April 3, 2019

Beacon of hope: Mighty Mouse to bridge MMA and esports

There is a belief among professional athletes that it is harder to defend a title than to win it. Demetrious “Mighty Mouse“ Johnson, the UFC’s ex-flyweight champion, managed to do just that not once, not twice, but 11 times in a row, setting a new record for the most consecutive defenses. The world has baptized him as a fighter who is head and shoulders above others, coining this saying: ”there are good fighters, there are exceptional fighters, and then there’s Demetrious Johnson.“

On October 28, 2018, Demetrious Johnson officially joined the ONE Championship, an Asian martial arts promotion whose ratings have been skyrocketing over the last few years, with per event TV viewership going from 1 million in 2015 to 11 million in 2018. Consequent to Mighty Mouse joining ONE, the organization announced the ONE esports league with an intent to become Asia’s largest global esports Championship Series, and appointed Demetrious its Chief Ambassador.

“If you look at the entire world, esports has probably one of the biggest viewership numbers. Dota 2 World Championship had more viewers than the Olympics! Esports is huge in Asia, too. Best Starcraft II players live there, they have great Overwatch teams, and so on.

I knew about the esports movement that ONE Championship was going to be creating before I signed my contract. That’s what kind of preempted me wanting to get over here, because gaming is one of my biggest passions in life. ONE Championship has done an amazing job covering all types of martial arts, and now they want to bring esports to ONE fans. Once I was on board, they named me Chief Ambassador for esports. I’m happy to be a part of it,” Demetrious told me in a private conversation.

When he says gaming is one of his biggest passions, he means it. Mighty Mouse not only loves playing games, but he also likes to stream. He runs channels on YouTube (61,000 subscribers) and Twitch (168,000 followers). The numbers may not be astronomical when compared to professional streamers, but for an MMA athlete who does gaming in his spare time it serves as quite the testament to his affection.

As it turns out, Demetrious would love to try himself in the role of an esports athlete, too. “The biggest thing when it comes to esports — it’s a whole new ball game. These guys are clocking in 3,000+ hours in a game. They wake up, they play the game, they go to bed, and then do it all over again. You know, me being a father of three, a married man, and a mixed martial arts athlete — there’s no way I could find the time. I can barely find time to raid mythic dungeons with my WoW character. With this being said, I would love to one day, but realistically I don’t think it is going to happen in this lifetime,” he said.

These guys are clocking in 3,000+ hours in a game. They wake up, they play the game, they go to bed, and then do it all over again. You know, me being a father of three, a married man, and a mixed martial arts athlete — there’s no way I could find the time. I can barely find time to raid mythic dungeons with my WoW character. With this being said, I would love to one day, but realistically I don’t think it is going to happen in this lifetime,“ he said.

The organization is currently working on the list of games that will be included in the league so they can start inviting teams and players from all over the world.

According to Demetrious, we are not only going to see all the top disciplines like Dota 2 and Overwatch, but their competitors too. Given their popularity in Asia, there will also be fighting games. However, it is not yet clear if Battle Royale is going to make the shortlist due to guns being considered controversial in the region.

“The biggest thing with the shooters is that guns are illegal in Asia. I know it’s illegal to have a gun in Japan or Singapore, so I don’t know how it’s going to transfer over to the Asian public. We have to be sure that it is going to be very well received over there in Asia. Our goal is to do it the right way, to do it correctly,” Demetrious noted.

Interestingly, less than a week after my interview with Mighty Mouse, China’s ethics committee reviewed 20 games and recommended to ban 9 of them, including PUBG and Fortnite.

Since Demetrious Johnson is no stranger to both martial arts and esports, one of his primary duties as the Chief Ambassador will be to help bridge the gap between athletes and gamers.

“There is a stereotype that athletes don’t play games. As for gamers, I want to help them feel more at ease with athletes. Gamers spend so much time playing video games, they put so many hours into it, that sometimes they fail to find their place in society. Being the Chief Ambassador for esports basically means being a beacon of hope for people who want to get into gaming or who want to get into martial arts or athletics in general,” he said.

It seems like he will not be alone on that mission. Demetrious Johnson also told me that Martin Nguyen is really big into Overwatch and that Rampage Jackson, Jens Pulver, Angela Overkill love games too, as well as Robert Whittaker and Daniel Cormier.

“There are tons of them! I’m sure with time, when ONE esports launches, a lot more gamers will reach out to me. Don’t be surprised if in the future you see MMA athletes competing against each other in computer games. I think it’s a great way for them to do cross-branding, and for their fans — to see another side to their favorite fighters. In the future, you can very well see matchups like Martin Nguyen vs Demetrious Johnson in Street Fighter V, or something similar,” Mighty Mouse added.

