Keits Interview with John Choi

Keits Interview with John Choi

Last week, man on the street Adam Keits Heart caught up with once and future Street Fighter legend John Choi to ask him about all things Street Fighter

Adam: Today I have with me Mr. John Choi.  I believe you are the only man to ever win two Evolution tournaments in the same year.  Is that true?

John: Thats actually not true. Daigo actually won two games one year, but it wasnt two Street Fighters.  It was one Street Fighter and I believe Guilty Gear.  I guess if you consider two Street Fighter tournaments, Id be the only one.

Adam: So why dont you tell everybody a little about yourself?

John: Well, I come from San Jose, California; its in the San Francisco bay area.  I work in the software industry as an operations manager for Synopsys.  Ive been in the software industry for over 10 years since I live in the valley.  Im also a full-time grad student.  My final semester will be finishing up in October.   Pretty much Street Fighter has been my hobby for many, many years and Im still at it.

Adam: Do you have any real life obligations like family or kids to pull any time away from your hobby?

John: Theres definitely life obligations.  I dont have any kids or a wife, but full time work and school takes up most of my time.  I pretty much go to work from 9-5 and my class is from 6-10 PM a couple of week nights, then Saturday from 9-1.  So I pretty much work all day and go to school all evenings and then theres homework, so it takes up a lot of time.

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Adam: I think the community is pretty impressed with how quickly youve become a competitor at Street Fighter 4.  Could you tell us why youve decided to join the bandwagon of the game, who got you up to shape, and all that sort of stuff?

John: I wanted to play it, but I was in a very difficult semester at school.  Also, I had some family problems.  Im pretty sure some of you have heard about my Dads condition (ed note: Johns father is recovering from cancer).  Hes doing much better now.

Adam: Thats good to hear.

John: Yeah, theyve run some tests and it looks like hes recovering nicely.  Also at the same time I was looking forward to a tournament in France where they paid my ticket to face off against BAS in Capcom vs. SNK 2.  They paid for BAS to come and me, so I was kind of obligated to keep up my skills in CvS2 even though nobody else was playing.  So pretty much up to the France tournament in May I was concentrating on CvS2 and my semester at school.  I also moved and took care of a lot of family stuff.   So I pretty much didnt have a lot of time and didnt want to dive into a brand new game and dilute my skills.  I also played a little bit of Super Street Fighter II HD Remix at the time because I was interested in entering that at France, but HDRs like 90% Super Turbo so I didnt have to practice much.

So Id decided to concentrate on CvS2 and HDR and worry about Street Fighter IV later, and thats exactly what I did.  I went to France and played in the tournament, and pretty much had about 2 months before Evolution to get ready for Street Fighter IV hard core.  I didnt know anything about the game, so I was thinking about how to practice and put the time in to see everything.  I actually did a lot of online play.  Its pretty frustrating because the Playstation Network unreliable and things are really slow, but it was either that or just playing against one or two players at my house.  Unfortunately Nor Cal arcades are pretty much dead.  They only arcade left, Sunnyvale Golfland, decided not to get Street Fighter IV, so it was pretty much inaccessible to me until the console version came out.

Adam: Yeah, thats how it was for most of the nation.

John: Yeah, a few hot spots like New York, LA and Texas kind of lucked out and got the arcade version early, but us up here were pretty much in the same boat as the rest of the country.   So I kind of dove into it.  I played hardcore online for about a month straight, and finally went to Keystone to try out my skills (ed note: Keystone is a Street Fighter jam session of Nor Cal players named after the now defunct Keystone arcade).  Ricky Ortiz was there, and I got to the finals in a tournament against him but he pretty much beat me down.   Now I try to do weekly practice sessions and try to get up to speed.

Originally I wasnt planning on going to Devastation, but when I heard everyone was going I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to test out my skills, and it would also be a fun event.  Mainly I went because Tom Cannon was like, I got a hotel room, just get your plane ticket and you can stay for free.   So I got my ticket a couple of days before and just decided to go.  I did not expect to place I, I just wanted to see what everyone had and get a feel for the game.  I think I got a bit lucky placing so well, because my only experience is against shoto type characters.  I know how to fight boxer (Balrog US) and Rufus only because Ricky Ortiz plays those characters.

Adam: I was going to ask, do you think Ricky being a Rufus player helped you against Justins Rufus or was it a whole different ballgame?

