Daigo and JWong: the legacy of Street Fighter's Moment 37

The first thing you should probably know about Daigo "The Beast" Umehara is that he has a statue.

It's not a life-sized statue, but simply having one seems to be something that's fairly high on a resume or list of accomplishments.

Nestled in between sculptures of Street Fighter IV characters Ryu and Evil Ryu, the Daigo statue grabs your attention instantly, if for no other reason than it's completely out of place. In a Las Vegas convention hall filled with figurines, costumes and games inspired by otherworldly characters, there's a statue of Umehara -- a 35-year-old Japanese man who is a professional fighting game player -- wearing a shirt, jeans and sneakers as he holds his arcade fighting stick under his right arm, his left thumb in his left jean pocket.

It's certainly not the most moving statue, but fans were lined up waiting to take a picture of it before taking a picture with Umehara himself at last month's Evolution Championship Series. Better known as Evo, the event is the largest and longest-running fighting game tournament in the world.

Many of the fans in line waiting to meet Umehara were wearing white, black and red shirts with a silhouette of the Daigo parry. It is seen as the most iconic moment in competitive gaming history. It helped usher in a movement within a community that is still resonating more than a decade later. But for the two men who made Evo Moment 37 possible, it's still as surreal today as it was the day it happened.

Sometimes in life one moment, one instant, one second can connect two people forever. Daigo Umehara and Justin Wong are to competitive gaming what Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are to basketball. It is impossible to tell the story of one without mentioning the other fairly prominently.

Their lives forever became intertwined on Aug. 1, 2004, the final day of Evo 2004 on the campus of Cal Poly Pomona. The two had never met each other before facing off in the losers' bracket final of the "Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike" competition. Wong was an 18-year old gaming prodigy from New York City, while Umehara, who was 23 at the time, had already established himself as one of the best players in Japan. Each was arguably the most skilled player from his respective country, adding a layer of nationalistic rooting interest to the matchup.

"'3rd Strike' had always been Japan's game," said James Chen, a "Street Fighter" player who has become one of the most recognized competitive gaming commentators. "Right before Justin faced Daigo, he beat Raoh [Toru Hashimoto], who was an excellent Chun-Li player from Japan. That was unheard of, because we didn't know Justin was a good '3rd Strike' player at that time. I remember everyone saying, 'What's going on? I thought he was a Marvel player.' Not only that, but after he beat Raoh, Justin tried to tap him on his shoulder as he was walking away to give him a handshake and Raoh brushed his hand off."

Wong was and still is a gifted player at a variety of games. At the third annual Evo in 2004, he came in first in "Marvel vs. Capcom 2," fourth in "Super Street Fighter II Turbo," and fifth in "Capcom vs. SNK 2." But beating Hashimoto served notice that Wong was also one of the best '3rd Strike' players.

"[Raoh] was really upset," Wong said. "The week before was a really big Japanese tournament [called] Super Battle Opera, and he won the tournament and they claimed Raoh as the best Japanese player in the world. He was the favorite to win Evolution and I beat him in a Chun-Li mirror match. That definitely hurts your soul right there."

If Wong were to beat Umehara, he would have taken down two of the biggest names in competitive gaming (and the top two names in Japan) in a matter of minutes and established himself as arguably the best in the world. There was no doubt Wong would choose Chun-Li for his matchup against Umehara, who went with Ken. The first match of a losers' bracket final isn't supposed to be memorable, but what happened after both players sat down in front of their respective fight sticks would change their lives forever.

Wong could not have scripted a better start to his match against Umehara. Everything was going exactly as planned. He was playing conservatively with Chun-Li, as was his style, while dominating the action. Wong was utilizing a "turtling" strategy where he took a defensive stance, imposed little offense, and allowed the increasingly frustrated, risk-taking Umehara to effectively beat himself. Wong pushed Umehara to his last pixel of vitality and it seemed that the match would soon be over.

"I was in complete advantage of the situation," Wong said. "Literally one little touch would have won me the match."

Seth Killian, the community manager of Capcom (which developed "Street Fighter") who was the match commentator that day, highlighted the dire situation for Daigo on the call as the action unfolded. "Rare footage of Daigo actually angry ... Justin's turtle style overcame Raoh and now it's on the verge of putting Daigo down one [to] nothing."

