Kenny Omega is a busy man.
He’d just lost a match at the fighting video game tournament Street Fighter V Sea Major 2018, before being whisked away to appear as the special guest star at GameStart Asia last weekend in Singapore.
Before our interview, he tweets about his tournament loss but promises to make a return next time. He then puts down his iPhone and looks up at me with a smile. I return it. This is a heavyweight champion wrestler who can kick my butt not just in real life, but also in Street Fighter V.
Real-name Tyson Smith, the Canada-born 34-year-old Omega currently plies his trade in Japan, where he’s since taken up citizenship. He’s had quite a career spanning 18 years, winning titles in the US, as well as taking the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in Japan earlier this year.
Ass-kicking in the ring aside, Omega’s also known for bringing his love of gaming into his wrestling persona. He uses a move called One-Winged Angel, named after the title of Final Fantasy VII’s Sephiroth score, and even cosplayed as a Destiny 2 character in the ring against Chris Jericho.
‘The people that know, they know, and they enjoy it. The people that don’t know, they just look at what I’m doing and they’ll think, it’s either kinda weird, or think that’s cool. The image is neat anyway,’ Omega says.
Omega points to similarities between wrestling and esports, including online multiplayers Call of Duty, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Dota.
‘Both wrestling and gaming have very niche cultures, and now especially with esports. They are both very much viewing sports, so Street Fighter is fun to play and fun to watch, same with Call of Duty, PUBG, Dota — in wrestling, it’s all the same thing, you want to be entertained.’
Omega adds that in competitive games like Street Fighter, you’re often cheering for a certain player, and it’s the competition and relationship between players that makes Street Fighter similar to wrestling.
‘Gaming has evolved so much, it’s just as much a form of entertainment as TV or movies,’ Omega says.
Omega got into gaming pretty early. Growing up, his babysitter had an NES system, and Omega would play Punch Out, Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt and Excitebike. It’s likely those moments shaped his wrestling persona and current hobbies, though Omega stresses that he’s always wanted to be a wrestler.
Surprisingly, getting into Street Fighter was an accident. Omega was inducted into Japanese arcade culture thanks to the long waits between bouts. With nothing to do, playing against other wrestlers in Street Fighter at the arcade made a lot of sense to while away the time as well as make new friends.
And it’s not only fighting games he’s into. Omega plays his Nintendo Switch before bed, and has just set up a gaming PC. He’s also joined Team Razer as lifestyle gaming ambassador, where he uses and promotes Razer gear, and even competes under the Razer tag with a Razer Panthera Evo fight stick, which he brought to GameStart Asia.
His presence at the fifth GameStart Asia was also somewhat of a surprise. The convention usually plays hosts to game developers and voice acting talent. This year, GameStart featured Monster Hunter World’s director Yuya Tokuda and executive director Kaname Fujioka, as well as the voice of Overwatch’s Mei, Elise Zhang. A wrestler may seem like an odd choice, even if he is a gamer.
‘I came here with every intention to play some exhibitions and check out all of the games and they said, ‘why not play in the tournament’, and there’s no time to prepare,’ Omega says with a chuckle.
‘I come down, I last two minutes, do some interviews and while I’m playing people are taking selfies and that’s the life right? I don’t mind it, it’s fun, as much as I love to play games, it requires so much focus these days and it’s tough to make the balance.’
In between that, he took time to talk and take selfies with his fans, as well as give more media interviews. When I spotted him much later, Razer Panthera in hand, he gave me a cool nod, before heading off, back to his buddies in the fighting game community to enjoy the rest of the weekend.