“It takes a lot of backbone to make it in fighting games,” Demir D. tells me when I interview him through Discord. Demir, who goes by Sugar Bear among his friends in the Fighting Game Community, is a competitor and tournament organizer for the 2019 version of the classic Samurai Shodown franchise. SamSho, as it’s known for short, currently ranks among the FGC’s smaller games. Sugar Bear estimates that there are fewer than one hundred active players in the entirety of North America. You can’t win your fortune with it, either: whereas Capcom Cup pays its winner $250,000, the grand prize for SamSho at the SNK World Championship is less than twenty-eight grand.
On the surface, it might seem like SamSho is an exercise in pointless hardship. “It’s you against another person,” he continues, “and if you fail, it’s not anyone else’s fault. It’s your fault. And not only is it your fault, it’s because you weren’t as good. And I feel like, from a human element, to be not as good really hurts…I think that not everyone is prepared for the pain that losing can bring or the pain of accepting that you’re not good – yet.
“But for those who are willing or are too damn stubborn to give up, there’s something here.”
Competition, he tells me, is part of what it is to be human. “Deep down in our blood, we are the scavengers and hunters, and [we’re] fighting to live.” But the FGC isn’t just a simple outlet for aggression. It’s more like alchemy. By gathering together to compete, players can transmute their animal instincts into something more precious. Instead of being ruled by “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” they can dedicate themselves to more elevated forms of expression: the helping hand, the loving heart. Samurai Shodown players know this because they’ve witnessed it firsthand. For an all-too-brief period, many of them had the privilege of being friends with one of the premier alchemists in all of the FGC; a man who, in the words of his friends, was an “ambassador” and a “pillar” of the community, who was never “swayed by social pressures,” and who had “no hidden agendas, no cliques, [and] no manipulations.”
That man’s name was Will Lu. In the SamSho community, he went by “CarpetFromAladdin.” He passed away earlier this year following a short bout with pneumonia. Today would have been his thirty-seventh birthday.
This is heartbreaking.
I have fond memories meeting @spinningbeat in person at WNF, playing in our tournaments, being a huge part of our community, and helping so many people out— he was a selfless and incredibly sweet human being.
Rest In Peace. I love you man. https://t.co/1JDCOZCY8h
— 🎂 HAPPY BIRTHDAY SHUICHI 🎂 (@GeoffLife) July 9, 2020
Lu was a fighting gamer before there was even such a thing as the FGC. As kids in the early ‘90s, he and his cousins would get together on the weekends and play Street Fighter II for hours, with Lu testing his Vega (Claw) against their Ken and Ryu. Though he was only nine at the time, Lu had already learned to value family above all else. Dat Nguyen, the cousin who played Ken, was both a participant in the Lus’ tight-knit clan and a beneficiary of it. Before they were allowed to pick up their joysticks, they would help out at Lu’s father’s bike-repair business, Nguyen recalls. “We would set up these tents at like 5am, 6am in the morning, set up our space,” and get to work.
Most children in the US would rebel at the thought of doing manual labor at 6am on a weekend. But neither boy shied away from their responsibilities. In part, that was because they knew that they had the rest of the day to play. Mostly, however, it was because of the Lus’ intense commitment to family, without which Nguyen wouldn’t have been there in the first place. When he and his family came to the US in 1992, they did so with the help of Lu’s father, who sponsored their immigration and then housed them until they found their footing in their new home.
These were lessons that Lu would carry with him through the rest of his life. Not only did he continue to contribute to his father’s business right up until his untimely death, he also helped to care for his ailing mother and babysat various nieces and nephews – all on top of working a full-time job.
And that was just covering the start. “He wanted to treat [everyone] like they were his brothers and sisters,” Nguyen says. Nate (a.k.a. “hellaplus”), one of the many friends Lu met playing SamSho, puts it like this: “He always seemed like a community-based person[, that is,] someone who thrives within a community and helps hold it up.” If he knew it was your birthday, you’d get a call. If he knew you had an event coming up, he’d be in attendance. In a culture that can inspire people to have an unsettling obsession with wealth, Lu took a different approach to money. “As long as he had his income and he could buy people presents [and] take people to dinner,” Nguyen says, he was happy.