"Daigo was behind, with pretty much everything going against him," Killian recalled. "Justin's defensive style had been frustrating Daigo all match; he couldn't survive even one more hit. He was far away with no good options to approach, and Justin had a full super meter that could kill him from nearly full-screen, even if he blocked it."

This is where the psychology of competitive gaming comes into play. Wong had Umehara on his knees, but it would be up to Wong to finish Umehara off. However, there was more to the story than simply winning the match; facing the lone American player left in the tournament and playing on American soil with a room full of Americans waiting to erupt, Umehara knew Wong would try to finish him off in the most dramatic way possible, even though a mere poke would do. With that knowledge, Umehara, despite being on his last pixel of life, had the psychological advantage. He knew Wong would attack with the super and was ready.

"To counter, Daigo laid a trap, but not just any trap," Killian said. "It was a trap that could only work with a deep understanding of Justin's own anxieties and desires. Daigo minimized his risk by staying full-screen. It didn't eliminate the risks, but it gave Justin only one avenue to try and quickly secure a win: firing off his super. Justin is on the brink of a big victory. The super is so fast that it's basically unreactable, so with the win dangling right there in front of him, Justin just has to reach out and take it. Justin doesn't take the bait immediately, and waits a beat to try and make his timing less predictable, but Daigo holds the position, increasing the pressure on Justin. Justin decides to go for it, fires off the super, and the rest is history."

History for Umehara came in the form of a parry for the ages. If he had tried to block any of Wong's attacks, the game would be over simply because the blocking player still takes a small amount of damage. A parry takes on no damage but does require the player to move toward the opponent's direction at the same time the hit lands. The precise timing, within four of 30 frames of the impact animation, to be exact, makes it a Hail Mary option, but that's the only chance Umehara had of survival. He timed it perfectly and parried kick after kick, 15 in all, before transitioning into a powerful attacking combo that knocked Chun-Li out to complete the greatest comeback in competitive gaming history. The crowd that had been pulling for Wong quickly changed allegiances and gave Umehara a deafening standing ovation after seeing what would come to be known as the "Daigo parry."

"To be honest, it's really hard to grasp what really happened and why people loved it so much," Umehara said through an interpreter. "One of the reasons it was well-received was, back then that particular block-and-parry technique was not known, and it was the first time for the world to see it. So there was an excitement about that. It was clear to everyone that I was invading the U.S. and I was the villain. Everybody wanted Justin to beat me. Everybody wanted me to lose, but then I performed in such a way that everybody can understand what was happening. The scene was so exciting that even those who don't understand fighting games can react the same way as those who did. It was a great opportunity, and that particular moment conveyed how exciting 'Street Fighter' can be."

As devastated as Wong was at the outcome, even he couldn't help but watch in awe as his seemingly surefire victory turned into a viral sensation that has been viewed close to 30 million times around the world.

"I was [18] at the time that it happened and I thought it was the coolest thing ever," Wong said. "I couldn't believe it happened. Everyone thought it was a guaranteed victory for me. Thinking about it now, it's still amazing. I still get people coming up to me and saying, 'Hey, I watched Moment 37 and that's the reason why I'm here.' So many people have told me that. I think if that didn't happen, some of these people wouldn't be here, so the fact that it did happen [means] I'm really happy."

Not much was said between Umehara and Wong at the time. Umehara speaks Japanese and Wong speaks English, and the language barrier that existed then still exists today. But in that moment, no words were needed to understand that they were a part of something larger than themselves.

"It was Daigo's understanding not just of the game, but of Justin as a human being that made it possible," Killian said. "Daigo didn't speak a common language with Justin, and hadn't had much experience against him as a player, but at least in that one moment he saw Justin's true heart clearly. The exchange transcends language."

The most famous moment in competitive gaming history almost didn't make it past the walls of Cal Poly Pomona.

