An insightful interview with James Chen

Today we have a very special interview with someone that has become one of the most recognizable faces in the FGC thanks to this work as a professional commentator. We had some difficult questions to ask and we knew that James was the right guy to answer them.

Big thanks to him for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions!

Now, on with the interview.

1-We can start with the question that has become a tradition at Fighter101.net by asking for some background information on you as a gamer. Please share your top 5 favorite games of all time? It doesn’t matter if the games are not all fighting games. Just a top 5 of games you find to be your favorite.

I never have a top 5, but there is always a guaranteed top 3. Although the games in 2nd and 3rd swap constantly, so they are usually considered tied, so I’ll list them in alphabetical order. ^_^

1st – Tetris

Tied for 2nd – Final Fantasy VI and Silent Hill 2

As someone who has played soooooo many games in his life and really takes a list like this very seriously, I can’t possibly pick a 4th and 5th without having to think about it for a few days. ^_^

2-It seems that your popularity as a fighting game commentator has eclipsed the fact that you pretty much started playing with the old school crowd. Could you share a bit of info on how you got into fighting games and which game turned you into a hardcore fan and player?

Yeah, I got into fighting games with everyone else: discovering the joys of Street Fighter II: World Warrior. So basically I was one of the people sucked into the whirlwind that was SFII when it first came out and was really the first fighting game of this caliber ever. I got into it because my older brother was going to college at the time at UCLA and the campus arcade got the game and he kept talking about how cool it was. Eventually we found a machine near where we lived and ever since that first day I played it, I never looked back.

James doing commentary on EVO SFV Grand Finals with Sajam – Video by Lordofultima

3-Your favorite Super Turbo character is Cammy. Then you have Dudley in 3rd Strike and Johnny in Guilty gear. All your favorites are motion characters. Personally, I also prefer motion characters in most fighting games. It just feels like you have complete control in the neutral. Footsies seem to be cut back severely when you use charge characters. I know some charge players have great footsies, but they often lose their specials to work their footsie game. Do you think charge characters are at a disadvantage in that sense?

There are so many advantages and disadvantages between Charge and Motion characters, it’s naïve to claim one has an advantage over the other. Throughout the SFII series, Guile has always been one of the best characters. In ST, Vega and Balrog, both Charge Characters, were considered two of the best. Honestly, it’s very easy to make a Charge Character broken and a Motion character broken. So I don’t think the inherent nature of one or the other gives enough natural advantages or disadvantages at all.

4-I created a video that talks about the inevitable changes that we see in games like SFV. This is a game that continues to get massive hate from a large part of the FGC – mainly the old school crowd. It seems like this is due to the game being designed in a way that pushes 50/50 more than any other Street Fighter game. What are your thoughts on this?

I wouldn’t say 50/50, but it definitely forces guessing situations more often than other versions. There’s definitely more 33/33/33’s than 50/50’s. ^_^

5-I mentioned that as long as people don’t start to rip sponsor paychecks apart as a sign of protest, things are not going to change. On top of that, there is always going to be someone ready to take the place of the protesters when money is involved.

Do you think Street Fighter as a series is never going to be able to go back to old school game formulas with strict inputs and steep learning curves?

I feel like this is too difficult a question to answer without writing an entire term paper on it. Hahaha. For the most part, SFV still has a difficult learning curve. Fighting Games are just naturally extremely difficult to learn, no matter how hard you try to “dumb it down”. Also, strict inputs can obviously be a problem if taken too extreme. ST’s inputs are brutal compared to other fighting games. For example, combing a crouching Medium Kick into a Super in ST is far more difficult than it is in, say, Street Fighter III: Third Strike. But does that mean ST is automatically a better game because that’s what we should strive for? Not really. I love execution more than many, but at the same time it needs to be meaningful execution. The problem with SFV lies more that the combo routes are much more limited, although S3 has definitely opened that up a decent amount.

Frankly, the best thing about Street Fighter is that every series changes so much. Even if SF6, for example, got stricter inputs, I wouldn’t see it as “going back” to something old school, just moving forward to a different feel for what they want specifically for SF6.

6-Street Fighter 30th anniversary is coming out very soon. Do you feel that this is going to be a good chance for old school games to shine again, or do you think that those games are never going to appeal to the masses due to their execution complexity?

There will definitely be small resurgences for those games, but they’ll never become the main events. I don’t think they’ll get to a point where they will “shine” again in terms of being in the spotlight. But having a healthy scene is important enough, like Super Turbo has currently. And again, I really don’t consider execution complexity as being that big of a factor of holding people back. FPS’s have massive execution requirements, as did StarCraft back in its heyday. And for many of those games, there are still tons of people playing them.

James Chen versus Tokido at Season’s Beatings 2011 – Video by SF2 Kuroppi

7-Think of this scenario: Street Fighter V graphics with Super Turbo’s Gameplay. Do you think this would be a popular mainstream game? Would it make any sense at this point for developers to even consider such a game in the future?

