As someone who's always been a big admirer of competitive TEKKEN and fighting games in general, it would be pretty difficult not to know about the legacy that is Ryan Hart (a.k.a. "Prodigal Son"). I think I met him in 2013 or so; he signed my arcade fight-stick, I realized then he was a very kind and humble guy.
Ryan Hart is a veteran in gaming, to say the least (he now holds 4 current Guinness World Records, over 400 tournament wins globally, and was nominated UK esports player of the year in 2016). Ryan Hart was the highest-ranked UK player on the Capcom Pro Tour Global leaderboard for years 2014 and 2016. Hart has worked as a presenter, TV host, Esports commentator, and provides consultation and expertise in the field of digital entertainment for a variety of clients around the globe.
In addition, Hart was the first FGC gamer to travel internationally with sponsorship. He single-handedly pioneered a sponsorship model that many young competitors benefit from even to this day.
I was able to catch up with Ryan at the end of 2018 and ask him a few questions. With over two decades of professional gaming experience, and one of the first in a generation of Fighting Game legends; Ryan equips a wide variety of game knowledge and expertise, making him one of the strongest examples of how dedication and a passion for the sport can enrich one's life. It was an honor to chat with him.
Him - How have things been lately? There's a lot going on in the gaming world - but how have you been? 2018 is coming to a close now and we're moving into the future. How does everything that has been going on in the world sit with you?
Ryan Hart - Hello! I'd say it's been a productive 2018 and I'm looking forward to the new year where I'll be able to learn more and make life better for my family.
Him - I want to know about how you feel about fighting games in general, but first; how did you get your start? What was your first fighting game?
Ryan Hart - Hmm, when you say 'my start' I assume you mean sponsorship? To be honest, this wasn't really a thing back when I was a teenager. Even though I traveled around and entered tournaments, this was all of my own money that I worked full time to get. There were some small sponsorships but nothing significant.
Sometimes tournaments had prize pools, but they weren't that substantial yet either, even if the tournament had hundreds of players… So, sometimes you didn't even make your money back, even if you won. However, this was my passion and I loved it, so none of that mattered to me, it was just about playing and learning. My wins and losses all created learning situations from which I moved forward. My first fighting game was probably Street Smart, or Street Fighter 1, or IK+ if you wanna include computer games too. [Laughs]
Him - What makes a great player? Is it a skill? Is it something you're born with?
Ryan Hart - This is an interesting question, I think there are elements of both having something you're born with and working hard to develop yourself once you attach your mind to something. Nobody just wins without a degree of hard work and commitment, talented or not. Furthermore, even if someone is supposedly not talented, it doesn't mean they can't win if they dedicate themselves to it. Results and achievements can be worked for and earned like a day's wages.
Him - Can you try to describe what it's like to be in your mind during the game? Maybe even pre or post a big tournament?
Ryan Hart - You don't want to be in there, trust me. It's a danger zone. I'm pretty sure my cerebellum wears a hazmat suit. I mean, regarding a mindset during an event, I'd say that it depends on the game, the event, and what my preparation is like. There is no uniform mindset, each event can require different things from you depending on the event and your situation, so what's important is knowing yourself for the most part. People look around a lot, but the answers often lie within.
Him - Can you walk us through how you think about, say Street Fighter or Tekken? Is it possible that the way you think about the game contributes to your ability?
Ryan Hart - I've enjoyed adapting myself to different games in various ways, and I've experienced them all as individual challenges. I don't think I have any abilities.
Him - Who is your favorite character (from any game)?
Ryan Hart - This is too difficult to answer with one character. I like so many characters in each game and the answer is very different for certain things. Fighting style? Aesthetic design? Purely visual design? Storyline? These parameters change things. Some of my favorites are Kage Maru and Lau Chan from Virtua Fighter; Clark Steel and Iori Yagami from King Of Fighters; Kazuya Mishima and King from Tekken... I used to like Sagat and Ken in SF but their SFV versions aren't as fun as they were before.
