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Pakistan's Tekken pros look to continue to prove their worth in 2020

Caitlin O'Hara for ESPN

"Eik Naya Baazigar Pesh Aya!"

That's a loose Urdu translation of "Here Comes A New Challenger!" Urdu is the national language of Pakistan, which until 2019 wasn't represented much in the world of esports. Its most high-profile competitor was Syed "SumaiL" Hassan, a renowned Dota 2 player who, shortly after moving to the United States, became the youngest-ever player to win The International, earning the 2015 title with Evil Genius at the age of 16. Hassan has earned over $3 million in prize money in his career, making him the 10th-highest esports earner worldwide, according to Esports Earnings.

But the most popular competitive titles in Pakistan are fighting games. With accessible and affordable nationwide internet service still playing catchup, gamers in Pakistan often come together in person to practice and compete, region by region -- a familiar setting to the roots of the FGC. In cities such as Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, Tekken took center stage. Little by little, like iron sharpening iron, players in Pakistan were improving.

Whispers about their developing skills traveled the globe.

"​Certain people were told by people from Pakistan that their players were amazing, but people [have made] that claim a lot with very little credence in the past, so it was dismissed," said James Chen, a longtime FGC commentator and historian. "But this time it turned out to be true."

If 2018 caused the FGC to slightly crank its head backward for a glance, 2019 made it stop dead in its tracks and completely turn around.

"There have been instances of countries showing up and showing up strong, but nothing to the degree that Pakistan [has done]," Chen said. "Arslan Ash winning Evo Japan and Evo back to back against the toughest competition is pretty unprecedented in any competitive genre, in my opinion, not just fighting games."

The man Chen mentioned, Arslan "Arslan Ash" Siddique, led the charge.

After traveling to his first international tournament in 2018, Arslan Ash's air miles ticked up in 2019. He shined at the biggest events, and the world took notice. After he completed his then-seemingly improbable Evo feat, more players from Pakistan began to attack the international scene.

Their mechanical prowess, a deep game sense, advanced number-crunching and a healthy sprinkle of the element of surprise formed a perfect recipe that helped the Pakistan contingent find ample success in 2019, even with Arslan Ash's early elimination from the Tekken World Tour final in December.

Commentator Hassan "SpaghettiRip" Farooq has spoken to a few players about what makes Pakistani players so good. One of them, Bae "Knee" Jae-min, said pressure and clean play are a staple for the players he's faced.

"He characterized it as strong space control with not much sidestepping but amazing punishment," SpaghettiRip said. "I think it's a really simple style based around a solid mind game which involves them getting into your head."

The numbers game also helps. Mechanics, coupled with an understanding of the game's frame-by-frame animations, set players like Arslan Ash up well against any top competitor.

"They play using frame data extremely well," said Vincent "Super Akouma" Homan, who faced Arslan in tournament play at RoxNRoll Dubai 2019 in November. "They don't tend to overextend, and they definitely don't let you do it either."

Other competitors from Pakistan soon followed behind Arslan: Awais "Awais Honey" Iftikhar defeated Knee at FV Cup in Malaysia after resetting the bracket in the grand final. Awais and Atif Butt participated in an all-Pakistan grand final at Tokyo Tekken Masters 2019, with Atif taking home first prize. Both Awais and Atif defeated 2019 Tekken World Tour Final winner Yuta "Chikurin" Take at the tournament. Awais won another all-Pakistan Final at RoxNRoll Dubai 2019, defeating Heera Malik, who eliminated Evo 2018 winner ​Yoon "LowHigh" Sun-woong earlier in the tournament.

As high placements and victories over established pros mounted, people started to buzz about the new kids on the scene. The game's top players decided they had to discover this region for themselves.

Chikurin​​ and Knee were among those that traveled to Pakistan for the sole purpose of training and learning. They were welcomed with open arms. Knee received a hero's welcome at the airport.

It wasn't all cheers for Pakistan in 2019, though, as it did end on a sour note: At the Tekken World Tour Finals in December in Thailand, the trio of Last Chance Qualifier winner Bilal Ilyas, Awais Honey and Arslan Ash all failed to progress from the group stage, earning a combined four wins. Knee, in particular set his crosshairs on Arslan Ash, specifically chose his group and defeated Arslan, sending him home.

"You can't win all the time," the Pakistani star said.

What could have been a storybook ending for Pakistan at this tournament became at best a hiccup and a retribution story for Knee, but at worst a warning sign for things to come. After all, this was the first time any player from Pakistan qualified for the Tekken World Tour Finals, let alone three competitors.

Rick "TheHadou" Thiher, an Esports Program Manager at Twitch and Event Director for Combo Breaker, said he believes nerfs to characters and a few slight mistakes made the tournament on the Pakistani contingent but that the results weren't as rough as they seemed.

"When you look at the individual matches from finals, you see players still competing at the highest level," Thiher said. "Arslan Ash, Awais Honey, and Bilal were each only a couple of decisions away from more celebrated placements. Given that this was only their first trip to the Finals, I expect the losses suffered there to fuel the focus needed for even greater success in 2020."

So now, here we are, looking at the year ahead, staring at the biggest questions in Tekken regarding Pakistan: What will their results be in 2020? How will they perform in their proverbial sophomore year? Will they be able to produce good results and wins now that the element of surprise is gone?

Will they even be able to get to these major events regularly?

As we saw in 2019, attending major events has been a challenge for Pakistan. Arslan Ash's travel woes to Japan for Evo have been well documented. Visas and flights will remain a significant concern going into the new decade.

Luckily, the sponsorships are coming. Arslan Ash was the first Pakistani Tekken player to land a deal with a big brand, signing with Red Bull in November. Money for other competitors might not be far off, and if players can clear those visa and funding hurdles, the Tekken scene might have some different faces at the top this year.

"2020 will be the first year these Pakistanis can experience a full year of the world tour," SpaghettiRip said. "I'm excited to see how much damage they can do considering how much they did with less than half a season.​"

Bilal Ilyas, who placed 13th at the Tekken World Tour finals after making it out of the Last Chance Qualifier, said his region is up to the challenge and ready to make more noise internationally.

"L​earning from our bad experiences is the key specialty of Pakistanis," he said. "Pakistanis are learning and will never stop until we become the best. I'm not [trying to boast], but I know that we have the talent since more players are getting sponsors and getting recognized, many of which even haven't competed at international platforms.

"I hope Pakistan will learn and win most of the titles (in) 2020, inshallah."