Joe "LI Joe" Ciaramelli and Echo Fox's Justin Wong are two of the most noticeable figureheads, competitive players, and personalities in the North American fighting game community. Both are long-time veterans of the scene, well-versed in many fighting games, and multiple-time champions. The similarities, though, end there.
Ciaramelli's most polarizing moment last year in the 2016 Capcom Pro Tour was his fist-pump on stage during his match in the top-eight of the Evolution Fighting Game Championships (EVO) for Street Fighter V. Although the year was full of inconsistent performances and rare tournament appearances, a top finish at EVO was a high mark. His father's tears matched the emotions of most of the Mandalay Bay in Las Vega last July, and audience members and viewers at home witnessed a beautiful end to an unlikely run from a likeable underdog.
For Justin Wong, his early exit from the Capcom Cup finals last December was a humbling experience and came as a shock to those that expected a long run in the tournament from the North American legend. His disappointing run finished off his relatively successful year on a low note.
Now, both players will journey through the Capcom Pro Tour with completely different stories to tell.
Ciaramelli believes it's all about the start.
"This season, I do not have the highest expectation, but I've been playing more to stay sharp," Ciaramelli said. "My whole year will be determined by the success of both Final Round and the ELeague. I love being in the scene. Even in the last years of Street Fighter IV when I wasn't good at the game, I stayed around the community."
For Wong, with a new sponsor in Echo Fox to impress and a rejuvenated offseason, it was the perfect canvas for a fresh start.
"Last year was a rough schedule and it was tiring. I traveled to too many events and did not practice a lot with my work schedule; it was hard to manage," Wong said. "Now, I'm fully recharged and able to compete more because I can train more. I want to beat everyone in my way."
During the off time, Wong cited a two-week trip to Asia that aided in some much-needed relaxation, allowing for mental preparation for the upcoming year. Watching players in Asia boosted his overall motivation and competitive drive, and his time off helped him appreciate the community more. Still, one quick look at his schedule and his only free weekend from here until EVO (July 14-17, 2017) is May 12 -- so he's a bit booked up.
With Ciaramelli, his career took full precedence; no, not his fighting game career, his actual job as an assistant customer delivery manager. He was recently promoted and figured that "life things" needed to take priority over his fighting game aspirations. A lot will ride on his training, which consists of solo practice, and combo repetition for muscle memory and watching tape of top Urien (his new character choice) players. Notably, he watches Alienware's Naoki "Nemo" Nemoto.
"Urien was my favorite Street Fighter character ever and I used him in Street Fighter: Third Strike," Ciaramelli said. "Urien lets me play a bit crazy, nutty. I can abuse buttons and get easy damage, which is perfect, because I don't like to really apply myself."
The competition this year will not be easy. Both identified several younger players that could potentially be big targets in Bryant "SMUG" Huggins, Panda Global's Victor "Punk" Woodley, Takeuchi "John Takeuchi" Ryota and the trio from Echo Fox' Yusuke "Momochi" and Yuko "Chocoblanka" Momochi's school, Shinobism. Ciaramelli has Urien to combat the new and the veterans, but Wong's trump card is his new Cammy. Everything Wong likes about Karin (movespeed, normals, and whiff punishes) is inherent in Cammy, and the pair complement the other's bad matchups. Wong will take a similar approach to current Capcom Cup champion, Team Liquid Du "NuckleDu" Dang and carry a team of characters for any given situation.
The beginning of the year will be important for both Ciaramelli and Wong's playing schedule, though both placed lower than they'd like at Final Round in Atlanta last weekend. Still, if Ciaramelli does well at ELeague, his notoriety will continue to rise and he would add to his impressive resume.
"The scene is blowing up and I want to be there for the ride," Ciaramelli said.
Wong will still be Wong - always present, always competing. He has a new sponsor and redemption to claim after last year's Capcom Cup. In the end, the fighting game community will only benefit from more of either of these top players.