Arslan Ash, who won the championship in an international fighting game competition in Fukuoka, frequently trains at the Maniax game center in Lahore, eastern Pakistan. (Video footage by Masatomo Norikyo)

LAHORE, Pakistan--Arslan Ash caused quite a stir in Fukuoka in February.

Hardly anyone in the gaming industry had heard of the 23-year-old. And his home country of Pakistan was not exactly known as a video game powerhouse.

But his victory in the Evolution Championship Series tournament against the world’s top “Tekken 7” players made everyone take notice. And his words afterward sent chills down the spines of established players.

“There are many other strong players like me in Pakistan waiting for an opportunity to compete internationally--and their numbers are growing,” he said.

THE MANIAX TRAINING HALL

In pursuit of the truth to Arslan’s statement, I traveled to his hometown of Lahore, a city of more than 10 million in northeastern Pakistan.

“There is a game center I often visit in the city,” Arslan said. “Let’s meet up there.”

After wandering through dust whipped up by two-seater motorbikes zipping along the sandy streets, I entered a commercial area where students and entrepreneurs often gather.

The game center, which is like a “dojo” training hall for gamers, is located on the first floor of a multitenant building along a major road. A motorcycle repair shop, which emanated the smell of engine oil, and a grocery store were also on the first floor.

As I walked inside the center, the sounds of game machines increased.

The name of the center is Maniax.

The owner, Zamin Abbas, 34, appeared and said: “Did you come from Japan? What an honor this is.”

Maniax has a floor space equivalent to around 20 tatami mats and 10 game machines. Zamin said it is the largest game center in Lahore.

Around sunset, around 20 young regulars had shown up, clearly confident in their skills. They had such nicknames as, “Strong Heart in Lahore,” “Combo Magician” and “God Child in Blue Shirt.”

This is a strict training place where young players polish their skills. Religious leaders and middle-age people often visit the center to watch the young gamers, acting as their guardians.

THE GIFT OF REFLEXES

Arslan arrived at the game center by motorcycle and apologized for his tardiness. He flashed a friendly smile and extended his hand for a handshake.

He was a polite young man who recently had his hair cut short for a pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy site of Islam.

On a sofa at the center, he explained how he became the champion in faraway Fukuoka.

Arslan entered the fighting game world around 2008, when he was 12 years old. At that time, Pakistan-made animation did not even exist, and he was immediately drawn by the vividness of the computer images at the game center.

Arslan quickly learned how to control the movements of his three-dimensional character, and through his early battles, he realized that he had quicker reflexes than his opponents.

He said he started to think his reflexes for gaming might be his “gift.”

With no game console or computer at home, he could only practice at game centers, including Maniax. After school, he played at the centers for five hours a day.

The fee for one game is 10 rupees (about 8 yen or 7 cents). The first player who wins three fights takes the match. And the loser generally pays for the game. As Arslan grew stronger, he found that he was not spending that much money at the center.

Before a tournament, he trained for eight hours or so a day.

His first victory at a national competition came in 2012. By 2018, he had reached the podium about 40 times, including in local competitions.

FIGHTING FORM IS LIKE A PIANIST

Arslan’s play style for Tekken emphasizes “saving energy.”

The buttons pushed by the right hand control the characters’ punches and kicks. To continue attacking, players may feel they have to strongly tap the buttons with their fingertips.

Arslan, however, does not appear to even move his fingers. Instead, he tenderly touches the buttons as if he is playing a piano.

His fingers look like they are fixed to the buttons, and his wrist moves up and down within 1 centimeter or so.

Arslam uses quick, short motions on the left-side lever arm, which moves the character from front to back and from side to side. He holds the lever lightly, with no strain on his arm or shoulder.

When he’s playing, Arslan sits up straight, his eyes remain at the same level, and he rarely blinks.

WINDOW TO INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION

After his many successes in Pakistan, Arslan wanted to test his skills internationally.

The turning point came in summer 2018.

A professional gamers group called vSlash eSports, based in the Middle East, had seen Arslan’s competition record and decided to sponsor him.

The sponsorship covered Arslan’s travel expenses and eased the process to gain visas for overseas trips.

For citizens of Pakistan, where terrorist activities continue, many countries asked that they are sponsored or have a certain amount in bank deposits before they are granted visas.

Arslan’s first competition against the top players from around the world was the Evolution Championship Series: Japan 2019 in February in Fukuoka.

Around 2,500 people entered the tournament which had six categories of fighting games, but Arslan’s battle started well before his first game.

With problems over connecting flights, it took Arslan three days to travel from Pakistan to Fukuoka. He arrived in Kyushu at 10 a.m. on the first day of the three-day competition.

The matches were livestreamed on the Internet, allowing more than 30 of Arslan’s friends to cheer for him from the Maniax game center in Lahore.

Despite his lack of sleep, Arslan vanquished his more famous opponents.

He used his noted defensive skills to reduce the damage to his character while cashing in on every opportunity to land combination attacks.

The announcer watching Arslan’s moves screamed: “What an amazing guard!”

