World Autism Awareness Day: How I Got into Fighting Games

April 1, 2024

April 2nd is UN World Autism Awareness Day. To acknowledge this important day, FOSI asked Tom Ladka III, a writer for The Flutie Foundation, about his experiences online as a person on the autism spectrum. Read on to learn about how Tom used video games, specifically fighting games, to connect to a community in a way he hadn't had the opportunity to experience before.

Something about my family that made me feel pretty alienated as a kid was their obsession with sports. Whether I liked it or not, I’d often find myself dragged to every hockey game or fantasy football draft wanting nothing more than to go home and play video games. While I often had my Nintendo DS with me at these times and the snack bars at most hockey rinks had at least a decent arcade, the truth of the matter was I never felt like I belonged there. It also didn’t help much that my own passion didn’t exactly get the respect it deserved when I was at that age, with many of my friends’ parents–and even, to an extent, my own–legitimately believing the idea that “video games would melt your brain.” Even extended family–both on my mom’s side as well as my dad’s–were hardcore sports fans. It got to the point where I would try to get my mom to sign me up for sports, even if I wasn’t interested, just to fit in. So, why do I bring this up? Simply because it wasn’t until years later, when I was done with school, that I found a way to enjoy the competitive nature of sports in a way that was meaningful to me, and even helped me grow as a person: That being through a genre of video game known as fighting games.

While over the years the term has become looser and looser, the best way and quickest way to describe the genre would be to provide some examples. Some you may have heard of are Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, or Tekken. All of which are very different games, and unfortunately I don’t have enough time or space in this blog post to get into why, but all three should give you an idea of how, at least traditionally, the genre works.

While I think a part of me has always had some form of interest in these games, I didn’t truly start getting into the genre until around 2019. I’ve had my moments prior, such as competing in a Tekken 7 tournament that was held at one of the schools I went to and actually winning, but honestly, my fascination in fighting games started when I would watch a lot of YouTube videos on them. It was eye-opening in a lot of ways, but still a very slow process. I started learning about the fundamentals of the genre; then the meta of many different games; then stuff like tier lists; and eventually, I learned about the culture of the FGC (fighting game community). Many of the tournaments held by the FGC were filled with a lot of people from all walks of life coming together to compete with one another and generally enjoy each other's company–almost like a tailgate, of sorts! In fact, just like most traditional sports, while many were there to get better and potentially even win one day, others were just there to make friends and they were having just as much fun!

Furthermore, the stories that many of these tournaments told were, honestly, pretty engaging and even inspiring, in their own right. For example, most people in the FCG know about Justin Wong, a player from extremely humble beginnings who rose to fight and eventually beat Daigo Umehara, a fighting game prodigy and to this day considered one of the greatest of all time. But another that was a truly big inspiration for me, personally, was when a player known as iDom, who at the time wasn’t even sponsored–let alone expected to win–actually won Capcom Cup, Capcom’s official Street Fighter tournament series–and with characters many considered “okay at best” at the time. In the case of them both, as someone on the spectrum who, before learning about these player’s stories, never really expected to go anywhere in life, it was inspiring to see these people go from almost nothing to winning some of the biggest tournaments in the world! I even met Justin Wong at a major fighting game tournament called CEO and keep a printed version of the selfie I took with him in my house to remind me to never give up, no matter how bad things may seem!

Even beyond the culture of tournaments, the mindset of these players inspired me to grow and get better, not just in fighting games, but in life. After learning how these players think during a match, I actually found it quite similar to that of actual martial artists. A common metaphor in the FGC compares the process of fighting another player to that of simply having a conversation. When your opponent does this, how do you react? How will they react to anything you do? It’s a matter of understanding your opponent, much more so than skill. And to go a step further, understanding yourself; what you're capable of; and finding a mindset that, rather than inflating your own ego, is used to better yourself in everything you do. Once again, this is something that applies to real life martial arts too. It doesn’t matter if it’s Street Fighter or an actual MMA fight–a good fighter leaves the ring having gained something, win or lose. Even I, myself, started doing actual karate, not because I wanted to look cool, not even because I needed to learn self-defense. I just wanted something I could get better at.

But perhaps to circle back to the start of this blog post, fighting games gave me everything that made me envious of my brothers growing up. It gave me a lot of friends; it gave me a hobby built around self-improvement; it gave me a culture that made me feel welcomed; and even a competitive setting where I could thrive. Yet, it also gave me something, even my brothers lacked growing up: It gave me a mindset that helped me learn from life. It’s like they say: each mistake is an opportunity to grow. 

If someone were to see this blog post when I was a kid, they might dismiss it as a misinterpretation of what I learned playing fighting games, claiming it’s “not the real world” and that I’m wasting my time. In fact, many might have seen it as “this person might end up hanging out with the wrong crowd of people” or “now this person might want to hurt people in real life!” But none of those things are actually true. Video games have come a long way since then and a much greater light is being shined on them now. There’s a reason most jobs nowadays tend to gamify training; it’s because we as humans learn from experience, whether that experience is “real” or not. And even if being the best in the world was never my thing, thanks to my interest in fighting games, I found a reason to get better.

Written by

Tom Ladka III