One of the most attractive things about competitive sports, both organized and otherwise, is the idea of compelling narratives that build up and play out over time. There’s a larger context to an event than just the actions taking place in front of you, a storyline of momentum and relative tragedy that engages the viewer and speaks to people looking for something to latch deeper to latch onto. At this year’s EVO, the world’s largest annual fighting game tournament, nothing exemplified this better than iDom’s phenomenal Street Fighter run that ended in one of the most dramatic finishes in the event’s history.
It is impossible to talk about iDom’s rise within the competitive fighting game scene without first talking about Street Fighter’s dramatic decline. After essentially coming back from the dead with Street Fighter IV in 2008, the series had revitalized not just a flagging game franchise, but a genre that was largely written off by the mainstream, and a competitive scene that existed on the fringes. Street Fighter IV raised the banner for an influx of fighting games marching behind and eventually beyond it, setting expectations for Street Fighter V to at minimum continue that momentum.
It didn’t, really.
The launch of Street Fighter V disappointed a lot of players both in the fighting game community (FGC) and casual players. There’s myriad reasons why, many of which had been fixed in the intervening years, but the takeaway is that SFV was no longer the standard-bearer among a sea of greater options. The blunted rollout pushed a lot of mainstays and well-known names in the scene away from Street Fighter and toward other games, which were picking up more and more heat as Street Fighter’s own star flickered.
In this vacuum, a new generation of players began picking up Street Fighter V as Capcom toiled on improving criticized aspects like the game’s netcode, balance, character variety, and overall feel. This set the stage for players like Derek Ruffin, a younger player who started entering tournaments under the pseudonym iDom and racking up wins. He had chosen to main Laura, a character that traditionally got a ton of competitive play at larger events, because he liked her character design and combo style and practiced with her based mostly on that initial appeal.
While it would be its own compelling narrative to pretend Ruffin came from nowhere and shot to the top, it wasn’t that simple. In 2017, he started playing in Marvel vs. Capcom 3 tournaments from modest to surprising success. By his own admission, however, Ruffin’s ladder climb in both games required getting knocked down a number of times first. It was clear to spectators and his opponents that he was talented, but was still in the process of growing and each of those losses became another step toward improvement.
“Every time I lost, I asked the person I lost to, ‘What did I do wrong there? How could I fix that?'” Ruffin tells me. “People think it’s awkward to ask the person who beat you for help, but that’s how you get better.”
The wins kept coming as he learned more, taking more local competitive events and branching out to major national ones. The pandemic introduced a number of obstacles for tournament organizers, but also allowed people with more talent than resources to participate online and make a name for themselves. In 2021, his SFV debuts usually resulted in him taking regional victories at major events, to the tune of a few thousand dollars here and there.
Meanwhile, Ruffin was still finishing school and pursuing his degree as his main focus. His family and friends only really knew about his passion for fighting games peripherally, as he didn’t talk about it with them much. Upon winning the Capcom Pro Tour, which boasted a generous fortune of $250,000, Ruffin returned home to NYC.
“No one really knew anything about fighting games,” he says. “So I didn’t really feel the need to brag about it.” He simply tucked the quarter-million dollars away and quietly spent from it as he started training for EVO. It’s hard to imagine having that kind of restraint.
Ruffin’s humble modesty can almost be off-putting if you don’t immediately realize it’s sincere. Before the Street Fighter V top 8, he seemed completely unfazed by the enormity of it all, telling me in a quiet hallway on the side that he merely planned to do his best and hope it works out. I called him out on the surprising bashfulness considering his position, but he doubled-down on how important it was to keep his head from getting too big. Had he won EVO, he says, he would have gotten on a flight home and had a normal rest of the week.
In the double-elimination structure of the EVO tournament, a player has to lose twice to get sent home. A winner’s bracket produces a player who only needs to win one set — three out of five rounds — to clinch the championship in the final match. Everyone who lost a set, however, has to go through the loser’s bracket to end up at the grand finals. Once there, the contestant from the loser’s bracket has to win one set to reset the bracket and then another set to actually win the championship. Ruffin entered the top eight in the loser’s bracket and had a gauntlet of Street Fighter‘s best players in front of him.
One of these legends was Daigo Umehara, a player so widely known for his ridiculous Street Fighter skills that he became the basis of a meme for decades. He once famously parried a rapid-fire attack at the end of an Evo tournament in Street Fighter III to claim victory, which is referenced by players and even in a Super Smash Bros. Ultimate trailer to this day. Ruffin and Umehara had played against each other multiple times before, but Ruffin had never bested the Japanese icon. This time, he did not have the luxury to fail.