Long before announcers and production crews were commonplace at Evo, Killian simply provided commentary while recording footage himself. He couldn't contain his emotions after witnessing what Umehara pulled off as he panned the crowd with the camera. "Unbelievable!" he shouted on a call that has become the most recognized in competitive gaming history. "Daigo with the full parry, and then combo for the win! Evolution 2004! It's madness! It's unadulterated madness!"

Chen was among those in the crowd who couldn't believe what he had just seen.

"When it happened, I turned to look at the audience, and it was at that very moment that I, for the first time ever, felt like maybe, just maybe, competitive gaming, and in particular fighting games, could become an actual big spectator event," Chen said. "I remember the room was absolutely thundering. It didn't feel like it was going to be something talked about for years until it became clear that Seth had captured the footage. I remember him turning to me and telling me he got it all on camera, and I hugged him because I was terrified no one got it on film. Normally, moments like that disappear into the [stuff] of legends, but to have it actually recorded like that was wonderful."

The moment got its name and eventually went viral after Ben Cureton, one of the tournament organizers and the primary ring announcer, was asked to create a highlight of the "Daigo parry" after the tournament was done.

"He said he picked a random number and that was it, but the key was to pick a number that wasn't single digits," said Glenn Cravens, who wrote the book "Evo Moment 37." "Obviously, it's the No. 1 highlight, but in picking a number like 37, it would signal to the viewer who wasn't there that there were many incredible moments like the "Daigo parry." He wanted to make sure people didn't miss out on Evolution 2005 coming next year."

It actually took a few years for Umehara and Wong to grasp the lasting effects of that moment. After all, neither ended up winning the "Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike" competition that year. That honor went to Japan's Kenji Obata, with Umehara coming second and Wong taking third. But it was the only moment that had a lasting impact once the video of the comeback began circulating online.

"A couple of years later somebody tapped me on the shoulder that I had never met, and he said, 'You're the guy!'" Umehara said. "I said, 'What are you talking about?' He told me, and that's when I realized that was the moment. It took me awhile to realize it. I realize that it has helped me to get to where I am."

When Umehara and Wong faced each other last month in the losers' bracket of the "Street Fighter V" tournament at Evo 2016, they couldn't help but smile and appreciate the moment and how far competitive gaming has come over the past 12 years.

"In 2004, when Evo was at Cal Poly Pomona, there were maybe less than 500 people there, and now we're at an arena in Las Vegas and there are over 10,000 people here," Wong said. "It's cool to see the shirts of that moment. It's a cool moment, and it's a moment that changed a lot of people's paths in terms of what they wanted to do in gaming."

Wong defeated Umehara and eliminated him from the "Street Fighter V" tournament, but both players received a standing ovation from the crowd after it was over.

"I think both of them are forever connected, not just by that moment, but also by the other points in history regarding Evolution," Cravens said. "Justin has reached grand finals in a singles event 14 times, Daigo nine. Justin has seven singles championships, Daigo six. The next person has three championships, so they've well distanced themselves from the field. I think each of them will go down as the greatest fighting game player from their own country."

There is still a language barrier between Umehara and Wong, but the bond that binds them whenever they see each other goes deeper than words.

"I feel emotional when I play him," Wong said. "When I play him, it's different. It's like playing a great player but times 100. We have so much history together. When I know I'm playing Daigo, I know everyone's going to pay attention to it. I have the biggest smile on my face. It's like, 'Yeah, I know what you guys want.' I'm sure Daigo feels the same way. When I play Daigo, I have the biggest cheese. I know it's on. It's about to go down."

At Evo, as Umehara autographed copies of his motivational book, "The Will to Keep Winning," a best-selling title in Japan that was recently translated into English, he understands that the success he enjoys today may not have been possible if not for a few seconds of pure magic 12 years ago against Wong.

"The influence of that moment was so monumental that I don't think I could have become a pro without it," Umehara said. "If I didn't have that match in my career, maybe I wouldn't exist here at this moment as a pro. It's kind of weird. I was just playing Justin and the result of that was this great moment. I think back to that match and I'm so thankful for that moment.

"Justin is not just an opponent. When I'm playing against Justin, I feel like I'm playing against an old friend from childhood who lives around the corner. I don't think about winning or losing, I just have a good time playing with him. He's a very special figure for me in my life."

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