John: Oh, of course it helps.  I fought Ricky twice in the tournament, and I fought Ken Is Rufus once and Justins Rufus twice, so practice against Ricky definitely helped a lot.  When I first played against Ricky I didnt have a clue what was going on, and he just beat my ass left and right.  Eventually I got use to him and now Im pretty competitive in that match up.  The same thing about boxer.  Rickys boxer is actually pretty good, and in the tournament I faced a couple of boxers.   So I kind of lucked out: I have no experience against Abel, so Justin did the smartest thing he could do when he counter-picked Abel to win.  We were actually talking about this the night before and predicted he would pick Abel or Viper because I have no experience against them.  He would basically kill me for free and thats pretty much exactly what he did.

Adam: Well, lets switch topics a little bit here.  Youre pretty much the United States ambassador to the Super Battle Opera tournament, right?

John: Yes.

Adam: Thats a pretty interesting thing, because theres a lot of people who are new to our community who know only that EVO is the US finals and SBO is the Japanese finals, but there are massive differences between the two.  Can you elaborate on what its like to play in Japan vs. what its like to play in the United States at the championships?

John: Well, the main difference is that Evolution is an open tournament.  Its not by invitation, and pretty much anyone can show up, pay the entrance fee, and join the tournament (ed note: Evolution 2009 sign ups end July 12th!).  SBO has qualification rounds. Most of these are reserved for Japanese players and the spots are filled via qualification tournaments they have all around Japan, and some slots are reserved for international competition.  So its pretty much a Japanese dominated event, whereas at Evolution youll see a lot more international players.

Its also very different because their standard format is single game, single elimination, whereas the US format has been double elimination and usually 2-out-of-3 games a match.  So its pretty different.  There you lose once and youre out.  You get no second chances.

Adam: So you screw up once and its over.

John: Yeah, not to mention going to Japan takes a lot of resources.  Youve got to get the time.  Youve got to get the money.  Then you fly all the way over there and BOOM: one game and you could be done.

Adam: Yeah, and you have to deal with jet-lag too, Im sure.

John: Yeah, so its pretty scary, but Japans still a very fun place to visit, especially if youre into games.  Ive gone there multiple times throughout the years and Id definitely go back.  Im actually thinking of going back next year.  I couldnt go this year because Im finishing up school, but next year I definitely plan on going.  Even if Im not playing in the tournament, Id like to go and just hang out.

Adam: So youre pretty much the reason why we have a US qualifying spot at SBO, right?

John: Uh, I wouldnt say that Im the only reason.  They decided to add the international stuff, and just by some random string of events I happened to be in touch with their former CEO and Director.  We had a good relationship, so that got me started on handling US affairs for them, and it just stuck with me through out the years.

Adam: Excellent.  Shifting topics again, at EVO this year there was the 5-on-5 event scheduled for HD Remix, which Im sure you were going to knock out of the park.  Now that thats shifted to Street Fighter IV, do you think youre going to be playing on the Nor Cal teams?

John: When the 5-on-5 was announced on HD Remix, I couldnt find any players in the Nor Cal area who played the game seriously.  Graham Wolfe and Alex Wolfe were my sparring partners, but they both quit because they dont like that game.  So I pretty much couldnt find a single person for the team.  I was actually the one who suggested they should replace HDR with Street Fighter IV, because Street Fighter IV just blew up like crazy.  Everyone was playing it, whereas Remix took kind of a back seat.  So, I thought Street Fighter IV was more EVO-appropriate, and they seemed to agree.

Once they made that decision, I got bombarded by people coming out of the woodwork asking how they could be on the team.  At the time I wasnt playing Street Fighter IV.  I still kept up with the news, but I was not as in touch with the Street Fighter IV scene as people expected.  So I sat on the side-lines and let some time pass by before reserving any spots.  After a while I realized that Nor Cal is really segmented because we dont have a central arcade to play.  Theres a lot of hot-pockets where people get together to play, usually on consoles.  I thought it would be difficult to try to organize a qualifier at one event, so I made a decision that I would just keep an I on all the events happening in Nor Cal.  Once we get to EVO, Ill see whos performing best of the people on my list and just make the team there.  Another reason Im doing this is that there are some good players on my list who are not planning to go to Evolution, which is fine but I want someone whos both good <b>and</b> going to be at EVO.

I made this announcement a while back on the Pacific North forums at  Originally when I made the announcement I had no intention to be on the team since I had no idea how to play the game.  Now, technically I have not placed at a single Nor Cal tournament, so I dont really feel justified in putting myself on the team.   I made an announcement today about two people, because I think theyve shown consistency over the last few months: Ricky Ortiz and Crackfiend.  The other three spots Im still thinking about.  I still have 3 weeks to decide, so I guess well see how that works out.

