Interview Date: June 2012
Hometown: New York, NY
Occupation: Software Developer
Years Playing SF2: 6
Main Character: O. Hawk
Other Characters: All non-charge
Favorite Fighting Game: Super Turbo
Other Fighting Games: None
Weapon of Choice: Sanwa/Seimitsu stick, Sanwa buttons

NKI vs Damdai from EVO 2011 Casino Cup

STR: You entered the ST/SF2 scene a little late but quickly excelled to a top ST player in the US. What drew you to ST/HDR and why did you stick with ST instead of going to the newer games?

Damdai: By the time I discovered the competitive tournament scene, none of the new games were out yet and WW/CE/HF (they all kind of blended together) was the last and only great fighting game I had played since I was a kid. ST was the current version of SF2 being played, so I focused on that. When SF4 came out, I was excited to play it. Maybe this was my chance to catch the wave at the beginning instead of much later as I did with ST. The first characters I tried out were Zangief and Ken because I used them in ST at the time. When I couldn’t tick SPD like I could in ST with Zangief or cancel jumping punches into air hurricane kicks with Ken, I was sad. Pianoing also resulted in EX moves and the easier inputs all around felt flat. It just didn’t feel substantial. Eventually I came to understand what it is that makes ST so special and other games not. I call them the golden rules of fighting games.

STR: You’ve played in Japan several times over the years for SBO and other events. How do Japanese tournaments (SBO in particular) compare with big American tournaments such as EVO?

Damdai: All Japanese tournaments, including SBO, are single game, single elimination, which I think is an insult to the game and the players, especially in an event like SBO where it is expected that foreigners will travel half way around the world to participate. What if boxing were only 2 rounds, or baseball 1 inning, or football 1 quarter? ST played in this way is essentially a carnival game. The more games that are played will always determine with greater accuracy who the better player is, which I think is what most of us are ultimately interested in. I understand time is a limiting factor, but I think our currently shifting standard to 3/5 is a great fit. Even EVO’s standard of 2/3 feels shallow and unfulfilling.

STR: Any other fond memories or stories from Japan?

Damdai: My fondest memory was my first. I’ve told this story before, but it was the first night I was in Tokyo. My hotel happened to be within walking distance to Mikado (when it was still in Shinjuku). My wife draws me a map and I go. I remember it was raining. I get there, and there’s only 1 person playing against the CPU. It was a little disappointing, but at least it wasn’t empty! I had never used Japanese controls before and my main was Zangief at the time, but I don’t think it would’ve mattered. I spent all my yen trying to beat this one Ken player. Now, I had heard about the skill difference and expected something, but not like this. It was as if he was trained from birth to play this one character in this one game.

I had no more yen, but I had a $20! So I walk to the other side of the machine and ask if he can exchange it for me. He thinks for a bit, then pulls out his cell phone to calculate the exchange rate and gives me the equivalent yen. I was so grateful ^_^ I ask him if he was Aniken. He laughed and said no. His name was Mattsun. Every year I go back, he shows me my $20. <3

Then of course there was the first night at Mikado freeplay, the first SBO, the first time I met Viper and Hiroyan and Kusumondo and Komoda. It’s also the only time I get to see NKI besides EVO. And hanging out with my SBO brothers are times I will never forget.

Damdai vs Nuki from Versus Arcade in Japan. (2011)

STR: Many ST players here caught X-Mania Europe 2 on stream recently and first off congratulations on taking second place in the solo “3on3” tournament. It looked like a wonderful tournament. How was your experience there?

Damdai: No joke, this is the best weekend of ST on the planet right now. Getting to hang out with famous Japanese players and all the Europeans on a personal level was great. Everyone is so nice and yet still serious about ST at the same time. It’s a wonderful balance that is hard to find in America.

The arcade feels straight out of Japan, with tons of h2h setups dedicated to ST and never ending casuals taking place concurrently alongside the tournaments. It’s ST hedonism at its finest. There’s also a really nice hotel directly across the street, though it may be a bit on the pricey side, but worth it for the full experience. I really, really, really recommend everyone to go next year.

STR: The solo tournament was a little more disappointing I’m sure. Why did you choose O. Ken over O. Hawk in the solo tournament?