While involvement in esports can help athletes to boost their media presence and show their other sides to the fans, regular sports can help esports athletes to boost their performance. Mighty Mouse believes that a daily regimen or some type of physical activity is good for keeping gamers’ bodies healthy and that it will help to improve their results in esports. “Doing sports like basketball, baseball, even swimming helps to keep the mind fresh. I reference basketball and baseball because these are team games. Baseball is more a reaction-based sport. You throw the ball, you hit it, sprint as fast as you can. You have to react to the ball. If you play something like Overwatch — it’s just what you need. Basketball is all about how to get the ball to the hoop, so it is good for team play improvement,” he explained.

Despite the importance of reaction and team play for esports athletes, these are not the biggest problems of modern esports — control over one’s emotions is. A lot of teams and players lose just because they start tilting or raging when something does not go the way they expected it to. They lose the first game in a best-of-three and do not know what to do, so they throw other games. This is what FaZe did at the Boston Major final against Cloud9. The Europeans who were considered match favorites lost just because they got frustrated and tilted.

“You could have the best player in the world, but the next thing you know — there are 12 matches, he loses 4 of them, and he still can win, but he is so mentally defeated that he can’t push through. He can’t flip on a switch and be like ’OK, I’m down, but I’m gonna come back and see what I can do.’ The ability not to get salty about your losses comes with the experience you gain through battles, losses, and adversity in your career.

For example, if an esports player was also an athlete in high school and suffered some losses and adversity in wrestling, it will be easy for them to deal with pressure during matches, because nothing is more demoralizing than wrestling someone knowing that you can’t physically beat them. That’s mental training,” Demetrious shared on the matter.

He also stressed that part of the blame for gamers spending so much time in front of computers and not being interested in anything else lies on their parents.

“It’s all about moderation. You have to discipline your children. As a parent, you have to teach them that playing games is okay, but they should also go outside and be active, get good grades at school. Playing video games is a privilege, not a right. Everything should be in moderation and in perfect balance.

My son loves playing video games. He wakes up and he says ’I wanna go play Monster Jam.’ And I tell him ’No, you go to school, when you get back you have lunch, then you go outside and do something productive, and then you can play video games.’

I’ll tell you more, I still have to discipline myself. As an athlete, a father of three and a husband I have to balance my game time, because I do want to just sit down and play video games the whole day, I really do, but I have to balance my responsibilities,” he admitted.

While Demetrious Johnson agrees that hardcore commitment to an esports or MMA career increases chances of becoming great, it equally increases the chances of a burnout. Dedicating yourself to one thing only and mastering it 24/7 may lead you to the Olympics, but it will deprive you of important social interactions or personal development, which is why a balanced life is way more rewarding.

His own life serves as the perfect testament to that. He did not start doing MMA until the age of 18. Before that, in high school, he did wrestling two-three months a year, as well as track and cross-country. Upon graduating high school, he worked a full-time job, and only after getting off he would go to the gym twice a week to practice mixed martial arts. That went on for a while, until the day he was able to quit his job and fully commit to daily training in pursuit of becoming a UFC champion.

“Up until that point, before I became the world champion and a professional athlete, I was balancing everything in my life. I wasn’t just thinking that I was gonna train all day every day and become the world champion — that’s where people mess up. Because if you don’t have that perfect balance, then you’re going to burn out, and it happens all the time. I just loved MMA. I had a passion for it. Wherever it took me, I followed. It just so happened that my passion brought me to the world championship level,” he said.

Demetrious believes that one of the reasons esports enthusiasts dedicate their lives to gaming only is because they see successful guys like Ninja and think that if they focus exclusively on gaming, they could become as successful as he is. But even Ninja had to work, study and play soccer while he was playing games professionally. He had to balance his life.

"I understand it with kids who are thirteen, who return from school and just plug away. Eight hours of gaming every single day and then they are 20 and millionaires, but I’m sure there’s a lot more people who’ve done the exact same thing and it went nowhere.

We can compare it to martial arts. There are 4 billion people in Asia. How many of those do martial arts? Let’s say you have that number. Now, how many of them are world champions? That’s my point. It’s just like with rappers. How many Lil Waynes are out there? That’s not what I would want for my children," Demetrious commented.

All that being said, ONE’s idea is a thrilling one, even though realizing it will be quite a challenge.

First, with so many different esports leagues and tournaments, some teams and players occasionally have to skip to avoid burning out. It will be a tall order for ONE Championship to prove that their league is worth attending. Can they do it? Given their growth rates as an MMA promoter and the organization’s track record on putting on huge events — I would say absolutely.

Second, given their franchise system, it remains to be seen if Blizzard and Riot will allow the use of their games, which means ONE may have to give up on them, unless a deal is reached.

However, if they manage to create a top-level esports league, then not only will we have a great show to watch, but the cooperation between esports and MMA will also elevate esports to a whole new level. ONE cultivates respect, honor, integrity and discipline among its fighters. If it manages to foster these same traits in esport athletes, it will not only give a push the industry, but also make it easier to gain recognition from top sports organizations like the Olympic committee.