In his sixth match, he defeated a player from the Philippines to win the championship and the top prize of 1.5 million yen. Arslan stood up and clenched his right hand.

“He is extraordinarily strong, which made us foresee the influx of a new era,” Kohei Ikeda, development producer of Tekken, said about Arslan on Twitter.

A RISING FORCE IN PAKISTAN

In his victory comments, Arslan mentioned that many unknown Pakistani players are also quite strong but could not join the competition because they could not get visas.

His words generated interest and concern on the Internet.

One person posted, “This is like a twist in a manga,” while another said about Arslan’s country, “There is a behind-the-scenes boss in the world.”

At the game center in Lahore, Arslan said he doesn’t remember exactly what he had said because he was so excited with his victory.

He added that he simply wanted to say, “I am not the only strong player in Pakistan, and that many of my peers taught me and fought together with me.”

When asked which players he would choose for a team in an international Tekken competition, Arslan became excited.

“In Lahore alone, Bilal, Imran, and Awais can’t be ruled out. Other than them, Heera and Adeel,” he said quickly. “Outside of Lahore, Hamraz and Abid. Oh, how many people can I pick? There are many more players.”

When Arslan was asked who is his strongest opponent, a man next to him grinned and said, “It's me.”

That would be Bilal Ilyas, 24, who is also known as “Strong Heart in Lahore.”

Bilal, who was wearing a red shirt and sunglasses, is one of a few professional gamers in the country. He and Arslan received sponsorship deals around the same time.

Bilal’s friends describe him as a person with great mental toughness who never changes his facial expression at competitions.

“We were excited to see Arslan’s victory in Japan,” Bilal said. “This year, we are going to participate in the Tekken world tour. We hope to do our best to promote Pakistan.”

Soon, Awais Honey, 24, from Lahore, known as the “Combo Magician,” came to the center. He is famous for his combo wave-style attack.

He is a sworn ally of Arslan, and they often train together late at night.

Awais has not obtained a sponsorship deal yet, so he has no international experience in Tekken. But his name is widely known in Pakistan.

Awais was raised as a possible rival of Arslan, and a YouTube channel dedicated to gamers featured a match between the two.

“Of course, everyone at this point knows who (Arslan) is after EVO Japan, where he crushed everyone,” the YouTube commentator said. “Everyone’s wondering how strong is the Pakistani Tekken scene. It’s probably pretty strong, considering Arslan’s level of play.

“He obviously trained with very strong opponents.”

The commentator praised Awais’ play, particularly his combo attacks, and said he “deserves to be shown.”

“Pakistan, it turns out, is no joke at all,” he said. “I think they have many deadly players.”

Arslan is believed to have pushed his defensive abilities to the top level in the world by practicing against attacking-wizard Awais.

GAME FEVER PUSHED BY PEOPLE, POWER

Bilal and Awais said three factors are behind the video game craze in Pakistan.

One is simple numbers.

Pakistan’s population is 207,770,000, the sixth largest in the world. About 60 percent of them are 25 years old or younger.

With cultural limits on alcohol consumption and dating before marriage, young men often hang out at game centers as a fairly inexpensive way to kill time.

Nationwide competitions for about 100 top players from all parts of Pakistan are held 10 times a year.

The second reason is the improved power conditions.

In recent years, blackouts in Pakistan have occurred less frequently thanks largely to infrastructure investments from China.

Electricity had been considered a luxury for middle-class citizens. But with stable power supplies reaching wider areas, more children can play video games at home.

The third reason is the significant role of game centers.

Although Internet communication speeds have become faster, lines and devices at homes are often ill-equipped to allow people to play online fighting games.

Game centers enable players to get around such problems. And they also provide ample opportunities for players to meet with and learn from stronger players.

According to Arslan, players gain the courage to fight at the most important moment by constantly training and being yelled at and looked down upon by other players at noisy game centers.

Muhammad Farzeen, 16, a student living in Lahore, is another frequent visitor to the Maniax game center.

After studying at a cram school for two hours after school, he practices Tekken at the center for two or three hours, and he challenges senior players to hone his skills.

At a national competition in 2018, Muhammad placed third. He has been ranked in the top four in Pakistan in 2019.

Muhammad is at the top academically of the 300 or so students in his grade at the public school he attends.

His parents push him to both study and play video games.

Muhammad said in fluent English, “If I keep practicing for several more years, I can catch up and fight in close matches against Arslan and other players at the center.”

Maniax owner Zamin has high expectations: “Muhammad will definitely become the second Arslan. He practices together with older players in Tekken, in which experience is important.”

GOLDEN WEEK IN OSAKA

Arslan came to Osaka during the Golden Week holidays. A Japanese Tekken player involved in organizing competitions used crowdfunding to raise travel expenses for the new star from Pakistan.

“Whether his power is real or not, why not let everyone watch him?” the Japanese organizer said.

He reached the target of about 200,000 yen ($1,793) within six days.

“I really want to thank everyone who gathered the funds in such a short period of time,” Arslan said.