Ten years ago, Byeong-mun "Qudans" Son was one of the strongest Tekken Tag Tournament and Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection players on the planet. But professional esports was different then, and in 2007, Qudans largely stepped away from competition as he pursued an education and satisfied South Korea's requirement of mandatory military service. It wasn't until his father's death that he considered a return to competitive play.
Photo c/o Mark "MarkMan" Julio
"While I was studying to be a social worker after graduating from college, my father passed away from cancer," Qudans told us. "I felt lost and found myself wondering about my future. At that time, Gwang-hyun 'Ji3moon Ace' Kim recommended that I come back to Tekken, and watching Jae-min 'Knee' Bae play further encouraged me to return."
Qudans's return began with 2011's Tekken Tag Tournament 2, but it wasn't until this year that the 31-year-old again became a household name in the community. With a push towards larger events and support from developer Bandai Namco Entertainment themselves, Tekken 7 competition was moving to bigger and better things, and Qudans wasn't about to be left behind. Over the course of the 2017 Tekken World Tour, he slowly built up enough points to compete in the main event, thanks to dominant performances in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore.
In October, he was crowned the Tekken 7 world champion after hours of gruelling competition. Surrounded by a handful of his fellow players and hundreds of cheering spectators on the top floor of the Metreon in San Francisco, the South Korean competitor lifted his championship trophy above his head, a smile on his face and tears in his eyes. This victory was a decade in the making.
Photo c/o Tekken World Tour
Qudans's visit to the United States for the finals would be his first since competing at Electric Cancel 6 in 2007. During our conversation, he mentioned being happy to finally return to North America, saying, "I was excited to see old friends and thankful for the people who still remembered me. I believe this positive energy kept me focused all the way to the finals."
The Tekken scene has become a much different place since 2007, though. A pair of Qudans's countrymen, Hyun-jin "JDCR" Kim and Jin-woo "Saint" Choi, have taken the community by storm, and it's rare to see either miss out on a championship match. As the Tekken 7 finals neared its conclusion one chilly night in October, it became clear both players would factor heavily into the eventual outcome.
Although JDCR appeared as commanding as ever in the early portions of the tournament, he suffered a serious blow upon meeting Qudans in the top-eight bracket, dropping by a score of 2-1 in his first loss of the competition. As the underdog, Qudans quickly found himself endeared to the throng of observers, and he used that energy to continue forward.
"JDCR and Saint are the best Tekken players in the world right now," he explained. "However, they have the same movement and timing as other players, and I felt that I could defeat them if I regained my past Tekken skills. With the crowd's cheering, I pushed myself to victory."
Knee, one of the players who pushed Qudans to return to competition after his father's death, was also in attendance, first as a competitor and then as a spectator after being eliminated in the group stage. The two players formed a bond after coming up in the community during the same era, and it was Knee that Qudans looked to as he slogged through his last few matches. Win or lose, Qudans would look back at Knee and exchange short, silence glances.
Qudans says that Knee's support made all the difference: "Knee and I represent an older generation. I played and competed with Knee for a long time, and I believe he has left his mark in Tekken history. He kept me focused throughout the tournament, and I am grateful for his support outside of the tournament as well."
His next roadblock was Saint, but his attempt to earn a spot in the grand finals match didn't go as well as his fight against JDCR. Qudans frequently found himself bullied by Jack-7, a tough, robotic combatant that Saint has used in most of his championship matches. He had very little room for error against Jack-7's onslaught, and the overwhelming loss to Saint in winners finals was a brutal reminder of how the community had developed in Qudans's absence.
With another victory against JDCR in the losers bracket, Qudans had one more shot at Saint in the grand finals. He exerted his will two matches in a row, resetting the bracket with one win and then taking the overall title by a score of 3-1. Qudans was even-keeled throughout nearly the entire tournament, but his relief was palpable when he finally won.
During our conversation, he credited the audience as a major factor in his championship run. "I knew I could beat JDCR, but when I met Saint, I asked myself, 'Can I do this?' As the tournament continued, I felt the crowd cheering for me and I became surprisingly calm. I felt at one with the crowd and my question of 'Can I do this?' changed into 'I can do this.' I am thankful for everyone who cheered for me."
Qudans, a third of his life ago, once stood on top of the Tekken world as a former Evo champion. Anyone's path to success in competitive gaming can be rough, but Qudans's was particularly long. His face, as he hoisted his trophy into the air, told the whole story.
"I thought about my path and felt that this victory was a grand prize for enduring the pressure, stress, and defeat," he said, summing up his journey thus far. "I couldn't hold back my tears at that point."