Former Smash player Alan Bunney, aka SamuraiPanda, didn’t like the way some of his FGC and Smash acquaintances were being treated by their sponsors.
So he did something about it.
He used his status as a former Smash player and commentator (and his salary from his day job) to co-found Panda Global. The grassroots team is dedicated to cultivating fighting games and Smash players. His goal was to give players the tools they needed without the risk of being taken advantage of by their sponsor.
Sponsorship in the FGC and Smash is still an untamed beast. Organizations have come and gone over the years. For instance, Mad Catz, traditionally one of the most highly-regarded sponsors in the FGC, finds itself on unstable ground as the struggling video game peripheral manufacturer refused to renew Kenryo “Mago” Hayashi and Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi. That left Daigo “The Beast” Umehara as its only Street Fighter V player under contract.
Last year, Winterfox, Zeveron, and Panda Global entered the fighting games scene around the same time. Zeveron, who sponsored eventual Capcom Cup winner Ryota “Kazunoko” Inoue, crashed and burned in a fiery ball of drama shortly after Evo 2015. Winterfox still sponsors notable Ultra Street Fighter IV Abel player Gustavo “801 Strider” Romero, but has yet to expand beyond him.
Instead of jumping into more lucrative esports like Dota 2 or League of Legends, Bunney used his credibility as a former Melee player and commentator to build trust in the scene before starting up his new venture. A doctor in internal medicine, Bunney works 80-hours a week on top of his time serving as Panda Global’s CEO to allow its players to travel and compete in major events.
“Esports isn’t something you can expect you can become something big without putting the work in,” Bunney said. “All I care about is to become a brand from the bottom up. We started in the FGC and Smash. It’s hard, but rewarding.”
Panda Global’s game plan stretches beyond sending players to events and ensuring their jerseys show up on live streams. The org hopes to develop a player’s persona and brand. It doesn’t hurt if the players get involved in a little controversy, either, like the dust-up between former Evo Marvel vs. Capcom 3 champion Ryan “Filipino Champ” Ramirez (FChamp) and last year’s UMVC3 Evo winner Nicolas “Kane Blueriver” Gonzalez (KBR). Upon the conclusion of Evo 2015, FChamp called KBR out over his legitimacy as a player and champion.
“We encourage our players to engage their peers. We don’t force people to do it. If FChamp had said he didn’t want to play KBR, we would have been okay with it,” Bunney said.
(Photo: Michael Martin)
After months of endless taunting, the two finally agreed to a first-to-15 exhibition at Winter Brawl X in Pennsylvania. As expected, FChamp won, but not without stirring the pot even more. He continued taunting KBR and even paused during some of the games to award points to KBR.
As fate would have it, the two also played in the UMVC3 tournament that same weekend. FChamp beat KBR again 3-0 in winner’s finals. But KBR fought his way back into grand finals, where he would face FChamp again.
The results were different this time around. KBR needed to win two sets to win the tournament. He took the first set 3-1, resetting the bracket. In one of the most hyped sets you’ll ever see in fighting games, KBR beat FChamp 3-2 in the final set. Through it all, KBR sat stone-faced, taking the abuse, and sticking to his plan of letting his play do the talking. “Justice was served,” Marvel commentator Michael “Yipes” Mendoza said during the broadcast.
Following the match, FChamp acknowledged KBR as the “better man” for his play and his stoicism. UMVC3 is likely on its last legs as a marquee game at major events, and FChamp wanted to do his best to extend its life as long as he could by giving the FGC an intense rivalry. He certainly succeeded in that. In fact, he might have been a little too successful. The entire scenario became so intense, some felt it was going too far and wondered why Panda Global hadn’t stepped in to dial its spirited Marvel player back a notch.
“At some point, it was really good stuff, and then he went a little too far. We talked about it. I think he did a great job. He was doing it for Marvel because he wants it to live. Some said ‘I can’t believe his sponsor let him do this,’ but why would I stop him? We don’t control our players like that. There is no code of conduct, be the best you can be,” Bunney said.
However controversial they may be, it’s the personalities of Panda Global’s players that help the team grow and attract the attention of companies like GEICO, who recently became one of Panda Global’s sponsors. Representatives from GEICO became familiar with Panda Global because of events like the $25,000 Smash Invitational that took place at SXSW in March. GEICO got to see the players up close and how the fans react to them and their matches. Bunney said companies like GEICO are seeing the value in the smaller, grassroots scenes like fighting games.
“Working with GEICO is a huge step. Our games are being seen finally. It’s exciting to us and opening doors. There’s a ‘foot-in-the-door’ phenomenon in grassroots scenes. As soon as a couple of sponsors make their way into it, the other sponsors start researching and acknowledging our scenes,” Bunney said.
(Photo: Michael Martin)
Interest in esports and the FGC has never been higher. More corporations are finding their way into the scene as hosts of major events, sponsors, or both. Red Bull made a splash in 2015 by signing two high-profile players, Darryl “Snake Eyez” Lewis and Masato “Bonchan” Takahashi, and organizing the annual Red Bull Kumite invitational tournament, widely considered as one of the best FGC events after just two years. The spotlight is great for the FGC because it’s been difficult to get the attention over the years. The grassroots mentality of the FGC prevents the formation of leagues or the kind of governing body that Bunney feels could help the scene.
“Esports is the Wild West. We have no idea what the future will hold. The way it’s going, there will be a bubble of different teams and it will pop. You want to be one of the teams that survives,” Bunney said.
Michael Martin covers all things Street Fighter V and FGC. Follow him on Twitter @Bizarro_Mike.