The secret Pakistan masters of Tekken

Pakistani players seemingly came out of nowhere to dominate the classic fighting game this year.

The secret Pakistan masters of Tekken

Pakistani players seemingly came out of nowhere to dominate the classic fighting game this year.

Jae-Min "Knee" Bae, widely considered one of the all-time greatest players of the video game Tekken, glistened with sweat. It was the final round of the the Evolution Champion Series (Evo) finals in Las Vegas in August — the second of the two most prestigious fighting game tournaments of the year. He was up against a relative unknown, Arslan “Ash” Siddique, who had become the first Pakistani player to compete at an Evo tournament that February, in Fukuoka, Japan.

“Look at Knee,” said live commentator Aris. “Have you ever thought he would look like this, perplexed as to how to beat his opponent?”

Knee swapped characters a few times in the five games they played, but nothing seemed to be working. Arslan continually sidestepped or jumped over Knee’s strikes, which for some characters in Tekken can come out in a fraction of a second — about the length of a blink. When Knee tried surprise attacks, Arslan always seemed to predict them. The match broke viewing records for competitive Tekken, with gamers all over the world witnessing Arslan’s eventual triumph.

“It’s unheard of! It’s never happened in the history of competitive Tekken, someone to come out of nowhere — Pakistan — and dominate the entire Korean, Japanese, European, and North American scene,” said Aris.

Arslan Ash is the first player to win both Evo events in a single year, since the tournament began in 1996. By the end of 2019, the floodgates had opened. Pakistani players began turning up at other events in the Tekken World Tour (TWT), an eight-month long tournament series culminating in an invitation-only Grand Finals for the top 20 players.

In October, Atif Butt and Awais Honey flew together to the Tokyo Tekken Masters tournament, eventually facing off against each other in the finals; they took home 1st and 2nd place. In November, Rox N Roll Dubai culminated in an all-Pakistani final again, this time between Awais Honey and Heera, who faced top players like Japan’s legendary Nobi. Of the twenty players who qualified for the Tekken World Tour Grand Finals in Bangkok, three — Bilal, Awais Honey, and Arslan Ash — were Pakistani.

Japanese and Korean players were looking to settle the score. The live broadcast of the Grand Finals cut to prerecorded interviews of the players before each match in the round robin. Nobi’s interview provoked cheers and jeers from the audience in Bangkok. “There are many strong Tekken players in the world, and the focus is on players from Pakistan at the moment,” he said. “But Tekken’s origins are from Japan, so I’m really hoping the Japanese players, myself included, are able to make our way into the top eight.”

Although Arslan Ash, Awais Honey, and Bilal were eliminated before the final round, the level of representation from an unknown region was unprecedented. Chatter on TWT's official Twitch stream dubbed the storyline the “secret Pakistan masters” arc — or “Flukestan,” depending on who you ask. Racist turban emoji spam in the Twitch chat aside, since February, Pakistanis have managed to make it out to 11 international tournaments, and they’ve snagged first place at all but three.

Tekken, which means “Iron Fist” in Japanese, first appeared in arcades in 1994, when fighting games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat were driving the gaming zeitgeist. Tekken added realism and complexity to the hand-to-hand combat format — it was in 3D, the characters sometimes had weapons, and the four buttons of the controller were mapped to each of your character’s limbs. The quick pace and one-on-one nature of Tekken or Street Fighter sets fighting games apart, but at a cost. Unlike today’s most popular games, like Overwatch or League of Legends, fighting games don’t translate well online, where even a millisecond of lag can have ruinous ramifications during a match. As a result, players in countries where there are still arcades to gather at are at an advantage when up against wifi warriors, or those who only play at home and seldom in public settings.

My first Pakistan-related Tekken memory is back in 1997, at a game store hidden in the jewellery section of Liberty Market in Lahore. While I was at the counter, there was a thirty-something man at the Tekken 2 kiosk, who I assumed was maybe a jeweller from next door. He was playing as the lucha libre character, King, executing his elaborate chain throws. I remember being awestruck. None of my friends had been able to get them down, but this uncleji could.

I had moved to Lahore from California in 1994. Initially the transition was jarring, but about a year and some change into it, I had secured access to a bike. Soon enough, I was discovering arcades all around Model Town, the housing development we’d settled in, and the surrounding areas. Back in California I had struggled to twist a joystick in a quarter circle motion to throw a hadouken, a fireball attack that has since become synonymous with projectile attacks in fighting games. Someone at a Pakistani arcade finally showed me you could do it by rotating the stick a full 360 degrees. It was “chaval,” he said — meaning “douchey” — but it worked.

Vintage blue-and-white arcade cabinets built by Japanese manufacturer SNK — coin-operated consoles that could hold up to six games — were commonplace in Lahore. They were cheap and modular, putting the arcade industry ahead of most other cultural imports in the city. While the local channels on TV were still airing reruns of The A-Team and Air Wolf, the latest editions of King of Fighters or Fatal Fury were just a couple rupees in Model Town’s C-block market.

Most of the Street Fighter cabinets were running smuggled boards with game-breaking modifications. I later found out that the counterfeit version of Street Fighter II was known in modding circles as the “Rainbow Edition.” It enabled my preferred character, Ryu to jump and throw double fireballs infinitely, an unpunishable exploit that was easy enough for even a chaval 12-year-old to pull off. But it was glitchy and unreliable — sometimes, characters randomly disappeared and appeared across the screen.

A year went by, and my friends and I started keeping track of the places that had unmodified versions of Street Fighter II, that wouldn’t mess up your game like the Rainbow Edition did. We discovered that there was a highly trafficked one at an arcade in Ichra Shopping Center.