No, it would probably be pretty terrible, to be honest. Super Turbo and Third Strike are two of the least balanced games in Street Fighter history. Hahaha. The reason they are fun to watch right now is BECAUSE they are fairly niche. But if you start putting careers and giant prize pools and year-long seasons on the line for those games, there’s no way you’d escape the constant crying about Claw in ST or Chun Li in 3S. The only way that would succeed is if there was massive balancing done to those games to go along with the new graphics. And this has nothing to do with execution, it’s just pure lack of balance. The worst matchup in SFV is nowhere even REMOTELY close to being as bad as the worst matchup in ST or 3S.

8-There are many kids who have traded their dreams of becoming rockstars for dreams of becoming professional gamers. Do you think that video games turning into a profitable spectacle will force developers to make games easier to get into? Do you think we are headed to an inevitable downgrade in execution? And is Ed (SFV) and his simple button-based specials the perfect example of an introduction to that future?

I think it’ll be a combination of both. There will be games that appear that can be developed around that idea, such as Rising Thunder was trying to do before the game was shuttered. But at the same time, a game like Tekken 7 is gaining in popularity, and the execution for that game is very demanding. Right now, there is this belief that execution is a huge barrier for entry, and while games like Dragon Ball FighterZ does a great job appealing to newcomers with easier controls, there will always be a place for more complex games. I like what DBFZ is doing because that’s what it’s trying to be. But for games like Street Fighter, these games were built on the concept and having a history of having execution. So I don’t see it as a healthy thing for SF. I doubt we’ll see a future SF game where everyone has Ed-style inputs. I think it’s beautiful that he’s in the game as an option for people who might like having a character with easier inputs, but you can’t deny the appeal of a character like Menat is to other players on the complete opposite side of the spectrum.

James Chen vs Jason Cole at Tournament of Legends 2012 – Video by IEBattleGrounds

9-Right now top FGC players are not making huge profit, but it seems like we are heading to a future that allows more players to quit their day jobs and earn full time income. Would you say that the bigger the paychecks, the more likely future versions of street fighter will get easier combos with an even larger emphasis on 50/50 situations?

No. In fact, it might be the opposite. Because at some point, everyone realizes the thing that makes players seem special is that they can do things that other people can’t. Basketball won’t stop appealing to people because they can’t dunk like Lebron James. They’ll still go out on the court and play. No one is lowering rims to make dunks easier for everyone.

The problem right now is that people all think they are good at video games. And it’s always the greatest lie a video game tells its players. Every 1-player game makes you feel powerful. You get more health, better weapons, etc. And they are 12-15 hour-long games where they slowly give you harder enemies and you learn things very progressively. And the hardest bosses will eventually go down because you KNOW you should be able to beat them. All games are beatable! And eventually you do. And everyone feels like a boss in video games.

The thing about Fighting Games is that they don’t lie to you: they straight up tell you that you aren’t good at video games. But most people refuse to believe it. So when they see a top player do something, they feel like they should immediately be able to do it, too. Because that’s what video games have taught you: that you are good at video games. So you should be able to do the hard stuff, too. And if you can’t, then the game is just “dumb” or “you only win because you practiced a combo for 138927398427 hours but unlike you I have a life”, etc. It becomes excuses.

Eventually, when people accept that games, in particular competitive ones, ARE hard and the top players shine because they practice, when people truly start to respect the talent of top players and stop feeling entitled to be able to do the things a top players can, we’ll get to a point where execution becomes a thing again and people won’t get mad they “can’t do it too” without any practice.

And of course, that will only apply to SOME of the fighting games. We don’t need all of them to be at the same level. Some can have higher execution, others can have simpler execution. There’s really nothing wrong with having both types of games.

10-If you had any saying in the direction that Street Fighter 6 takes, what would you change about the game to appeal to SFV detractors?

I wouldn’t. SFV is a direct result of SFIV detractors. Everything SFV is is a direct result of what people complained about in SFIV: safe DP’s, invincible backdashes, 1-frame links, etc. etc. SFV is a direct product of creating something for SFIV’s detractors.

The best thing the creators of SF6 can do is just make a new game and screw whatever people say about SFV. Make the game how you want to make it because it makes sense and is fun. Don’t do anything as a response to what people hated in SFV. Let positivity guide how your game is made, not negativity.

11-Some people in the FGC tend to get upset when too much emphasis is given to SFV, but the truth is that no other fighting game seems to be getting as much attention. Why do you think a game like SFV seems to maintain pole position in the FGC race, while games like MVCI managed to get dumped out of the mainstream in record times?

Everybody knows what Street Fighter is. And it’s one of the easiest games to watch and understand. And it has the most players and that naturally feeds into itself with the best stories.

But mostly it’s that everyone knows Street Fighter. I keep telling people that SF’s impact on media and popular culture is second maybe only to Pac-Man when it comes to video games. During SFII’s heyday, EVERYONE knew Street Fighter. It was in GI Joe, it had a cereal, it was a cartoon, they made a shitty movie, there were SF pajamas, a billion SF clone games, there was a board game, etc. etc. SFIII failed because it created a new cast. SFIV succeeded because it brought everyone from SFII back. That’s how much those characters from SFII meant. That’s how iconic they were.

