Being Powerful Is Not Enough: The Story of Stephen “Sajam” Lyon
By Eli Horowitz • August 11, 2020
If you look up Stephen “Sajam” Lyon on Twitter or Twitch, the first thing you’ll see is a professional-looking headshot. This choice makes a great deal of sense for one of the Fighting Game Community’s most beloved commentators. As someone with a career in the fluid world of esports, Lyon has a vested interest in making himself appear polished, approachable, and trustworthy. Moreover, as one of the most photogenic members of the FGC, he has every reason to plaster his likeness in as many places as possible.
But every single person is more than they appear to be on the surface, and Lyon is no exception. Moreover, the internet (like the FGC itself) has always been a place where people get to show all sides of themselves. That’s why, on his YouTube channel, his avatar is Superman’s iconic “S” insignia. This gets you closer to understanding the man, but, perhaps because YouTube is a public forum, it only gets you a little closer. Maybe it means that he’s a hardcore comic book nerd; maybe he believes in truth, justice, and the American way; or maybe he just chose it because his own nickname starts with an “S.”
It’s only on Discord, a messaging application where Lyon can pick and choose who sees him, that a clearer picture emerges. There, his avatar is All Might, the Superman-like character in the anime My Hero Academia. “They take some really fun tropes and stuff from comic books and they have a very interesting spin on it,” he says of the show. But why choose All Might in particular? “I just find his perspective about heroes fascinating. [He realizes] that, when it comes to being a hero, being powerful is not enough.” In addition to power, Lyon explains, the best heroes provide “a sense of pride and a sense of safety to other people.”
Coming from a prominent member of the FGC, this explanation is surprising. Fighting game culture grew out of an arcade scene that emphasizes competitive strength, technical skill, and the stubbornness of courage. When Bruce Lee wrote that martial artists should “not be concerned with escaping safely” from a fight, he could have been thinking of the FGC. But Lyon is no fool. He knows from hard firsthand experience that, at their best, strength and safety reinforce one another. In some ways, this is the single guiding insight by which he leads his life. It’s a subtle notion, to be sure, but in a community setting like the FGC, it’s immensely important – and, if nothing else, it marks Lyon as much more than just a random comic book fan or another pretty face.
Command Grabs Incoming
Growing up in Anaheim, Lyon wanted to be either a teacher or a standup comedian. It’s an odd pair of choices, he admits. But both of those professions hinge on one of his great strengths: communication. As a listener, he’s quick to pick up on others’ stories, which helps him to develop a seemingly effortless chemistry with his broadcast partners. And as an orator, the Californian has an easy, laid-back way about him. “Speaking to people was always really natural to me,” he recalls.
Yet it would be a mistake to think that he skates by on natural talent or that he treats his role lightly. “I take my job very serious,” he says, explaining that he always works hard to do it “the best way that I can and the best it can be done.” Lyon’s innate sociability gave him the potential to become a great commentator, but potential doesn’t bloom on its own. His smooth delivery in the commentary booth is a direct consequence of the hard work that he puts in to prepare for his gigs, watching old match footage to scout players and acquire a highly detailed understanding of how various fighting games work.
He learned these skills in high school, but not in a library or classroom. In an effort to get out of PE (physical education, also known as gym class), he joined the wrestling team. He had no previous experience with the sport, and the going was hard. “My freshman year, I don’t think I won a match the entire year. Like, I think I wrestled thirty matches or forty matches and I didn’t win a single match.”
After his brutal first season of competition, he moved up to the varsity squad and discovered a whole new type of challenge. That year, as a sophomore, his team had a gap in one of the lower weight classes, so he went on crash diets in order to qualify for the empty slot. He went on daylong fasts and then sleep walked through classes. “You gotta be tough to go through with it” – and he was. It helped to know that he had the ability to change his fate. After all, wrestling is all about the individual. “It’s all about how much you care to improve,” is how Lyon puts it. “You practice, you put in as much time and effort as you want, and what you put in is what you get out.” And with his body on the line, he had more than enough reason to pour his energies into the sport. Looking back, he says that his wrestling days “really created and helped build a lot of self-motivation techniques and also willpower.”
Each One Teach One
The experience also showed him the true relationship between strength and safety. He learned that strength isn’t a lottery that some people win by virtue of having alien blood, a radioactive spider bite, mutated genes, or any of the other gimmicks that pervade superhero stories. Instead, it’s something that anyone can build for themselves. Moreover, he knew that his physical muscle wasn’t the true locus of his improvement. His real strength lay in his ability to make himself into something he had never been before.
He also discovered that safety isn’t something that only a hero can provide. If Lyon could learn how to make himself strong and self-sufficient, anybody could. So after he graduated, he returned to his high school as a wrestling coach so that he could share his strength with others. All Might, the character he’d choose as his Discord avatar years later, would have been proud: on top of his regular superhero duties, he also serves as a schoolteacher for heroes-in-training.
His time as a coach was the closest Lyon ever got to being a classroom teacher, but he’s never changed his ethos. In his commentary work and in his personal streams, he makes it a priority to educate his audience instead of giving them empty entertainment. “I’m someone who [gets] really interested in the things that I like, and I dive into them super-deep,” he says. “I’m the person who, when you watch a television show, I have to run to, like, Reddit and read the discussion threads…I become, like, super-fascinated with what I’m focusing on. And for that reason, when it comes to something like fighting games or wrestling or whatever I’m interested in, I like talking about it a lot and teaching people.”
