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At the Video 94 rental store in West Covina, California, high school student Mike Ross had found something he really cared about: fighting games. It was the start of a life-long love affair that would propel him to stardom, make him a legend to thousands of people, and nearly destroy him.
Growing up in Southern California during the 90s and early 00s, Ross didn't like school—he hated sticking around after the bell rang, so he never joined any after-school activities. Instead, he hung out at most of the arcades in SoCal. He played a bit of everything, but he came to love fighting games because their communities were the most passionate about seeing who could beat who. "There's people here that care about something," Ross remembers thinking.
Ross was most stricken by 2000's Marvel vs. Capcom 2, with its hectic three-on-three matches, enormous roster, and deluge of powerful super abilities. It was flashy, but deeply rewarding to learn. Ross became obsessed with getting better at it. In the first few months after its release, Ross would go anywhere the game would take him, looking to fight anyone he could. All that really mattered then was how many people were huddled around the arcade machines, how many people were willing to drive half an hour to play a game. Back then, it's all you really needed to keep a community going.
As he fostered that love, Ross began college and majored in communications. He didn't want to make the same high-concept art films everyone else were putting together, so he had another idea. Why not take his two interests—fighting games and making videos—and meld them together?
He started putting together interviews and videos talking about fighting games. For a lot of people in his classes, the idea of people taking games this seriously, of trying to determine who was the best at a video game, was striking. This new interest came at a good time too, as the games themselves were getting a bit stale. MvC2 was released on home consoles in 2000, right before the "dark age" of fighting games when the most revered developer in the scene, Capcom, failed to put out much in the way of captivating fighting games.
Then, in 2007, when the world got its first glimpse of Street Fighter 4, a game which heralded the return of the traditional 2D fighter. When it released in arcades in 2008, Ross' passion for fighting games returned in full force. He regularly played SF4 late into the night, bonding with people who were still playing at that time. If someone cared enough about the game to be there that long, they were probably worth talking to.
That included Ryan "Gootecks" Gutierrez, who Ross had met during his days in arcades. Ross played MvC2 and Gutierrez played Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike, which meant they saw each other, but didn't interact all that much. (Gutierrez did not respond to our request to be interviewed for this article.) According to Ross, the two bonded over their mutual love of SF4, bouncing around ideas for videos that could expose more people to the game, and started putting some of those ideas together.
Eventually, Gutierrez reached out to him about doing an audition for a reality show. It was a bust, but took place in the building that housed media network company Machinima, which was looking for someone to help them film impressions of Street Fighter 4. Gutierrez secured a deal to play the game and offer their impressions, and Ross went along for the ride. The video did surprisingly well, and Machinima wanted more.
This began Ross' career as one half of the YouTube channel Cross Counter. The cornerstone of the channel was "The Excellent Adventures of Gootecks and Mike Ross," a show with a simple premise: Gutierrez and Ross would play matches of Street Fighter 4 online against other players and record their voices. For Ross, this was the best possible collision of his two interests. "I just wanted to play matches [and Gutierrez] was like, 'Well, let's record it.'"
Ross and Gutierrez had a fun but relatable chemistry. They're comfortable and clown on each other. All the while, they talked up their movements and strategies while playing. Ross is joyfully boisterous, and had a knack for calling out big moments before they happened. "[Ross] will do this thing where he's having that sixth sense, where he knows something's about to happen, and he'll say, 'Check this out,'" says Bobby "Scar" Scarnewman, a longtime fan of Ross' who would later end up working alongside him at both Twitch and Cross Counter, where he featured on episodes of Excellent Adventures. "And then it happens right away."
The feedback from those early videos was immensely positive. "Sometimes I might even see somebody say, 'Yo, that was me that y'all played against!' I was like, 'Oh, look at this, we're unifying the small online world,'" Ross says. "Anytime we were getting ready to go online, it really felt like, to me, we were just going to a big-ass arcade [...] It was really the highlight of my week." The process became synergistic. Playing prepared him for the videos, and the videos in turn gave him a reason to get better.
