Christopher "ChrisG" Gonzalez stared blankly at the two red letters that spelled K.O. that projected from the monitor screen for five seconds before his face broke into a nervous smile. He got up shakily to the roar and cheers from the thousands of fighting game fans that surrounded the stage and their sounds woke him up to the reality of his victory. He looked into the camera and back to the crowd as his smile beamed across his face and everyone disappeared, that was a moment just for him.
He was finally the Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 champion at Evolution Fighting Game Championships (EVO) 2016. It was the title he chased for five years, a vast majority of his professional career, and it cemented his status as one of the greatest fighting game players of the generation. For a player like ChrisG, winning came easy. He earned his nicknames, the genius or Christopher Jesus, as a result of his consistent tournament victories. But, the trophy and label of EVO champion was an affirmation for all the risks he took and all the adversity he faced to make it to that point, the biggest stage of the fighting game world.
When I saw him to talk about his journey to his personal top achievement, it was at a Pieology in Monrovia, California. Gonzalez's strict diet restricted him to just the most basic of foods with an emphasis on starch as well as his opportunities to socialize with others. This represented a big change for the New York-born player. He ordered his typical construction -- a cheese pizza with nothing else. Everything else was unnecessary.
Gonzalez grew up with distrust and anger as his main tools for socializing. When he was 15 years old, Gonzalez would routinely walk for five hours outside of his neighborhood instead of staying home. He didn't want to be near his parents and the sentiment was returned; Gonzalez was constantly kicked out of his home because his parents were always fighting with family. There were times when the one-room apartment would house nearly 10 people with animals.
"My family and I never saw eye-to-eye on anything. I was the odd one out because I didn't smoke or drink and wanted to play video games," Gonzalez said. "They said I wouldn't amount to anything and I tried to go the "normal" route with school and college. But, financial issues mounted and my family would lash out a lot. We all hated each other. We all fought each other as much as possible."
He found his distraction from the chaos in the form of his two uncles, Salvatore and David, and through them, he learned how to play fighting games. They played with him on consoles and introduced him to the infamous arcade, Chinatown Fair. As one of the only hubs for fighting games, Chinatown Fair was the arena where most of the best players in New York honed their craft. Gonzalez started with Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike (3S) and kept at it because of the game's higher technical ceiling. He would play games until late into the night and only went home when it was time to sleep; it was an escape. As for the New York fighting game scene in 2010, it was full of stagnation, animosity, and entitlement. The players simply believed they were owed more than just victories and harbored resentment to anyone that succeeded. It was an unhealthy mix of a lack of money, jealousy over results, and overall ego-clashing between players.
"I couldn't tell if they liked me for me or if I was getting better. Everything seemed cool, but, they were talking behind my back; they said I was arrogant and cocky," Gonzalez said. "I wasn't anything special, I was just 17. I thought I had some friends, but it was all just a lie. There needed to be a change with my mentality and the way I carried myself. I didn't know how to deal with."
The most infamous group during that time was Empire Arcadia (EMP). Gonzalez, in his attempt to make friends, joined up with the players of EMP and saw in it another situation too close to home. The players were talented and were friendlier when the games were not played, but when the stakes were real and money was on the line, it was a completely different story. He recalled them cheering on his opponents when he played in matches and their glee increased when he was losing. He realized early on that people would do absolutely everything to bring him down when all he wanted was to just play.
"I used to wear my headphones on my ears, but I tilted them up toward my temple to be more personable and understand the outside world -- 'make friends'," Gonzalez said. "I wanted to make the people that said I sucked feel bad. My main motivation was anger. It made me feel good to be better than people."
When the motivation to play every game to shut the crowds up waned, he found an unofficial rival in Justin Wong. Wong was considered the best player in the country and excelled at every game he put his hands on. The prodigious player was also a part of EMP, but kept mostly to himself. He would visit Chinatown Fair on rare occasions when Gonzalez began to rise in notoriety, but those days would provide all the hunger and drive. The New York legend destroyed Gonzalez in the multitude of games he picked up in the arcade, it was not a competition. The inspiration to be dominant was implanted.
"How could someone be so untouchable? I respected his ability to just walk around and body someone like they were nonexistent," Gonzalez said. "I tried different styles and I didn't understand how to move forward or when to until after he destroyed me. Sometimes it took a beating that bad to awaken who you could be."
