Leveling Up

Leveling Up

Ahead of the Club’s first boot camp for young gamers, one top-ranked gaming pro explains why it’s so much more than fun and games when he presses play.

Las Vegas. 2013. The biggest video game tournament in the world. 

Dozens of Super Smash Bros fans crowd around an old-school TV set. Player 1: so ruthless in his dispatch of challengers he’s been dubbed one of the game’s legendary “five gods.”

Player 2: a newcomer from Japan. An unknown.

The throng presses in. The newbie is holding his own.

“What am I seeing?” one spectator asks incredulously.

“Is this guy for real?” another wonders out loud. 

“I didn’t feel fear or anything,” Masaya Chikamoto recalls of nearly pulling off a miraculous upset at his first overseas tournament. “I just thought, ‘How fun to play a top player.’”

Better known today by his gamer tag, “aMSa,” Chikamoto is a bona fide celebrity in the world of Super Smash Bros Melee, a profoundly technical fighting game packaged as a cartoonish beat ’em up. Since that 2013 tournament, Chikamoto has become Japan’s top player and is currently ranked ninth in the world. 

Despite coming to competitive gaming later than most, the 27-year-old’s rapid success has earned him sponsorships with several esports outfits, including Red Bull.

It’s validation of the seven years spent poring over the game’s mechanics to refine the muscle memory and precision timing needed to dodge and parry attacks.

“Just playing the game doesn’t mean you’re a professional,” says Chikamoto. “Getting sponsored really changed my mind.”

Chikamoto imparts those skills, along with his determination and dedication, to young gamers at this month’s Smash Bros Boot Camp.

Going pro wasn’t always Chikamoto’s plan. In esports as in traditional athletics, however, the cream rises to the top.

“Even if just 0.1 percent of players are interested in the competitive scene,” Chikamoto says, “that’s still thousands.”

For fans, the esports-sports analogy holds true. Just as millions are content to merely watch the soccer mastery of Lionel Messi, 18,000 spectators are expected to attend an esports tournament in Beijing this month. On the line? $26 million.

“Trying to figure out whether esports are really sports is kind of meaningless,” Chikamoto explains. “I just want people to find what’s happening onscreen entertaining.” 

Chikamoto practices religiously. He and his coach, retired pro Akihiro “Kaito” Nomura, don’t play games; they perform techniques tailored to opponents, and they don’t stop until Chikamoto executes on command and under pressure.

“Our training sessions are always changing,” says Nomura. “After tournaments, there’s so much feedback we go over, so we train a lot then.”

Chikamoto’s sponsored support allowed him to leave his computer engineering office this spring to focus on gaming full-time. It’s a relief, he explains, because despite his ranking, he hasn’t yet won a major international title. 

At a Los Angeles tournament in June, Chikamoto sat down to a round-robin match against the reigning world No 1, another of the fabled five gods.

After 30 minutes of focus, dexterity and onscreen improvisation, the end was in sight.

“aMSa’s up one!” blurted a spectator.

“There’s a chance!”

“Did that just happen?”

He had outclassed a gaming god. 

“That wasn’t bad,” Chikamoto says, “but I think I could do more.”

Words: Owen Ziegler
Image: Long Nguyen/ Red Bull Content Pool

Smash Bros Boot Camp
August 30 | 7–8:30pm

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