Him - Can you tell us about "Prodigal Son"? Where did you get the name and what it means to you?
Ryan Hart - The nickname was chosen from a 1981 Chinese martial arts movie called 'The Prodigal Son' starring Yuen Biao, who was one of my favorite actors during that era of kung fu movies. The story is about a guy who initially thinks he's the best in his town, but what he doesn't know is that he's actually bad, and only wins fights because his Dad secretly pays his opponents to lose. The idea behind the name was to have a modest approach to winning a lot at the time. The nickname people gave me before that was "The Terminator" but I didn't think it suited me after some time and looked for a change.
Him - Can you tell us about competitive gaming has changed? Maybe some of the pros, some of the cons?
Ryan Hart - It's changed enormously, the world having no internet was massive! For a start now you can play online without even leaving your house if you want to, which is great. Back in my youth, you had to go to the arcades (which weren't always near your home) and spend money to play in a public venue, which was also cool in a different way. People socialized regularly in person through their passion, became friends, and it was good to be able to put faces to play styles. Having a high-level gaming place where people congregated daily was nice.
No internet also changed a lot of things when preparing for a competition. Like when I think back to my first serious tournament for KOF in 1996, I had to create every piece of content all by myself, which took weeks, months even. It's great that now you have tutorials, thousands of replays online to learn from, discord, web forums and lots more. You can watch matches from your potential opponents online, watch them in previous events, etc., frame data is public knowledge and the list goes on. You even have basic combos and a training mode all in the game so you can try any ideas you have. I wish I'd been born a bit later. [Laughs]
The Tekken 3 World Championship that I won in 1999 started with 1024 players, but I didn't know anything about a single one of them outside of the ones that were from the local area.
It's really cool that you can play online daily now vs. different countries, or even an entire continent or more, but back then you could only play when you could go to the arcade AND play against just that limited pool of local players. Although with that said, the atmosphere (since you were playing offline in front of an audience) was a lot better for tournament preparation than playing online.
Him - How does maturing into your legacy feel? Did you always think you have such an impressive record and presence in gaming? You may be one of the first in a generation of Fighting Game legends…
Ryan Hart - So that's what this is? [Laughs] I don't know, I guess it feels amazing? I feel a strong sense of gratitude to be honest since I couldn't have done this on my own. Without my friends, family, supporters, sponsors and the local community, I couldn't have done anything. This new feeling, I'd say it's 'relaxed and content'.
I no longer have a desperate urge to chase after a specific tournament title or rival player anymore like I used to, and for me, gaming was never about money anyway so I'm good there too. I just feel content and happy, and tournaments are just about enjoying myself now. 2019 marks my 25th anniversary, since my first ever tournament where I got beat down. What a day that was, but for me, this year serves as a reminder that it's worth pursuing a dream if you have it, that you shouldn't give up on things, as Naruto cliché as that sounds it's true, depending on the dream obviously.
Regarding what I expected, I didn't see this on the horizon at all. I always thought I'd just play games as a hobby alongside studies and work. Once it took off though, I really found a new appreciation for the FGC world once I was able to start traveling around to meet different communities and see different countries and cultures.
Him - How have fighting games shaped your identity? Which one has had the most impact on you personally?
Ryan Hart - Fighting games allowed me to see the world, and because of that, I now have a deeper appreciation for what I have, what I don't have and just for life in general. I think games gave me a sense of value as I lacked purpose as a teenager.
Him - Is there any one thing you would want people to know about your legacy or your journey as a fighter? Would that one thing be directed at the FGC or to people as a whole?
Ryan Hart - I feel like I'm supposed to say some super profound statement here. [Laughs] I would, however, like to say a big thank you to all my fans and supporters, who stayed with me through everything, this has been very touching and encouraging for me, so thank you.
Him - Thanks, Ryan.