A Family With An Open-Door Policy
For Lu, these small gestures weren’t items on a checklist or the rote demands of etiquette. Kinship was a dynamic, living force in his early life. Having been immersed in such a powerful atmosphere of familial devotion as a child, it was inevitable that its values would continue to guide him as an adult. Yet just as a seed needs to be planted in healthy soil in order to germinate, an outlook like Lu’s can only flourish in a supportive social environment. And it was far from certain that he would ever find one. Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, psychologists warned that loneliness was a “new epidemic in the USA.”1 As it happened, Lu had had the bad luck of being born into a society that experts say is “crafted perfectly to deprive humans of their most pressing emotional needs.”2
Statistically, there was a grim likelihood that Lu would go his entire life without ever meeting the type of people who would allow him to blossom. But by staying true to his childhood interests, he tilted the odds back in his favor. From art to music to gaming, “what made him happy was just being a kid, just having fun and not taking it too serious,” according to his cousin. Lu was known to spontaneously sketch his friends on napkins or stray pieces of paper and then gift them the resulting portrait. He also embraced the music scene in his native Los Angeles, keeping tabs on local bands and volunteering at a “punk rock/noise/experimental venue” called The Smell. Most importantly of all, he kept playing fighting games.
As a gamer, Lu had a vast range of interests. He played everything from deadly serious franchises like Metal Gear Solid and Dark Souls to feel-good titles like Animal Crossing. His favorite game of all time was Final Fantasy VII, the classic Japanese RPG. But no other genre appealed to him in quite the same way that fighting games did. He never stopped playing Street Fighter, eventually trading in his relatively reserved Vega for more free-flowing characters like El Fuerte in Street Fighter IV and R. Mika in Street Fighter V. Over time, he also explored other titles: Virtua Fighter, BlazBlue, Dragonball FighterZ, Pokken, Mortal Kombat, Under Night, Skullgirls, Guilty Gear, Marvel vs. Capcom, Tekken, Super Smash Bros., Battle Arena Toshinden, and more. When SNK released a new version of Samurai Shodown in 2019, there was no doubt that Lu would pick up a copy.
In doing so, he found much more than a game. “It was a perfect storm, Carpet and the Samurai Shodown 7 community,” Sugar Bear says. “This community is great. Everyone is super-supportive and super-friendly and super-kind. And we’re a small community, but I think that when you think of our community spirit, it’s quite strong…We’re a family with an open-door policy.” Another player named Eric, whose handle is Gugeno, echoes the same sentiments. “Around the time I met [Lu], everyone seemed to be going through their own personal drama. So they sought comfort in pressing buttons with Samurai Shodown.” For someone like Lu, it was the perfect fit.
Of course, it helped that he loved the game enough to buy it four times so that he could play it on all of his consoles. But the real magic happened on an interpersonal level. “He was always about nurturing the community and getting new players,” says angelapickles, a SamSho Tournament Organizer. Her husband, AndyOCR, is another member of the SamSho scene. “Online,” he recalls, “I would see him at random streams, just chatting it up.” “It wasn’t just big name streams either,” adds Daniel “Gorro” Serna, a SamSho player and commentator. “He would go in and talk to people that had as few as one or three viewers and make them feel welcome into the community. Hell, even in my own streams, Carpet would be there in the beginning just actively talking to me for a good hour before others started to join.”
I think I kinda like samurai shodown everyone. pic.twitter.com/4H3QfOhUJI
— CarpetFromAladdin (@spinningbeat) April 7, 2020
As I talked to more and more of the SamSho community for this story, it became clear that all of them have a similar story. Lu had a natural ability to identify others’ passion projects, and he never hesitated to throw himself behind them. In his first message to SPCEDETECTIVEKH, a SamSho player who also produces short videos about fighting games, he made sure to compliment the filmmaker’s work. When Sugar Bear first took up streaming, “I looked and saw who was live before I went live. [One time] I saw Carpet. And I was like, ‘Yo, great minds think alike, I was just about to go live.’ And his response was, ‘Well, lemme just cut it off and I’ll send everyone your way.’” Similarly, when William “BulletWill” Cuevas began his own SamSho tournament series, Lu “was always watching my tournaments, sharing tech in the chat and even [gifting] subs to people when he could afford to.”
