Every competitor has the same dream: to prove themselves by winning when it counts the most. But some champions learn that winning doesn’t always count as proof.
In 1999, the San Antonio Spurs laid the first stone of their dynasty by winning the NBA championship. Although they swept Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and the Lakers on the way, the NBA media immediately reacted by classifying the lockout-shortened ‘98-‘99 season as an “asterisk year” that didn’t really count. Even as they won four more titles in the years to follow, they would inspire bitter headlines like “Spurs are worst Dynasty in Sports” and “Phil Jackson Says the San Antonio Spurs Are Not a Dynasty.” As it turns out, reputation can be a fickle thing. Even the highest levels of achievement don’t guarantee respect, popularity, or understanding.
In the Fighting Game Community, there’s no better case study than Carl “Perfect Legend” White. White’s list of accomplishments is so extensive that it almost seems made up. His three wins at the Evolution Championship Series (a.k.a. Evo) put him inside the all-time top ten, alongside recognized deities like Alex “CaliPower” Valle and Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi. He won another world title at the World Cyber Games. He was one of the FGC’s earliest streamers. He’s been a tournament organizer, he’s coached other pros, he still owns the largest competitive Dead Or Alive group on the internet, and now he works as the captain of Proton Gaming.
Yet his reputation in the community reflects precious little of what he’s achieved. Instead, White is best known for his most lopsided loss. Search for “Perfect Legend” on YouTube and you’ll see his two most recent uploads followed immediately by two videos about his exhibition match against Dominique “SonicFox” McLean at Summer Jam 9. Search for him on Google and you’ll get a few biographical and media profiles followed by a five-year-old article about his exhibition against McLean at Summer Jam 9.
How does this happen? How does a four-time world champion with a fifteen-year history in the FGC come to be defined by a single forty-minute non-bracket match from 2015? The answer is complicated, and at its core is the man himself: not his highlights or lowlights, not his trophy case or his battle scars, but the person behind the name.
Child Of The Glass City
White lives in his childhood home of Toledo, Ohio, nicknamed the Glass City in honor of its flagship industry. It’s a city of only two hundred and seventy-five thousand people, making it roughly one-tenth the size of Brooklyn. But Toledo boasts one thing that even New York can’t offer: a life that’s both complete and comfortable.
”When I was a kid,” White recalls, “I didn’t [ever] think Toledo was a wack place to live. We had everything here.” He grew up going to arcades, with Cedar Point and the Kalahari Resorts within an hour’s drive, in a city whose public parks are in the top ten and whose zoo is ranked the best in the nation. “The nightlife was great. I got to really enjoy my twenties, y’know, going to the club, dancing at different venues…it was like being in a music video almost every night.” True to his FGC roots, White also heaps praise on Toledo’s food scene. Hot dogs, tacos, pizza, soul food, beer: for him, they all measure up. “I’ve been there,” he says, “and I’ve also traveled around the world to be able to compare.”
Most of all, he loves the city’s neighborly culture. “Toledo has a lot of good, down-to-earth, real-a** people, and they’ve shown me a lot of love.” Unlike larger cities, in which success is often seen as an unremarkable norm, Toledoans still feel civic pride when one of their own makes waves. In recent years, some examples have included high jumper Erik Kynard, Jr., lightweight boxer Robert Easter, Jr., and White himself.
His family also still lives in the area, which means more to him now than it ever has. “You never know when a time like this will happen. Imagine if I was living in, freakin’, random somewhere not Toledo, Ohio, and this quarantine just happened, right? And I have to be away from my family. Like, I’m with my dad right now, and my mom stays close, and my niece and my sister and my brother-in-law, they’re all close. If I was gone somewhere else and I couldn’t be at least in the vicinity of them, I would be going nuts.”
At a personal level, White’s local fighting game scene started with just one man: his father, also named Carl. The two would visit the arcade at a local restaurant called Dominic’s, where the younger White would split his time between fighters and iconic games from other genres, like Area 51, Cruisin’ USA, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles side-scroller. He would go twice a day, once after school and again before bed.
“There were no tournaments,” he recalls of his time grinding Mortal Kombat 3 and Killer Instinct. “I just wanted to be good.” And it worked: when he was seven, the elder White had to physically defend his son against an adult Mortal Kombat player who couldn’t stand being beaten by a child. “My dad knocked him out and he came back the next day and apologized.”
When White speaks about his father, it’s clear that their relationship is special. A former college basketball player, the elder White always understood his son’s “competitive fire.” The two traveled together to Evo 2013 as well as a handful of local events. “Dad is just dad,” White says. “He’s very proud of me. I’ve heard him brag. I’d say I’m very fortunate and blessed in that sense.”
