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Demetrious Johnson: ‘Esports is way more popular than mixed martial arts’

Demetrious Johnson
Demetrious Johnson
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It takes a lot to make Demetrious Johnson feel like he’s out of his league.

“Mighty Mouse” has been one of MMA’s most dominant fighters for the past decade, technically sound and skilled enough to make world class opponents look like amateurs, and a master of adapting to different styles. Inside the cage, there are few who are his equal.

However, outside of the cage, in the world of eSports, a competitive realm in which Johnson has dabbled for ages, he’s much closer to being a mere mortal than the deity he becomes when he straps on four-ounce gloves. He was reminded of this when he recently welcomed fighting game legend Ho Kun Xian—known as just “Xian” in the gaming community—to the ONE Championship offices for a few rounds of Street Fighter V.

Predictably, Johnson took his licks. But it was nothing new to the former UFC flyweight champion, who’s embraced the role of being a ONE ambassador for the promotion’s martial arts and eSports departments.

“I’ve played against professional fighting game players or Street Fighter athletes all the time, so it’s nothing like I was blown away by it,” Johnson said of his experience playing against Xian in a recent interview with MMA Fighting. “I mean, he’s really f*cking good. He was really, really f*cking good.

“But I’ve been playing f*cking video games since I was, like, eight years old, and I’ve been going to arcades and competitions. So it’s not the first time I’ve ever had my ass handed to me.”

Johnson has dished out his own beatings since coming over to ONE, winning competitive fights against Tatsumitsu Wada and Yuya Wakamatsu in the opening rounds of the ONE Flyweight (135 pounds) Grand Prix. Those wins followed a superb stretch in the UFC that saw Johnson log 11 consecutive world title defenses—a UFC record—before losing a split decision to Henry Cejudo in what would be Johnson’s last Octagon appearance.

As engaged as Johnson is in the ring, he’s just as enthusiastic about sharing his well-known obsession with video games and aiding ONE’s budding esports interests. Johnson’s next fight is in the Grand Prix finals against Danny Kingad at ONE Championship: Century in Tokyo on Oct. 12, but this weekend, ONE is bringing a two-day fan fest to the city that includes tournaments for Street Fighter V and Tekken 7.

Johnson hopes to participate in the community Street Fighter tournament. When asked if interest in esports could someday surpass MMA, his response is incredulous.

“It already has,” Johnson said. “Esports is way more popular than mixed martial arts. It all depends on the demographic. If you look at the viewership of the numbers of the DOTA 2 finals, you look at League of Legends finals, you look at Twitch itself – even though Twitch is more of a cumulative thing – but you look at the esports with Call of Duty, Rainbow Six Siege, the list just goes on. If you look at mixed martial arts, you have the UFC, you have ONE Championship, you have Bellator, you have Rizin, but those events are once or twice, three times a month. I think there’s a big [gaming event] every single damn weekend, not just in North America but in Europe, Asia, whether it’s League of Legends, whether it’s DOTA, whether it’s Overwatch, whether it’s Street Fighter V.

“The difference why it’s more popular is that everybody can do it. Anybody can play video games. Not everybody can fight, not everybody can choose to fight, not everybody has the confidence to fight, not everybody has the confidence to go to the gym and get healthy, live this lifestyle. But every single person in the world can understand how to press a button.”

Johnson added that ONE is starting small when it comes to entering the eSports scene, given there are numerous established tournaments and organizations already. As much of an impact as the promotion has made globally in combat sports, when it comes to gaming, it’s a small fish in a massive pond.

But the fact that ONE is dipping in their toes encourages Johnson, one of several fighters who regularly tout their gaming bonafides. Although he takes a lot of pride in his work, he stops short of definitively calling himself the best gamer in MMA, showing respect to names like UFC champion Robert Whittaker and ONE stablemate Martin Nguyen.

“It all depends on what game it is, what we’re doing,” Johnson said. “There are some hardcore gamers, like Robert Whittaker’s hardcore, Martin Nguyen, he’s hardcore. ‘The Super Samoan’ Mark Hunt, he’s big into Counter-Strike. Paulo Costa, I heard he’s big into games. A lot of us play games and we all play different games. So it all just depends on what game it is.

“But I like to think that I’m up there. I’m always clocking long hours, playing World of Warcraft as of right now. There’s a lot of us gamers out there. I’m probably the more outspoken one and upfront about it, where my social media, sometimes I don’t post anything because I’m like, I’m playing f*cking video games. Instead of me putting the camera in front of my f*cking face, I’ll be playing video games.”

With the recent release of the Classic Edition of World of Warcraft (WoW), should officials be concerned that Johnson will get lost in some deep cavern of Azeroth ahead of his matchup with Kingad? Johnson admits the massively popular online role-playing game has sunk its claws back into him. But he still has his eyes on the prize.

“I’m balls deep in that,” Johnson said of WoW Classic. “I’m level 19, working on my f*cking lock-picking, I’ve got to do that s*it when I get home. I’ve never let my video games get in the way of my training. I’ve never done that.”

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