By Saad Sarfraz Sheikh and Sonya Rehman
Arslan Siddique was 4 years old when he went missing one night from his home in Lahore, Pakistan. His parents panicked, fearing he had been kidnapped, or worse.
They eventually found their son, safe and sound, asleep outside a video game arcade.
It was a fitting start for the man now known as Arslan Ash, a 24-year-old esports superstar thanks to his prowess at the combat game Tekken.
In the years following his sleepwalking adventure, Ash became a regular at the neighborhood arcade, where he could access a magical world. Competing against men of all ages, he mastered the arcade’s most popular game, Tekken 3.
At 14, Ash won his first national gaming tournament. At 22, after claiming several more national championships, he announced he was dropping out of college to make esports a career. His mother, Khadija Siddique, cried. A lot. Ash had always gotten good grades and was on track to become a chartered accountant, a far more stable occupation in a country where esports is an alien concept.
Backed by a well-off friend, Muhammad Danish, Ash set out to prove himself on foreign shores. In his international debut at the 2018 King of Fight, aka KOF GCC, in Muscat, Oman, he defeated Japanese and Korean players whom he had idolized for years. “Esports to them is what cricket is to us,” Ash says. Following the competition in Oman, he traveled to Malaysia for a tournament but was unable to notch a single victory. “I felt immense pressure, as it was my first time on the stage, and my nerves got the better of me,” he says.
But the United Arab Emirates–based vSlash team spotted Ash’s promise and offered him the chance of a lifetime: a spot on the team, which, if he emerged in the top 10, would be permanent. With his funds for travel and tournament fees running out, failure would mean returning home and abandoning his dream.
Ash represented vSlash for the first time at the OUG Tournament in Dubai. Matched up against Jae-Min “Knee” Bae, a Tekken legend who has been playing globally for more than two decades, Ash didn’t have much of a chance.
But, deploying an unusual style that departs from what is typically used by South Korean and Japanese players, Ash won an upset victory against Knee.
“Arslan’s play seems like it is willing to go out of the box after poking and probing at his enemy’s tendencies,” says Mamoon “TeaTime” Sabri, a Pakistani esports commentator. “Afterward, he is willing to rely on brute mechanics to outplay enemies, by bringing in a completely unorthodox chain of moves which give him the advantage. From there, you just watch as he slowly boxes in his opponents.”
Following Ash’s victory against Knee, the esports universe exploded, and a new Tekken god was born. It was only Ash’s third international tournament and he was already trending on social media.
The next year, he won both EVO Japan — he defeated Knee again — and EVO USA, the World Cup of esports fighting games, drawing some 200,000 fans, akin to the number of fans that attend cricket matches in Ash’s home country. Heading into EVO USA, Ash lost his passport, which forced him to miss a local tournament. He recovered his documents, but arrived in the United States “frazzled,” in the words of best friend and fellow esports player Hafiz Adeel Javed. Ash regained his focus, though, and won, en route to becoming ESPN’s 2019 esports player of the year.
“His reactions and reads are absolutely second to none in any game I’ve seen,” says Jonathan Parkes, a commentator who has been involved with the fighting-game community for more than a decade. “It’s almost like a fairy-tale story for him: He showed up out of nowhere from a scene nobody knew about, and proceeded to become the best in the world in under a year. No shortcuts, it’s just pure talent and skill.”
With the pandemic hampering competitions, Ash is waiting to resume playing for vSlash internationally. In the meantime, he is focusing on streaming and social media platforms like Twitch.
He trains like a professional athlete in any other sport, with early-morning gym sessions, a diet of healthful foods and all-day practice. Praying before a match makes him feel centered, he says.
Ash’s favorite Tekken character is Zafina, because his mother likes her best. Khadija Siddique come around to her son’s choice of careers, as Ash now makes enough money to support his family, which, he says, is a far bigger award than any trophy. One moment of pride: buying the first air conditioner for his family home.
Ash, who often interacts and streams with fans on social media, has seen the number of esports athletes increase both in Pakistan and globally. The pandemic is further fueling the trend for the social-distancing-friendly activity.
Local esports tournaments have since resumed, and Ash hopes to resume playing as well. He has established a stream room in Lahore, where he trains and sponsors local Tekken players. “It’s purely merit-based. All the good players can come in and practice all day,” he says. “All you have to do is grab a console and play. No need to change even, just go and play.”