Damdai: The main event for me was the star cup. The remaining events were character lock and teams. Of course I still always try to win and dislike losing, but I am not a fan of character lock tournaments. This doesn’t mean I straight up counter-pick to win, as the characters I choose in particular matchups are not considered counter picks, they just work for me. I try not to dwell on losses in which I am handicapped, but the American scene puts tremendous pressure on its top players to consistently perform in any arena, regardless of the conditions or circumstances, which is absurd. I don’t think many people realize that the top Japanese players, on average, have win rates of only 50-60%. I can only do my best with the tools that are allowed to me. So this is something else I’d like to see change in our culture the over-significance of individual moments in relation to the big picture. Anyway, I chose SKen because I thought he would be the best overall character for me in a character lock tournament. I knew I would eventually have to face Kusumondo’s Honda and Komoda’s Blanka, and I feel way more comfortable with SKen instead of SHawk in those matchups. It was more about getting past them than anything else. I ended up losing to Spinalblood’s Sagat and Orf’s Ryu. They are both good players from their respective regions, and they played the matchups well, so I have no regrets. I wouldn’t have used SKen against them if I had the option, but I didn’t, so I had to deal with that handicap.

In retrospect, I think I would’ve gone with SRyu instead as he does similarly well in SKens matchups but doesn’t get out-zoned as easily. Next year!

Yaya, Kusumondo, Kurahashi and Damdai at X-MANIA EUROPE 2

STR: You’ve kind of hopped between characters from year to year. We know Hawk is your main now. But is he also your favorite character?

Damdai: He is. There are a few great skill-based moments in my life that stand above all others. First is when I learned how to dragon punch consistently in WW. Second is when I landed my first kickflip. Third is when I was able to complete the strafe jump training map in Quake 4. And fourth is when I learned how to negative edge 360 with Hawk. He is probably the reason I have no desire to play any other game, and the reason why I will never get tired of this one. He’s such an amazing character, even the Hawk specialists in Japan can’t help but to dress like him.

STR: What drew you to T-Hawk? Japanese T-Hawk players in recent years have shown that T-Hawk can be as dangerous as any character in the right player’s hands. Was this a factor or was it something completely different?

Damdai: It was kind of random actually. I had been playing semi-regularly with the dontblowthis guys, and during one session, Howard (tetsuosan) picks Hawk and has an expectedly tough time beating us. Being the badass that I am, I decided to show him how it’s done with a character I’ve never used before. I got a few of the negative edge SPDs off and it felt great, so that night I went home and started practicing them. By the next session a week or 2 later, I had the technique down and I just started to dominate (more so than I already was), and haven’t stopped since.

STR: What area would you recommend new / intermediate players to work on to improve their game?

Damdai: Just be conscious of what works and what doesn’t. Understand that not everything works all the time, so don’t be discouraged if your new technique gets countered a few times. If it gets countered more than 50% of the time though, it might be a good idea to move on. Also, try to avoid SRK until you feel like you have a good understanding of the game. You can’t fill your cup if it’s already full, and the best way to fill it is through experience. You don’t want to contaminate your mind with the experiences of others before you have any point of reference to hold them against. Play with a fresh mind until you hit a wall that you can’t overcome on your own. Only then would I recommend checking out SRK, or even better, watching videos of top Japanese players representing your character. Frame-advantage.com is awesome for this as you can quickly zero in on specific matchups by specific players, even in long uncut videos that are common in Japan.

I also have some advice for anyone who wants to get others into this game. Even more so than fundamentals or matchups, be sure to teach them 1 cool thing about their character, and don’t let them leave until they can do it themselves. If they like Ken, teach them short, short, super or jump punch xx tatsu. If they like Hawk, teach them low jab, negative edge spd. If they like Chun, teach them all about her stored super. Give them something unique they can accomplish and feel good about, that they can’t do in any other game. I think this is the catalyst that lights the fire within.

STR: What are some common mistakes or bad habits that you see players do that they should eliminate to improve their game?

Damdai: Related to the answer above, stop making the same mistakes over and over and over and over again. Really make a conscious effort to eliminate or at least minimize your opponents sources of damage. It’s as simple as that. If you find yourself stripped of everything and your only option is to block, it’s time to research your character for ideas on what you should be doing.

STR: Is there a routine you do in order to get ready for a tournament?

Damdai: Not anymore. I’ve invested so much time over the years that I can go months without playing and no one would be the wiser. As it stands, I play about once a week, and that seems to be enough to keep me sharp and growing. If I were losing, I wouldn’t stop playing until I wasn’t, which is what happened when I first started back in 2007. It took a few years before I finally felt, ok, I’m good, I can relax a bit now.

