FOCUS: A Documentary Review – Through the Eyes of a Competitive Street Fighter Player

Nerd Reactor gets an exclusive advance screening of FOCUS: A Documentary, a film about Mike Ross, one of America’s most well-known Street Fighter IV players. The cut we were provided runs a little over 73 minutes.

Amidst the Call of Duties, Guitar Heroes and Halos, I’ve always felt that fighting games have been underrepresented in the mainstream. Sure there was the Street Fighter arcade boom of the early 90s, but that was an era long ago. Since the release of Street Fighter IV back in 2008, the genre has seen a revival unlike never before. As with any competition, meeting the best players can be daunting and perhaps intimidating. Players such as Daigo Umehara have carved their own legends. Steve Hwang, a student of the Art Center of Design in Pasadena, California, attempts to capture the essence of the fighting game scene through the eyes of one of Street Fighter IV’s most prolific US player, Mike Ross. Interestingly enough, FOCUS isn’t a documentary about the fighting game scene; it’s about Mike Ross, competitive Street Fighter player and the younger of 2 sons.

FOCUS primarily follows Mike Ross’s journey through three tournaments, the Box Arena Tournament in San Diego, Devastation in Phoenix, and finally the ultimate stage, Evolution World Championship 2010 (commonly referred as EVO) at the Caesar’s Palace in the heart of Las Vegas. The film starts with Mike’s humble roots in Southern California. Born Michael Alan Ross, Mike began honing his video game skills at a young age due to an accident that left him temporarily in a wheelchair. We learn how Mike’s competitive nature is born and nurtured from being the youngest sibling.  Hwang interviews a number of individuals close to Mike: his brother Jonathan Ross, his father Marcus Ross, fellow players Eliver “killerkai” Ling and Ryan “gootecks” Gutierrez (who co-hosts CrossCounterTV, a weekly YouTube series with Mike). Topics range from Mike’s first tournament at the age of 8 in an old basketball arcade game to his decision to become a competitive player.

After watching the short cut of Ian Cafino’s I Got Next last year (Mike makes a small appearance in that film as well), I was impressed by how it tries to keep the game on a down-to-earth level, meaning even my non-Street Fighter friends could watch and appreciate the Coast-to-Coast rivalry. Like I Got Next, FOCUS is a documentary that caters to the gaming crowd, particularly to those already familiar with fighting games. Much of the vernacular exclusive to scene, such as being salty (meaning a player is upset), or footsies (a player’s ability to trick an opponent with poking, is often heard with little to no explanation of what they mean. Non-gamers may have difficulty understanding the flow of the fights, but it does not take away any of the hype. Mike tries to draw to simplify the gameplay by drawing similarities to checkers at its basic level and how it evolves to a level comparable to Chess. However, even this explanation won’t assist much if the watchers are unfamiliar with the rules and game theory of Chess. Despite this, FOCUS manages by focusing (see what I did?) less on the game themselves, but on the atmosphere of each tournament Mike enters into.

Ultimately, the film’s focus is about Mike’s resolve to becoming a top Street Fighter IV player. Focus offers a glimpse at just how brutal the competitive scene of Street Fighter is. The life of a street fighter is not all fun and games. It is not a lucrative career path nor is it something widely accepted yet. With each match, Mike must mentally prepare himself for the worst. There are several poignant moments sprinkled across the film that felt very inspiring. Even though followers will probably remember Mike’s result of the tournaments, FOCUS takes a deeper look at Mike about how he copes with the pressure and struggles to continue his choice of a demanding and brutal profession. Much like other spectator sports, players like Mike must strive to be recognized. Followers of the scene will recognize many notable players’ cameo appearances, such as Martin “Marn” Phan, Peter “ComboFiend Rosa, Justin “Jwong” Wong, Alex “calipower” Valle, Eric “Juicebox Abel” Albino, and Daigo “The Beast” Umehara to name a few. It’s almost as if they were little easter eggs for fans to pick out.

Visually, the majority of the film looks astonishing. Hwang truly captures the emotions of Mike as he faces off some of Street Fighter’s fiercest opponents. The spotlight on these some of these pivotal stages strikes many similarities with Pay-Per-View Boxing Events. The crowd reactions shots at EVO are about the closest things to the hype as you could get without actually being there. I was slightly disappointed that some of the same low-quality stream footage was used (particularly during the EVO sequences), as some of the audio commentary static from the matches bothered me just a little. Hopefully in the future, Hwang can obtain better recordings; but for now, they do not affect the film’s overall quality too much.

When I asked about Hwang’s familiarity of the 2D fighting game scene, I was surprised to learn that he wasn’t much of a player himself. The inspiration behind the film came from Mike giving out autographs to a bunch of little kids. That’s a scene one doesn’t see everyday. FOCUS brings competitive fighting games outside of its niche image and presents itself as one of the most impressive e-sport documentaries I’ve seen.

Second Opinion by NR writer Mark Marquez:

FOCUS delves into the mind of a top SSFIV player to give both hardcore gamers and casual fans alike a glimpse of the mindset it takes to compete in the world of gaming. Mike Ross is one of the more personable players, having no problem talking to fans or signing autographs, and his humble nature wins over crowds. He is pleasing to watch and a likable guy, so following his decisions into the world of professional gaming can draw viewers in more personally. His upbringing and his hobbies are touched on, but the main draw here is the mindset of a gamer. He talks about his decision to pursue gaming as more than a hobby, and the efforts he takes to be successful in a field inundated with talent. We see his struggles and the nerves he endures to win tournaments that are not only for the money, but for respect. Transforming from Mike “Loss” into Mike “Mike Ross” Ross as he stands toe to toe with some of the best, it is a riveting documentary on the scene of professional gaming. While those who don’t follow it like a sport may be lost, it does a good job of trying to downplay the really in-depth things, giving the viewer what they need to know to enjoy the film. FOCUS is a terrific documentary for anyone who enjoys SSFIV and the community built around it.

For more information on the film check out the website at http://www.focusdocumentary.com/

Trailer:

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/17334014[/vimeo]

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Hokan Lo
Hokan Lo 324 posts

Hokan Lo is a contributing writer and photographer for Nerd Reactor. He likes Pizza Butts and Mello Yellow. You can contact him on twitter @colorinlive. <a href="http://nerdreactor.com/about/">Meet the Nerd Reactor Team</a>