Third-World Gaming: The Trials of Being a Tekken Player in Iloilo City

By joseph batcagan

I was 12 when an older teen threatened to stab me for not giving him money. I wish I could make the story sound more “dramatic” by saying he was planning to use the money for shabu, but it isn’t; he was just planning to buy tokens with it. You think that should have been enough to scare me off from visiting any arcades, but no. I just transferred to the one across the competing mall and waited out two weeks to make sure I won’t ever have to risk running into my day-old bully. Yes, that was sound strategy to a pubescent mind during that time.

If there’s a reason why gaming culture is so looked down upon in the country, it’s because of remote—yet totally bonkers—incidents like this. Heck, if you just want to stay (somewhat) relevant in Pinoy pop culture, all you had to do was to make a song or a movie about the ever-ubiquitous computer game, Dota (Heard of it before? No? We actually covered a local tournament of it months ago), and you can actually come out of it smelling like roses because you’ve given the people another cultural product to blame for society’s woes.

For a gamer though, there’s a fate worse than having one’s favorite videogame be called the “demon’s invention”: seeing it fall out of relevance completely. Local Tekken pro John Jamayo admits it as much: “The sad thing is, ang sa Iloilo and the rest of the community na bala subong, indi na amo na katutok sa [they’re not going to] arcades. Limited na lang ang mga arcade machines.”

Along with Alex Abaygar—also a fellow competitive Tekken player—they’re two of the only people in Iloilo City still actively involved in rallying the local Tekken community to its former glory. For guys who have spent over half of their lives immersing themselves in a videogame, this “obsession” is really not as strange as you think it to be; most of the stories on Reddit don’t even compare to this.

A little backgrounder for anyone under 20 who may not know what Tekken is: it’s a longtime videogame series focused on two (and, on later iterations like Tekken Tag Tournament, four) characters beating the living life bars out of each other. In terms of gameplay, it’s basically a 3D reworking of the 2D fighting game formula established by pioneering videogame series like Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat.

Think of it this way: games like Tekken and Marvel vs. Capcom was to the local arcades what Dota and League of Legends are to today’s internet shops. The games of choice may have changed over time, but the culture propelling it—mostly participated in by teenage boys trashtalking each other over gaming sessions that run up till the wee hours of the morning—largely remains present. We can safely assume it’s an ongoing concern parents of today now have to face along with the usual standbys of teenage vices like alcohol, smoking, and barkada.

Unlike popular portrayals from the West, though, local gaming scenes never had to endure the stigma of being “nerdy”; they’re as much a part of adolescent life today as basketball is for boys. For Abaygar and Jamayo—two individuals who literally grew up with videogames—taking to Tekken came naturally to them, though that’s not to say it wasn’t really easy doing so when they were younger.

Third World Gaming: Tekken - Project Iloilo

Chipped Tokens, Bleeding Fingers

Here is probably the thing younger people today may not appreciate now: the Internet was a slow, infuriating dial-up experience during the late ‘90s. If you’re a fighting game enthusiast, you can’t download a move list from a website without testing your patience. You really had to learn it the hard way: buy a token, get your butt kicked, and hopefully learn something useful in the process.

That was how Abaygar and Jamayo learned, but they also had to enlist the help of a friend (who they kept referring to as their “teacher” throughout this interview) to teach them the moves and combos. If this sounds like something out of Karate Kid, then you may have already realized that “fighting” is the operative verb that differentiated the fighting game community from many of the gamers clustering within the arcades back then.

Abaygar’s initial attraction to the Tekken series came mainly through seeing one move: “Sa ‘Tekken 3’, nakita ko dira si King nga (gaubra) [I saw King do his] multi-grab sequence bala”; he was referring to the ridiculous pro wrestling-inspired move set performed by a male character wearing a leopard mask.

On the other hand, Jamayo actually fell out of playing until he returned back to the series in 2008. To hear him describe his “epiphany” was like hearing a layman from church sharing his religious awakening during a prayer meeting. He once accompanied Abaygar to a few casual games in Bacolod where he had no intention of playing competitively but to simply play for fun: “Nagkontra ako sa mga well-known, top players nila dira didto. Biskan indi pa ako amo na ka maayo bala, nakatsamba ko straight tanan nila nga mga player in one sitting. So meaning, napaminsar man ako, ‘Basi may meaning ini? Basi may rason ini?’”

[I fought against well-known, top players in Bacolod. Even though I’m not that good yet, I’ve beaten each one of them straight in one sitting, seemingly by luck. So meaning, I was thinking, ‘Maybe there’s a meaning behind it? Maybe there’s a reason behind it?]

