Unsung Heroes of the FGC: Alex “Duelist” Pesante

By on December 16, 2020

alex pesante

Unsung Heroes is our series about the many members of the Fighting Game Community who work behind the scenes to make our community a vibrant, positive, exciting place to be. If you would like to submit your own Unsung Heroes, contact us here or @toptiergg.

In 1992, Gatorade aired “Be Like Mike,” one of the defining cultural touchstones of our time. Though “Be Like Mike” was just a sixty-second TV ad, it encapsulated an entire ethos. The game of basketball wasn’t just a fun hobby anymore. It wasn’t merely a way to have fun with friends or get in some exercise. Instead, it was a path to fame and fortune.

Now, almost thirty years later, it seems as though everyone has their chance to be like Mike. Thanks to reality television, you can be a star in cooking, baking, glassblowing, pottery, arts and crafts, singing, dancing, body-painting, drag, sci-fi makeup design, tattoo artistry, and a slew of other pursuits.

But not everyone is gunning for their fifteen minutes of fame. In Kissimmee, Florida, a man named Alex Pesante is doing everything he can not to be the next Mike. Pesante, who goes by “Duelist,” is the co-owner and CEO of Juicy Game Night, an ongoing series of local fighting game tournaments. Even though the Fighting Game Community is a relatively niche affair, he still has a chance to make it big. Fellow Tournament Organizers like Alex Jebailey and Eric “Big E” Small are celebrities in their own right, and it’s common for event organizers to aspire to their level of greatness.

Yet Pesante has a different goal in mind. He describes himself as being “powered by love,” not ambition. When asked why, his answer is simple: “Because I have what I need. I have my local, and I love it.” In the unique culture of the FGC, a local tournament is a pickup game, training gym, and social hall all rolled into one. No one makes international headlines or wins oversized prize checks at their local – but without the loose, informal infrastructure of these small-scale events, the FGC couldn’t exist. By committing himself to his local, Pesante has effectively given up on stardom. But even though you’ll never see him on a commercial or a cereal box, his accomplishments and his significance are just as real as anyone’s.

A Life Of Service

Like an increasing number of TOs, Pesante got his start in college. But unlike most, he got class credit for his efforts. For a class project, he decided to run charity events “to show that games can make people come together as a community and do something good.” His early tournaments benefited St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Meals Of Hope, an anti-hunger organization based south of Kissimmee. One of his events alone raised over five hundred dollars, and his selflessness won him the Student Of The Year award at his school.

For Pesante, the award meant far less than the opportunity to make a difference. “My dream is to help others,” he says. “Seeing them happy brings me joy.” In this way, he thinks of himself as being like a worker in a Japanese host club whose sole mission is to facilitate feelings of positivity and connection. What’s more, he goes to great lengths to ensure that Juicy Game Night is not only a tournament but also a platform on which to raise up his whole scene.

Naturally, that starts with the players. Pesante can rattle off a list of competitors who’ve used his events to improve at their craft. When one of his regulars, Ricky “A$AP R1CKY” Walker, beat Dominique “SonicFox” McLean on the way to a top-three finish in Dragonball FighterZ at last year’s CEOtaku, Pesante was ecstatic. But it’s just as exciting for him to see growth in his local commentators and cosplayers.

Road Warrior

All of this helps to explain why he isn’t swayed by the temptations of stardom or celebrity. By maintaining what he calls a “local presence,” he can set a standard of personal service that just wouldn’t be feasible at a larger event. But his personal history also comes into play. When Pesante was young, he competed at Yu-Gi-Oh! tournaments and learned firsthand that “being a TO is not just running a bracket.” His local Yu-Gi-Oh! events were badly supervised, and a large part of the reason why he switched from card games to the FGC is that an older player once tried to steal his deck.

Now that he has the chance to do things his way, he’s committed to making sure that he serves each and every one of his attendees. As every TO does, he likes some games more than others, his personal favorites being BlazBlue: Central Fiction, Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax, Dragonball FighterZ. But to ensure that he understands the specific needs of each set of players, “I don’t run [any games] that I don’t try out myself.” When new events appear in his area, he makes sure to swing by both to offer advice and to see if there are any tips he can pick up. And when COVID-19 struck earlier this year, he and his team quickly moved their events online, donating proceeds to struggling businesses in the area.

Like every other organizer in the FGC, the pandemic has thrown a wrench into Pesante’s plans. But it’s hardly the first time that he’s had to adjust on the fly. “I’ve went through an entire interstate road of locations [trying to find] the perfect place,” he says. “Literally, I counted ninety miles’ worth of places I’ve tried and talked with.”

alex pesante, laptop in hand

His first venue, Juicy Hookah Lounge, lent its name to his event and then went out of business. A burger place worked for a little while, but then its owners got their electric bill and withdrew. In between, Pesante had one of the strangest experiences of his TOing life. He and his team had set up Juicy Game Night at a nearby bar. Because the bar’s floor space was already taken up by pool tables, they just pocketed all the balls, added some folding chairs, and set up their consoles and monitors on the tables that were already there.

At first, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable solution. A few weeks later, though, an off-duty police officer warned the owners of the bar that they risked jail time by allowing the video game tournaments to continue. Under Florida criminal code 849.07, it’s illegal for any licensed business to “permit any person to play billiards or pool or any other game for money…upon such tables.” And because Pesante’s event collects entry fees and gives out prize money, they were technically running afoul of the law.

Support, Listen, Go Beyond

His brush with the outlawry may be an extreme case, but on the whole Pesante’s experiences aren’t uncommon for a TO in the FGC. As he says, the job entails much more than the average person might think. In addition to organizing and facilitating the competition itself, TOs have to collaborate with venue owners; arrange their physical spaces in such a way as to satisfy both players and spectators; find innovative ways to give their events distinct flavors; and more.

One of Pesante’s signature moves is cross-pollination. In a community where players can sometimes self-segregate by game, he intentionally encourages people to explore. At his locals, players can pay a flat registration fee to enter as many games as they want. It’s an unorthodox approach that puts extra financial and logistical stress on his whole team, but he believes that it’s worthwhile – and judging by the popularity of his events, his attendees seem to agree.

In fact, between running his own events and renting out his equipment to others, Pesante had tentative plans to become a full-time TO this year. The pandemic has obviously put those plans on hold, but he’s optimistic about the future. “I always [say to] believe in your locals, go to them, support them,” he says, “because that’s what makes the groundwork for [top] players.” His events are where central Florida’s fighting game fans can go “to practice or meet new people.” The pandemic won’t fundamentally change any of that.

alex pesante at red bull conquest

For now, in addition to the online edition of Juicy Game Nights, he’s helping Tampa Never Sleeps, another Florida tournament series, with its online events. Once a vaccine is available, he and his team are also planning to hold hybrid online/offline events so that players can choose an extra level of safety if they so desire. “It’s tough right now,” he admits, “but this is what we want to do to help.”

And for Pesante, helping is what it’s all about. Though his role in the community is complicated, his attitude is simple: “Support your community, listen to your community, and go beyond for your community.” Together with his partners, Arris “King Kai” Whittaker and Joshua “Crow” Raphael, that’s precisely what he intends to do.

To support Pesante and his event, follow him on Twitter and check out the Juicy Game Night Twitter, Twitch, and merch store

Eli Horowitz never broke any Florida gambling laws…that he knows of. His first novel, Bodied, is set in the FGC. Buy your copy here, then follow him on Twitter for FGC jokes, stats, and general positivity.

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