Although the gaming industry is a massive player in entertainment nowadays there are still only a handful of individuals in the games industry that are recognized globally in a fashion that could be seen as celebrity. One of those names is Street Fighter Series Executive Producer, Yoshinori Ono. His rise to prominence in the global gaming community came about when Street Fighter IV was released to unbelievable fanfare worldwide after years of what could only be called “uncertain” for the franchise. While Street Fighter IV was contributing to the massive growth of the fighting game scene everywhere, Ono-san (as he is affectionately known as by players the world over, we’re not just using the honorific) built a direct connection with fans by being active in the community online and showing up to major events during this time of rapid expansion. We had the opportunity to meet Ono-san at his office in the Shinjuku Capcom HQ to talk about Street Fighter as a competitive title, the community surrounding it, and get a little bit of insight on the man himself in a candid interview.
OTAQUEST: Although you’re a veteran of the games industry since the ’90s, you’re known mostly for your work with Capcom starting in the 2000s. Can you tell me a little bit about how you entered the gaming industry and ended up at Capcom?
Yoshinori Ono: I actually always wanted to join Capcom from the very beginning. I joined in the music department, for the same reasons I was in a band in high school. I wanted to meet girls (laughs). The problem was, I played piano and the keyboard player is always behind everyone else so that’s not very cool. My two choices were either to be a singer, which means you also have to be tall and handsome or to play the guitar. I went with the guitar. When I had to look for a job I was looking for the same kind of thing, and one day in a magazine I saw that Capcom was hiring in their sound department!
I used to also go to the arcade a lot and spent a lot of money on Capcom’s games, so I kind of vowed to myself to get the job. That way I could get a return on all of the money I spent on their games (laughs). So when I applied, Capcom was a small company which meant that I was able to meet with the president and manager. I told them my three reasons (girls, games, and money) for wanting to join Capcom, and they thought I was a really interesting guy so they gave me the job.
It kind of backfired though, because I was always so busy that I didn’t really have time to meet girls. It was really cool though because, being at Capcom, I was able to see and play all of the games before anyone else. At the time, Street Fighter was really big so when each new version came out, I would practice at the office so I could defeat everyone at the Game Center. (laughs)
I was also a little surprised by the job itself. I joined thinking that maybe I would be able to make music for the games, but that ended up being someone else’s job. My role was to take the music they made and make it fit for the memory of the game. Back then, we were working with a really small amount of memory though, so it never seemed like enough. When I started, we were able to have 32 sounds for each board, but 10 of those sounds had to be used for effects, which left me with only 22 sounds for a whole game! It felt like there was a huge amount of data available for every asset in the game, but I only had a really small chunk to use for my work. When we started doing work for Super Famicom and Game Boy, it was even harder compared to arcade.
OTAQUEST: Street Fighter IV was a key game for the development of e-sports in the United States thanks to large scale events like EVO in Las Vegas and the officially sponsored Capcom Cup. How do you feel about the focus on e-sports in the gaming industry as of late? Did it have any particular impact on the way you approached other fighting games you were working on over the past 10 years?
Yoshinori Ono: I don’t really think of esports as being a new thing. In a way, Street Fighter has always had that concept of competition and tournaments have been operating for the games for more than 20 years. Street Fighter is one of the key games that influenced and pioneered esports as a concept. Even with the newer games, this same spirit has remained even though the idea of esports is becoming more mainstream.
But Street Fighter has been operating in the same way for years. Street Fighter not only offers gameplay for fans to enjoy, but the dynamics of each match also add to the entertainment. Street Fighter is, and will continue to be, a tool to make people happy. At the highest level, it can allow people to spectate and think “wow that’s amazing” while watching great players perform.
Providing tools to allow people to create entertainment while playing games, that’s how it is with esports. I don’t think esports is what we’re providing to the people, the community is what creates that phenomenon, but of course we want to be able to build excitement for it as well. With Street Fighter V, we’ve held Capcom Pro Tour with 66 different tournaments worldwide, which means we have events more than once each week! We give regulations to teams as a tool and provide flights and other related prizes to the winners so they can compete in the world tournament, which keeps the excitement for the game alive.