When Gonzalez was 18 years old, he entered his first tournament. He was working minimum-wage service jobs while juggling with tournaments. Gaming was more profitable. One tournament victory made him a week's paycheck in addition to providing the kind of gratification that he was looking for. When he started, tournaments were every day and had a $10 entry fee (with over 50 players); it became a consistent economic boost. As a result of his new-found success, the need for a job lessened and his passion to play grew. His first major, Northeast Championships 2011 was a failure in terms of his final placement, but it was a success for his need to be validated. Gonzalez played Wong in 3S, but ultimately fell to his rival. As a consolation, he received a giant trophy for his work and his obsession to play grew to include hardware. He would only enter specific tournaments if there was a trophy at the end -- it was a way to physically see his past accomplishments. It was necessary proof for his path to self-greatness.
With more victories came more complaints. Before most of the talk was centered around the consistency of his play, then it was his attitude, and finally the most prominent of the talk filtered around his alleged selfishness. The backlash revolved around his lack of presence for casual meetups, other local tournaments, or just a general help to the community.
"I felt like I didn't need to move, but there was talk about how I wasn't helping the scene out. I was bad for the fighting game scene because I didn't play with them," Gonzalez said. "I invited trouble and lashed out -- I was still out playing four tournaments a week."
Everything stopped when his roommate and friend, Nelson "Remix" Reyes passed away. Reyes was a name familiar to most of the New York crowd as a boisterous and happy voice that raised the positivity in a relatively parasitic community. To Gonzalez, he was his reason for staying in New York. Reyes was a reflection of the ego that existed within himself. It was a mixture of charisma and playfulness that never surfaced during his beginnings in the arcade. Reyes was a reminder that not everything was a competition. He made the fighting games fun again -- it was less about victories and self-motivation and more about just playing a video game.
He decided to move after Reyes' funeral for a brand new start in California.
"It didn't make sense and I didn't know how to feel. This guy was so cocky, he would cheat his own death; he was too good for that," Gonzalez said. "It was a rude awakening for me. He was one of the best things I knew about the east coast and the fighting game community. A lot of it was gone."
New York was the beginnings, but it was not a healthy community to grow up in. California represented a fresh start with a community he could potentially be involved in and new professional opportunities. If New York's identity in the fighting game community was entitled and rough, then California was friendship and diversity. Gonzalez's start in California was rocky. His sponsorship went under, he struggled with motivation in regards to playing fighting games and had one of his worst years financially and professionally. He needed a bigger change. He was falling apart and all the entitlement needed to stop along with the stress, something needed solving. It would take something other than a video game to break him out of his funk. "Am I really going to be one of those guys that people think make it but just vanish. How could I not make it if I was on par with Wong at the time?" Gonzalez said. "I decided to change my mentality. I enjoyed myself, socializing, and opened up more. I needed to focus more on just me."
The Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 tournament at EVO in 2016 was the first time Gonzalez signed up as just his name, void of sponsorship. This was the tournament that alluded him his entire career and the one championship he needed to justify all the work and years as a professional. He was known as one of the best players in the Capcom game's history, but he was missing the biggest trophy and accolade. For a player that needed to collect everything important and achieve the highest peaks, this was the last piece of the puzzle.
He played freely in the pools of the tournament. He didn't panic from dropped combos or ambiguous mixups, he was rolling on free currency. For once, he operated without the pressure of self-inflicted expectations and enjoyed the game for what it was. Despite all the difficulties of the tournament, there were no mental breakdowns or moments of uncertainty for the genius. Even his rival, Justin Wong, couldn't halt his momentum and destiny. To make matters sweeter, this was a tournament that Gonzalez could win without the label of a team or brand -- it was just Christopher Gonzalez.
It was more than fulfillment, it was the completion of Gonzalez as a man. He needed to let go of all the emotive strings and stress that came from expectation to finally achieve a victory that went beyond a game's accomplishment. He won for himself without any selfish intent. The player was back, but so was the human being.
"I was less focused on games and just enjoyed California. I was always in my room and worried about my next tournament. That time, I just wanted to have fun," Gonzalez said. "I won EVO as myself. It was funny because I felt like that was it -- I hadn't won and I was supposed to win. I just played my game plan and if anything was supposed to happen, it was going to happen on that stage."