How the Underdog Delivered Knock Out Punches to Adversity
North America, Japan, and Korea – when it comes to fighting games, the frontier is dominated by these three regions. Some players have emerged at the forefront occasionally and made their way into the club of strong contenders, but the well-reputed international 2019 Tekken tournament of EVO Japan, saw the giants obliterated by an obscure character fighting through Kazumi (a fictional character in the Tekken Series).
The world stood agape as the 23-year-old nobody from the least likely of places beat the pros at their own game. The victory must have been surreal for Arslan ‘Arslan Ash’ Siddique himself, as well, as his was a name virtually unknown in the popular culture of Pakistan, and irrelevant to the bigwigs of the international gaming circles. This tale of an unsuitable contender coming out victorious is such a rarity that it is the stuff of legends, glorified only in movies. When all the odds are stacked mountains high against one, how does one summit to success?
The Local Haunts
To chart Siddique’s rise and victory, one must step down from the well-reputed 2019 EVO Japan tournament, and into a local arcade, in a small town in Lahore, nondescript among the many others in the country. Back in 2008, as a 12-year-old pre-teen, he first got pulled into the vibrantly coloured and highly engaging world of gaming. At the time, he owned no computer and had access to no video gaming console at home, so he would rush to the gaming center to play for at least five hours after school every day. The rules encouraged that he be the fastest, for the meager charge of Rupees 10 per game was waived for the winner of three fights, while the losing party had to pay for both.
In the cramped rooms of these gaming dens, hundreds of Pakistani youth battle every day at a multitude of games, remaining abreast with the ones trending internationally. The youngsters of these unknown arcades have been professionals in their own right, with most of them learning from the Korean and Japanese style of gameplay, and eventually moving on to developing their own. While Arslan Ash’s playing curve resembled this learning pattern, he had realized early on that he had the advantage of speed over most players. His reflexes were faster. He was practicing eight hours a day only to end up paying lesser and lesser. Meanwhile, the gaming environment too – though muted against the backdrop of lucrative professions and sports (such as cricket) – had been thriving to the point that, from local settings, it had graduated to nationwide competitions. It is at these competitions that Arslan Ash started to stand out. In 2012, he won his first national competition and by 2018, he had qualified to at least 40 national level rounds, gaining numerous local competition wins along the way, as well.
However, these national level tournaments were not enough to crown Siddique as a Tekken prodigy, and neither were they enough to get Pakistan noticed as the hotspot for professional gaming talent. No matter how skilled the players or incredible their gameplay, these were not the kids who had the resources to compete in global tournaments. Among the stages they had to clear to win, extra levels were added due to the fact that gaming hails from the underbelly of the Pakistani ‘pastimes’ which (like rock music), in spite of flourishing in terms of range, capability and participants, remained an underground sport. It was hardly the activity that would attract sponsors. Therefore, though the players of these national championships had the confidence to take on the best of the opponents at the largest of forums, finding patronage remained the first challenge, and they themselves simply did not have the finances to pour into affording the international trips. On top of that, getting visas for the different countries seemed far-fetched, as well.
Thus, the future seemed murky, until gradually some players managed to break out of the constraints keeping them tied tight to the ground. As they began participating in international tournaments, their brilliance began getting noticed. Yet, the number of players was so inconsequential over the years that despite their prowess, Pakistan still would not register as the area of key contenders in the discussions, when it came to these tournaments. Nonetheless, one must acknowledge the performance of pro players such as Saqib Mirza (MicroNukeX), Fate Bilal, Faisal, Heera, Awais Liaquat, and Asim who regularly attended championships of different games at different levels. Some of them maintained a presence abroad and the display of their skill testified that Pakistan did have a gaming culture and original style brewing that might be worth looking into. Perhaps, it is the praise won by the latter two of the aforementioned list that kindled the hope in Saddique to eye the titles at global forums, and Asim, a storm in the UK Tekken scene from Pakistan, spoke of Arslan Ash as a force.
Little did ‘Arslan Ash’ know that in a few months, all grouped between the span of July 2018 to February 2019, he would be challenged and rewarded like never before. It was at the FV Cup x SEA Major 2018 in Malaysia that he got his first taste of an international competition. He earned 9th position and a growing appetite for bigger wins. In the summer of 2018, vSlash eSports, a professional gamers group based in the Middle East signed ‘Ash’ to participate in the Omni Universal Gaming (OUG) Tournament. With the group-covered sponsorship, overseas travel to Dubai became possible this time around. It was here that he defeated the seventh best Tekken 7 player in the world at the time, Knee, by a score of 3-0. Ash had quickly outdone his respectable performance of Malaysia.