The logic is simple: if there’s a type of learning that enables Lyon to be more at home in the world, it’s a safe bet that the same lessons will be good for others, too. So, while watching one of his streams probably won’t make you more athletic, it will give you two things that matter much more: the comfort of knowing that you’re pursuing the things that you believe in, and the confidence to keep going when things get hard. “I know a lot of people are very afraid of, y’know, pursuing or doing things that are unusual,” he says, “but for me, if I’m interested in it, I have a lot of self-motivation and a lot of faith in what I’m interested in to make it work. That’s kind of how I am as a person.”
It’s also an apt description of the Fighting Game Community as a whole. Its members have used fighting games and fighting game culture to help them conquer physical disabilities, injuries, nervous breakdowns, homelessness, and more. Lyon won’t be leaping tall buildings or deflecting bullets any time soon, but his teaching mentality is still heroic in its own right – and it’s perfectly in tune with the community that’s embraced him.
In The Thick Of It
As is the case with many FGCers, Lyon arrived in the community in part by chance. Though he was always a gamer, he was initially drawn to almost every other genre. He played Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Metal Gear Solid, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, League of Legends, and a number of first-person shooters before immersing himself in fighters – and even then, he was introduced to the FGC by a friend and he picked up his first Street Fighter game as a bargain-bin throw-in with a different purchase.
Despite his relatively late start, he quickly proved himself to be a capable player, competing for a short time as part of a locally sponsored team alongside players like Hugo “HugS” Gonzalez, Anton “Filipinoman” Herrera, and Jivan “Theo” Karapetian. Lyon plays fighting games the same way he wrestles. Aggressive wrestlers, he explains, are like players who prefer to impose their offense in the form of setplay or pressure. Neutral wrestlers are like those that flourish in the footsies game. But he himself was a defensive wrestler, the sport’s version of what fighting gamers call a “lame” or “dry” player.
This preference informs his work as a commentator, where he’s drawn to the extremes. His favorite players to commentate are either those who’ve perfected Lyon’s preferred, defense-first style (like Justin Wong or Yusuke Momochi) or those who play pedal-to-the-metal offense (like Naoki “Nemo” Nemoto and Peter “Combofiend” Rosas). Most recently, he’s been enjoying watching Dragonball FighterZ, where Goichi “GO1” Kishida’s rock-solid defense has repeatedly clashed with Dominique “SonicFox” McLean’s patented avalanche of offense. Both of these approaches give him the chance to learn – and, therefore, to teach.
In this way, the FGC is a perfect fit for Lyon. Unlike many larger communities in which the masses are segregated away from the VIPs, the FGC has maintained a radical egalitarianism that keeps things interesting and encourages constant learning. It “puts you in the thick of things,” Lyon says. “It’s very easy for your friends to all be fighting game players, your time outside of fighting games is hanging out with fighting game players, your friend group becomes that, your interests become that, your time spent becomes that, your travel time away from work becomes going to fighting game tournaments, your vacation is you going to Vegas so that you can be there for Evo – that sort of becomes the way it is.”
Moreover, because there are so few artificial barriers between the pros and the regular folks, “it’s an extremely personal community.” When he plays other games, he feels like his opponent is “just a person,” but there are “personal relationships you build” in the FGC. “As a community, it’s something very unique…Our community is very interlocked and things that happen in our community are very personal to us.”
He recognizes that this can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, “we, as a community, come together and are like, ‘Hey, I’m the person that attends this event and has played this player in bracket and I’ve met this person and this person has been in the same room as my family – it’s a much more personal situation.” But on the other hand, that same sense of closeness can tempt fans to excuse the wrongdoings of players and other key figures.
In this instance, there’s no easy way to have the good without the bad; all communities have their flaws, and the FGC is no exception. But if there’s any way to make things better, it’s by emulating people like Lyon who value inner strength over braggadocio and who prefer to make the world safer by empowering others instead of leaving everything to a small cadre of untouchable demigods.
Down But Not Out
Though the big picture always looms, right now Lyon’s biggest concern is the day-to-day. As an esports professional, his livelihood has been directly affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Under normal circumstances, he travels constantly. During the tournament season, “I see the same twenty Japanese players more than I see my family.” But now “I haven’t gone anywhere besides the grocery store in four months” and his normal life has come to a grinding halt.
Still, he has the perfect temperament to navigate this crisis. To someone with his intellectual hunger, a quarantine is just a good reason to try some new things. So while the US struggles to contain the virus, Lyon is experimenting with new streaming content and getting back in touch with his wide array of other interests, from standup and Dungeons & Dragons to anime and mixed martial arts.
It may be a long time before he or anyone else in the FGC gets back to normal. But whenever the opportunity arises, he’ll be there, armed with all the new insights he’s gained in the interim and ready to segue his way into his community’s hearts. And while he may have the classical good looks of a Superman, in reality he’ll always be something much better than another caped crusader: the type of person who makes everyone around him a little more super.
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