Mike Ross never trained harder for a tournament than he did for Evo 2010. "This was the first time in my life I actually went into training mode and practiced setups, and setups against me," Ross says. He had a training partner in Peter "Combofiend" Rosas, a long-time friend of his and high-level player in the California fighting game scene. (Rosas declined to be interviewed for this story.) As Cross Counter and Excellent Adventures were growing, Street Fighter 4 became Super Street Fighter 4, which gave Ross an unexpected boost: E.Honda, Ross' main character and an average-to-middling competitor in the Street Fighter 4 world, was now a force to be reckoned with. "I remember talking to [Rosas] on the drive to Vegas and he said, 'Dude, this is your year, you're going to get top eight easy, there's nobody on your level right now.'"
The day of the tournament, Ross soared, placing 4th. It was the best tournament finish he'd ever had. His thoughts, however, quickly turned elsewhere. "My head was like, dope, this provides validity to our YouTube channel." Ross became even more of a household name to fighting game fans. Cross Counter began working with a variety of collaborators. They even flew out to tournaments on foreign soil, where they could practice with different kinds of players and meet fans.
The newfound recognition was strange to Ross. He wasn't used to getting compliments. "When somebody came up to me the first time, I thought they were joking." Not used to being the center of attention, Ross assumed they were messing with him. "I took it as an insult, almost, when they said, 'Yeah, I'm a fan of your show.'" Ross didn't see himself as someone who had fans.
Things quickly snowballed. Focus: A Documentary chronicled Ross' life, family, and aspirations as a fighting game player. Cross Counter spawned a new live show, Cross Counter Live, which had a variety of special guests playing fighting games with Ross and Gutierrez. Because of the success of their SF4 videos with Machinima, Cross Counter was brought on by the company to do similar videos for Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Capcom's next major fighting game, in 2011.
That venture was plagued by a few issues. For one, Ross, Gutierrez, and Martin "Marn" Phan, who was friends with the duo, weren't fans of the game. One of its biggest new features, X-Factor, was seen as being way too powerful. Phan, known for being rowdy and a straight-shooter, would call the game out for it in videos. "And we're laughing about it," says Ross, "because I'm like, I know exactly what he's talking about. And I'm agreeing with him."
Unbeknownst to Ross and Gutierrez, however, the video was a promotional video Capcom had paid Machinima to do for them. "So we were basically a commercial for Capcom and not even told or informed that beforehand." According to Phan, he was blackballed from appearing from future Cross Counter videos at the behest of Capcom for criticizing the game. The company allegedly threatened to cut ties with the channel if Phan appeared on one of its videos.
In 2012, Capcom called Ross to see if he'd be interested in being part of Cross Assault, a reality show meant to promote Street Fighter X Tekken. Ross was to fight Andre "Jago" Lambert in an exhibition match in which the winner would receive $1,000. The two were involved in a staged "feud" at the time, ignited by an appearance Lambert had made on Cross Counter Live. Because of that, Capcom later called again to make sure Ross wouldn't have an issue being in the same hotel as Lambert. "And that's when I knew we had everybody by the balls," Ross says. "I said, 'Yeah, that's totally fine. I have no problems with him.'" The two eventually decided to split the money and were then found out, causing a stir in the fighting game community (FGC) about players splitting prize money at exhibitions and tournaments for a while.
Ross sees the incident as a glimpse into how major companies had begun exploiting the passionate communities who had built up their game into a revenue source. "They wanted to use my animosity towards another brother to bring them views, and I was like, 'No, I don't work like that.'"
As Ross' presence in the Street Fighter community grew, Street Fighter 4's time in the spotlight was coming to an end. In 2014, at the second annual Capcom Cup tournament, Ross, now working at Twitch while still being part of Cross Counter, was set to play the world's first public match of Street Fighter 5 against Rosas, now a producer at Capcom.
Ross had only played the game for about half an hour. He thought Capcom was off to a good start, though he had some reservations about how it looked and played. But, it being this early in the process, he assumed that between that time and the game's release, things would change.
When SF5 had its first public beta, however, Ross was more worried; it didn't look like the game had changed much. While he didn't have a firm opinion on how the game actually played, he had hoped the game would sport more visual polish by the time it first got into players' hands. By the second beta, he was much more worried. Things began looking bleak to him in large part because he realized how much of his livelihood had been built on the success of Capcom's fighting games. "I'm like, 'Oh, crap. This is kind of our livelihood right now, right?"