Giving these materials to each area where the tournaments are held is just giving support to the players since they’re the main attraction. Since we’ve been holding events for five years, we’ve not changed our mind on this, the community is the main attraction. Last year, someone from Japan won, the year before that was the Dominican Republic, the year before that America, and the year before that France. That means each community and local area has done an amazing job supporting their players. When the player from the Dominican Republic won, we were very surprised, and he took home a prize of $250,000. That’s what a normal person earns in 20-30 years there, it’s like giving them a dream. And now, we have 30 people from the Dominican Republic who entered the league.
We’re really pleased that we can provide this kind of opportunity to people no matter where they’re from.
OTAQUEST: The fighting game scene seems to have seen a massive shift in the past 10 years from Japan to the United States with events like Super Battle Opera falling into obscurity and the rise of head to head events in the United States. You’ve also had the opportunity to interact with fans all over the world and see what works and what doesn’t in different territories. When working on updates & new features does this kind of information influence your decisions? Is there ever a time where you consider the needs of a particular market higher than others?
Yoshinori Ono: There are specific characters that western fans like and Japanese players like that are different. The mood for development itself is not for a specific region. It’s sort of like carpentry, where the structure of a house is the same everywhere but there are differences to the style. The structure to the game is the same, but the tools being used are different between each region. Each year, we’ve been adding new characters and when we do so we think about the needs for each different region and what would appeal to everyone. Focusing on the characters and the preferences in the countries themselves, we want to be able to make the game accessible to everyone.
Some people aren’t happy with certain decisions, but the game is based on a set of rules that everyone follows and it comes down to your hand dexterity and how you react to your opponent while playing. Asian players are obviously big fans of fighting games, and when you look at the breakdown for Capcom Pro Tour, it’s not wrong to say that Asian players are good, but if that was the only absolute truth then there wouldn’t be a winner from the Dominican Republic. Getting a lucky punch during something like Capcom Pro Tour doesn’t happen, the players don’t slip up during their matches really. For a whole year, each player has to keep up with points to maintain their rank and break a point threshold to stay in the competition. Once you get to the Top 32, if you can’t put your stress aside and put on your best performance, then you can’t win.
OTAQUEST: Street Fighter V as a whole has been a pretty experimental title since its release in 2016. From the way you’ve handled the character roster, to issuing regular updates for balancing the gameplay, and most recently the inclusion of sponsored content in-game. How do you feel about the fan reaction to these different approaches, do you ever find direct inspiration for new ideas from the response rather than reacting based on what fans are saying?
Yoshinori Ono: I don’t always accept it when the fans say things that would cause balancing issues (laughs). Other than that, I’m on Twitter and Facebook and I have a lot of people who interact with me. But it’s important because I can hear the real voice of the fans thanks to the internet, it’s something that wasn’t possible in the past. Even including things like when fans swear and use the f-word (laughs), it’s a good opportunity to get true reactions from fans on social media. If the fans say something is wrong, then I feel bad about it myself. I understand that even when they say something bad, that they want to communicate with me about the games.
Also, all of our staff can see everything except for my DMs. I keep telling everyone that the comments and reactions are not just for me, it’s for the company and the development team. I want everyone to think about these reactions so when we make new games or series, we’re keeping that in mind. The silent majority is generally more important than the single person who complains though. There are definitely times where I take responsibility and will reply directly, but really it comes down to the majority.
OTAQUEST: After working on fighting games for so long, do you have any interest in working on titles for any other video game genres? Are there any you haven’t had a chance to work on in the past that you would like to experience?
Yoshinori Ono: I would love to try and make something you could really enjoy with your family when you’re all together, like at the holidays. It’s something I would really love to do during my career.
I’ve said this in interviews before, but there’s Wii Fit right? I would love to make something like Street Fighter Fit. (laughs)
OTAQUEST: This is kind of a silly question, but you always seem to have Blanka with you when you travel but in at least one interview you’ve stated that Cammy is your favorite Street Fighter character. How did Blanka end up becoming your companion as you travel around the world?
