It’s another hot summer day in Hiroshima, Japan. Daiki “Rudolph” Ideoka just got back from his 3 1/2-hour train ride from Tokyo after winning Battle Gateway 17. He has proven once again that he’s the best Super Smash Bros. Melee player in Japan after dropping just two games in the entire tournament and beating Nao “Gucci” Iguchi and La Gema’s Okada “Yu” Yu.
But the following day, he stands behind the register of the local supermarket.
The best player in a video game-loving country is still struggling to create a real esports career abroad.
Americans got their first glimpse of Rudolph at The Big House 6 in Dearborn, Michigan, in October 2016. What they saw was a young, small-statured, Japanese player setting up two chairs on stage. But instead of sitting like most players normally do, he rested his knees on the chair in the back and his elbows on one in the front, playing the game on all fours. It was peculiar.
The Japanese have a more flattering term for his stance: the sphinx style.
“Everyone thought I was crazy. It was like seeing a strange animal,” Rudolph said. “So the first time I entered a tournament, it was so uncomfortable sitting on a chair and playing Melee. I needed to rest my elbows somewhere.”
He first tried to prop up both his legs on a chair, with one knee up, closer to his face, and another knee off to the side. He then tried to rest his elbows on the leg that was to the side. It wasn’t very comfortable.
“After that, I tried sitting on the floor with the sphinx style, but the TV was too high because it was on a table, so my neck was killing me,” Rudolph said. That’s when he dragged over a few chairs and created a platform for himself. It was strange, but it worked for him.
Considering he’s the best player in his country, many have come to accept this odd quirk and embrace it as a part of his image and personality.
Rudolph, 23, is the son of a taxi driver and nurse and has two older siblings. His brother went to culinary school and is now working as a chef. His sister, upon graduating high school, worked for a little bit but soon got married.
Rudolph doesn’t have the same sense of direction that they have. He found studying boring and never excelled in school. He didn’t attend college but did take a crack at a vocational school for video game programming. But even his love for gaming wasn’t enough to motivate him to study, and he found himself sleeping through classes.
Rudolph is brash. Before a grand finals set, he’ll take the microphone, call out his opponent and proclaim that he’s the greatest. It’s entertaining, and very not-Japanese.
“I don’t know why everyone is not like me,” he said. “Everyone is so quiet. This is my story. I’m the hero.”
Nothing is more telling of his bombast than his pre-grand finals speech at KVO 2016 before taking on VG Boot Camp’s Masaya “aMSa” Chikamoto.
“Pro Smasher? Ranked 22nd? Screw that. I’m still better than you.”
Rudolph wants to be the best Melee player in the world. The only way to do that will be to compete in North America and perform at a high level consistently. That’s where many of the top tournaments take place. Rudolph says he would love to go overseas, but there are a few roadblocks preventing him from doing so.
First, Rudolph said his English is far too poor to take an extended leave.
“I really feel bad if I couldn’t talk, I could get in trouble,” he said. “I would feel sorry if I were to get in trouble through my English skill.”
The second hurdle is finances. Rudolph is $3,000 in debt. He owes the money to his parents, who helped fund his overseas trip to Dearborn and to Battle Gateways in Tokyo. Both Rudolph and his brother still live at home, something that’s common in Japanese households. They both contribute rent payments.
And even if Rudolph did clear out his debts, he would still need to save up money before flying stateside. He estimates that he will need to save about $4,000. Rudolph did not reveal his hourly wage, but considering minimum wage in Hiroshima is roughly $7.10, it would take him 563 hours of work, before taxes and rent, to save up enough to go.
Assuming Rudolph is able to accomplish this, his end goal is only to stay in America for an extended period of time rather than moving permanently.
“Moving is a little bit difficult for me to imagine,” Rudolph said. At the moment, he only sees himself staying in America for a month, maybe longer, depending on how long his money can keep him. He wants to use that time to hone and practice Melee.
Although there are some players in Melee that live in their country of origin — Alliance’s Adam “Armada” Lindgren and Team SoloMid’s William “Leffen” Hjelte come to mind — they have player managers and sponsors that can organize and fund overseas travel for extended periods.
“I don’t know why everyone [in Japan] is not like me. Everyone is so quiet. This is my story. I’m the hero.”
Daiki “Rudolph” Ideoka, Super Smash Bros. Melee player
Rudolph doesn’t have these resources. So what’s a player to do? Team SoloMid’s Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios, the best Super Smash Bros. for Wii U player in the world, had to leave his home country of Chilé. He moved to the United States, lived off very meager earnings and traveled the country by bus just to compete. For him, the only way he could make it was to put everything on the line.
In Japan, Rudolph has made $350 throughout his Melee career. Although that seems small by international-play standards, it’s actually a lot for Japan, thanks in part to the country’s strict anti-gambling laws.
The idea of an esports professional is still very foreign in Japan. The culture leans toward traditions and conformity. Many top players in Japan see their esports careers as something they do on the side. But Rudolph wasn’t brought up like most Japanese people.
“Actually, my father has been relaxing about the game stuff recently, and he told me to do what I want to do,” Rudolph said. “He’s kind of helpful. He’s positive about gaming.
“Not just with games, when I started playing baseball, he bought me a lot of gloves and that sort of stuff. He was really kind to me and encouraging.”
Given Rudolph’s skill, he stands to earn more overseas. It’s hard to see him becoming the best Melee player without committing fully to moving abroad. With a supportive father and a mother whom he has convinced over time that esports could be a lucrative career path, it’s possible that he can make it happen.
For now, Rudolph is not living his dream. He’s trading time for money behind a cash register even though he feels his hands were meant for more than scanning and bagging groceries.
“I’d love to be a full-time Melee player.”