How Pakistan became Tekken esports’ unlikeliest powerhouse

How Pakistan became Tekken esports’ unlikeliest powerhouse
Alex Raisbeck Updated on by

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There are some countries that are the epitome of esports. The USA, China, Japan, South Korea – look at almost any esport and you’ll find players from at least one of these countries at the very top. In fighting games, this is often more pronounced, with these nations commanding the Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Dragon Ball FighterZ scenes and more. Even Smash Bros., which breaks the mould with success stories from Mexico and Sweden remains dominated by players from the US and Japan.

And for many years, Tekken was no different. South Korea has long been recognised as the most dominant country in the Tekken scene, with players like Byeong-mun “Qudans” Son, Hyun-jin “JDCR” Kim, and Jae-min “Knee” Bae – dubbed the “King of Tekken”. While not the best, that certainly doesn’t mean the USA and Japan are no pushovers, each sporting some of the best players the game has ever seen.

So when an unknown Pakistani player turned up to EVO Japan and started laying waste to some of the biggest names in Tekken esports, people started to take notice.

If you asked most people where they thought would be the next esports powerhouse, Pakistan wouldn’t be high on many people’s lists. It’s a country where over 20% of the population lives in poverty. Where severe flooding has killed thousands, and caused billions of dollars worth of damage. It’s a country where you can’t even officially buy an Xbox or PlayStation because of a lack of distributors.

Luckily, Pakistan is a country of arcades. Visit cities like Lahore or Karachi and you’ll find plenty of arcades where Pakistani players gather to hone their Tekken skills. While the Koreans, Americans, Japanese and more were taking each other on at international majors, Pakistan’s Tekken players were practising with each other, developing an aggressive and unique style of play that would blow the game apart.

But no matter how good the Pakistani scene was as a whole, there was one major barrier that stopped any Pakistani players from even having the chance to showcase their talent – their passports. Pakistan has one of the weakest passports in the world, and if you don’t have the money or the connections, getting a visa to go to countries like South Korea, Japan, and the US can be almost impossible. 

Without a visa, you couldn’t compete, and without competing, how could you earn a visa? For years, this vicious cycle would stop Pakistan from having the chance to even play on the international stage. But in 2019, one player finally got his opportunity, and he grabbed it with both hands.

Arslan “Arslan Ash” Siddique was born in Lahore in August 1995 and spent his younger years playing Tekken and King of Fighters in the city’s arcades. But it wasn’t until 2018, that his chance would come. He had managed to secure a visa to attend the 2018 FV X SEA Major in Malaysia. Arslan would finish a respectable Top 12, which did enough to clinch a sponsorship with the UAE-based organisation VSlash esports, who flew him out to Dubai for the 2018 OUG Tournament.

In Dubai, Arslan came into his own, taking down everyone in his way before reaching the Grand Finals against the King of Tekken himself, Knee, where he would take three games in a row to down one of Tekken’s best players 3-0 in only his second ever international tournament. But people thought it was a fluke. He got lucky. Knee was having an off day. People refused to give Arslan the respect he deserved – at least to begin with.

Arslan’s toughest test yet would be EVO Japan, one of the biggest events in the fighting game calendar. Visa issues and currency problems meant that his journey to Fukuoka took him three days, sleeping in airports, and at points, not even eating. He arrived at the event just as his first match was about to begin, sleep-deprived and hungry. He managed to defeat Knee again, before being knocked down into the Losers Bracket. This could easily have been the end for Arslan. Instead, it turned into one of the greatest runs ever seen in fighting game esports.

Chanel, Rickstah, LowHigh, Book, jimmyjtran, chikurin, CherryBerryMango – these are some of the biggest names from around the world in Tekken. And Arslan Ash, the nobody from Pakistan, took down every single one to set up a final with the Philippines’ AK. 

In another world, AK’s win could have catapulted the Philippines to the top of the scene, but Arslan was simply unstoppable. A 3-0 win to reset the bracket was followed up with a 3-1 win to secure the EVO Japan title. One of the most unlikely upsets in esports history was complete. 

And if that wasn’t enough, Arslan would defeat Knee again in the EVO 2019 final to become the first Tekken player to win both tournaments in the same year. In the space of one year, Arslan Ash had gone from a relative nobody to the undisputed best Tekken player in the world, putting Pakistani Tekken firmly on the map.

His win at EVO Japan opened Pakistani Tekken up to the world. More players started receiving sponsors to travel abroad and compete. Atif Butt, the current Tekken World Tour champion is from Pakistan. And in the recent Gamers8 3v3 Nations Cup, Team Pakistan resoundingly took home the trophy with Arslan at the helm. While South Korea might still have the most players at the top of the game, it’s hard to argue that Pakistan isn’t the best nation in Tekken right now. This weekend, the world’s best are descending upon Las Vegas for EVO 2023, and all eyes will be on Arslan Ash.

Pakistan’s meteoric rise to the top of the scene has been a long time in the making, but without Arslan Ash getting that chance Malaysian visa, their players might still be trapped in obscurity. It’s a reminder that gaming is a truly global phenomenon, and of the hurdles faced by many in the global south to even get to the starting line. How many Arslans have we missed in Asia, in Africa, in South America, just because they were never even given the chance to compete? The truth is, we’ll never know. For now, all we can do is let Pakistani Tekken have its day, and keep an eye out for the next unlikeliest of champions.