At Twitch, Ross' goal was to build up the fighting game community using Twitch's presence within the larger video game world. Ross' first big idea was to create a fighting game talk show, inspired by ESPN's adoption of UFC; it didn't simply air UFC broadcasts. Over time, it built a social infrastructure around UFC to get people in the door. "It's why UFC is growing, and why they went on ESPN, because ESPN is willing to put out talk shows to talk about it," Ross says. Ross wanted to give the fighting game community a place to gather around and talk about the community they'd all helped build.
Capcom Pro Talk, the result of Ross' efforts, debuted on October 21, 2014. Though Twitch and Capcom had partnered for the show, it was modestly built, streaming out of Ross' bedroom at first. But, because of Ross's presence, the show flourished. He'd have high-profile fighting game guests—like perennial fighting game player, mentor, streamer, and old guard member Alex Valle—swing by and chat about the news of the fighting game world. When creating the show, Ross' goal was to hit 10,000 viewers during a single livestream by the end of 2014. By the end of the year, the stream had reached 11,000 viewers.
When Pro Talk shifted gears to promote SF5 in 2016, Ross was concerned. SF5's lobby and online system made it difficult to rely on online connectivity. It didn't help that Ross ended up not being much of a fan of the game. At this point, the story of SF5's rough launch period is well-documented. Ross, personally, didn't like the pace or mechanics of the fighting system itself, either. This made it difficult for Ross to continue doing his job.
Ross was a fantastic sport on Pro Talk, playing up the rivalries that emerged on the show and, ultimately, playing fighting games with his friends. But because he lacked the kind of passion that initially drove him, it was hard to maintain interest. Over the course of the show's lifespan, Ross' priorities for the show changed. "When I was doing Pro Talk in the beginning [with Street Fighter 4], talking was whatever," Ross says. "To me, the favorite part was playing, right? But once [Street Fighter 5] came out, then I enjoyed talking more and I hated playing."
At some point, Ross decided to mostly keep quiet about his thoughts on SF5. Whatever misgivings Ross had about it at the time, it was the fighting game of the moment, and all eyes were on it. "I [didn't] want to persuade [people] away," Ross says. "[As a host], I want you to be involved in this fighting game scene to some capacity. I don't care what game you play."
Slowly but surely, however, Ross's desire to grow the fighting game scene became somewhat at odds with Capcom's need to get people to buy a new product. "Ryan and myself helped push the scene and give it as much exposure as we could," he says. In that sense, the two were seeing that goal come to bear: tournament attendance and stream viewership were on the rise, and things like Cross Counter were helping contribute to that. Though, that didn't directly result in more sales of Street Fighter games, Capcom's ultimate goal in helping to grow the scene. As time went on, it became harder for Ross to champion a game he didn't like. "I'm not going to lead people down a path of hell just so that I gain or profit," Ross says. "Fuck that."
In October 2016, Ross announced he was leaving his job at Twitch. "It's been the craziest ride, but for now I'm taking some much needed R&R," he posted on Twitter. The message was amicable, as if Ross had simply gotten overwhelmed by his workload and decided to take an extended vacation abroad.
Behind the scenes, things were less amicable. Ross believed neither Twitch nor Capcom cared much about Capcom Pro Talk, even though they were profiting from it. Capcom had begun putting episodes behind a paywall on its Twitch channel—if you wanted to watch the program after it aired, you had to be a paid subscriber. (Capcom later uploaded all the episodes of the show's second season, after the show moved out of Ross' basement, to its official Capcom Fighters channel.)
Twitch appreciated and liked the show, but Ross personally felt animosity from Capcom, the company the show was ostensibly promoting. Capcom declined to comment for this story.
Things only became worse from there. At one point, a cereal company reached out about sponsoring the show. Specifically, it wanted to sponsor a segment that would have involved Ross playing matches and having a bowl of cereal dumped on his head if he lost. Ross refused. "That was my first 'Nah, I'm good,'" Ross says. "You're trying to make a bozo out of me, and I'm good."
Beyond the issues of wrangling Capcom Pro Talk into something that could work, Ross was still having difficulty adjusting to being in the public eye. Although he'd made plenty of friends within the fighting game community (many as a result of his fame), it was getting much harder for him to get a read on people. "There comes a point in your life, I guess, when you have to look in the mirror, right?" Ross says. "You have to ask, why are people talking to you? Why are people being your friend?"