If he had been a different type of person, his presence wouldn’t have meant much. The FGC has no shortage of backseat drivers and armchair analysts who will pop up in a streamer’s chat for the sole purpose of correcting their play or scolding them for some perceived misdeed. But every one of Lu’s actions was infused with his honest, supportive, fun-loving ethos, and that made all the difference. “He would reach out to me sometimes for [SamSho] advice or help,” Gugeno recalls, “but a lot of the times we would have full blown conversations with each other [in chat].” Geoff “the Hero” Mendicino, who runs a SamSho tournament series called Ronin Rumble, was also won over by the sheer depth of his caring. Lu had already done his best to promote the event online, and he wore a Ronin Rumble t-shirt to their first in-person meeting. But the most important thing, Mendicino says, is that “he was a friend: someone chill, and someone who wasn’t just fair-weather. He was always there.”
The People’s Champion
What further endeared him to the community was the fact that he was a fiend for the game. For better or worse, in the FGC there’s a degree of respect and acceptance that comes along with playing in tournaments, regardless of how well or poorly you place. Of course, the best players tend to be the most popular, but all competitors share a certain level of camaraderie. And Lu was one of the FGC’s favorite types of competitors: the low-tier hero.
According to his smash.gg profile, Lu never won a SamSho tournament (though he did notch a number of top-eight finishes at Wednesday Night Fights, his local weekly). In part, this was because of his character, who just wasn’t reliable until SNK improved her near the end of Lu’s life. In fighting games, characters can be said to occupy “tiers” according to how viable they are in serious competition. Typically, there are a few exceptionally strong (“top-tier”) characters, a large number of good and decent ones (“high-tier”), a handful of not-so-good ones (“mid-tier”), and a few that are downright impotent (“low-tier”). Naturally, most players tend to avoid the low-tier characters, both because losing isn’t fun and because those characters offer the player fewer opportunities to put their personal stamp on the game. So when someone manages to make their mark with a low-tier character, fans tend to perk up.
Lu was one such competitor. Almost immediately after SamSho’s release, he gravitated towards a character called Rimururu, or Rimu for short. She’d been part of the franchise since Samurai Shodown III came out in 1995, but in the 2019 version of SamSho she was just plain bad. “[Rimu] was believed to be in the bottom 5 of the cast as far as tournament viability,” as Gorro recalls. To Geoff the Hero, she was “the lowest tier character in the game at the time.” AndyOCR is even more blunt: “his character was really weak.”
But she was also the first character that resonated with him, and that mattered more. In the FGC’s standard double-elimination format, one out of every four entrants will end their run with two losses and no wins. To make any real progress at all, players have to overcome a quick succession of increasingly driven opponents, which often means staying alert and focused for hours on end. In turn, their success or failure in the bracket depends on the work they put in beforehand, both in terms of polishing their own game and in terms of scouting for potential weaknesses in the competition. In short, the story of staying competitive in fighting games is one of long and constant effort.
Because that effort will be punctuated primarily by dispiriting losses and underwhelming performances, competitive players need an exceptionally strong source of motivation. For some people, that can be money or fame. For others, it can be a burning need to be the best. In Lu’s case, that motivation was always destined to come from a relationship. It just so happened that the relationship that lit a fire under him was the one he had with Rimu. “There’s just something about character specialists and their bond to a character,” Gorro says. Sugar Bear describes it as an “ongoing conversation” between the player and their character. “There’s an appeal in saying, ‘Everyone says you’re bad, but let’s show the world what you can do.’”
— 🎂 HAPPY BIRTHDAY SHUICHI 🎂 (@GeoffLife) April 2, 2020
That’s exactly what Lu did. According to his fellow Rimu player hellaplus, he was hooked on her. “As he played her more, he was like, ‘Man, I can’t put this character down. The stuff that she can do is so interesting and so fun, and she feels under-explored.’” Despite her low-tier status, she fit into the pattern of Lu’s growth as a fighting gamer. Over time, he’d traded out his safer, higher-tier characters for ones that would allow him to freely express himself by making high-risk, high-reward plays. It was a transformation that shocked Nguyen, his cousin. “This is what really brought me to tears.” When he saw the way that Will had learned to play with Rimu, he thought, “this isn’t my cousin. This is some evolved s**t. I was crying, watching him fight.”
These are the powerful emotions that low-tier heroes can inspire in other players and fans. Lu was one of those heroes, and his Rimu quickly became an icon in the SamSho community. Sometimes, instead of showing his character in a promo, community members would include a picture of the actual magic carpet from the Aladdin cartoon. His preferred costume for her, with green replacing her default blue, is known as the Carpet costume. (One fan went one step further, creating a modded green outfit that had Lu’s profile picture on it.) There are even tactics for Rimururu that are known as “Carpet tech” because he pioneered their use.3 “Rimururu would have been another [low-tier] character that came and went if it wasn’t for the legwork Carpet put in,” says BulletWill. For AndyOCR, watching someone play Rimu so well and with such flair was like “seeing a unicorn.”