He was fortunate in his childhood friends, too. Laughing, he says, “I had the best childhood growing up, I’m not gonna lie. We used to skateboard, go on bike trail rides. We had a ramp at the park and a friend of ours built one in his backyard…In the winter we would snowboard.” They would build their own obstacle courses and do parkour. Looking back on those days, he says that he needs “an adult Discovery Zone.”
In between their other athletic exploits, White and his friends “would spar all the time,” acting out what he’d learned in kenpo class and what they’d seen in kung-fu movies. “My love for fighting games stems from watching action movies,” he explains. “When I’d get fighting games, I’d just go through all of the characters’ moves, just obsessively study [them all] cause it was fascinating to be able to control.” In a single breath, he rattles off one idol after another: Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Roy Jones, Jr., Floyd Mayweather, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Wesley Snipes, Michael Jai White, Jean Claude van Damme, Chow Yun Fat, Donnie Yen, WMAC Masters, American Gladiators. White is a big fan of the original Star Wars movies, too. “I used to know all the light saber combat forms.”
For White, all of this is tied together: the FGC, kung fu flicks, freedom, and friends. The same kids who flew around Toledo with him also gave him his first taste of what it felt like to belong to a community of fighting game players. “I’ve played fighting games all my life,” he says. “To me, everyone I know is FGC.” Even better, his early friendships have stood the test of time. “My first friend ever is still one of my best friends.” In both his family and his friends, he could hardly have asked for a better start.
Stepping Up To The Big Time
As time went on, White realized that he needed to rein himself in. He laughs as he recalls sparring against his older friends and thinking, “man this sh*t hurts, I’m good…I learned about weight classes early.” Likewise, there was one time when he landed on his neck while he was out doing extreme sports with his friends, and he took that as a warning sign, too. But instead of settling into a life of boring normalcy, he channeled all of those impulses into his safer hobby: fighting games.
When it came time to step into the FGC proper, White had no big plan. All he wanted at first was to make it into the annual “Evo moments” highlight reel: “My whole plan was just that I wanted to win in the end so that people had to hold that.” The more pressing factor was the world around him. “I wasn’t liking any of the paths presented to me by society,” he explains. Before supporting himself fully with esports, White worked at GameStop, at FedEx, and as a club promoter. He does have an interest in psychology, but the gatekeeping of the degree system turns him off. “Why do I need to go through school to prove to other people my ability just so that I can now make money?” he asks. “With fighting games, there’s not a lot of money but I really love the drive to get good. And when you win, you do get something, and I ain’t gotta worry about somebody being like, ‘Well, I’ll give this to you because I felt like your play was-’ No!”
As it turned out, the FGC was the perfect place to get good. There are no certifications here, no prerequisites, no tuition fees or stuffy committees. The vast majority of the FGC’s tournaments are open entry, and White began winning at his locals almost as soon as he showed up. Within a year of his first real competitions in 2005, he won Dead Or Alive 4 at Evo. In the years that followed, he would cement himself as a top player in both grassroots FGC tournaments and in esports events. He won two more Evos in Mortal Kombat 9, placed within the top four at Electronic Sports League, Major League Gaming, the World Cyber Games, and at one point was even ranked eleventh in the world in Street Fighter IV by Shoryuken.
Along the way, he helped to bring the FGC to the world’s attention. White has spoken about the FGC with USA Today, Variety, Yahoo!, ESPN, Mashable, G4, Bleacher Report, Destructoid, and Playboy. All in all, there isn’t much that White hasn’t done in the community. For years, he and fellow tournament organizer Tim Fields held events for the Toledo scene. He started streaming fighting games in 2008, well ahead of the community’s curve. He co-wrote the official game guide for Injustice. These days, he’s the captain of an esports team that sponsors Peter “FGC Flash” Susini, Steven “Coach Steve” Delgado, and Marcus “The Cool Kid 93” Redmond. And, of course, there are his three Evos and his numerous other wins at major events. If you look for his accomplishments in the FGC, they won’t be hard to find.