Ross could no longer tell who his friends were, and who was simply looking to ride coattails. People had started coming out of the woodwork to talk, but so often, the motivation behind these conversations was clear. "It was like, 'Hey Mike, you know my favorite artist of all time is Lupe Fiasco, and I was wondering if you could get me a ticket—I was like, 'What the fuck, we ain't talked in like 15 years!'"
Ross also realized people saw him differently. During his time at Twitch, Ross developed a friendly relationship with some of the security staff, including an older woman he'd regularly talk to in passing. Eventually things began to change. "She said, 'You're like a celebrity, aren't you?' [...] Our whole dynamic and our whole conversations changed after that."
Ross didn't want to keep playing SF5. He felt manipulated by the show he'd worked so hard to create, which at the time was the culmination of all his efforts as both a fighting game player and someone who wanted to spread the gospel of fighting games. He'd become tired of living in San Francisco, with its rampant income inequality and growing and uncared-for homeless population. "I just had to get out of it."
So he did. Shortly after announcing his departure from Twitch (which meant the end of Capcom Pro Talk), Ross disappeared from public life. By the end of 2017, he'd deleted his social media accounts, stopped appearing on Excellent Adventures, and left Cross Counter altogether.
Ross' immense popularity could have assured he would have had a chance at success if he'd pivoted to another fighting game, or shifted his focus elsewhere. But that wouldn't have fixed the issues Ross saw as vital to his dissatisfaction in life. He'd begun suffering from a common fate in the world of tech startups and the games industry—someone who had turned what they love most into a job and lost their passion along the way. The only way to remedy that, Ross believed, was to step away. "My initial thought was, 'I need everybody to forget who the fuck I am.' And the only way to do that is to push myself away."
Many of his fans, including Scarnewman, were surprised by his departure. They also understood it. Months before Ross went completely incognito, Cross Counter posted a video in which he monologues about the dangers of corporate control of the fighting game community, before pivoting to selling a shirt that capitalized on that very notion. In hindsight, the first half of the video is rather prescient, and many fans were with Ross when it came to pushing back against the growing influence of sponsors and companies in the fighting game scene. "I feel like Mike doesn't even realize how much integrity he has," says Scarnewman. "He needs to live in a way that's authentic to him, and he can't stand not doing it."
Even after leaving the public eye, Ross was still getting offers to collaborate on various projects. According to Ross, one company reached out about doing a show similar to Capcom Pro Talk for its own fighting game. Despite the payday that would have entailed, Ross refused. "That's what made me look in the mirror and [ask] 'What the fuck is it that they want? They just need a puppet that is doing well to keep selling you their bullshit."
Ross became cynical about the ways prominent players in the scene were being used to hock products people wouldn't be interested in otherwise. He didn't want to contribute to that exploitation, be in the spotlight, or even talk to most people. "So I went without a phone, I went without any human contact for basically over a year, outside of people who would see me physically in the flesh. That was it." Ross went as far as to consider leaving the country.
Ross admits the move wasn't healthy. Not being able to keep up with friends and family became draining (though he did keep in touch with a few people, including Gutierrez), and Ross mentions he spiraled into a depressive episode. It did, however, allow him to re-orient his priorities.
In March of 2018, Ross made a brief return to the spotlight, posting an "Ask Me Anything" thread on the r/kappa subreddit (a forum notorious for its mix of fighting game content and porn). The title: "My name is Mike Ross, I use [sic] to do a lot of shit within/for the FGC and now I proudly don't do a damn thing. AMA." In it, he detailed much of what happened to him thus far, why he left Twitch, Cross Counter, his disillusionment with SF5 as a game, and more.
The title, while abrasive, was actually a response to something Ross would hear when companies pitched him on working with them. "[They'd say] 'But Mike, you're not doing this for us—you're doing this for the FGC,'" Ross says. "Anybody that knows me knows, they can ask me to do damn near anything, and I'll probably do it. But when you throw that out, that shows me that there's a disconnect." That phrase was the catalyst for the thread, which Ross now regrets having posted. And yet, in a way it liberated him. To proudly proclaim that he wasn't "doing anything with/for the FGC" was a statement of defiance at being exploited in order to help rebuild the one thing he'd cared about all his life.
