ICYMI: 'Family Man' Street Fighter pro strikes back to win major tourney

Age is clearly no barrier for the Five Gods.

Last weekend, 39-year-old fighting game competitor Naoto Sako won a major Street Fighter V tournament in Taiwan, to much fanfare.

As one of Japan’s most decorated Street Fighter players and a veteran of the scene, Sako’s victory was, on the surface, just another chapter in his illustrious career. But several factors made this particular win especially significant, not the least of which is his status as a family man outside of the competitive community.

Sako belongs to an elite group of fighting game players known as the “five gods of Street Fighter,” which also includes such legends as Daigo Umehara and Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi. Since breaking into the upper levels of competition in the early 2000s, Sako has been a constant fixture in tournament play, and while the Street Fighter competitive scene is where he’s earned much of his recognition, he is also considered one of the best Vampire Savior (Darkstalkers 3) players of all time.

Sako's claim to fame is discovering combos—a string of attacks the opponent can’t escape—so complex that only he could pull them off in serious matches. He is so well known for these, the fighting game community refers to them as “Sako combos,” and to this day he still maintains a high degree of execution.

Where his popularity was once relegated to competition, however, Sako is also known for something else these days: being a father. He and his wife Akiki welcomed their daughter Rinka into the world four years ago, and the Sako clan has become a regular sight at fighting game events, most recently last weekend’s Taiwan Fighter Major. As a major stop on the Capcom Pro Tour, it was imperative for Sako to do well in Taiwan if he wanted to remain in contention for the end-of-year Street Fighter V tournament at the Capcom Cup. His intricate play against some of the world’s strongest competitors was a testament to this fact, and every win along the way was greeted with cheers from his wife and daughter.

Street Fighter V has not been kind to Sako. After excelling in pretty much every previous game in the franchise, he seemed to hit a wall with the fifth installment. His placings have been sporadic, with first-place finishes few and far between. But with the recent release of Menat, a newcomer to the Street Fighter universe, Sako had finally found an execution-heavy character to make his own. As he made his way through the Taiwan Fighter Major bracket, none of his opponents were able to put a dent in his resolve, and he maintained a perfect record even while facing off against the likes of Kanamori “Gachikun” Tsunehiro and Cristhoper “CABA” Rodriguez, both of whom were fresh off fantastic performances at Evo 2018, the World Series of fighting game competition.

Sako’s greatest challenge at the Taiwan Fighter Major came in grand finals against fellow Street Fighter god Tokido, who was itching for a rematch after being sent to the losers bracket by Sako earlier in the tournament. What followed was a 3-0 beatdown. Sako not only utilized the solid, technical play for which he’s known but also refused Tokido the opportunity to enforce his own brand of rushdown offense. With another major victory under his belt, the two sides of Sako’s celebrity—the execution monster and the family man—became one when he called his young daughter over to the stage and hoisted her into his arms. The two threw up peace signs before stepping into the crowd and consoling Akiki, who had been brought to tears.

The fighting game community is different from other esports in that high-level players have continued to compete and find success well into their 30s and 40s. Taiwan Fighter Majors organizer Yu-lin “GamerBee” Hsiang, for instance, is also 39-years-old -- and he remains a threat in Street Fighter V play. Community legend Alex Valle continues to mix it up with younger competitors even after celebrating his 40th birthday earlier this year. Sako’s win was as much a return to form as it was proof of how far he’s come since dazzling the community with his skill at Street Fighter tournaments decades ago.

Top photo source: Akiki Sako.