Being And Belonging
But that’s the tricky thing: you have to look. Despite his flashy resumé, White doesn’t have the Mount-Rushmore-type status that the FGC has chosen to bestow on his contemporaries. In doing research for this article, I asked my Twitter followers to guess the only player to ever win both a 2-D game and a 3-D game on the Evo main stage. In response, I got a whole pantheon of fighting game greats: Alex Valle, Keita “Fuudo” Ai, Tokido, Seon-woo “Infiltration” Lee, Arslan Ash, and Ryan “Prodigal Son” Hart. All of those names feel like they make sense, but there’s only one right answer: Carl “Perfect Legend” White.*
This is the riddle of his story. “If you look at all the things that he’s accomplished, like, just on paper, it makes sense that he would be like, ‘I’m the best,'” says Sheila “dapurplesharpie” Moore, a close friend of White’s. “It makes sense that he should be like, ‘I should literally never have to fight for this, this, and that again.'” Fighting games are in White’s blood, he’s done the hands-on work that makes the community happen, he’s represented the community well to the wider world, and he’s made his mark as a competitor. So why doesn’t he have the reputation to match?
It’s clear that the question affects him. When he talks about his relationship to the broader community, he becomes a quieter, more somber version of himself. “I honestly do not feel like I fit into the FGC. I feel like an outcast here. I don’t fit in with a lot of how they think, I don’t fit in with a lot of how they move, I feel.” This has been one of the hardest lessons of his life: to be is not the same as to belong, even in the results-driven world of the FGC.
Unraveling The Mystery
To a small degree, his problem is one of timing. FGCers are more than happy to pounce on a top player the instant they begin to reveal even the slightest weakness. White’s most recent Evo win came in 2012, which is ancient history by fighting game standards.
Still, this explanation only goes so far. Daigo’s last Evo win was in 2010, and he hasn’t suffered anything close to the same backlash that White has. Of course, there’s also the matter of White’s infamous thirteen-to-zero exhibition loss against SonicFox. Originally slated to be a first-to-ten, the blowup instantly became a part of community lore when White addressed the crowd after the first ten games, agreed to another short set, and then got swept in that set as well. But he’s hardly the only top player to have been embarrassed in public. Immediately after Kun Xian Ho won Street Fighter IV at Evo 2013, Daigo obliterated him in a first-to-ten. Tokido ran through Ryan Hart seven-nothing on ESGN Fight Night. On an episode of Capcom Pro Talk, Mike Ross got so upset at an unknown online opponent that he threw his own wallet at his joystick. Yet Xian, Hart, and Ross still have the one thing that White doesn’t: a mystique.
“It’s weird,” he says, “cause I’ll sit and think, cause I’ll feel down about myself, like, about ‘Oh, I haven’t won an Evo in…however long it’s been.’ People will say that to me to try to make me feel bad about myself…That’s the stigma I get.” In response, he turns back to the same sources of comfort that he’s had since childhood: friends, family, and home. Although he streams and has his own Discord server, he works to ensure that his online relationships are comfortable rather than commercial. And although he’s always traveled as part of being in the FGC, he always comes back home to Toledo. In short, he says, “I’m not about to change who I am, how I am, just to fit someone else, just so I can get an extra view.”
This stance grows directly out of White’s past: his deep connection to his home city, his tight connections to friends and family, his demonstrated history of achievement. When he looks at himself, he sees someone whose choices have brought him nearly all of the things that make life gratifying and good. He knows who he is, he trusts himself, and he always allows his safety net to catch him when he falls. Unfortunately, that safety net may also be the very reason why White is in the position he’s in.
Just A Small-Town Boy
Just as Toledo is one of the smaller FGC cities, the Spurs make their home in a city that’s underpowered in the cultural landscape of the NBA. San Antonio doesn’t have the media presence of New York or LA, it’s not as fashionable as Miami or Chicago, and, prior to ‘99, it didn’t have the competitive pedigree of Boston or Philadelphia. When the Spurs finally broke through to win their first title, most of the country had no prior reason to care about who they were or where they’d come from. Their fans were all local, and the keepers of NBA culture were all too busy rooting for their own teams to care.
Much the same has happened with White. Despite his love for Toledo, there’s no escaping the fact that his home is minuscule by FGC standards. White himself admits that, for most of his career, “I had to travel [just] to get practice. That’s how it was.” As a consequence, he’s never had hometown support from the major streamers on the coasts or from the communities in bigger cities like Atlanta, Chicago, or Dallas. Instead, all of those cultural power centers were, in essence, his rivals. On top of that, his first game, Dead Or Alive, was also small and snubbed. His first years in the FGC were spent working against people who felt that DOA wasn’t “a real fighting game and took no skill.”
