If you play it, they will come: The history of Super Street Fighter II Turbo in Toronto, Ontario

By on January 10, 2018 at 1:00 pm
ssf2-turbo

In recent years, Toronto, Ontario has become known for its love of Super Street Fighter II Turbo. In 2016, the Canadian metropolis played host to a whopping 73 player event for the 1994 game, including three legends from Japan — something unheard of for an ST event outside of Evo. 2017 saw an increase yet again with 90 players and five Japanese players making the trek.

Now, in 2018, ST Revival’s Tournament of Legends will culminate at Canada Cup. The series’ history was that of an Evo staple, so making a shift to be held in Toronto is a huge sign that the city has become a Western mecca of ST play. While California has been the breeding ground of multiple killers, between the glory days at Southern Hills Golf Land and Wednesday Night Fights in the present, and New York developed threats at Chinatown Fair, no scene to this day has attracted such a global influx of talent like Toronto.

Yet, despite its marquee event status at events like Canada Cup and Toryuken, the game went for years in the shadows of the 6ix — as local slang commonly refers to Toronto as. Through a dedicated group of core players, they proved what many people want to know: can you build a scene from nothing?

The Beginnings

No story about Super Turbo in Toronto can be told without first talking about Kevin “Dogberry” Tan. He lists his experience with Street Fighter as starting in 1991, playing World Warrior on the Super Nintendo. “I was 11 at the time, so I was a little young to go to the arcades,” says Tan. “But at that time, every mall and convenience store had Street Fighter II, and I just messed around with it. I wasn’t really top tier at the time.”

While he kept with it through Champion Edition and Hyper Fighting, it wasn’t until 1994 when an encounter with a man he called his mentor made him take the game more serious. “He just destroyed me with Ryu and Zangief, who he was playing at the time. It was at that point that I wanted to learn what he knew.”

From back: Stephan "BORT" Beltran, Kevin "Dogberry" Tan, OG23, Kenny "Unessential" Ng (Photo courtesy Corey "Missing Person" Lanier)
From back: Stephan “BORT” Beltran, Kevin “Dogberry” Tan, OG23, Kenny “Unessential” Ng [Photo by Corey “Missing Person” Lanier]
But that was as far as it went for Dogberry at that point. He had no access to tournaments, and as far as he knew, tournaments didn’t exist in Ontario. But he still knew, through publications such as GamePro, about names like Mike Watson, John Choi, and fellow Torontonian David Spence, who had placed in an early tournament in Chicago. His training regimen continued until two years later, when his mentor moved away. But by that time, Tan had figured he had, “picked up all I could from him. I just started building on that.”

But with that, his competition dried up, which led him to lack motivation to really play. It wasn’t until 2000 when he discovered Shoryuken.com and its message boards that he became motivated once more.

“Dead Game”

While Dogberry had the motivation to play, the game he grew up on was abandoned for games such as Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Capcom vs. SNK, which were both new at the time. Capcom vs. SNK was eventually replaced with its sequel when it released the next year. When he discovered that there was now an active tournament scene, he found that the game he grew up on was labeled dead, and no one wanted to play it.

Says Tan, “They also viewed ST as more bare-bones as opposed to CvS2 where you had to learn the various systems. Marvel was just an entirely different animal. Those were the hot tournament games and no one wanted to play ‘retro’ games. And there was no precedent for playing older titles at the time.”

Another reason that Toronto didn’t touch Super Turbo was that they were focused on Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, a game they were notorious for excelling at. “Toronto’s first big scene was in 3rd Strike,” says Kenny “Unessential” Ng. “For Super Turbo, we came after 3rd Strike. There was no real major scene in Toronto until 3rd Strike.”

Adds Brett “Psychochronic” Navarro, “Toronto was second only to Japan in 3rd Strike.”

While Tan was able to keep up with some of the tech and gameplay of these titles, nothing fully hit him like Super Turbo and Street Fighter II in general did. Unable to get players at tournaments to play the game with him, he sought out like-minded people like him within the area via SRK. This is where the seeds became sown.

From P-Mall to the Brettcave

While he was unable to have a large scene around him immediately, he was greeted by a player known as Fareed, and Jamie “WB!” Taylor, who had started college in Toronto and wanted to play. This found the trio playing where they could, learning and trading info with each other. From there, they began playing within Pacific Mall in Scarborough, which was unique in the North American scene as one of the few places with Japanese candy cabinets at the time. This allowed the Toronto players to be skilled on Japanese arcade parts long before they became the global standard, and also meant that anyone who came to play from other regions were at a disadvantage due to playing on American parts.

With three players consistently playing, Navarro stepped in around 2006 and, after meeting Dogberry through SRK, began hosting casual sessions in his basement, which became known by those who attended as the Brettcave. For everyone there, it was a way for them to quickly level up and train.