— angelapickles (@angelapickles) July 18, 2020
As his friends and his community watched, he improved from week to week, growing from a novelty player to a legitimate challenger. Indeed, many of the people I interviewed believe that Lu had been on the threshold of a competitive breakthrough just before he died. Together with his effervescent personality and his intuitive gift for raising others’ spirits, his competitive skills made him a living legend among the SamSho community.
The Legend, The Myth, The Man
Astonishingly, many of Lu’s closest SamSho friends never met him in person. Some had never even heard his voice or seen his face. In the age of the internet, it’s normal to know people who live on the opposite side of the country or even the opposite side of the world. What’s far rarer is the ability to act as a wellspring of emotional strength for those digital friends. Lu not only possessed this ability, he personified it.
“I could talk to him about everything,” Gugeno says. BulletWill, who lives clear on the opposite side of the US and only learned what Lu looked like after his death, describes him as someone who “filled my sails [and] gave my ship momentum.” Simply put, there was something about him that just fit. When people remember him, they automatically picture contexts that are comforting and light-hearted. Dat Nguyen, his cousin, now records his own music; when he thinks of the two of them, they’re driving around LA together, listening to indie rock. Streamers want to see him in their chat. Players want to go one more round with him. Brian “Shin Chie” Jessee, yet another member of his SamSho circle, just wants to “get a Twitter or Discord DM from him again.”
Lu integrated himself so deeply into others’ lives that it can be hard for them to understand and accept his absence. Even now, months after Lu took his last breath, many of the people I interview continue to refer to him in the present tense, as though he were something more than a mere mortal. Beneath their conscious desire to see him again, his friends and family seem to associate Lu with the bone-deep sense of anticipation that we normally reserve for forces of nature. Like the sun or spring flowers, his presence was so reliable and so fundamental that it now seems impossible for him to truly be gone.
When I ask his fellow SamSho players how the community can repay someone like him, I get a wide range of different answers. Sugar Bear says that he’ll dedicate his first significant win to Lu. BulletWill envisions a community award named in his honor, like the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award or the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award. Others talk about making the scene more welcoming or giving people like Lu a larger platform. But no matter how inspiring or creative these ideas are, his friends all admit that they’re not totally sure what he would have wanted.
In a way, this is unsurprising. Despite having many close relationships, Lu took great care to keep his private life private. He wouldn’t talk about his own troubles because “he wouldn’t want to bring other people down,” Gugeno recalls. BulletWill characterizes him as someone who would “give everything he has and ask for nothing in return.” Others describe him as careful, considerate, selfless, and shy. Several of his friends use the word “blessing,” as if to suggest that he had some divine spark that made him slightly more than human. Only his fellow Rimu player, hellaplus, is willing to speak the full truth: during his life, Lu was so fully focused on other people that he often ended up “overlooking himself.”
People like Lu can work wonders on the world around them, but that doesn’t mean that they can do the same for the world inside themselves. At times, he admitted as much, albeit indirectly. To some of his friends, he described the SamSho community as “one of the best things to happen to him” and “a shining light in a very dark time.” Similarly, in a letter that Lu’s family sent to his gaming friends after his funeral, they said that it hadn’t been “easy for him to find his tribe.” As much as his fellow gamers depended on him, it’s clear that he depended on them, too.
I’m so so proud of this community. You all came together for William and showed his family how much we loved him.
Thank you ❤️ pic.twitter.com/FrbwOIOH3c
— LinkedIn Park (@hellaplus) July 21, 2020
Perhaps this is part of why Lu took to the fighting genre. In games like SamSho, competitors do something that most people would never do in everyday life, namely, try to publicly expose their friends’ weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and failings. But for that very reason, fighting games give players a rare opportunity. If you compete in the FGC, you get the chance to be embraced by your friends immediately after you’ve had all of your flaws held up to the light. Better yet, you get that chance because you allowed yourself to be tested – that is, because you had the courage to show the truth about yourself, even if it’s only in the context of a video game. This is one of the greatest lessons that the FGC can teach: no matter how painful your errors or problems may seem at first, the real pain only comes if you keep them to yourself. If you open up instead, everything gets easier.
