Justin Wong is a pioneer in the fighting-game community as a player and a figurehead, and at 33, he continues to push the envelope of what a professional gaming career can look like.
The fighting-game legend announced Wednesday that he has partnered with GameStop to create a gaming clinic for customers this fall. The lesson plan will be a 45-minute series comprised of several shorter videos designed to teach players techniques in Mortal Kombat 11, Tekken 7 and Street Fighter 5.
With the GameStop partnership, the player known internationally as JWong has continued to push his brand into the general public despite his grassroots beginnings. His name is already synonymous with the fighting-game community, but JWong's longevity in the professional gaming eye is no fluke: It is a labor of passion and love.
JWong's 2019 is already momentous. He's become the first truly independent professional fighting game player, started a family and the expanded his brand. We caught up with JWong on Wednesday to talk about his new venture, the fighting-game scene and the upcoming CEO tournament in Orlando, Florida.
ESPN: With how fighting games are made today in terms of easier skill curve and accessibility and the abundance of tools online via video guides and tips or tournament VODs, how will you create something new with GameStop for a new generation of players?
JWong: Even with so much content, the main thing is the familiarity of fighting games because it is still very complex. My goal is to create tutorials that make sense to people and with explanations that do not require people to rewatch it more than one time.
My clinics will be available online as well as the GameStop shop, and a lot of gamers will be able to see the videos as well as browse games -- it may trigger them to think about picking up a popular game. I've seen so much content on GameStop, and I get to engage. I'll be able to go to events like teaching sessions or defeat-a-pro with our partnerships.
I love going to events, and it's fun to meet fans live when I help them understand fighting games.
ESPN: As a person with a strong history of sponsorships in the fighting-game community, what about GameStop appealed to you as a player and as a professional?
JWong: I'm where I'm at because of GameStop. In 2009, I played in the GameStop National Street Fighter IV tournament, and doing well in it blew up the game. I grew up going to GameStop.
ESPN: How do you want to spread their message in addition to your own individual flair?
JWong: Besides creating the clinic videos, I want to push it on my own social medias to showcase their other clinics on other games. I want to spread awareness about GameStop's help to gaming as a whole. I'm fortunate that they chose me, to be honest. Over the past two years, I've been focused on helping the community through videos, charity events, and it's amazing that I can do something on this national level.
ESPN: Justin Wong as a professional player is now a brand with merchandise, individual player sponsorships and content, but how did this process come about? Why shed the label of being on a professional team to pursue your own individual sponsorships?
JWong: I felt like all my past companies had a middleman for communication, and I didn't want that. I wanted to create relationships. When I thought about players who became community leaders like Alex Valle, I wanted to grow the community, and I focused more on creating content.
ESPN: And on that same note, can you explain how difficult it was to make that leap?
JWong: The time period was tough because my wife was pregnant. It was very scary to leave Echo Fox, but I did save a lot of money to do so -- I did have a backup plan. There were a few teams that wanted to sign me as an option, but it was still scary. I always thought about it, but it was a situation that I thought and worked on a lot.
Updated my bio pic.twitter.com/yggQjpb0Oi— Justin Wong (@JWonggg) June 26, 2019
ESPN: With CEO on the horizon and EVO upcoming soon after, how do you view the current competitive fighting-game schedule? Do you see the landscape for competitive fighting games changing, and how?
JWong: I'll only be playing Street Fighter V, Mortal Kombat 11, and Samurai Shodown, and I flew out five players to EVO under the JWong brand.
To be honest, I don't like the tours. There are too many tournaments. Nearly every week is some kind of tour tournament, and it's rough for pro players because they need to travel once a week. Viewership is lower because there are just too many tours. Back in the day, there were less opportunities to see a top player like Daigo Umehara, so it builds the momentum -- the excitement to see a player [now] is lower because there are just too many competitions.
It's like seeing a rerun of an episode or a different draft for it. It's obviously great for opportunity, but we need a difference like the Street Fighter League.
ESPN: What kind of content or event would you propose to help solve that problem?
JWong: I'm not sure there will be change, but if I had an opportunity to do something, I would propose a reality gaming house for a change of pace like ELEAGUE's Challenger show. All everyone knows about us is just our ability to play, and there's no background for us to relate to fans. A lot of that is due to social media, but a lot of players struggle to use that tool well.
ESPN: This year, it was Justin Wong the independent professional player and family man, but where do you expect to be in just a couple years' time?
JWong: I would like to have a second child, but I hope to create more opportunities for the fighting-game community. Maybe I will create an official team, but I will definitely try to travel less to ranking events. It's something to think about because I've been in many conversations and professional teams, and I have the knowledge and insight for it.
ESPN: How do you view the direction of your future with the competitive gaming sphere, and where is it heading?
JWong: A lot of players want to be sponsored or a professional gamer, but I never thought about that because I started on my own dime. It's not enough now to be a top player online because you need to show up at a tournament as a random player and make upsets happen. They need to invest and save up because it's important for exposure.
You don't need to be the best to be sponsored: You need to be seen and noticed and throw yourself in the pit.
ESPN: Any advice for players who want to start playing fighting games professionally and how to maintain a career as long as yours?
JWong: I was just in the right place in the right time. I've been in the fighting game community for so long, and my name was there from near the beginning. I invested nine years of my life to playing fighting games as a hobby -- I wanted to do this to make friends. Video games were a great place for me to talk to people and meet people around the world.
ESPN: With so many new games coming out like Samurai Shodown and big releases this year like Mortal Kombat 11, how do you keep up with all the titles?
JWong: I'm a huge stream monster and love watching replays of tournaments. I'll always have a stream on the background. I really like watching people play fighting games, and I learn a lot from just going off social media's findings. Because of the era we live in now, it's easier to digest information, and if you're a longtime fighting-game player, you'll be able to process it quicker.
ESPN: How do fighting games interest you, and how does one make your list of games to compete in?
JWong: I'm such a huge Capcom fan that I'll play anything Capcom-related. With MK11, I had such a fun time with MKX, I want to stick with it. Samurai Shodown is new, and I like new games in general. I usually give it a month or two, and it's just the perfect time frame because it's near EVO. There's been a surge with retro games at events, and I've been playing a lot of those at events.