It was an exclusive place to train however. As Navarro states, “Back then the scene was more cliquish, and I wasn’t really open to meeting new players. The scene was also more toxic, with more name-calling than anything, and as someone who was bullied in the past, I wasn’t having that. For you to come to my place, you had to be asked and very few took up the offer.”

Those that did included Tan, Fareed, and Taylor, who continued to train. Also brought in later was Josh “JED07” D’Esposito, who notoriously beat Justin Wong in winner’s finals of ST at Toryuken last year. Josh, as Psychochronic recalls, was a transplant from Garou: Mark of the Wolves before cutting his teeth in Super Turbo.

Around 2007, Ng joined the group. Having come from a background in Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo — a scene that died after the leaderboard was reset on Supercade — Unessential was looking for a competitive scene. “I started thinking about what game would never die. I thought about Street Fighter II, because it’s such an iconic game. Once I found out about GGPO, I found out the biggest room for Street Fighter II was for Super Turbo.”

He stayed on GGPO for about a year grinding until he felt confident in his skills. Then, through SRK, he got in contact with Tan and Navarro, who ultimately invited him to the Brettcave. His online skills proved no match for their years of playing face to face.

From left: Brett "Psychochronic" Navarro, Kevin "Dogberry" Tan, Kenny "Unessential" Ng. (Photo courtesy Corey "Missing Person" Lanier)
From left: Brett “Psychochronic” Navarro, Kevin “Dogberry” Tan, Kenny “Unessential” Ng. [Photo by Corey “Missing Person” Lanier]
“This is how you know online isn’t legit,” says Ng. “I was kicking ass online, but it took me three to four meetups at Brettcave to actually win a single game.”

Unessential wasn’t the only player to fall victim to this. Psychochronic recalls a player who went by the tag of Squirrely309 who came by the Brettcave after playing HD Remix. “He showed up in a $60,000 Porsche, got his ass beat, and never came back. I still have the video.” And this was the case for several players, who came in through a revolving door, played with the group once, and never returning, usually after having their tendencies exposed.

Ng, however, stayed. “I was enjoying it. Even though I was losing, the game was fun.” While he stayed, WB! moved back to London Ontario, who had a scene with players like Chris “Turbo2Tone” White and Stephan “BORT” Beltran, the latter of whom would much later move to Toronto and join the scene there. Fareed also dropped out of sight roughly after HD Remix released, leaving Ng, Navarro, Tan, and D’Esposito as the ST scene for some time.

Exposure

But the new blood had some thoughts. If he was having fun with the game, why couldn’t everyone else who was into fighting games?

He eventually approached the group about running open casual sessions at weekly events in Toronto. “Kevin and Josh was always on board, but Brett was pessimistic.

“I bought an arcade board, and figured that was the best way to revive the scene. The game was good and needed exposure. If I was bringing an arcade board to events, it would make people take notice. Most people hadn’t even seen an arcade board.”

Ozzz playing against Stephan "BORT" Beltran at Canada Cup 2017. (Photo courtesy Corey "Missing Person" Lanier)
Ozzz playing against Stephan “BORT” Beltran at Canada Cup 2017. (Photo courtesy Corey “Missing Person” Lanier)

This essentially did exactly what Ng sought to accomplish. More people became interested in Super Turbo due to its presence at events, netting between eight to ten players each session, including James “Lucky Jim” O’Hara and Ozzz, the latter of whom many consider to be just behind California’s AfroLegends as the best Deejay player in North America. Soon after, Unessential decided to push further.

“We decided to try a $2 tournament. Brett didn’t even think anyone would want to pay $0.50 for a tournament. We started holding $2 tournaments at A&C Games in Chinatown and got a decent turnout. We kept doing casuals and every month or two we’d do another tournament.”

But in 2014, the stakes were raised.

Tournament of Legends II

After seeing The Tournament of Legends run its first iteration at Evo 2012, Ng approached Bob “Kuroppi” Painter about the potential of Toronto getting a qualifier for the next iteration, as the Canadian FGC had not been included on the lineup. In 2014, Kuroppi responded by giving them a qualifier spot at Toryuken, on the condition that Ng could ensure that the winner would attend Evo 2014.

“I was in college at the time,” says Ng, “and no one in Toronto was really committed to traveling. I decided to pay for the plane ticket, but didn’t have money to do so on my own. So up until the qualifier, everyone in the scene agreed to skim a dollar off the entry fee for the tickets.”

Vince “RXS” Hui of Hamilton also agreed to do the same, while also helping fund some of it out of pocket. A&C Games did likewise, and by the end of it, Ng only had to pay $30 out of pocket for the flight ticket, which was awarded to top Balrog (Boxer) player Jimmy “LordJimmyBones” Pierre.