Then there’s the fact that White has never been a suck-up. With a more entrepreneurial mindset, he could have overcome the disadvantage of his geography, but he simply isn’t the type of person to sell himself out or try to win an empty popularity contest. “I’m not here to meet you, I’m here to beat you,” is how he describes his attitude. The Spurs were like this, too. Their superstar, Tim Duncan, was infamous for his deadpan expression, and his signature bank shot was so efficient that it was practically boring. For years and years, their press conferences were always uninteresting. They had no locker-room drama. None of their players tried to be mainstream actors or rappers. Like White, the Spurs allowed their actions to speak for themselves – and, like White, they found that most people just didn’t want to listen.
Making The Leap
The good news for White is that the Spurs did eventually manage to rehabilitate their reputation. The bad news is that they did so by radically changing themselves. In lieu of the slow-paced, defense-first gameplan that brought them their early rings, the 2014 “beautiful game” Spurs played a splashy, up-tempo, high-octane offense. And while Duncan was still on the team, but he’d been joined by marquee players who were more stylish and more emotive both on the court and off of it.
In order to shake off his stigma, White will need to undergo a transformation of his own. Above all, he’ll have to win, and for that he’ll need to risk more than he ever has. As a younger man, he had nothing on the line. Now, after fifteen years in the FGC, there are major personal stakes for White.
Thanks to the efforts of a local group called Immortal Dragon Gaming, the lifelong Toledoan finally has a sizable local scene to work with. Even so, Ohio will have to prove itself as an FGC powerhouse before those numbers mean anything for White’s rep. “There definitely isn’t a Team Sp00ky or LevelUp to shine a big light” on the area, he admits. “Despite the scene here being big or strong, it’s not big on a viewer sense.” To help accelerate the process, he may have to push his brand more, become more of an entertainer, or commit himself to playing a trendy title like Street Fighter or Tekken.
Luckily, White already has all the motivation he could ever need. He says that the community’s early disrespect towards him “is all water under the bridge now” and that he has no regrets about his thirteen-oh loss to SonicFox. But he hasn’t forgotten a single moment of his fighting game career, and some part of him still burns for recognition. He says that the competitor in him still wants to “win a couple more Evos [or] a pro tour.” In order to do so, he’ll have to make the biggest leap of his life.
The Truth Behind The Perfect Legend
None of this will come easy, and his personal life will never disappear completely, as he knows only too well. Some years ago, he found himself dealing with the fallout from a toxic relationship. “You actually care about somebody despite however they may treat you,” he recalls. His play suffered as a result, but the worst of the blow fell on his heart. He’s also been keeping one eye on his father’s health ever since the elder Carl’s appendix ruptured a few years ago. “Seeing your parent in a weakened state, it kinda puts you in a different position,” he says with contemplation in his voice.
No matter how the next few years play out, there’s no question that White will always be part of the FGC. He still competes and still wins; according to one of his local TOs, Tommy “Kenstar” Ingersoll, White combines “the attributes of a prodigy” with the savvy of a vet. And even in quarantine, he isn’t letting himself get rusty. He plays through laggy online matches on the theory that lag helps to simulate tournament jitters, and he still gets his hands on every new title that comes out. “It feels like I’m in school all the time.” And the reason is the same as it ever was: “Because that’s what resonates with my heart the most.”
Still, the day is coming when White will find himself at a crossroads. As he himself says, he doesn’t truly need to make any drastic changes. “I may not have gotten a parade or a celebration or anything like that, but there are people who are proud of me,” and he has found a way to make esports his livelihood. If he continues on his current path, he could easily become one of the midwest’s crucial figures behind the scenes. Having run events himself, he values the community’s infrastructure and wants developers to give more financial support to grassroots workers. “I think a lot of [fighting game] events wouldn’t even exist, as far as pro tours and stuff, if it wasn’t for all these community organizers[, and] bracket runners are essential workers in the FGC,” he says. Maybe one day we’ll look back and acknowledge White as one of the key reasons why the FGC finally became a true economic ecosystem.
Perhaps instead he’ll decide that he does want the parade. Maybe he’ll climb back to the top of the mountain, reclaiming his title as one of the world’s best. As Moore says, “the spotlight consistently is moving and looking for someone to replace a hero and turn them into a heel” – but, by the same token, a heel can become a hero, too. And although it’s been eight years since White’s last Evo win, the Spurs waited seven years between their last two titles, and competitors last much longer in the FGC last much longer than they do in the NBA. Another championship is still well within his reach.
The only thing that’s certain is that White’s story is far from over. So if you really want to know the truth behind the Perfect Legend, you’ll just have to watch and see what he does next.
*Shoutouts to @NightmareSnake and @Mikeand1keFGC for being the only two to guess correctly.