Papers, Planes and Punches
Despite these wins under his belt, many from the community were not quick to acknowledge his abilities. They felt his wins were an off-chance; a fluke not based on any unique or special style of fighting at a high-level. In order to win the respect he knew he deserved, and plant his flag on international territories, Arslan would have to travel overseas again – this time to Fukuoka, Japan. The tournament, while being smaller than its U.S. counterpart was still a show of gigantic proportions with its 6 categories attracting 2,500 entrants from the Eastern hemisphere. These were players who did not necessarily travel outside Asia, but honed their skills religiously against top Asian players, and with there being little known about them, preparing for them specifically was impossible.
While it was clear he would be walking into the Colosseum to face the lions, Arslan’s ordeals started before the tournament could. First, due to issues related to the paperwork, his visa was delayed to the extent where concerns started to grow that he would not make it in time. Once the visa arrived, his flight had to be booked albeit with multiple layovers (due to legalities), to result in his arrival at Japan just a few days prior to the event. But on getting to the airport he wasn’t allowed to board the plane, made to change flight bookings, and add layovers. Unexpectedly, he bounced from airport to airport for days, reaching Japan with no way to exchange his Rupees to buy himself food.
The situation was so desperate that 4 hours before the tournament, instead of being in Fukuoka, Arslan found himself sitting at the airport in Tokyo with little to no sleep, having gone hungry for a day, and talking to his sponsors about booking a flight back home to Pakistan.
Despite seeming like it at the time, this would not be the last of Arslan Ash. Instead of a flight back home, he miraculously managed to head to the tournament that had already started, and reached heart-stoppingly on the dot for his fighting pool to commence.
The Ultimate Test Play by Play
At the onset, he kept defeating opponent after opponent, but he was still practically a nobody, and went undefeated but unnoticed for a while. This obscurity continued into his hotly contended match against his old nemesis, Knee. While Ash won, since he had no camera on him, not many knew whom Knee had lost to. But that was about to change as one after another, he continued to knock out almost every Korean player, including the big names from the game, Chanel and Rickstah, at the tournament. Finally, the streaming staff realized that they needed to start streaming his matches, kicking-off with the one against LowHigh: it was the clash of the defending EVO champion against the newbie; the favourite powerhouse against the boy functioning without sleep.
The results were unbelievable. He displayed the dexterity dubbed ‘god-like’ by the commentators and kept eliminating the celebrated players from Japan and the U.S.: Chikurin, Jimmy J Tran and Cherry Berry Mango. He had earned respect but not the title of the ultimate champion, yet. That had to be scooped up only after lifting the gigantic boulder of defeating the best from Philippines – AK. Perhaps, in a different world, EVO Japan would have been the story of how AK bagged the much-coveted victory for his region, also underrated in the world of pro Tekken. But that day belonged to Arslan Ash – the man on fire. The Tekken character Kazumi became his lucky charm yet again, manifesting his skill, and fighting her way to victory for him.
The World’s Nod of Approval and Bow of Respect
EVO Japan not only catapulted Arslan Siddique into world recognition as a champion, but also placed Pakistan on the map. Tekken player, Knee, tweeted how he wanted to come to Pakistan to train for Tekken, seconded by Chanel who wished the same.
Japan went on to arrange a series of matches between Arslan and ten of their best to see how he would fare. Arslan beat them all, except one Korean player, and he too had flown into Japan only to play against him and look into his style of playing – a testament to the respect he had garnered.
More recently, Siddique went undefeated at the Thagier Uppercut 2019, and accumulated enough points from a relatively low number of world-level games to be placed at number 27 in the global rankings, making a commentator note that “He is no longer a challenger. He is a champion.”
EVO Championship 2019
Siddique left everyone stunned after being crowned the champion of Tekken 7 at the world’s biggest fighting game tournament, EVO 2019, in Las Vegas. After successfully fighting his way through the two pool rounds and the semi-finals Siddique made his way to the final round where he faced off against 7 top professional gamers from 3 different countries. Pitted aginst South Korea’s Knee once again, Arslan came out as the champion after delivering a remarkable victory.
To Rise from Ashes
Arslan Ash is showing no sign of stopping there. In the process of proving his mettle, Ash has highlighted that Pakistan needs to be watched out for when it comes to professional video gaming. He has flung the door open for other Pakistani players to have a chance at making their mark. Moreover, he has shown that this nation has the expertise that the world can learn from, and that everyone benefits from the knowledge and diversity brought together by the multi-culturism of countries coming together.
Arslan Siddique’s journey is a tale of the unlikeliest of characters coming out of nowhere and taking the world by storm. He has not only proven himself but comes as the most welcomed reminder that though the underdog has hundreds of obstacles standing before him, and opportunity contriving against him, he will stop at nothing – the underdog will rise from the ashes.
So, to what height does this lone Ash rise to from here? Only time will tell. But one thing is clear, having now gotten the taste of greatness, he has just barely flexed his wings. He is always up for a good fight, and the world needs to look out as his best may still be yet to come.
The writer is an art graduate, art curator and visual artist who focuses on understanding the impact of pop-culture on society.
E-mail: [email protected]
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