A fight is about to go down at the DoubleTree Hilton in Irvine, California, and everyone milling about the hotel conference center seems to know it.
Technically, fighting is what all these people have come here to do. This is West Coast Warzone 6, the first American Capcom Pro Tour Street Fighter V ranking event of 2017. When the tournament starts, these combatants will report to their assigned PlayStations, select a deadly avatar and start jerking joysticks and slapping buttons until one of them is beaten to a bloody pixelated pulp. Two losses warp a player straight home.
The internet never forgets. It was almost a year ago, leading up to the 2016 Irvine tournament, that a player named Ghodere took to web and posted: “going to west coast warzone this weekend, in a pool with gllty and ricki/please god don’t let me lose to the two of them i will never recover.” Gllty and Ricki are the handles of two women players, Leah Hayes and Ricki Ortiz, respectively. Obviously nastier things have been said on the internet. Still, the implication was clear: “Please don’t let me lose to a girl.”
Hayes smelled blood. The 28-year-old gamer had already built a reputation for bravado as loud and rowdy as any arcade. When she sat down beside Ghodere for their match at WarZone 5, with the gaming world anxiously looking on, she had no intention of just letting her play do all the talking. “I hear you’ve been running your mouth on the internet,” Hayes said to her foe. “You’re about to get f—ed.”
After beating him, Hayes privately reached out to her chagrined opponent and the two made up. Still, when this year’s Warzone brackets came out with a potential Gllty-Ghodere faceoff in the second round, self-promoter Hayes certainly didn’t downplay The Rematch.
That’s why this morning, the air carries a buzz that has little to do with caffeine, taurine or vaped nicotine. That’s why passersby catch bits of the rumors as they spread across the venue, as if on an after-school playground where a bully is about to get his comeuppance. That’s why at this moment, a couple dozen gamers have left their seats in front of the huge projection screens that feature games of high-ranked players for the scrum around a tiny console in the back of the room, where a diminutive woman clad in black sits beside a broad-shouldered man with a dark beard, both with control boxes, or fight sticks, in their laps.
Knocking an opponent out in two of three rounds wins a game, taking two of three games wins the match. Ghodere chooses avatar Zangief, a brutish, muscle-packed Russian bear-wrestler; Hayes plays Dhalsim, a mystic Indian yogi whose punches and kicks stretch across the entire screen. That flexibility does little to avail Hayes against the aggressive Ghodere, who quickly scores two knockouts to win the first game.
Hayes is uncharacteristically quiet. She grabs a drink of water, draws her blazing red bangs behind her ear. Dhalsim now keeps his distance, sniping from the corner with long punches and fireballs, picking away at the burly Cossack to tie the match at 1.
Still all of the jawing is coming from the swarming crowd, which seems to be buying into the rivalry more than the players themselves.
This matchup is sick! says one man.
This is some good s—, says another.
Game 3: Hayes goes on the assault, spitting a stream of fireballs that stun the Russian, setting him up for the quick KO. Ghodere gets one back in the second round, catching Hayes off guard with a windmill of punches. The final game is nip and tuck as both fighters pick away at each other. But just as time is running out and both avatars’ life bars are nearing the red, Dhalsim leaps into the air and Hayes scores a downward punch to Zangief’s chest, sending him crashing to the ground.
S— was real close.
The crowd disperses. Hayes and Ghodere say little to each other, no smack talk, no pop-off, just a quick handshake as the two unplug their control boxes and move on. “He was posting on a place talking about me where people go basically to vent,” Hayes will later say. “He opened himself up to have fun poked at him. But he didn’t deserve for me to not treat him like a person.”
Read the rest at espn.com