Ross needed to step back and find something to care about again. For Ross, the answer was pretty simple: Despite everything, he still loved fighting games. The thing he wanted most was to recapture what had made him happiest; the times he flourished in Marvel vs. Capcom 2, when he captured glory in Street Fighter 4. The times when caring about something simply meant huddling around a game console and playing it just because you wanted to. "I needed to remind people that I'm actually nice at games," Ross says.
To do that, Ross began playing one of the more difficult fighting games of the modern era: Guilty Gear Xrd. He chose it specifically because many saw it as one of the hardest modern fighting games to learn. If he got good at Xrd, people would have to respect him for it.
So Ross trained in Xrd. A lot. He even began traveling out to local tournaments unannounced, keeping as low a profile as he could by going to events with smallest turnouts he could find. He prioritized tournaments that wouldn't be streamed. "So it's like, 'yeah, here we are,'" Ross says of being at those events, "we're all just playing games, right, guys? We're all just cool. Just people, right?"
Ross knew getting back out in public would be a risk. People were bound to recognize him. At some point, he knew he'd have to embrace it if he was going to do the thing he cared about. So slowly, he did. "I was like, yeah, you can lock yourself in this room forever," Ross says. "Do nothing. Be depressed. Cry yourself a river. Or you can take the initial steps."
Ross started going out a little more. He briefly flirted with therapy, though he admits he's only been to one session and plans to return to it at some point. He's begun rebuilding his public presence, but on new terms. His own terms. He began streaming himself playing Xrd (and later, Tekken 7) in 2019, but Ross didn't want to turn streaming into an elaborate attempt to get back into the spotlight. He wanted people to focus and talk about the games. "If there's people that want to see these games played, potentially played by [me, that's fine], but we're not going to do this for an agenda," Ross tells me. "We're not going to show anybody's brand... let's just keep this as clean, as authentic as humanly possible."
Ross' streams are definitely not the typical streamer fare. There's no camera of his face, he doesn't talk too much, and when he does, he sounds sedated. He isn't the excited, passionate hypeman fans saw throughout his career. He might putter out "Oh, you deserve that," when an opponent cleverly takes a round off him. But for the most part, it's just several rounds of Tekken 7 or Guilty Gear: Xrd. He interacts with his audience, but with all the music playing in the background and Tekken 7's pops and pows cutting through, it's more something to have on in the background than something to actively engage with. And yet, his streams still drive hundreds of viewers. Despite everything, people still care about who Mike Ross is.
Ross knows that. He's starting to come around to the idea of doing more within the fighting game community again. In fact, he already has: He was part of a few exhibition matches in 2019, guested on an episode of Cross Counter's podcast, and in October 2019, once again traveled to Canada Cup to compete in Xrd and Tekken 7, taking first place in the former and finishing seventh in the latter. He's started showing up to Wednesday Night Fights, one of the most publicly viewable weekly fighting game events in the country.
SoCal FGC showed so much love to our fallen warrior Shizza last night. It’s so crazy that 10 years ago, most of these players started competitive SF with SF4 and they still play like it never went out of style. Love you guys! #SoCal #SF4 pic.twitter.com/ejtK28N590— Alex Valle +WNF (@TheAlexValle) January 6, 2020
As absurd as it sounds now, Ross wouldn't turn down the chance to produce another fighting game-oriented show. He wouldn't want to host it unless he absolutely needed to, but he'd love to produce it behind the scenes. "I don't expect it to happen," Ross says. "There's no—at this point—company, corporation or network that would want to fuck with somebody like me. So I don't know how possible that is."
Despite the increasing influence of sponsors, companies, and other outside influences on the fighting game scene in recent years, Ross is fairly happy with how far fighting games have come. "I know, money is the root of all evil or whatever," Ross says, "but there's people that are making like 250 grand for winning tournaments. You know, like, dream, dude; you're paying your family's bills from this shit. That is living the fucking dream, in my opinion."
It was, after all, his dream. It still is. But right now, he's okay just huddling around his controller and playing fighting games for the people who care about them. If he happens to make some money along the way, that's just a bonus.