Damdai vs Tokido from Season’s Beatings. (2011)

STR: Why do you think ST has had such longevity and popularity?

Damdai: Because it adheres to more golden rules than any other fighting game in existence. It’s responsive, the action is fluid and perfectly paced, and you’re never in a position where you can’t control your character for more than 3 seconds at a time. Being one of the first fighting games, it also has the most iconic characters, with each having a totally unique play style. There should be something to satisfy everyone, whether you like zoning, grappling, rush down, or any hybrid combination of the 3. The high damage also makes the game pretty balanced across the board. Every hit counts, and every character is dangerous. Ironically, as many may feel the complete opposite is true, I also think the execution barrier is a big factor of the cult popularity this game has retained. Just as I quickly lose interest in opening a door or snapping my fingers, I feel no sense of accomplishment in mashing out a reversal in SF4 or activating x-factor in MVC3, or even doing an SPD in HDR. It’s all about the skill to reward ratio that satisfies the ego and keeps us coming back for more.

STR: We all know about the infamous “babyzone” comments but what are some changes you liked in HDR?

Damdai: Now that I consider myself a scholar of ST, the answer is none. I would say boxer, but he wasn’t nerfed nearly enough. I would say S Sagat, but Sagat is already strong and tiger knee juggle is just annoying and obnoxious. I would say claw, but cross-up wall dives are no longer effective against me (thank you S Ken! Same holds true for several other characters), and fake wall dive negates any good changes that might have been made. I feel like I am able to deal with all of the bullshit in the game. That doesn’t mean it’s not bullshit anymore, but it’s just another layer to separate me from the rest of the pack. It’s meaningful to me because it’s hard to obtain. If it’s free, it’s not so desirable.

Damdai, with Mattsun behind him and Riz0ne to the right, hanging out in Japan.

STR: Let’s move on to the big TOURNAMENT OF LEGENDS event at EVO that’s coming up, which you’ve already qualified for. What are your thoughts on the whole concept? Would you like to see this become a regular event?

Damdai: I think it’s awesome! (Thank you kuroppi!) I’d love to see it become an annual event, our version of X-Mania and SBO, though maybe capped at 16 next time, until we actually have closer to 32 legends to fill it. I also have some ideas for next year, like allowing already qualified players to enter any other qualifiers, but they put their spot at risk if they place below a non-qualifier. Or maybe a point system where you earn points for placing and the top 16 or 32 earners at the end of the season qualify for the finals. This encourages people to enter more tournaments, but also favors those who can travel more, so I dunno. Stuff to think about!

STR: There’s a lot of hype (and smack talk going on) for your match at EVO against AfroLegends. Any real bad blood here? Any final thoughts on this as ToL approaches?

Damdai: I don’t think there’s any bad blood, just competitive spirit which is what it’s all about. I love that there’s someone out there who thinks they can kick my ass. It’s not as much fun beating people who already concede that I’m better. I’d love to see more people clawing and scratching their way to the top.

STR: Who are the top 3 ST players (US and Japan) in your opinion?

Damdai: If only 3, it would be all Japan, so I’ll do top 3 for both.

USA: Damdai, AfroLegends, Valle
Japan: Kurahashi, Sashishi, Noguchi

STR: What is the fondest moment in your SF career?

Damdai: It would be a toss-up between getting 3rd in HDR at my first EVO, beating Tokido 8-2 at SB5, or most recently, beating Kusumondo and Komoda to take 2nd at X-Mania Europe 2.

STR: Any final words?

Damdai: I look forward to seeing everyone at EVO and any other events that have ST! I know this game is hard to play for a lot of people because of availability or difficulty, and it’s impossible for me to sound unbiased, but is it really worth playing a game where you know, no matter how much you practice or improve, that you will always be susceptible to unblockables or ambiguous 50/50 mix-ups that put you right back into the same situation? Nearly all the modern fighting games suffer from this defect and people seem to love it. Personally, I want a game that’s responsive, understands risk vs. reward, and rewards exceptional timing, execution, and defense. A game where you can respect the person that is beating you because you know that reversal or safe jump was perfectly timed, or that cross up was perfectly spaced. Not because they just read about the latest safe jump setup on SRK or mashed out an ex move that has massive invincibility and built in cross-up properties. In ST, you are always in control, and there is almost always a right answer in any situation, not because you guessed, but because you studied and practiced and learned, and that dedication paid off.