When you’re great at what you do you’re many times able to make moves that others can’t. But along with that comes the fact that your “moves” are usually within everyone’s gaze. You’re open to criticism, misunderstanding, judgement, and many times flat-out hate. No-one truly knows what people in these positions endure. It may all look rosy, and it may truly be, but these shining stars aren’t always offered the same grace and understanding as others who aren’t quite on their level. It can be a complicated road.
Such is the case with pro Tekken player, Stephen Stafford, out of Atlanta, GA, better known by his handle ‘Speedkicks.’ Once a young protege of Hoa ‘Anakin’ Luu, from 2012 onward Speed quickly gained notoriety in the Tekken community, convincingly taking down some of the best of America’s talent in tournaments. One of his most notable performances was at The Fall Classic in 2012, where I sat on the front row and witnessed him single-handedly take down the remaining north east players in a Mason Dixon exhibition. It was at that moment where many of us knew he was serious about being the best and would be a “problem.” After the exhibition I asked him what was his key to success, and he told me that his friend Shola Lawal gave him some simple advice. I asked him what that was. He said it was to “not think too seriously about the game, but just have fun.”
As the years progressed Stafford would display considerable talent against such international players as JDCR (KOR), El Negro (VZN) and more. The fundamentals he displayed proved he possessed an unparalleled understanding of the game. His gameplay was calculated, methodical and very assassin-like, and because of that many players feared being in the same pool as him in tournaments.
Fast forward to 2016. After a few years of making an international-name for himself and establishing himself as a bonafide pro player, in late June he was picked up by Circa eSports to join his hometown friend and sparring partner Anakin. He represented them well during his tenure. The very next month he made his first sponsorship appearance at EVO, where he tied for 7th place in Tekken 7: Fated Retribution out of 549 entrants from around the globe. Mr. Kicks had zero experience with this version of the game. Though he didn’t have it, he put in training where he could.
I think I played over 200 games of Tekken 6 today.
— Stephen Stafford (@Speedkicks) June 30, 2016
But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t Tekken 7.
I don't have T7, I signed up for T7, and I lost in T7. Won't call unfair only after losing. That's the game we play and I plan on winning.
— Stephen Stafford (@Speedkicks) July 19, 2016
And the reality of the situation begins to settle in.
Worst part about being a US Tekken player is watching everyone else experience day 1 exploration with new games and characters.
— Stephen Stafford (@Speedkicks) July 28, 2016
He would then go on to place 2nd at Wizard World Columbus, 1st at Wizard World Chicago, and his next appearance wasn’t until Tekken 7 Nationals in November where he came in 5th place. And with that, he did not qualify for the global finals in Japan.
After such a short but successful run, you can imagine how surprised the Tekken community must’ve been when it was announced on January 6, 2017 that Speed had signed with InControl Gaming, meaning he was no longer signed to Circa eSports. The turnover of players in eSports is not anything unusual, but you don’t let a good thing go either. Perhaps there were expectations that weren’t met? Was Speed expected to qualify for Tekken 7 global finals in Japan?
Instead of speculating, I asked him.
My departure from Circa was just the end of the contract. From the beginning, there was no real expectation of renewal from either party, so I wouldn’t say there’s a specific reason for leaving other than it was the end of our time together. I really enjoyed what I was able to do with Circa. Getting out to more tournaments and being part of the team was great.
Ever remaining a consummate professional, it was pretty much the response I expected. And what did he think about his performance at US Nationals?
I wasn’t very disappointed in my placing at nationals, much to my own surprise since I would usually define myself as a passionate competitive player. But the state of competitive Tekken is weird right due to the fact that no one has access to the practicing game. This isn’t to say that I didn’t care or that I wasn’t trying hard but the passion for competition just isn’t there right now.
Though signed to InControl, Stafford did not have a chance to compete under the newfound imprint before signing with yet another gaming organization. The very next month on February 22, 2017 it was announced that he was now sponsored by Hazardous Gaming. Upon hearing the news, I was truly pleased Speed had been picked up by a team that had an official website. As funny as that may sound, I’m serious. In a digital era there is no excuse not to have a web presence for your business or organization outside of social media.
— ☣@ Final Round 20☢️ (@HZRDSGaming) February 22, 2017
When I learned that Speed had been signed to InControl, I was concerned that an official website could not be found for them. This doesn’t mean that the infrastructure and logistical foundation wasn’t there, but still – personally that makes me a bit uneasy. How can I learn about the owners, other team members and what they’ve accomplished. All of this is important for Tekken being involved in eSports. I want our players well taken care of. I wanted to know who Speedkicks had placed his care in. This doesn’t at all suggest that his new organization is any better or worse, because I’ve never heard of Hazardous Gaming either, but at least they had a website.
Wanting more understanding, I asked Speed why he left InControl and signed with Hazardous. He was candid.
While I don’t believe it’s proper to discuss the negotiation details with the media, I can say I feel much mote comfortable with the environment and direction of Hazardous and that was a big reason for the move.
A new team isn’t the only thing Speed has adopted, but also a new game. He’s added Super Smash Bros. 4 to his repertoire. Was this one of the reasons for favoring Hazardous Gaming? Not at all. According to him, the delayed release of Tekken 7 was mainly to “blame.” Currently, his relationship with Tekken is like being deployed in another part of the world and having a long-distance relationship. Sure, you can Facetime, but there’s nothing like being face to face and not having to leave home anymore. Likewise, there’s nothing like being able to practice with a game that’s here to stay and seeing all of your hard work immediately translate into competitive situations.
What’s the deal with Smash?
The drive for competitive Tekken is pretty low, and Namco announcing that the game would be releasing on June 2nd is a large reason for that. As a gamer, my main goal has always been experiencing the enjoyment of breaking down games, and improving at them.
Competition came in later as an extension of this when I begin to view it as a way to test my learning methods against others’. I can’t do that anymore if I don’t have the game. The delayed release of Tekken 7 stripped me of the chance to bring that fire to Final Round this year and all other tournaments occurring before June 2nd. I guess finding another game to play is my attempt at keeping that fire alive, which is really important when dealing with competitive gaming due to how volatile it can be.
Speed is a champion with a champions’ heart. What other players think in these terms? Very few. His passion for Tekken needed a competitive outlet, not a casual one. And for him right now that is Smash.
When you encounter players like him you almost want Tekken 7 to come out more for him than you do for yourself. eSports is here and Tekken players worldwide still have not been able to “officially” join the party. We understand the sentiments of Bandai Namco not wanting a release nightmare like Street Fighter V. But, did Capcom purposefully take a hit to avoid missing the eSports train? Will Tekken 7 release at the expense of eSports? That is a question that only the Tekken community and Bandai Namco can answer. It will require Tekken fans fully supporting the game, and Bandai Namco rewarding that support with eSports drive and continual game updates. We’ll have to hold each other accountable.
So what does 2017 hold for Speed?
It’s hard to say so early on, but naturally I’m trying to get to them all! Final Round, Combo Breaker, CEO, and EVO along with some Wizard World appearances. I also want to finally get a chance to get out to a Big E event this year since there’s always a lot of love for Tekken there.
I’m rooting for Speedkicks. And though the wait has been long, he’s done a great job of keeping that fire burning he talked about. How do I know? Because he’s rooting for himself.
There will be an American player in the grand finals of T7 at Final Round this year.
— Stephen Stafford (@Speedkicks) March 6, 2017