Sayed ‘Tekken Master’ Hashem got into games the same way as many of his generation: fighting for supremacy against his siblings.
Hashem’s earliest memories of gaming are when he was six, embroiled in digital fisticuffs with his brothers in fighting games like Tekken. He’d play against his brothers every day and, over time, he started to get good. Really good.
It’s a story typical of many esports athletes now, with everything familiar but the setting. The 21-year old Hashem is from the Kingdom of Bahrain, a tiny Arab monarchy in the Persian Gulf, surrounded on all sides by water. The relatively remote location, away from any large fighting game communities, has meant that he hasn’t had an easy ride.
Last year he caught international attention at Evo when he came second only to Dominuque ‘Sonic Fox’ Mclean, widely recognised as the best Mortal Kombat X player in the world.
Getting to the finals of Evo, one of the biggest fighting events in the world, from the losers bracket was no small achievement but what came next was phenomenal. Hashem beat Mclean once, resetting the bracket, and then lost by a single match, coming just shy of one of the biggest upsets in fighting game history.
Hashem is an experienced player though, even if the crowd didn’t know it, and he was acknowledged as one of the best players in the Mortal Kombat community, twice managing to snatch the Middle East Finals Champion.Still, as he hails from Bahrain, he wasn’t well-known by the crowd, and they didn’t see how much work went into his almost-upset.
Hashem’s story shows some of the problems
“I used to just enter the practise mode and practise with myself,” said Hashem, talking about his training rituals. The community in Bahrain is small, and those that do play are often more interested in Street Fighter or Smash Bros than Netherrealms fighters. “I’d watch tournaments, learn from the professional players and try to learn from my own mistakes. This is how I became so good.”
Originally, Hashem wanted to play Tekken. Years of experience as a kid had prepared him well. “They release Tekken two years before anywhere else in Japan and Korean arcades. Players have access to it two years before us.” Said Hashem. “That’s why I dropped the game.”
As a result, Hashem turned to the Netherrealm fighters, cutting his teeth on Mortal Kombat’s PS2 outing Armageddon. Something about the game clicked for him, and suddenly he was competing around the world.
This year, he won the Mortal Kombat X Tournament at Combo Breaker and came second in Netherrealms newest fighter Injustice 2, again losing to Mclean in the finals. Hashem is planning to stick to Injustice 2, and his next task is focussing on qualifying for the Injustice 2 Pro Tour, although he says it’s much tougher because of his location.
“I need to fly everywhere to European and American tournaments, because I’m not allowed to participate in online tournaments. Those are limited only for European and American region players, meaning that I have to fly around the world to compete.”
It’s difficult to fit in the travel around seeing his family, studying for final exams (Hashem is about to graduate with a degree in business management and marketing) and practice, but there’s no other options. This is life living in Bahrain and trying to compete at the top level.
Hashem, notably confident in our interview and also his tournament appearances, is focussing only on the premier tournaments. The premier tournaments are the only option for Hashem that doesn’t see him live on a plane full-time, mega-tournaments where a win can net you 250 points, three times as much as a win in the ranking or online tournaments.
This month this means a trip to Community Effort Orlando, known as CEO. Next month he’ll be returning to EVO, before pinballing between the premier tournaments happening in the European and North American regions.
“It is much easier for the American players, they have multiple advantage over our regions. It is not easy to make it as you have to qualify for the pro tour, and from our region very few will make it, just in terms of the financial and time investment.”
“It is easy for them (players from NA and Europe) but it’s not easy for me. I have to travel as much as possible, and I cannot miss tournaments. If I miss one, I’ll be losing points and people will overtake me. I’m second in the rankings currently, and I need to work hard to stay there.”
“I’m not sure how many points I’d need to qualify, but I guess if I win one more premier event, I’ll make it to the pro tour” said Hashem. “I don’t want to lose any momentum, and I want to win, and then perhaps go on to win the ELEAGUE Injustice 2 tournament, too.”
The ELEAGUE tournament has a prize of $250,000 for the winner, an amount of money Hashem said is “insane”, and could be life changing. He’s already, in financial terms, the most successful esports player to come out of Bahrain, but a win at the ELEAGUE event could solidify his reputation on the world scene too.
“ I need to work out what’s next,” says Hashem, who will graduate in six months. “After all the tournaments that I’ll be attending, I’ll just evaluate myself, if I keep placing high, I’ll just continue what I do and compete. If i’m failing maybe i’ll just drop fighting games. It’s a lot of money and time to try and qualify for all of these tournaments, and if i’m not at my best, what’s the point?”
Hashem doesn’t seem to be too worried about it, competing at the highest level of competition. However, it sheds a bright light on some of the problems faced by those outside of ‘official’ regions, and the struggles they can face for recognition. After all, not everyone trying to compete is one of the best fighting game players in the world, and even fewer have several big tournament wins under their belt.