Somehow, the Ichra regulars wrecked us. Us, the English-medium school kids, the ones with consoles and stacks of gaming magazines at home. Some of us even had dial-up. They may not have known how to pronounce the names of the characters — E. Honda was widely known as “laundry man” in Urdu — but they had the correct game plan and technique. And they learned everything by playing the game.

“For 30 years, Pakistan has been stuck in a pandora’s box, and now it’s open,” Zamin Abbas, the owner of Maniax Gaming hub, the hub of Lahore’s fighting game community, told me. “And its blast is proportional to how long we’ve been stuck.”

Lahore's Maniax arcade (Zamin Abbas)

Lahore's Maniax arcade (Zamin Abbas)

“Heera, Arslan, Atif, Awais, they all became players in front of me,” he continued. “They’ve played in conditions no other player in the world could have played in. No light, no fan, it’s hot. People would wait for hours for electricity to come back to rematch each other.”

There isn��t good internet in Pakistan, and even if there was, Pakistan isn’t available as a selectable region on the Playstation Network, making local spaces all the more vital. Abbas said running Maniax, which has been around for eight years, has started to pay off. “The arcades were dead when I started,” he said. Load-shedding — occasional blackouts deliberately initiated to keep the city’s electric grid running — presented an obvious obstacle to gameplay. “People said I was an idiot. My family said, son, what is this foolhardiness? Now, alhamdulillah, we are the biggest arcade in Pakistan.”

Awais Honey, who is now ranked the 9th competitive Tekken player globally, happened to be at Maniax when I called. “To be honest, I was always scolded for playing games so regularly,” he said. “But now I get a lot of support, after showing my family how good I am.”

Awais Honey holds court at Maniax (Zamin Abbas)

Awais Honey holds court at Maniax (Zamin Abbas)

I asked him what it was like to get to travel for the first time, to the grand finals at the Tokyo Tekken Masters tournament in October. “Japan was just like I had heard — one of the most beautiful countries in the world,” he said. “We couldn’t really eat much, everything has pork in it there.” They were still able to meet other globally ranked players, like Lowhigh and JDCR.

“We even went to the arcades there and played some Tekken,” he said.

A few years ago, Knee, echoing many of his peers, lamented declining interest in Tekken among Korean gamers. The game is a quarter of a century old now, and commercial arcades are on the decline in most countries.

In Pakistan, though, the infrastructure for gaming has somehow reached a level of stability that otherwise eludes the whole country. I spoke with Khaleel Hashmi, who runs the popular YouTube channel Tekken Gujranwala, which streams sets from his arcade. At his spot, arcades don’t have the overhead of needing to buy two $6,000 officially-licensed Tekken 7 cabinets to run sets with. He said carpenters make a variety of bespoke cabinets in which they house Playstations, connecting them to the United Arab Emirates’ Playstation Network and keeping them updated with prepaid credit.

“From the beginning until now, I’ve been playing at the arcades,” said Heera Malik. Like many other top players from Pakistan, Heera didn’t grow up with a console or PC at home. “I started playing King of Fighters in the arcades when I was 8 or 9 years old,” he said. “I’d head there right when I would get free from the madrassa.” Heera was obsessed with KOF for a few months before he moved on to Tekken. Having honed his memorization skills by studying the Quran in madrassa, he applied the same mental technique to gameplay.

Making it to the Tekken World Tour Grand Final almost didn’t happen for Heera. “I wanted to play in Thailand and there’s so many issues with applying for a Visa, I almost didn’t go. All the Pakistani players have this issue.” Travel in and out of Pakistan has long been a problem, since the destabilization of the region following the 1999 coup. The sixth most populous country in the world, which won world cups in both cricket and field hockey in the 1990s, has suffered nearly two decades of competitive isolation. This year Sri Lanka became the first international cricket team to agree to play in Pakistan in 10 years.

Many Tekken community members have asked for a masters-level tournament to take place in Pakistan, like the Tekken World Tour has in Tokyo and Dubai. Official TWT commentator Spaghetti Rip, a.k.a. Spag, collaborated with members of Pakistan’s fighting game community to put on a trial run of the concept this November, calling it the Takra Cup, named for the Punjabi word for “clash” or “collision.” It was a “dojo level” event, the lowest tier of affiliation. “We kept telling people it’s safe, it’s safe, it’s safe,” said Spag. “It’s like, the tournament was in Islamabad. It’s in a miniature resort at the Pearl Continental hotel.”

All the same, the usual obstacles remained. “Three top Korean players told me that their parents wouldn’t let them go,” Spag said. But when we spoke, Abbas told me that Knee was planning on coming to Maniax to practice against Pakistani players, in preparation for the TWT finals.

On November 27th, Knee was greeted at Lahore Airport with a bouquet of flowers, and left with a handmade portrait done in pencil by a fan. Videos of the Pakistani fighting game community showering the Tekken legend with attention spread as widely as clips from the exhibition matches.

Lahore’s Tekken community gave Knee a hero’s welcome when he arrived at Maniax. Local Tekken streamer Bawaqar Haidar led a pre-game toast to the visitor. Before its representatives were bested at the Tekken World Tour finals in Bangkok, Pakistan had developed a reputation of being unbeatable. But during his stay, Knee proved his mettle as the greatest of all time, defeating all but three players — The Jon, Heera, and Mereum. Bilal, who hosted the legend in Pakistan, posted a video as Knee departed.

“Before, I wanted to come to Pakistan, and many people were worried it was a dangerous place, that it’s not good,” Knee said. “Now I’ve visited Pakistan and my mind is changed.” He promised to visit again next year.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of time a strike can come out in Tekken.

Basim Usmani is a writer from Lahore and the bass player of The Kominas.