Written by: Richard Lewis
With the invitees for the upcoming season of ELEAGUE’s Street Fighter edition now being public knowledge, it’s time to start picking through all the compelling storylines we’re going to see unfold. I’m still educating myself on the history I have missed out on while I’ve been working on other esports titles, but there’s one name that even a casual player like myself recognized. Alex Valle, whose competitive handle was “CaliPower” but was also known as simply “Mr. Street Fighter” because of his tenure of competing across multiple versions of the game, fourteen to be precise. At thirty-eight years of age, I imagine many thought he’d be sitting next to me on the broadcasters’ desk rather than being out there mashing buttons with some of the best players in the world. I’m sure if we offered him that comfortable seat and a guaranteed paycheck, he’d have turned it down. Valle, who has competed in easily over a hundred tournaments since the mid-nineties, still sees himself as a player, despite being a tournament organizer and ambassador for the whole fighting games community.
Being an older guy myself, and one who never went much of anywhere as a player, there’s something about seeing competitors of a similar age that immediately hooks my interest. We all know the perception about esports is that it’s a young person’s game for a variety of reasons. It’s not just about fading reaction times, but rather all the ways real life sneaks up on you as you get older. The amount of dependents in your life, the need for stability and security as the number of safety nets society affords you as a young adult start to be snatched away by a society that assumes you have “grown up” by now. Work-life balance for any sports competitor is almost impossible to achieve. So much time is spent training, travelling, then recovering before the process begins again. Any spouse will only put up with this on the understanding that retirement means you will make up for all that lost time. On the long evenings they spend alone, their darkest thought is actually “what if they never quit?” How does the rational competitor juggle all that? Does anyone get to have it all?
Maybe it says more about me that I spend my time on such curiosities, but I’ve seen countless people in esports lay down their controllers and hang up their mice over the years. I’m talking about the genuine esports retirements, not the ones that youngsters take in frustration after defeats, or to escape egregious contracts. I’m talking about the ones that made sense. I often wonder what those people must feel now that esports is taking off and few people remember the small part they played in that. I’ve watched some try and come back, almost all of them failing. Once you’re out, getting back in is harder than staying here in the first place.
I’m sure Valle knows this, which is why he never really left, even if the caliber of tournaments he has been playing in lately are a far cry from those EVO heights. His invitation to ELEAGUE wasn’t just a token of respect on our part, although that was obviously a factor. We wanted to tell his story and introduce him to a TV audience eager to learn more about esports’ history. We also know he’ll be able to hold his own. Esports fans, FGC fans especially, can be ruthless in their assessment of older talent. The reaction from some to his invitation was to assert it was a wasted spot and that he is washed up. Valle nearly didn’t attend at all.
“I was very excited but at the same time concerned of overlaps with one of our events” he told me. “Travelling to compete at tournaments hasn't been my priority in a long time, since I'm on the other side these days producing events with my partners at Level Up. I double checked our schedule and fortunately I was able to go.”
“I did notice some negative feedback from the community on certain players being invited to ELEAGUE after the announcement, me being one of them” he continued. “The fighting game community has grown so much over the years that fans are hoping their favorite players are showcased in special events of this magnitude. I can't blame them for feeling this way because I'm also a fan of many players that unfortunately didn't get an invite. The harsh reality of invitationals is that these events are out of our hands. If the community still feels I should not be there, you better hope I don't take out one of your heroes.”
Check out this clip from the Capcom Pro Tour at Evo 2015 where he took down Takahashi "Bonchan" Masato. It represented a huge upset and drew a massive reaction from a very hyped crowd. It shows everything you need to know about fighting games in six minutes. It’ll also tell you quite a bit about Valle, his confidence tempered by humility, as well as his graciousness in victory, showing why he’d be an easy player to respect even if he hadn’t done so much for the wider community.
Now he gets the opportunity to forge one of these moments on American television, something that represents uncharted territory even for someone who has almost done it all. He understands that for this new chapter in the FGC’s rich history, it is important that everyone rises to the occasion and shows the best that it has to offer. He’s confident that his fellow competitors are all more than capable of that, even if not everyone agrees.
“I think it is extremely important for the community to embrace this opportunity and be happy for the players that are selected to show we are a growing community that respects our own” he said. “Besides, the majority of players that are in ELEAGUE are Capcom Cup veterans which will put on a great show during the finale, so there's nothing to worry about.”
What will his contribution be? What did he have to say to those who felt his spot should have gone to someone else? He’s not confrontational by nature, even if he does have a voice that resonates. I wanted to know if we could expect to see “close-to-vintage Valle” under those studio lights.
“Many people wonder if I can still compete in Street Fighter and the answer is, absolutely” he asserted. “I'm the co-founder of one of Level Up’s flagship weekly events called Weds Night Fights and I also compete to keep up with the players. With ELEAGUE around the corner, my training schedule has increased to prepare for my pool block. There are only a few tournaments that I prepare for in a year and one of them is EVO, where I have placed top 32 out of thousands of competitors every year.”
Our final exchange pretty much sums up what Valle represents. The dormant potential of the seasoned veteran, where experience has to take up some of the slack left by diminishing talent. It was a gentle warning that he’s not to be underestimated and that he won’t be coming just to fill an open slot and get publicity.
“I understand the players I'm up against are the highest performers in the world, but then again so was I once upon a time.”