Yoshinori Ono: So that Blanka is a toy I got in a kid’s meal box at Jollibee in the Philippines, which they actually had made without my direct approval (laughs). There was a mountain of Blanka toys that came into the office one day with a message that said “Thank you for allowing us the license for Street Fighter, here are some samples!” and I was like “what the heck is this, who approved this?” (laughs) I did some digging and it turned out Capcom Hong Kong approved it. When I made the Twitter account back when the platform first started, I didn’t want to put my face on the account, so I made Blanka my mascot and that’s where it started.
I thought that putting the picture of Blanka on my account would make people feel it’s official; like they would recognize the character and since this was a Philippines only toy, no one in America or Japan would have it. That’s also why I take the figure with me everywhere, so people recognize the figure and they know it’s me. The figure has grown so much in popularity that people ask me to hold it in photos. So now everyone thinks I like Blanka the most, and Wikipedia even says that I’m a Blanka player as my main character. When Street Fighter V first came out, Blanka wasn’t in the game and everyone was like, “Why didn’t you put Blanka in?”
So now the question is “Ono-san, who do you like?” and this is the OTAQUEST exclusive answer.
It’s not really Cammy. I’ve answered Cammy because it’s an easy answer to give. Over the last 20 years though, all of the characters have become my children in a way. But for the people who are reading this on OTAQUEST, it’s not really Cammy or Blanka. In so many interviews I’ve said that it’s Cammy, but since it’s you guys, I’ll tell the truth, my favorite character is really Guile. (laughs)
Also, about the Blanka figure, I only have three of them left! I have one here in my office in Tokyo, one in Osaka and one in America. All of the ones I’ve had over the years I’ve left in the seat pockets on airplanes, or at my hotel side table. They might be all over the world at this time (laughs). Imagine the employee on a United flight going to seat 39D to clean up after the flight and finding a Blanka, it’s a good possibility almost all of them have been lost on planes at this point. (laughs) If anyone finds one somewhere, please tell me which seat you found him at! (laughs)
Everyone asks me to take a picture with them using this figure, and people will even stop me on the street for photos. But before we take it, they’ll ask “do you have Blanka on you?” My wife even says that the toy is more popular than I am (laughs).
At the airport in customs in Rio De Janeiro, when I went for the first Brazil Game Show, the immigration line was super long and when I got close to the front of the line I hear “Ono-san! Ono-san!” Someone from immigration called me over when there were like 30 people ahead of me, so I’m thinking “I can’t really go right?” This worker pulls me out of line and everyone around me is like “Who is this guy, did he do something wrong?” and the employee was excitedly telling me “I’m going to the Brazil Game Show tomorrow!” He was so distracted he told me to go without even checking my passport! I had to tell him “You need to stamp my passport so I can go!” After that, the immigration worker pulled the person from the next booth over to take a picture of us and he’s like “Do you have Blanka?” and even the person taking the photo said “OH! It’s Blanka!” So the other workers started asking “Who is that guy?” and someone told them “He’s the guy that makes Street Fighter!” Then all of the employees from like 4 of the 8 booths came over to get photos with me. (laughs)
I’m really happy that Blanka has helped me connect with so many fans, I have to be really careful to not lose the last three!
OTAQUEST: Do you have any messages for your fans in the United States?
Yoshinori Ono: I really appreciate all of the people who are playing Street Fighter, and continue waiting for new games. My stance is that these games are for the players, for the community and that’s something that has never changed as long as I’ve been working at Capcom. I love to see all the people who have the same passion for the game. It makes me happy when people on social media are saying “Hey! Ono is coming to Capcom Pro Tour.” I’ll always take pictures and sign things for the fans. A lot of times it’s pretty difficult to get out of the office because of how busy it is, but even if I can go to Capcom Pro Tour for only one day so I can connect with all of the fans, it’s something I really want to do.