The response to ST at Toryuken 3 led to Russell “NeoRussell” Ordona — founder of TorontoTopTiers and the head TO of Toryuken — who was initially lukewarm to ST becoming increasingly interested and putting it on the main list of games hosted at his weekly events.

“After Toryuken 3, he started approaching me to ask if I would run events with him. Then Hui also approached me to do Canada Cup. We actually got Snake Eyez into that event because Brett sponsored me to go to Summer Jam, and I was able to talk to Snake Eyez about entering. A few months later, Alex Valle decided to come to Toronto, and it became the first real international tournament for ST in Toronto.”

And the best was yet to come.

The American Invasion

“Russell had run a tournament at a bar, and David “Atari” Bibona was there,” states Ng. “Nobody from the scene went, but Russell said someone was asking about ST, so I brought my setup. David was there in a New York Islanders jacket, and Kevin was there briefly. David was actually there for Mortal Kombat XL, as Mortal Kombat was his background.”

It didn’t take long for Bibona, an American transplant to Toronto, to fall in love with the game. From there, he began to learn the game from the Toronto players and, importantly, began to acquire arcade boards. Eventually Ng, Tan, and Bibona all owned superguns capable of running events.

From back: David "Atari" Bibona, Stephan "BORT" Beltran, Kevin "Dogberry" Tan, James "Lucky Jim" O'Hara (Photo courtesy Corey "Missing Person" Lanier)
From back: David “Atari” Bibona, Stephan “BORT” Beltran, Kevin “Dogberry” Tan, James “Lucky Jim” O’Hara [Photo by Corey “Missing Person” Lanier]
At this point, Bibona decided to start helping with the organization of events. As Navarro states, this wasn’t without hiccups. “He was trying to change the ruleset, or not seeding events properly, but began to learn from the people around him.”

But one thing Atari was strong at was the power of persuasion. He was often seen at weeklies pushing people to join the Super Turbo tournaments, which were now weekly staples at A&C, or asking players why they hadn’t signed up for monthly events such as Red Bull Proving Grounds or Northern Battles. Through his persistence, the numbers consistently increased, netting strong Toronto players such as Stefan “SJ” Johnson, Daniel “Italdan” Rando, Shane Walker, and KS Tali into the fold.

This increase in numbers led Bibona, who was tasked with running Canada Cup 2016’s Super Turbo event, in going big or going home. The results speak for themselves, as Canada Cup has been one of the most talked about Super Turbo events in recent history for two years straight.

One Person to Build a Scene

So now with the most prestigious ST event growing roots in Toronto, it’s easy to compare this saga to The Field of Dreams. Whereas the mantra in the movie was, “If you build it, they will come,” for Dogberry, it was, “If you play it, they will come.” And they came.

“That’s why when people ask me what it takes to build a scene, I always tell them to stay visible,” says Ng. “Just keep playing the game, and people will be interested in you just playing it. That’s exactly how a game like Sailor Moon has caught on.”

“Comaraderie is one of the biggest things about growing a scene,” says Tan. “You don’t need a lot of money or fancy equipment to make it happen. You just need to have comaraderie.”

For Navarro, the lab sessions are what he remembers. “It was part talent recruitment, as even though it was the same five guys, we became strong really quickly. Five guys is enough to build a scene. But because we were the only ones in the area that played ST, we proved that we could make people into international level players.”

But for everyone that has come since the days of Kevin Tan playing in arcades in Toronto until now, the explosion of Super Turbo in the city has not gone unnoticed. It further reminds people that if you love a game, just play it. It only takes one person’s determination to grow a scene.

Ryu Super Turbo


Author’s Note: This article was written before we all heard news of the impending closure of the SRK Forums. A lot of this article could very well be a love letter to what Shoryuken as a community has done for us, as without the message boards, none of the connections that made the growth of ST Toronto — as well as many other scenes — would have happened.

Even now as we are closing the chapter on the SRK Forums, I urge you: continue to seek out your local players, via reddit, Discord, Twitter, Facebook, or any other medium you can. Attend your weeklies, and take part in this camaraderie. We have always been a community where offline encounters lead to lasting friendships, and the closure of a single message board should never change that.

Corey "Missing Person" Lanier is a full-time writer, and one half of the "So Smart" team that did commentary for Street Fighter V Crash. A former English teacher, he has spent 5 years living between China and South Korea before moving to Canada. When he's not busy writing, he enjoys streaming, playing mafia and elevating his Super Turbo game. He also believes Sailor Moon S is the best fighting game on the planet, and if you don't believe him, see him in Sailor Moon!