The Wall

My name is Jam Stunna.

I was born Jamil Rashad Ragland on October 21st, 1985. Names are a funny thing, because they determine so much of who you are and how the world relates to you, yet you have almost no say in picking your name. Your parents say, “You’re a Jamil,” so I’m a Jamil. I went by that name exclusively, until 2003. I was playing a game with my brother, and after performing a particularly impressive move, he said, “Damn, Jam Stunna!” As soon as I heard it, I said, yes. That’s my name. It’s the name I use in every videogame I play competitively. I had the chance to choose who I would be known as to my opponents.

Why videogames though? Why not chess or bowling? I have no idea. My love for videogames began before I can remember. My parents told me the story of renting a Nintendo Entertainment System from Blockbuster (yes, I’m now old enough to be able to tell stories about practices and places which no longer exist), and spending hours playing Super Mario Bros.  When they came to a level that they couldn’t beat, they handed me the controller. I was two years old.

Videogames have always been a part of my life. For Christmas in 1991, all I wanted was a Super Nintendo. My brothers and I knew that the big box wrapped in gold paper was it. Our mother compromised with us: we could open one present at midnight. The golden box was chosen, and we stayed up until 4:00 AM playing Super Mario World.

That Super Nintendo was also the site of one of my most crushing defeats. We eventually got a little game for it called Street Fighter II. Until then, the only chance I had to play it was in a barber shop near Kent Street in Hartford. My father would take my brothers and I with him when he went to visit his friends, and we would run to the barber shop, quarters in hand, to play Street Fighter II on the lone arcade cabinet in the shop. The adults beat us without mercy- losing meant that you went to the back of the line, so no quarter was offered. I couldn’t get enough of it. When I finally got my hands on the cartridge for my Super Nintendo, I practiced obsessively. I played the arcade mode over and over again, trying to beat the game as fast as I could on the hardest difficulty. I sparred with my brothers and friends, and became the best Street Fighter player in my neighborhood. No one could touch me.

And then my uncle from Georgia showed up.

Eric was the cool uncle. He was in his twenties, tall and thin like a blade of grass. I thought his accent was funny, and it made his jokes even funnier. He’d come to visit for a couple of weeks, and one afternoon I introduced him to Street Fighter. He’d never played the game before, so I was ready to show him all sorts of neat tricks I’d learned after hours of playing.

He beat me without me even laying a finger on him.

As the announcer called out “Perfect!“, I was dumbfounded. How could this happen? I was the best! Not only had I been defeated, I’d been embarrassed. Double-perfected by a man who had never played the game before. I swore that such an affront would never happen again. I played and played and played, but my rematch against my uncle never came. He’d wisely taken his W and retired from Street Fighter with a 100% winning average.

I learned that day that there’s always someone better, but I would be reminded of that lesson again just over a decade later. I’d shifted my competitive focus away from Street Fighter and towards Super Smash Bros. instead. I was even more relentless in my practice for that game. I went online to message boards to read about advanced strategies, watched match footage, organized round robin tournaments in my college dorm, and played almost nonstop. When I arrived at my first tournament for Super Smash Bros. Melee, I was ready. I knew I was going to win.

And then I ran into Cort.

He was the best player in Connecticut, and one of the best players in the country. He proceeded to four-stock me, the functional equivalent to the whooping my uncle had given me in Street Fighter.

I’ve only won one tournament in all my years of competitive gaming. I’ve never beaten anyone of note. I’ve never traveled farther than NYC for a tournament. I’ve never made it out of pools at a major event. I’m what they call a “pot monster,” someone who shows up to a tournament with no realistic chance of winning, who is basically just contributing their entry fees to the haul of the eventual winner.

But that doesn’t matter. Of course winning is important, but the challenge, the opportunity to learn, is more important. Yesterday I couldn’t do this combo, but today I can. Yesterday, I didn’t understand frame data, but today I do, Yesterday, I didn’t know what 236H meant, but today I do. Every day I can improve, and that improvement translates into wins. When I lose, I can clearly see why. My opponent was better than me. They executed better than I did. They understood the matchup better. They had a better game plan. I can go home and work on that, and do better tomorrow.

When I ran into Cort at that Smash Bros. tournament, he was like a wall. I’m proud to say that when the challenge presented itself, I chose to try to scale that wall. I lost, but I went home and practiced, and improved. So much of everyday life feels mired in mundane inanity, and maybe videogames belong in that category too, but I don’t feel like they do. I can’t be the best registrar, or the best journalist, or the best legal assistant. I can be the best Smash Bros. player, or Dragon Ball FighterZ player, or Street Fighter player. That doesn’t mean I will be, but when I run into that next wall, I will have the choice to run away and give up, or try my best to scale it.

And I won’t do it alone. This journey has introduced me to the best people I’ve ever met. DarkDragoon, Trademark, _V_, AxelSlam, Cort, milktea, thumbswayup, JV Smooth, AOG, Flaco, Handsome313, Marjeezy, Brookman, LessThanThree, AwsmSean, Silas, Mr.GaryPhil, Prince of Fire, Manny, OtakuChin, Vyers, Minato, L-W-X- those words sound like random nonsense to many people. But to me, those are the names of my friends. Those are the people who have known me the longest. They’ve watched my son grow, from swinging in a bassinet while we practiced wavedashing and link combos to watching him win his own matches in tournaments now. We’re spread around the country, and even the world now, and we’re still united by the love of the game which grew into our love for each other.

They’re the people who know my real name.

 

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