Our annual list of gamers of the year is based on a simple premise: that the people who play video games are an integral part of overall gaming culture. In past years, we’ve honored gamers who’ve made news and, often enough, been a positive influence on gaming or the world at large. We do so again this year with a trio of gamers who, in very different ways, accomplished some extraordinary things. We only wish that they all were here to read these words.
… whose life brought joy to his fans and whose death led many to reckon with their own struggles with mental health.
On June 19th, Desmond Amofah died by suicide. But Etika, the name he went by on YouTube where he was beloved by hundreds of thousands of fans, will never truly die.
Amofah’s fans are still in mourning. Although he publicly struggled with his mental health, his joy and exuberance were his calling card, and his death in June of this year felt all the more shocking in light of his online persona. His fans, who call themselves the Joycon Boyz, are still posting their tributes and memorials to him. In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, fans raised money to erect a mural of Amofah, and also raised $11,000 towards a mental health charity. Reviews of the mural on Google are an endless parade of love for Amofah. “I hope he’s watching Nintendo Directs in Heaven,” one fan wrote.
Black men aren’t very good at talking about mental health. Too often, any kind of public struggle with one’s mental health is seen as just being dramatic, or extra, or looking for attention. People said just as much about Etika in the months before his death. In truth, there is a mental health crisis among young black men, who are often incarcerated for their mental illnesses rather than receiving care. Back in 2012, Howard University professor of psychiatry Dr. Wiliam Lawson told NPR that black men struggle with talking about their mental health problems partially because care is less available to them, but also because they don’t seek it out.
“Many African-Americans have a lot of negative feelings about, or are not even aware of mental health services,” he said. “They may not be aware of the symptoms of many mental disorders, or they may believe that to be mentally ill is a sign of weakness or a sign of a character fault.”
Amofah’s passing forced his fans and colleagues to talk about mental illness, social media, and the intersection of the two. Immediately after his passing, Amofah’s colleagues on Twitch and YouTube talked about how fan reactions to their public struggles with mental health can impound the problem. Upon his passing, esports player SonicFox said on Twitter, “People don’t understand how important mental health is, especially when you reach that level of popularity. It’s insanely hard to feel treated like a human being at that level, and I wish he had got the help he needed.”
Even now, six months after his death, Amofah’s fans keep his memory close as they urge people who are in pain to seek help.
Amofah’s subreddit has become a memorial for him. There are no new posts on it. The highest upvoted post on the forum, with over four thousand upvotes, just thanks the people who are reading it for still being there. “If you ever feel alone, suicidal, or simply need someone to talk to, feel free to come by the JOYCONBOYZ Discord Server,” the post reads. “We’ll welcome you with open arms.”
On a personal level, last weekend, purely by coincidence, my boyfriend and I walked past the mural of Amofah. I too struggle with my mental health, and of late the waters have been rockier than normal. Seeing Amofah’s face was bittersweet. He’s made me laugh so much, but he’s also gone, and it can be easy to focus on the latter rather than the former. It’s all too easy to give up. But instead of dying, every day I make the choice to keep living. I can only hope that by remembering the happiness he’s brought me, I can keep Etika’s memory alive, just a little.
— Gita Jackson
Tekken debuted in 1994, and in the 25 years since the 3D fighting game franchise made the scene, one thing has been certain in the competitive community: South Korea is the best Tekken country in the world. Sure, challengers would come and go, but the consistency with which Korean players dominated competition turned the small nation into the Tekken scene’s very own Goliath, except in this story a corresponding David never showed up to slay the giant.
That all changed in 2019 thanks to Arslan “Arslan Ash” Siddique, a 24-year-old Tekken player from Pakistan who rose from relative obscurity to upend long-held beliefs on worldwide skill in the fighting game community.
Although he’s been competing in Tekken since high school, Siddique first made a name for himself on the global stage at Evo Japan last February, where he beat out one of the year’s most talented group of competitors to take top honors. After taking a loss early in the bracket, Siddique was forced to endure a losers bracket full of absolute killers—a who’s who of international talent that included past and future Tekken champions like Sun-woong “LowHigh” Yoon, Yuta “chikurin” Take, and Jimmy “jimmyjtran” Tran—en route to grand finals, where he defeated Filpino prodigy Alexandre “AK” Laverez.
As amazing as winning Evo Japan was, Siddique’s challenges actually began days before as he traveled from Pakistan to Japan. In addition to the difficulty of getting a Japanese visa as a Pakistani citizen, Siddique’s itinerary hopped from airport to airport, incorporating five flights in two and a half days with numerous setbacks and delays. He made it to the Evo Japan venue in Fukuoka right as the Tekken bracket started, forcing him to immediately play some of the best players in the world with the lingering weariness of travel still weighing him down. The fact that he won a single match, let alone the entire tournament, is a testament to his skill.
