a woman, blah blah blah blah, she’s popular, she’s not even a good player’…So that was already in the back of my mind.”
Then there was the burden of expectation, which weighed on her even more heavily. As the SFL’s first female competitor, Nhan knew that her performance would be judged differently. “People don’t know how much pressure it adds,” she says. “Unfortunately, when I went to SFL, I cracked. People don’t know, but I bawled my eyes out almost every day. Because there was that pressure. And it didn’t help when people came up to me [and said], ‘We’re so excited that you’re the first woman here.’ Like, y’know, ‘You’re breaking boundaries’ and stuff. To me, I was like, I’m only breaking boundaries if I win. I’m not breaking any boundaries if I lose, because that just proves everybody’s point that I didn’t belong there or that women aren’t good enough. And every single round and match that I lost, it was getting harder and harder to move on from.”
In the end, she didn’t take a match and won only 11% of her games. For a solid competitor who has wins over players like Peter “ComboFiend” Rosas and Kenneth “K-Brad” Bradley, it was a brutal result. Even now, months after the league concluded, she knows how badly she let herself down. “It’s so hard for me to even watch the matches, because I played so dumb.”
Some of her fellow competitors helped her through her struggles. She credits her teammates, Miky “Samurai” Chea and Kevin “DualKevin” Barrios, as being particularly supportive. Others – including some that she had considered her friends – made it worse. But the one judgment she can never escape is her own. “I know I could prove these people wrong if I could play at my best…I know I could do better. I can beat them – I can do what everybody else does. I’m smart enough to do it…It’s just something I have to get over the mental block for.”
If anyone could simply make it happen, it’s Nhan, a woman whose focus and intelligence have always steered her true. But the FGC is among the harshest competitive environments on the planet. A common cliche in coverage of the four major men’s sports leagues is the notion that one team “just wanted it more” than the other. The implication is that sheer force of will can make the difference between winning and losing – that, in the words of a recent NFL commercial, “greatness is a choice.” In these sports, about 3% of the athletes win a championship in any given year. Meanwhile, in the FGC, the number is more like 0.3% – or less. Clearly, willpower alone will not be enough.
In our community, most great players will never be champions and most good players will fly under the radar for their whole careers. This is not to say that Nhan can’t or won’t reach her goals as a competitor. If the past is any indication, the only thing we know about the future of the FGC is that we won’t see it coming. Still, this will certainly be the most difficult test that Nhan faces. There are no equations to solve in the FGC, no legal experts to consult, no bus line that has a stop at a Street Fighter championship. Instead of merely riding the wave, Nhan will have to find a way to overpower the entire ocean.
In this way, her pursuit of competitive excellence is less like quantum physics than it is like chaos theory or the uncertainty principle or the study of dark energy. Are there limits to what we, as a species, can know? Are there limits to what we, as individuals, can do? And if so, is there any way to transcend our limitations by becoming a new person, someone even smarter, even braver, and even more capable? Nhan will learn the answers only by trying, as all those who strive for greatness must.
Not Listening To The Doubters
In the meantime, her life shows no signs of slowing down. “I’m always everywhere,” she says only half-jokingly. At times, her interests seem to be unbounded: on top of everything else, she’s considered work as a criminalist and a lawyer (“because I think I would have a lot of fun arguing with people”), and she thinks that one day she might get an advanced degree in quantum physics – just for fun!
Until then, one thing is for certain: “The FGC will never leave me…I want to do well as a player before I even think about leaving the FGC, and if I gotta win Evo, I gotta win Evo.” Some of her friends tell her not to push so hard for a goal that’s so maddeningly elusive. But Nhan has the perfect attitude towards her doubters: “I can hear them, but I’m not listening.”
And, really, what better response could you want from this joyful joystick warrior, this audacious engineer of charities and championships? If we’re honest, none of us achieve all of the things we aim to achieve in life. So why worry? As long as Nhan is doing the things that she wants to do – that is, as long as she’s riding the wave and not drowning in it – she has every reason to be confident that she can summon the strength to prove the doubters wrong.
To support Nhan, follow her on Twitter. To learn more about eFightPass and support the work that Nhan does for the FGC, follow the eFightPass Twitter account and donate via its official website.