Despite only having happened twice so far, Evo Japan has already become a prestigious stop on the fighting game community calendar thanks to the level of talent it attracts. Last weekend’s Tekken 7 competition was no different, but the champion didn’t come from the ranks of South Korean and Japanese powerhouses who traveled to Fukuoka for a shot at glory. No, the winner was a relatively unknown player from Pakistan, whose dominating performance immediately put him on the map.
Evo Japan is a strange beast. Its name and brand carry the legacy of the most important tournament in fighting game competition, but for now, the event still isn’t attracting the same volume of players who are drawn to Las Vegas for the Evolution Championship Series every year. Due to its location, however, the players Evo Japan does entice tend to be of a higher caliber, not to mention much different than those who participate in Evo proper. This results in comparatively small yet talent-dense brackets for games like Street Fighter V, Tekken 7, and Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2, featuring players who don’t always have the opportunity to travel outside their home countries or regions to compete.
One such player is a 23-year-old who goes by Arslan Ash. He’s a Tekken 7 competitor from Pakistan who went to great lengths just to attend Evo Japan. In a post-tournament interview with ESPN Esports, Arslan described his trip as “very difficult,” due in part to the laborious process of receiving a Japanese visa as a Pakistani citizen. Once that was settled, traveling from his home of Lahore, Pakistan to Fukuoka, Japan took Arslan five flights in total over two and a half days. After numerous delays and setbacks, including a snafu with a flight from Malaysia to South Korea and a Japanese airport’s refusal to exchange his Pakistani rupees for yen, Arslan was finally able to make it to Evo Japan, heading straight to the venue after arriving in Fukuoka with only an hour to spare before Tekken 7 pools started on Saturday.
Fighting game tournaments are trying ordeals without having just spent over 48 hours on a plane, but Arslan persevered, even in the face of the veritable minefield of Evo Japan competition looming on the horizon. He quickly made his way through the early portions of the Tekken 7 bracket, defeating three straight opponents before coming face-to-face with Tekken god Jae-min “Knee” Bae of South Korea.
Arslan actually has a brief history with Knee, and his past successes put him in a good position for his matchup against the Korean powerhouse. Just a few months ago, the two players met twice at OUG Tournament 2018, a smaller event hosted in the United Arab Emirates, and Arslan emerged the victor in both matches, the second of which made him the tournament’s champion after a 3-0 blowout.
Although he only had two games to work with, Arslan and Knee’s match at Evo Japan was very similar to their previous meeting. Arslan swept Knee, who had been one of the favorites to win the entire tournament and was now relegated to the losers bracket after just four rounds of competition. Knee said on Twitter after the match that he might be going to Pakistan to learn Tekken in recognition of both Arslan’s personal skill and the local community that helped him improve. From there, Arslan suffered his own loss to another Korean player—a netplay warrior who competes under the name BoALuvb—and found himself staring down a losers bracket that was filled with masterful players eager to remain in the tournament.
Unfortunately, neither Arslan’s win against Knee nor his loss to BoALuvb were shown on stream. Arlan’s first broadcast appearance at Evo Japan would come two rounds later during his match against yet another South Korean hopeful, Sun-woong “LowHigh” Youn. Since suffering his first loss, Arslan had defeated two more strong players in off-stream matches—Tekken veteran Sung-ho “Chanel” Kang and American visitor Ricky “rickstah” Uehara—sending them home in the opening rounds of the top 32 bracket. As Tekken 7’s reigning Evo champion, LowHigh’s experience far outweighed Arslan’s, but the Pakistani competitor appeared unshaken by the pedigree of the player sitting next to him. At times, Arslan would even dash his fighter right into the world champion’s face, seemingly confident in his ability to counter whatever LowHigh threw at him.
Heading into the finals, Arslan continued to demolish whoever was put in front of him. He took out Thai challenger Nopparut “BooK” Hempamorn, Jimmy Tran of the United States, and Japan’s Yuta “chikurin” Take, eliminating the trio in rapid succession before coming up against South Korea’s last hope in Jae-hyun “CherryBerryMango” Kim. Apart from the player who had sent Arslan to losers in the first place, CherryBerryMango ended up being the only opponent to take more than one game off the Pakistani upstart. On paper, this constituted the greatest challenge of Arslan’s championship run, and as a losers finals match, tensions ran high as the two competitors fought for the right to enter the grand finals.
As usual, Arslan started the match strong, winning the first two games thanks to his stalwart fundamentals. In using Kazumi’s competent normals and long-range tiger summons, he was consistently able to both pressure his opponents as well as play it safe when the situation called for it. As in the rest of the tournament, Arslan completely controlled the pace of his match against CherryBerryMango, forcing the South Korean to play at his speed. Whether that was fast and in-your-face or slow and steady, Arslan excelled in putting opponents on their back foot whenever possible. Nowhere was this more apparent than when Arslan eliminated CherryBerryMango with a perfect, securing his spot in the grand finals.
Arslan’s counterpart in the championship would be young Filipino competitor Alexander “AK” Laverez, who made a name for himself back in 2013 as one of the best Tekken players in the world at just 13 years old. While it wasn’t too shocking to see AK make the grand finals at Evo Japan, it came as a surprise that the match would be played between competitors from Pakistan and the Philippines rather than featuring at least one player from South Korea, Japan, or even the United States. Still, the venue settled in to see which of these promising challengers would walk away champion.
What followed was a collision of true opposites: Arslan with his impeccable defense versus AK and his potent offensive mixups. AK had a natural advantage thanks to his perfect record at Evo Japan thus far in that he would only need to win one best-of-five set to Arslan’s two, but the Pakistani superstar wouldn’t go down that easily. Early on, Arslan made an impact on AK’s typical playstyle by subtly stepping out of range and punishing errant whiffed attacks from the young Filipino. AK took advantage of the moments he was able to put Arslan on his back by utilizing Tekken 7 newcomer Shaheen’s tricky setups, but Arslan again enforced his will on the match by slowing things down and forcing AK to run up against the wall of his defense. Even when AK switched to Paul in an effort to give himself even more power to work with, the strength of Arslan’s defensive wall did not budge an inch. Over the course of their two sets, AK was only able to win one game, giving Arslan a 6-1 advantage that secured the victory and the Evo Japan championship.
Although the fighting game community celebrates its egalitarian ethos, this aspect of competition has only become apparent on a wider scale over the past few years with the growth of international tournaments and the advent of live broadcasting. Just a decade ago, it would have been unheard of for a player from Pakistan, the Philippines, or anywhere else that wasn’t a major competitive hub to be considered the best player in the world. And yet, in 2019, we have Arslan Ash, who had to tackle a brutal itinerary, face off against some of the strongest Tekken 7 competitors South Korea, Japan, and the United States have to offer, and still come out the other side as champion. How did the community ever believe anyone had reached the pinnacle of the genre before now, when there were no doubt any number of challengers across the globe ready to fight for that supremacy but without the opportunity to prove it? Fighting games have truly entered a golden age of competition, where anyone from anywhere can be skilled enough to show up and take the crown. Arslan’s victory at Evo Japan is further proof of that.
Ian Walker loves fighting games and loves writing about them even more. You can find him on Twitter at @iantothemax.