From the suburbs of Abu Dhabi to the glitzy lights of Las Vegas, Amjad Al Shalabi’s journey to the top of the esports world has been arduous.
Going by the online moniker AngryBird, Al Shalabi has competed in various Street Fighter tournaments over the years. This month, he finally won big, taking the top prize at the Evolution Championship Series, better known as Evo, the world's top fighting game competition, held in Las Vegas.
Here, he invites The National into his family home in Al Karamah, where he streams his gaming exploits and trains for tournaments. His game room is packed with awards, as well as collectables and memorabilia from different countries. A collection of competition medals hangs behind where he sits.
Long before becoming world champion, Al Shalabi reveals how he first encountered, and then fell in love with, the Street Fighter series. Growing up in Abu Dhabi, he honed his skills carefully and patiently alongside his Algerian friend and sparring partner Adel "Big Bird" Anouche, who won the Red Bull Kumite competition in South Africa last month.
“We used to go to each other’s houses to play games. One day we opened Street Fighter, and I couldn’t do anything,” Al Shalabi says. “During summer vacations, I had three months free so I bought Street Fighter. I started practising without telling Adel, then he came over and I destroyed him in the game.”
Al Shalabi and Anouche's friendship grew through their mutual love of video games. The pair would practice together, and then go home to figure out ways to beat one another. As they improved, the fighting game community grew in Abu Dhabi.
“My journey when I started was a bit tough because families don’t accept their children playing games, they say you have to study.” Al Shalabi says. “I have a degree in business administration and accounting – I was doing both."
Street Fighter is one of the most popular titles in the fighting game genre. Developed by Japanese company Capcom, there have been numerous versions of the game with the latest, Street Fighter 6, released in June.
When Al Shalabi first started playing the game aged 14, competing professionally and becoming a world champion was still a dream.
“I never imagined being at Evo, let alone winning the tournament,” he says. One year after joining the professional Abu Dhabi team Nasr Esports in 2017 he entered Evo for the first time.
Considered to be the world’s toughest and most prestigious prize in fighting game championships, it attracts thousands of competitors every year – with winners reaching the summit of the esports pyramid.
“I got destroyed. Same thing in 2019," he adds. “At my third Evo, which was last year, my heart was broken. I got into the top 16 and was one game away from playing in the arena, and then I lost.”
However, this year, he was determined to avenge last year’s heartbreak.
Al Shalabi entered the tournament as the dark horse; his teammate Anouche was the favourite following his success at Red Bull Kumite.
This year's Street Fighter 6 tournament was the most competitive to date, with more than 7,000 participants vying for the top prize.
“When I qualified for the top six, I was confident that I would win the tournament,” Al Shalabi says. “I was confident that I could adapt to the opponents’ styles and win.”
Al Shalabi faced Saul "MenaRD" Leonardo from the Dominican Republic in the final. After a tough start, Al Shalabi managed to beat his opponent in three of the four adrenalin-fuelled sets.
Overwhelmed with emotion after winning, he hugged his opponent and then turned to the roaring crowd, before kneeling on stage to pray.
However, he did not have time to soak up the moment, leaving Las Vegas shortly after his win for Riyadh, where the Gamers8 tournament was under way. There, he again faced off against the world's best.
“The grand final in Gamers8 was the toughest match I have ever played in," he adds. "I had beaten my opponent at Evo before and even during that tournament I had beat him."
However, he says, their contests proved to be his downfall, having given his opponent enough chances to adapt to his style. "At that point, he knew what I would do," Al Shalabi adds.
He lost in the final to his Japanese opponent Kakeru. Nevertheless, Al Shalabi’s run in both tournaments has already garnered him worldwide adoration.
Al Shalabi says winning Evo and reaching the Gamers8 final is only the start. He's focusing on retaining his title and securing wins at other tournaments, with his eyes already set on ones in Singapore and the Dominican Republic.
“Winning at Evo doesn’t stop where I want to go," he adds. "This is my job now. I will do my best in every event, and if I can, I will go and win.”