Theres actually a big tournament in Nor Cal this week at Fuddruckers in Walnut Creek that Ill be attending.  If I can somehow place up there, then maybe I can justify putting myself on the team.  If I dont get up there, its obvious that Devastation was just a fluke and I obviously dont deserve a spot.

Adam: Is that tournament at a Fuddruckers?

John: Yes it is (laughing).  Its kind of interesting.  One of the organizers has a buddy that works at Fuddruckers, so they kind of hooked it up.  They rent out the private party room on the loft.

Adam: Oh, they have a party room!  I pictured it happening in the diner with people eating all around you, just chowing down on burgers and stuff.

John: Ive actually see then videos on YouTube, and the space looks really big.  The tournaments been very successful.  At the last two tournaments they had over 128 people showing up, so they capped the tourney at 128 and had to turn people away.  They estimated that about 150 people showed up.   This time they decided to go all out and have made a 256-man bracket.  So this should be the biggest tournament North California has ever seen.  I remember the very first Super Street Fighter II tournament in Nor Cal was 256 people, so we havent seen anything like this in a while.

Adam: So if you place well in that, do you think youre going to put yourself on the team? Ill reiterate that I think everyone who saw your performance at Devastation want to see you play.

John: Thats a possibility, but I dont want to jinx myself or anything.  Well just see how things go this weekend.

Adam: I was doing Alphaism Radio the other not, co-hosting with Christian (skisonic) and we were talking about your dragon punches.  It seems like when you dragon punch someone, Ryus arm gets like you just get so much more meaning behind it when you do it.  You never waste one.  Every time you do it, it looks like you just knew it was going to hit.  So how do you become a man who knows exactly when he can dragon punch someone?

John: (laughing) Well, if I could give you the answer to that I would be a millionaire.  I could sell the secret to all the other players.

Pretty much, theres no solid answer.  I think people have different types of learning just like they have different styles playing this game.   Some people are visual.  Other people just go by feeling.  How do I know when to do certain things?  Most of the time its just by intuition and feeling.  I dont usually look for visual queues or audio queues.  The game could be perfectly silent and Id still uppercut at a certain time.  Ive done some personality tests where it says Im a feeling type of learner, and I think thats probably reflected in the gameplay.

Adam: Of all the other high-level players that you know, who else would you say  plays with that mentality?  Who else is a feeling-type player?

John: Definitely Alex Valle, and Im pretty sure Daigo is very similar.  He just does stuff that nobody would ever expect.  He just seems to know.  Hes a big mind-reader.  David Sirlin actually tried to do some kind of study a while back using the Myers-Brigg test to see if theres similar characteristics between topl players.  He actually compiled a little list, and found that some players have similar types, but it was kind of inconclusive because he only asked like 8 players.  He asked me to give it to some Japanese players like Daigo and Nuki, but that kind of got lost throughout the years.

Adam: Well, lets talk about HD Remix again.  You said a lot of the old-heads, the ST people, really arent liking it too much.   Did you ever feel that way about the game, or do you just like it?

John: Its definitely a different game.  I think the game has a lot of potential and that the suggestions where really good, but maybe just the implementation and execution didnt follow through as originally planned.  At the same time I understand that Backbone is a 3rd party company with limited resources with pretty much only David Sirlin doing all the design work and one other person doing a bulk of the programming, so of course its not going to come out as polished as something like Street Fighter IV which had a lot of manpower behind it.

That being said, there are some bugs in the game that are kind of annoying especially if youre a long time Super Turbo player such as myself and a lot of other people.  I guess you just treat it as a different game and try to look at it with an undiscriminating eye.  I think everyone is looking at it as if it were ST and they were hoping it would be ST+, but its much more like a new game.

Adam: I agree.  So how do you think youre going to do this year in that one at EVO?  You think youre going to win that one?

John: Honestly, Im not sure.  The only tournaments Ive been in for Remix are in France and Devastation.  The France tournament had only about 50 people who just entered it because they had nothing else to do.  So that tournament didnt have as much meaning.  For example, Justin Wong got pretty far.  Hes a good player, but he doesnt really play that game.  He just got by on his general Street Fighter skills.  So I really dont know where I stand, because I havent played anybody thats a hardcore HDR player whos really competitive.

Adam: Theyre out there.  There are a lot of guys who really dont like Street Fighter IV and are focusing on HDR.  Ive played a number of them and theyre getting pretty good.