For my part, I believe that this is the insight that we owe people like Lu. More than anything else, they need to feel as though they can air their problems and receive loving support. To that end, we need to convince them to share their worries with us. And when they oblige, we need to respond by saying, “I get it. I’ve been there. Here, let me show you the tech I use for that situation.” As hellaplus puts it, we’re obligated not only to accept love from others but to “return that energy on an individual level.”
This will prove to be easier said than done. “To call your friend two, three, four times a month, that’s hard,” Nguyen says. And people like Lu don’t always make it easy. Between his privacy and his tendency to shift attention to others, he put up a formidable defense against anyone who might have wanted to put themselves in a position to help. Even now, very few people know just what had been on his mind. But if there’s one group that knows how to break through a formidable defense and get in on someone who’s holding back, it’s the Fighting Game Community.
Lu was cremated in the middle of July. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, only one member of the SamSho community was able to attend his funeral. But that didn’t stop them from making their full presence felt. Together with Lu’s friends in the LA music scene, they donated over twenty-two thousand dollars to his family, more than enough to cover his funeral and medical expenses. The SamSho community also sent a larger-than-life floral arrangement with a banner that read, “Until our swords cross again. Sending you off – SamSho fam.”
“Until our swords cross again. Sending you off.” -Your #SAMSHO family
— angelapickles (@angelapickles) July 17, 2020
Lu’s parents knew about his love affair with the FGC, and they reciprocated. Of the three tables they’d set up at his funeral, one was devoted to gaming; prominently displayed on that table was a copy of Samurai Shodown. Later, at the cremation, they included some of his most precious possessions. Among those, they included both a copy of the game and a photograph of their son together with his SamSho “tribe.”
Within the context of Buddhism, these brief, symbolic acts are meant to point to something lasting. But you don’t have to be a believer to see the ways in which his legacy lives on. Gugeno credits Lu for inspiring him to volunteer to deliver food and medicine to people in need during the pandemic. Multiple members of the scene say that they’ll do everything in their power to improve the SamSho scene and the FGC at large so that, in angelapickles’s words, “we can be the community that he saw in us.” And, of course, his record as a competitor continues to inspire his fellow Rimu players, thereby shaping the future of the game itself.
in memory of a generous soul. rest well, friend. pic.twitter.com/chcjvxKe9Z
— stickers’ art (@coolstickarts) July 15, 2020
These accomplishments combine to form a picture that’s unique to Will Lu, the man known as CarpetFromAladdin. And from his cousin’s point of view, that picture is, in its own way, complete. “In Buddhism,” Nguyen says, “we have this concept of mission. Basically, before we were even born, prior to this lifetime, we were another person. And near the time of our death, we kind of said, ‘Hey, in my next lifetime, when I get reincarnated, I want to accomplish this one thing.’”
According to Soka Gakkai International, one of the world’s largest Buddhist organizations, a person’s mission is “a unique role that only she or he can play, a unique perspective to offer, a unique contribution to make.”4 Nguyen believes that “Will wanted to help people become happy in the most unpushy way.” If so, he was perfectly suited to the task. Many of his friends mourn for the things that Lu could have accomplished with more time. He had already done so much for his community and advanced so far as a competitor that there’s no knowing where his limits were. “We all know that life isn’t fair,” says Sugar Bear. “But in this situation, that’s really all that I [can] think of.” “I cannot think of someone more undeserving of this than him,” hellaplus adds.
But Nguyen sees it differently. Instead of thinking about what might have been, he chooses to take solace in the reality that his cousin helped to create. Quite simply, thanks to Lu, the world is a better, happier place. What’s more, as his friends work to live up to his memory, they’ll continue to grow his influence. For Nguyen, that’s all that any of us can ask for, and it’s why he gives his cousin the highest compliment that he can: “I believe he fulfilled his mission in his lifetime.”
Eli Horowitz lives and writes in Pittsburgh, PA. His first novel, Bodied, is set in the FGC; you can purchase it here. Follow him on Twitter @BODIEDnovel for more FGC news, memes, highlights, stats, and all-around positivity.
3In all likelihood, Lu himself would have tried to amend that label. While some of his tech was fully original, some of it came out of a collaborative Rimu Discord channel in which he, hellaplus, Inazuma, NeonBlade, and others compared notes, shared research, and taught one another the tricks of the trade. Whenever Lu made progress in his play, he made sure to credit the entire Rimu sub-community.