Several times during the match, it genuinely felt like it could have gone either way. Umehara is famous for “downloading” his opponents, wherein he briefly struggles to deal with their fighting style and then it suddenly clicks in his head. It was not long before Ruffin’s Laura was facing significant resistance from Umehara’s Guile, who seemed to be predicting his opponent’s every move. Had Ruffin lost, people largely would have understood; it’s Daigo, the Beast of the East, it’s an incredible feat to even stand against him, there’s little shame in losing.
But Ruffin didn’t simply stand against him. He defeated Daigo.
There’s no good-faith argument against Ruffin’s skill, but if one were to presume he managed to edge out Daigo based on luck, then surely Tokido would have been the opponent to prove it. The three-time EVO champ is one of Japan’s strongest players and is always a favorite to once again seize the championship in any fighting game with which he chooses to demonstrate his considerable skill. Before the fight, Tokido took off his headset and walked behind the stage out of view of most of the audience, and ran in place quickly to get himself hyped up. He was taking Ruffin seriously.
Despite this, Ruffin beat Tokido decisively. Tokido was unable to take a single match against the much younger player. Tokido’s Urien, which proved to be so powerful and effective against previous opponents, crumpled against Ruffin’s relentless offense. Chants of “USA! USA!” echoed throughout the stadium, as the country’s sole representative remaining in the tournament took down one of the strongest competitors to ever play the game.
The mind-boggling run continued against Gachikun, another Capcom Pro Tour champion. The two fought to a near-stalemate, with Ruffin ultimately achieving victory over Gachikun’s Rashid in a match of uncommonly played characters at the top level of competition. Having finally bested Loser’s Finals, Ruffin earned himself a place in the Grand Finals against Kawano, who had narrowly won his last match.
The winds behind Ruffin’s back were strong. More importantly for the audience, the narrative had become undeniably compelling. This NYC player who was doggedly pursuing improvement at the heels of every loss was now at EVO’s biggest stage, poised to possibly become champion. Earlier in the night, I asked Ruffin what would be next after EVO if he won.
“That’s it, right? There’s not a lot of mountains after that,” he says, then pauses. “I guess I just keep playing and see what happens.”
No one but Ruffin will ever really know what he was thinking about during his Grand Finals match with Kawano. On a stream last week, we joked that I accidentally got into his head by saying every dropped combo at a major tournament is like wrecking a car in terms of the amount of money lost. Half-an-hour later, he interjects, “I keep thinking about that car thing you said.”
I apologized for introducing that thought to his head.
In maybe one of the closest EVO finals ever, Ruffin did reset the bracket by winning the first set. It seemed likely he was going to take home first place on his performance, but Kawano fought back just as hard to stop him. With two wins each to their names, it came down to the final match for both. Then it came down to the final round. Then it came down to the final hit, with both their lifebars sitting a single attack away from being completely depleted. That attack belonged to Kawano and the loss ultimately went to Ruffin.
As the red-and-yellow “K.O.” symbol lit up the arena, Ruffin took his headset off and ran his hands back over his head. He clearly realized the championship slipped through his fingers. Though he came in as humble as he could allow himself to be, the person sitting next to a celebrating Kawano visibly couldn’t help but feel like he almost had it.
“I did my best, but the cards fell another way,” he explains later. “Nothing to feel bad about.”
Earlier in the evening, I overheard two spectators behind me waxing poetic about the upcoming Street Fighter V top 8 and how iDom was bringing a lot of excitement to the scene. They excitedly talked about the narrative hook of the young player’s insurgency through the last two years and how it has revitalized the scene. One of them remarked that iDom is the only American player around these days that can hang with Japan’s best. I conveyed this to Ruffin and asked what he thought of their appraisal and he bashfully brushed it off.
“I hope I’m as good as they say,” he says.
Despite Ruffin’s run ending in a loss, it may be impossible to convey to those not watching just how incredible and significant it was. He tore through the loser’s bracket, not just besting his rivals, but genuine legends in the scene. He took the finals to the last possible moment, creating the kind of ending you only hear about in exaggerated and embellished tales. He gave us a compelling narrative and, for better or worse, gave himself another mountain to climb next year.
After the match, I asked Ruffin if his Monday and rest of the week is going to be any different now that he lost. Would he go back to training immediately? Is he going to study the tapes? Is he going to lament this loss?
“It’s the same,” he answers. “I’m just going to fly back home.”