For one day, the Dominican Republic was on top of the fighting game world.
Saul "MenaRD" Segundo capped off the Street Fighter V Pro Tour with an improbable victory at the Capcom Cup, the culmination of every fighting game event on the Pro Tour in a single calendar year. It was one of the biggest victories in history as the 18-year old Dominican, representing one of the smallest communities in the fighting game scene, went up against the perennial favorite, Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi, and in some respects, Japan. For MenaRD and his friends and family back in the Dominican Republic, this victory was life-changing.
MenaRD's cheering squad was one of the most vocal groups throughout the tournament weekend and their passions paid off. The Dominican Republic was the story coming out of the Capcom Cup, with its successes few and far between before 2017. One of the first players to truly showcase the talent from that region was Ray "DR Ray" Noboa.
He first blew up in 2011 with an extended tournament run during the Evolution Fighting Game Championships. Now a tournament veteran, DR Ray believed the main reason for his country's invisible presence had more to do with the strict standards and procedures to secure a visa than the skill level of the players.
"I was one of the few players that had a visa and could get out of the country," DR Ray said. "I was very young at the time -- 17-years-old -- and it was incredibly difficult to secure funds. Everywhere I went was out of my pocket."
DR Ray debunked the common theory the levels international players were at were unattainable in the Dominican Republic. He fought against top Japanese and American talent like Daigo Umehara and Justin Wong and pushed them to their limits. His triumphs over these untouchable players led to his proclamation to the rest of the Dominican Republic that they had the level necessary to compete with the best out there.
Street Fighter IV provided the boon and player growth the fighting game community needed and the Dominican Republic was no different. Players like DR Ray and Cristhopher "Caba" Rodriguez became competitive players as a result of the game's popularity. Because of his travels abroad, DR Ray took on a mentor role in addition to being one of the group's best and most polarizing players. It was an unspoken goal for each player that became instilled under the tutelage of DR Ray: prove the Dominican Republic was strong.
"Our motivation is where we come from. We want to show the world that we have talent," Caba said. "Our community looks to the successes of the players and believe that we can do it too."
The pitfalls of the Dominican Republic extend past the hurdles players have to do to acquire visas. The lack of sponsorship and resources to get out of the country are prevalent for even the best players in the community. The prospects of playing games professionally can wind up being pipe dreams, in the end. Capcom Cup champion MenaRD even thanked Street Fighter, his friends and inspirations in the community for preventing him from potentially becoming a thief to make ends meet.
"The main issue is in the Dominican Republic, no one takes esports seriously. It's really hard to get out of the country because you need to fill a standard to get a visa and sometimes they just don't give it to you," MenaRD said. "The region has some really dangerous places so it's always risky to go to places in public transport. Unless you have a car, you'll have to go through a lot of stuff."
Low resources affect even the sessions that the community plays for Street Fighter V. A common scene will see a gathering of 10-15 players with one monitor and a weekend to grind out games and strategies. But you will not hear any complaints from these talented players. Each and every one of them possess the hunger that makes a champion -- the Dominican Republic is strong and the rest of the world will take notice; that's the mantra DR Ray has instilled every player. It's a real life underdog story, but the players from the region are not letting their struggles define their story.
"We believe we're strong because we teach each other our weaknesses and how to improve on it," Coba said. "We play the game like it's war. We play with our hearts and to show both the world and ourselves who the strongest players are."
The Dominican Republic players watch videos of high-level play to sort out the various techniques and specific technology that the competitors use; they counter it by playing aggressive to prevent those situations from happening. DR Ray said that every loss for the player's mind is an important one; every player will do what it takes to prove the outcome wrong the next time.
MenaRD's victory will be a rallying cry for the rest of the Dominican Republic players that need the inspiration. The community already plays and treats the game as a profession even if the culture that surrounds it looks down on it as just a hobby. Success is possible, despite the odds. MenaRD stated that before, the thought of making a living off fighting games was a pipe dream, but it's more realistic now than ever.
"This is a dream come true because our players are taking the next step," DR Ray said. "Our community is incredibly strong and people are going to start coming out just like I did."