And on top of that, the company that makes SF controls SF. Marvel is a problem because Marvel as a company is tough to work with. Even Dragon Ball FighterZ is gonna have a more difficult time becoming as prominent because it’s still the Dragon Ball IP.

James Chen versus David Sirlin at B4 on Alpha 3 – Video by BushinStyle

12-What is the biggest challenge for the FGC when trying to reach the level of audience that games like League of Legends have? That game is extremely technical and deep, but for some reason, it manages to draw huge crowds while a game like SFV gets very little attention in comparison. Why do you think that is? Could it be that league of Legends looks entertaining even for those who don’t understand the complexity behind the game?

League of Legends is easy to get into. You can play with friends, they can carry you, you can get wins even though you’re new and are awful at the game. Fighting Games should be bigger than every esport because of how simple it is to watch. But when something like poker got super popular on TV, it maintained a lot of that because my group of friends can go play poker with each other and it’s fun and we’re having a good time and it’s easy to get into.

With Fighting Games, you can go online and lose your first 100 matches. Most people will experience something to that effect. And it’s just NOT FUN at that point. All of the 1-player experiences in Fighting Games are miserable. Even in League, while you’re losing, you’re leveling up and gaining new powers eventually. It still feels like you’re progressing. And even when you’re losing, it still feels like you’re playing a game. In a fighting game, many rounds in which you lose it really feels like you’re stuck in the corner and die instantly and didn’t have an opportunity to do ANYTHING.

For Fighting Games to achieve a level of audience like League has, the genre has to figure out a way to make losing fun. They have not done that yet.

13-I’m terrible at basketball. I remember practicing day after day and still being pretty bad while some of my friends got very good quite fast. The opposite happened to me with swimming. I was able to learn how to swim with proper technique much faster than everyone else in my class. The point is that being a natural for something seems to be important for success. I know some rare cases of highly successful athletes claimed to be terrible at their sports growing up, but this seems to be the minority.

Do you think that being a “natural” is essential for top level competitive play? How far can someone go in the FGC by having lots of discipline with very little natural talent? In other words, would you agree that the majority of players at the top in the FGC showed natural talent from the very beginning? 

No. There’s a good balance between both. There are players like SonicFox who just seems like they were born to be good at Fighting Games and just have a natural affinity for them. There are players like Justin Wong and Daigo Umehara who everyone thinks they were born as top players but, when you hear their actual stories, you discover that they’ve put in huge amounts of work to get to be where they are. And there are some players who were good for a while, but could never quite achieve top player status, just keep pushing and, at some point, something just clicks and suddenly they shoot up and become top players like 801Strider.

There will be some people who may never be able to get good at Fighting Games no matter how hard they try, but I do not for the life of me believe that you can only become a top player if you have a natural talent for it from the beginning.

14-Do you have any videos and anecdotes of your experiences as a player in the FGC. What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment as a player?

Not many videos are out there of my play anymore. Maybe just a video of me from B4 where I beat Sirlin’s Sim with my Gief in Alpha 3. A few Alpha matches on the B3 tape perhaps.

In terms of greatest accomplishments, winning the CvS2 tournament during E3 week at Southern Hills Golfland (a week that always had many out of town visitors) was one. Getting into the first ST Tournament of Legends is another. My 3rd place finish in my very first Alpha 2 tournament (which was basically the first major event I ever entered) where I beat established veterans like Jeff Schaefer using a low tier character (Gief at the time), finishing only behind Valle and a fellow UCLA training partner, is another. I won a UCLA Alpha 3 tournament with a Grand Finals match of myself vs. Jason Cole with R.Mika vs. his Dhalsim. And there was once Valle had a 50-game streak in CvS2 at Golfland and I was eventually the game who finally knocked him off the machine after several tries. ^_^ I was really proud of that.

Also, when Gian, one of Japan’s greatest Dhalsim players, came and won Super Turbo at Evo one year, he was asked by a Japanese publication if there was anyone that stood out who gave him trouble that he faced, and said he couldn’t recall one, but if he had to name someone, it was a Cammy player he had to face early on that almost beat him. ^_~ To which the interviewer replied, “Cammy?!?”

James playing some SFV on the Excellent Adventures show hosted by Gootecks – Video by Cross Counter TV

15-Who do you consider to be your favorite FGC player of all times. The one player that seems to have natural talent that goes beyond what most people are capable of achieving?

My favorite player of all time might be Tokido. Although to say he just has a natural talent that goes beyond what most are capable of achieving is extremely unfair to the amount of work Tokido puts in and just how smart that man is. The reason I hate the notion of “natural talent” is because it really does a huge disservice to the amount of work any top player has put in, even someone like SonicFox. I just don’t buy into the natural talent thing as much as I buy into pure hard work.

You can catch James at the following social media platforms:

  • Twitter: @jchensor and @UltraChenTV
  • Twitch: twitch.tv/jchensor and twitch.tv/UltraChenTV
  • YouTube: youtube.com/UltraChenTV

-Fighter101