Their competitiveness did bring them to places they certainly didn’t expect to play in: Jamayo narrated about holding tournaments inside a well-known tambayan for drinkers near a local university and almost qualifying for a spot on the International Tekken tournament in South Korea (a 13-year old Filipino boy made waves there two years ago, if you want to indulge in some belated Pinoy Pride flag-waving). Abaygar, for his part, was also entering tournaments both here and in Bacolod (though he only won a top title during the last Iloilo Tekken Tournament last year).

They were getting really good at the games. Progress, however, waits for no one—more so for a hobby as mercurial as gaming.

Third World Gaming: Tekken - Project Iloilo

An “Old” Love

There are many reasons why games can never be considered “art”, at least for the foreseeable future: its steep barrier to entry—the hardware and the videogame consoles and the games you need to buy to enjoy this hobby—is ridiculously impractical in a country where “regular” employees are still paid a ₱7,000 monthly and are told by their bosses to still be grateful they have a job; with six-to-eight buttons found in a typical controller, it also looks needlessly complicated to one who has never played a videogame before; and, perhaps more indicative of its current consumerist nature, it’s getting to be increasingly reliant on the march of technology. Sure, “simple” games may be available on smartphones nowadays, but gaming culture has always been about the Next Big Thing.

And, no surprise, Abaygar and Jamayo found their scene dwindling as newer games—those with the capabilities of accommodating multiple players on networked PCs as opposed to what Tekken can do with only two players battling in one machine—became almost impossible for them to not just look for other players to challenge, but also to scout for younger ones who can hopefully keep the scene going. The past instances of toxic infighting the community had experienced didn’t help matters, either.

Jamayo recalls, “Depende sa turf mo, eh. May grupo man si Hi-Gear, may ara man dayon si Quantum team, may ara man Inertia turf, amo ina ang dati. At the end of the ‘Tekken Tag 1’ era, na-limit siya sa duha ka team, which is Team Hi-Gear and Team Quantum, in which wala guid ako dira may guin-intrahan sang una.”

[It depends on your turf. There’s a group in Hi-Gear, there’s also a Quantum team, there’s also the Inertia turf, that’s how it was. At the end of the ‘Tekken Tag 1’ era, it was limited to only two teams, which is Team Hi-Gear and Team Quantum, in which I did not join either of them.]

Many of the people involved have undoubtedly matured since with age; and with age also came new realizations, too: “Wala guid ako ga-expect nga sixteen years later, ara na ako gali sa mentorship role [I did not expect that sixteen years later, I am now the one in the mentorship role],” Abaygar said, still not quite believing that he’s become one of the torchbearers for the scene simply because of the fact that they’ve been playing the series the longest out of anyone here in the city.

And like proper coaches, they took it upon themselves to scout for new “players” the old-school way: by trawling the existing arcades within the city. “In kaso isa sa amon (ni Alex) maka-lagaw-lagaw sa Hi-Gear or sa (mga malls), may nakita na kami nga may potential nga maayo maghampang. May potential siya nga puwede matudluan” Jamayo explains.

[In case Alex or I drop by Hi-Gear or at any of the malls here, we see people with the potential to play well. They have the potential to be taught.]

Abaygar, for his part, says he feels “a small sense of accomplishment” every time they’re able to recruit a young player to their ranks. “Ga-hope man kami nga sa amo ini nga tournament, ang mga up-and-coming players, maganahan man sila. (Maipakita) man nila ang competitive drive bala nga ipakita man nila sa iban nga players sa guwa nga may mga maayo man diri pahampangun sa Iloilo.”

[We hope that in this tournament, the up-and-coming players will get fired up. We hope they show their competitive drive to players from outside to let them know that there are many good players in Iloilo.]

However niche the local fighting community game may be here, there’s no question that it still remains a viable movement for the people devoted to the local scene. Much like recent cultural “imports” (like MMA or skateboarding to mention among a few), Ilonggos have a distinctive ability to appropriate trends to make it truly their own.

People from older generations may not understand how a fighting game like Tekken can prove to be anything of value to a local level, but Jamayo really believes it when he says that products like this can “(bridge) the gap through gaming.” Who’s to say he’s right at this time?

Well, at least he can always say it’s not shabu.

The 2nd Iloilo Hobby Con takes place at Robinson’s Place Iloilo on the weekend of July 11 and 12. One of the main attractions will be a tournament for Tekken Tag Tournament 2 organized by Abaygar and Jamayo. More details can be found on the event’s official Facebook page here.

Update: This article erroneously stated that Jamayo and Abaygar went to Bacolod for a tournament. They only participated in a few casual games; Project Iloilo has since updated the article.

Photos by Xtian Lozañes.

Joseph Batcagan is the editor and a writer for Project Iloilo.