John: I have a few friends at work who are hardcore HDR guys, and I play against them sometimes.  Im not sure if any of them are attending Evolution, though.  So just like Devastation was my first litmus test for Street Fighter IV, I think Evolution will be my first test of where I stand in HDR.  Im guess since the game is a little bit similar to ST, the strong ST players will tend to do well.

Adam: Let me ask you a repeat question that I asked Alex in our interview.  Do you think age is affecting your ability to play and keep up with these younger players, or do you think experience has given you the ultimate edge?

John:  I think it kind of balances out.  Experience definitely helps a lot, but at the same time I feel myself getting slower and slower very year.  I remember when I was 20, I could see everything. I could uppercut everything on reaction, but now its just different.  I can actually feel myself getting slower.  Its kind of funny, because Ricky Ortiz used to just hit everything.  There was nothing you could get by him.  It was very frustrating.  Now, six or seven years later, you can even see him slowing down.  Its a natural fact of live.  Theres nothing you can do about it.  We do get slower as we get older, but at the same time the experience helps balance it out.

The other aspect is just around life issues.  When I was younger I had lots of free time, and I could play games like 7 hours a day without any problems.  Now I have a full time job and school and family issues.  Other people have wives and kids, and it really puts a damper on your ability to be able to practice as much as you want.  You look at Justin, every weekend hes at some event. I read about him winning this event and that event.  I really wish I could do that, and maybe things would be different if I was his age around this time, but there are other life obligations so I have to just focus on one game at a time.

Adam: You mentioned that too earlier, that you didnt want to dilute yourself.  Do you think thats a problem with many players who want to be top gamers, that they play too many games?

John: Well, just like everything in life what you get out of it is related to how much you put into it.   If you want to be a champion in one game, its probably better for you to play 10 hours of that rather than playing 10 different games 1 hour each.  So theres definitely an effect.  I think I could maybe juggle two games at the most these days.  Theres no way I could enter more than that many tournaments and try to be competitive in all the games.

Adam: I had this mentality a few years ago where if I was going to a tournament and spending the travel money and time to be there that I would enter just about everything.  Every match I got to play was tournament experience, and that really helped me get rid of my tournament nerves faster than I otherwise would have.

John: Oh yeah, thats a very good idea.  Thats actually what a lot of people do.  When I was in France, I actually joined the Street Fighter 4 tournament even though I wasnt playing the game at all.  I guess thats my first, official, real Street Fighter 4 tournament, but I probably went like 2 and out.  I didnt know anything.

It was also on XBox, and I didnt bring an XBox controller, so I couldnt use my American stick.

Adam: So you cant play on Japanese sticks?

John: Im just an old dinosaur.  I tried to learn Japanese sticks.  Everybody else has switched to Japanese sticks and claim that theyre superior, and I believe them, but I just cant get myself used to it.  So I stick to my old MAS stick.  Its unfortunate, because every time I go to Japan and try to play in the arcades, I cant do uppercuts.  As a shoto player thats a pretty big drawback, but i still just cant use Japanese sticks at all.

Adam: How much time have you spend into trying to get comfortable on a Japanese stick?

John: About 3 or 4 years ago someone actually left a Hori HRAP stick in my room at EVO.  I dont know who it belongs to, it was just left there, so I just brought it back home and started practicing on it.  I tried for about 2 or 3 months, but I just couldnt get the feel down. down.   So I decided until they actually discontinue all the parts on my MAS stick, Im just going to stick with it, because thats what Im used to.

Adam: I think thats about all I have for you.  I wish you luck at Evolution this year, and I will see you there.  Any parting words for our readers about what they can do to be the best that they can be?

John: A lot of people ask me about my fireball game and my ground game and why they cant do this or do that.  My once piece of advice is that everybody has a specialty.  You cant be good at everything: thats just not possible.  You cant try to be the best at every aspect of the game.  All the good players are famous for one specialty.  Rickys kind of famous for his defensive play and being really smart and really fast.  Valle is known for being very unorthodox and very different.  Myself, Im known for doing textbook stuff.  So I think everyone needs to just find their one strength and focus on it and maximize your strength.
For example, in my Ed Ma match at Devastation, his character, Akuma, can run away really well, has a lot of options, and is better suited to fighting far away, whereas my character Ryu can do better footsies and do more damage than him.  Instantly you should think that he should try to run away more, but he decided to play a more heads up match thats more favorable to me and not really favorable to Akuma.  Everybody has different styles and techniques and what theyre good at, so you should focus on that, and play your game.  Dont play the opponents game.

Adam: Thats the best advise you can give, is to make the opponent play your game, dont play their game.

John: Exactly.