This article was originally published in issue 289 of Game Informer.
On the day Peter Kang’s years-long passion project went up in flames, it wasn’t his biggest concern. Two commercial airliners had just collided with the World Trade Center in New York, and while the morning news was inundated with coverage of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Kang didn’t need to watch. “I looked out the window, and of course the north tower’s on fire from the first crash,” Kang says. As he was escorted out of Battery Park to safety by the NYPD, the Street Fighter documentary he’d been editing was the last thing on his mind.
But since then, Kang’s been thinking about it a lot. After turning what little footage he had left into the award-winning film Bang the Machine, he’s been on a 15-year, on-and-off journey to have it see the light of day. The road has been rough and Kang still hasn’t defeated the film’s toughest opponent, but as in the scene he documented at the turn of the millennium, victory is always within reach.
From Designer To Filmmaker
Bang the Machine, a documentary series chronicling the emerging arcade and online culture of Street Fighter competitions, was the brainchild of Kang and Gene Na. The two were partners at Kioken, a cutting-edge web design agency with high-profile clients such as Diddy and Jennifer Lopez. A few years in, they decided to sell the company in order to pursue a life-long passion. “I was a big Street Fighter fan, I used to play on all the arcades,” Kang says. In fact, the two had met playing Street Fighter II in arcades, so naturally, they wanted to honor the community they’d been a part of for years.
Around that time, Kang was in San Francisco for a client meeting and decided to visit Southern Hills Golfland, a popular destination for the West Coast’s best Street Fighter players. There he met players like John Choi, Joey “Mr. Wizard” Cuellar, and Alex Valle – people he’d heard about in magazines and online IRC channels, but never met in person. They became fast friends, and after returning to New York, Kang and Na got to work. “We decided that since we had access to these people, if we could find a director we could start a film-production company with the hopes of licensing this [project],” Kang says.
That director was Tamara Lowe, a film student at the Rhode Island School of Design. Lowe was introduced to the pair through her roommate, a senior designer at Kioken. Lowe had been interested in making a documentary for a while, but wasn’t aware of the scene. “It was a steep learning curve for me, because I wasn’t a gamer,” Lowe says.
To orient Lowe in arcade culture, Kang took her to Chinatown Fair, a New York City arcade. There Lowe spent hours talking to players, learning their stories and nitty gritty details, such as how the survival-of-the-fittest and region-oriented culture of arcades sparked competition, and how players dreamed of playing video games for a living someday.
Select Your Character
Next, the film’s crew needed players to follow. Among the most popular games at the time was Street Fighter Alpha 3, and Alex Valle was its American champion. Valle wasn’t on board with the documentary at first, but changed his mind after speaking with Tom and Tony Can non, twin brothers who ran the tournament the film would center around, B4 (Battle By The Bay, which would later become The Evolution Championship Series, best known as Evo).
The film highlighted several players, including Valle, over the course of a year as they compete throughout Northern and Southern California in the lead up to B4. The stakes for B4 were higher than most other tournaments, since victory came with the chance to travel to Japan to compete in a fighting-game exhibition pitting the United States against Japan in a number of fighting games. “Back then traveling internationally was unheard of, because it was so expensive” says Cuellar, who helped run B4. “People almost never traveled for video games back then.”
Bang the Machine captures much of the raw passion that permeated the Street Fighter scene at the time. Though playing for your local region is still a big part of competitive gaming, rivalries were both more local and more heated in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. “There was no just being friendly and kind to everyone, it was super fierce,” Cuellar says. “If one of your rivals beat one of your team members, it was pretty personal.”