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.
For thousands of years, the area of study known as philosophy has acted like an incubator, safely housing embryonic research programs until they grew strong enough to make it on their own. When Ibn Khaldun practiced a fledgling form of sociology in the fourteenth century, he was called a philosopher. Before biology, chemistry, and physics established themselves as distinct sciences, they were collectively referred to as “natural philosophy.” Even today, many AI researchers take their cues from philosophers of mind. And in the Fighting Game Community, far from the hallowed halls and ivory towers of the academy, one philosopher is trying to breathe life into his own creations.
He goes by “Dynamite,” but most people know him as Dan. As a commentator and co-owner of Low Kick Esports, one of Chicagoland’s most prestigious FGC organizations, Dan has a wide range of objectives. He wants to empower his local scene and bring new blood into the community. He wants to advance social justice and open people’s minds to a different way of thinking. Most of all, he wants to stay true to the “mental growth” that philosophy offers.
He knows that there are no tried-and-true techniques that he can use to achieve these goals. “I expect to fail thousands of times,” he admits. “I expect that. But if I can gain one inch of growth out of those thousand times, then it was worth it.” Not many people would be willing to put in so much work without the promise of a large reward at the end. Yet as the philosopher Confucius taught some two thousand five hundred years ago, “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”
“Adversity shows whether we have friends, or only the shadows of friends” (Publius Syrus)
Like many fighting gamers, Dan’s introduction to the genre came with Street Fighter II for the Super Nintendo. “Where I grew up,” he explains, “you had to make the right choice [when shopping for video games] because you might not get another one for a couple months.” Fighting games offered him and his friends endless replay value, and for years he enjoyed testing them with Street Fighter’s Ryu, Samurai Shodown’s Haohmaru, Tekken’s King, and Guilty Gear’s Justice.
Around the turn of the millennium, however, things changed. “[T]he environment that I was playing fighting games in was not healthy,” he recalls. His sparring partners rarely offered constructive criticism, let alone positive reinforcement. “It [was] all about whether you win or not and it wasn’t about growth,” he says. “It really did put a bad taste in my mouth.”
His bitter experience pushed him away for the majority of the FGC renaissance that began in the late aughts. But he still kept in touch with the scene from a distance, and in 2017 he found himself being drawn back in. That summer, Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi defeated Victor “Punk” Woodley in the grand finals of Street Fighter V at the Evolution Championship series. Between the transcendental level of the competition and the intensity of the players, the match “reignited my flame for wanting to play fighting games…It moved me on an emotional level.” Having been reminded of what the FGC could be, Dan knew beyond a doubt that he wanted to be a part of it – and thanks to James “jchensor” Chen’s powerful commentary on the Tokido/Punk match, he knew exactly how he wanted to make his mark.
“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken” (Audre Lorde)
After watching Evo 2017, Dan set about finding a local event that he could attend. As someone with an office job, “I started out just going to a Saturday event run by Low Kick called Super Saturdays.” For a few weeks, his excitement was mixed with worry. He still remembered his past experiences with hyper-competitive fighting gamers. Walking into Low Kick for the first time, he felt an “intimidation factor” that made him hold back. “It was difficult for me to start to just talk to people.”
But once he got on the microphone, it was a different story. Commentary felt like nothing he’d ever experienced before. To this day, he remembers how his first session “resonated with my whole body.” He’d fallen in love. At Super Saturdays, he would commentate anywhere between six to eight hours every week. “It was a lot,” he says. “It was a whole lot. But I loved it.”
As a commentator, a big part of his mission is to bring the “underdog passion” of an often-overlooked scene. “I believe that the Midwest has some of the best fighting game players, experiences, and events in the world,” he says. “I want to highlight that as much as possible.” What’s even more important is the role that commentary plays in Dan’s life and in the life of his scene. By offering his voice to the community, he can achieve the progress that inspires him. For himself, “no matter what your body does or if you have any difficulties playing the game, commentary is something you can always grow at like it’s a fighting game.” For those like him, he sees his work as something that can build a platform “for anyone that wants to jump on the mic and may not be able to make it on a Monday or to get easy eyes on them.” And for the community at large, “it’s all about making those connections and making people feel like they’re part of the experience.”
“Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better” (Albert Camus)
In Dan’s situation, most other people would be dreaming about a career in esports. But as he sees it, tying himself to the industry would defeat the point. “Exploring myself, improving myself, happens best when I feel freedom,” he says. Freedom is what gives him the chance to experiment with tournament formats as a Tournament Organizer, event planner, and co-owner of Low Kick, drawing inspiration from the way that competition works in other genres and on other continents. Freedom is also what allows him to stay true to his moral principles. “As an African-American,” he explains, “I want to bring more and more color to the diaspora of Black experiences on the microphone…I really want to show the world and anyone watching that there’s so much color just within that Black experience.”
If he chased a full-time career in commentary, he might have to leave the home that he loves. He might have to pause his journey of self-improvement to cater to markets or managers. He might even have to censor himself or abandon other projects that he belives in, such as Actual Factuals, his vodcast about social issues. As it stands now, the Midwest’s fighting game philosopher explains, “I do it because I love it – and only because I love it…It’s my love of it that drives my improvement.”
Freedom is what allows him to follow his natural curiosity, both inside and outside of the games themselves. In the upcoming months, he plans to experiment with Nagoriyuki in the new Guilty Gear -Strive- and to keep a close eye on Project L, the new fighting game franchise from the makers of League of Legends. He also intends to help Low Kick expand its tournaments “to provide both spaces of enjoyment and [competition] at a high level,” both on- and offline.
The key to all of this is the freedom to fail thousands of times for the sake of one inch of growth. “As long as you continue to grow at it and continue to be passionate about it, whatever the peak that you want to reach is, you can get there,” he believes. “ You don’t have to rush it.” Or to put it another way: “Pressure creates diamonds. Freedom creates universes. Both are valuable. They both achieve something magnificent at the end.”
Indeed, if the history of philosophy is any indication, he himself may not know how magnificent his accomplishments will turn out to be. One way or another, the FGC can be grateful that it has such a thoughtful, honest presence in the fast-growing Midwest scene. As the community as a whole earns its growth one hard-fought inch at a time, there’s no one better to help it along than the philosopher from Chicago who calls himself Dynamite.
Eli Horowitz lives and writes in Pittsburgh, PA. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, Dexerto, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, and more. Buy Bodied, his FGC novel, here.