Siddique’s accomplishment, while obviously a boon for his personal standing, also had the added benefit of shining a spotlight on Pakistan as a whole. Almost overnight, the entire fighting game community wanted to know about the Pakistani scene and the players with which the surprise Evo Japan champion had trained. World class players Yuta “chikurin” Take, Vincent “Super Akouma” Homan, and Jae-min “Knee” Bae traveled from Japan, France, and South Korea respectively to practice with Pakistani players. Local tournaments were organized as part of the Tekken World Tour. Sponsors began to take notice and add Pakistani competitors to their rosters, helping them attend—and win—major events across the globe.
That said, Siddique was still the superstar, and he rolled into Evo 2019 last summer ready to do the unthinkable and earn a second Evo title in just one year. Hopes were so high that it felt like a forgone conclusion when he eventually did just that, defeating legendary Tekken competitor Jae-Min “Knee” Bae and adding another chapter to a budding rivalry that previously saw Siddique get the better of the South Korean veteran at events in both the United Arab Emirates and Thailand. In what was perhaps the fighting game community’s most iconic moment of the year, Siddique celebrated his win with a “sujud,” a way of prostrating oneself to give thanks to Allah in the Muslim faith, on the Evo stage.
But the pressure of having the entire fighting game community’s attention eventually took its toll. At the Tekken World Tour finals earlier this month, Siddique and his fellow Pakistani competitors Awais “Awais Honey” Parvez and Bilal Ilyas turned in underwhelming performances, with Siddique in particular missing out on making top eight for the first time in over a year. Shortly after being eliminated, he posted an apology on Twitter, to which his supporters responded with messages of love and encouragement. Siddique may not have been able to complete the triple crown, but his sudden appearance in the upper echelons of Tekken play has already left an indelible legacy on the fighting game community as a whole. The scene expects big things from Pakistan in 2020, and we all have Siddique to thank for this amazing new chapter in fighting game competition.
— Ian Walker
… The Hearthstone pro whose vocal support for Hong Kong sparked an international incident and rallied the gaming community, if for a moment, in shared protest
It took just a few words to change the course of Hearthstone pro Ng “Blitzchung” Wai-chung’s 2019 and send Blizzard fans the world over into a weeks-long uproar. “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!” he said in October during an official broadcast of Hearthstone’s Asia-Pacific Grandmasters, wearing a mask to show solidarity with Hong Kong protesters. In response to this, Blizzard withheld his prize money and suspended him for a year.
The gaming community was furious. Blizzard, people contended, had silenced a player out of concern for business interests in China and, in doing so, had sided with an oppressive regime that encroached upon Hong Kong citizens’ rights and facilitated violence against protesters. In the following days, Blizzard fans threatened to boycott the company, Hearthstone streamers spoke up about the issue, and college Hearthstone players followed in Blitzchung’s footsteps (eventually netting themselves a similar punishment).
After a period of deafening silence, Blizzard ultimately granted Blitzchung his prize money and reduced his suspension to six months, saying that Blitzchung’s specific politics played no role in the company’s decision, but rather that any politics at all were prohibited from its events. This did not satisfy the lion’s share of irate fans. Blizzard’s games frequently focus on heroism and characters who do the right thing even when it’s not the easy thing—often in ways that one could deem political. But when push came to shove, Blizzard backed down.
This all culminated in protests at Blizzard’s annual BlizzCon convention nearly a month later in Anaheim, California. Large crowds of fans chanted things like “People over profit” and “Free Hong Kong” to vocal approval from other convention-goers. Those protesters had to grapple with the more pernicious elements their movement had picked up in the ensuing weeks: strains of anti-Chinese xenophobia, Gamergate-adjacent people and tactics, and a short-attention-spanned meme culture that seemed prone to glomming onto whatever the controversy of the week was at the time. Blizzard kicked off the show by apologizing for its handling of the Blitzchung situation, but it did not meaningfully alter any of its policies. Protesters Kotaku spoke to were unmoved by the apology.
Since then, furor has died down, and for better or worse, it mostly seems to be business as usual again in the Blizzard community. Still, the controversy drew significant attention to an issue of global significance, and it was all sparked by one player, Blitzchung, who said he knew he’d probably suffer consequences for his actions, but who decided to voice his support for Hong Kong anyway. After Blizzard reduced his suspension, Blitzchung said he’d be “more careful” about expressing similar opinions during official events in the future. Between that and a seeming return to normalcy in Blizzard Land, it’s hard to say what kind of long-term impact Blitzchung’s actions will have. But in 2019, he stood up for something he cared about and forced everyone—one of the biggest, most powerful companies in all of video games included—to pay attention.
— Nathan Grayson