“I believe that most people generally want to be better,” Paul “BlaQSkillZ” DeCuir tells me when we meet online to chat. “However, finding someone truly working on it, calling themselves out, and building after to be better, is rare. It’s very easy to be lulled to sleep in the constant grind and believe you’re going somewhere. Then one day you stop and go, ‘Oh my god, I haven’t done anything.’” DeCuir is well-known as a member of the Fighting Game Community: the longtime Street Fighter competitor is a regular at tournaments in southern California and was the subject of a 2016 Red Bull feature. But when he talks to me about improving – about working, building, and grinding – it isn’t a video game that he has in mind. He’s thinking about the difference between artifice and art, between surviving and thriving, between being somebody and becoming somebody.
These questions loom larger in DeCuir’s life than they do in most. A native of Altadena, California, DeCuir was adopted as a child by a Green Beret father and a mother who worked as a nurse at a high school. As many adopted children do, he sometimes felt unwanted. “I thought it was bad for a long time,” he remembers. In part this was because he was teased and bullied. “Kids,” he explains, “are inherently honest and evil.”
It wasn’t just kids, though. Adults in DeCuir’s life also “used to act like it was bad” to have been adopted. This, perhaps, was the very first impetus for growth in his life. Being adopted “can make you feel like an alien,” Emily VanDerWerff writes at Vox.1 It’s “this factor in your life that you have no control over, an internal mechanism that can tell you constantly you’re not good enough, if you’ll let it.” That was DeCuir’s first challenge: becoming the sort of person who would not allow himself to be defined by negative voices, either from others or even from inside his own head.
As if to practice becoming a newer, stronger person, DeCuir turned to the stage. “I loved acting since I was a child,” he tells me. “I even went to junior college for theatre.” One of his favorite roles was a Spartan herald in Lysistrata, the twenty-four-hundred-year-old Greek play about a sex strike. Another was Cletus, a character in James McClure’s Lone Star that was once described as “a prize stick-in-the-mud.”2 “I was the kid that always got picked on,” DeCuir says. “I was weird, quiet, nerdy. On stage, everyone was entertained by me. I loved that feeling.”
While he was exploring his second home in the spotlight, DeCuir was also looking to his parents to learn how to conduct himself. “My dad is huge on respect,” he says. “Time is important, You can’t get it back. He meets everyone eye to eye and if you disrespect him, you are done. I feel that way about everything. Even people not texting back within a reasonable time frame drives me insane. My mom was the soft balance and was always courteous. My dad was, too, but like I said, once you tried to chop him down, he walked right over you.”
At age 18, DeCuir experienced his father’s judgment firsthand. Their relationship was already strained. “I had created a bad rep for myself” is how DeCuir describes it. “[Then] I lost my first job due to racism and he flipped.” DeCuir’s father thought that his son was just making excuses. He kicked DeCuir out of the house.
That was the start of a four-year stretch of on-and-off homelessness for DeCuir. “I stayed with friends here and there, a day or two,” he recalls, “but most of the week I just wandered Pasadena.” When he managed to scrape some money together, he bought big bags of chips, tubs of Red Vines, and water. “I was still at junior college, so I also hung around the school a lot. Slept in the parking structure at night, showered at a friends’ [place], off to class.” According to recent government statistics, over five hundred thousand people are homeless on any given night in the United States – and almost half of those people are in California.3 For many, homelessness leads to ruin. DeCuir was lucky: he had friends, youth, and an astounding amount of mental resilience. After far too many nights couch-surfing and sleeping in parking garages, a friend’s mother invited DeCuir to stay with them permanently. Soon after, he found another job.
This experience “was the catalyst to everything I’ve gone through,” he says. DeCuir has patched things up with his father, though he says that the two are only on “okay terms” today. “It takes too much energy to be so angry, though,” he adds with a laugh. Thankfully, he has much better uses for that energy nowadays.
Combat and comedy
One of DeCuir’s passions is fighting games. His relationship with the genre goes back to the early ‘90s with Fatal Fury and a little-known Sega Genesis release called Eternal Champions. Appropriately, his character in Eternal Champions, Larcen, is also a man who changes and grows: according to Wikipedia, Larcen is destined to die in an attempt to defy his mafioso bosses and turn over a new leaf. As a reward for beating the game, the player is given the chance to save Larcen from his fate.4
The irony is that, when DeCuir himself would be in jeopardy years later, fighting games would come to his rescue. While he was homeless, DeCuir had a son, Isaac. Two years later, the child’s mother cheated on DeCuir and left him, taking Isaac with her. Worse yet, DeCuir’s own mother died around the same time, a relatively young victim of cancer. “That’s when I found the FGC,” he tells me. “It literally brought me back and nobody knew.”
At the time, DeCuir was living in Pomona, just down the street from a local venue called Arcade Infinity. Using that as his launching pad, he propelled himself into an entire community of true friends and eager mentors. OnlineTony, a Seth specialist in the Street Fighter IV series, lived and trained with DeCuir, and the two even recorded a pilot for CrossCounter TV.5 Peter “ComboFiend” Rosas helped to train DeCuir for his first trip to the Evolution Championship Series, the biggest event on the FGC’s calendar. In fact, DeCuir’s list of allies reads like a west-coast who’s-who: Rosas, “Blockbuster” Jon Rios, Mike Ross, Alex Valle. “I was lucky enough to get help from so many great players,” he says. “It was a very humbling journey.”
DeCuir’s other lifeline is equally humbling. From his early days as an actor, DeCuir branched out to stand-up comedy. There, he says, his inspirations include Eddie Murphy, Mitch Hedberg, Richard Pryor, Bill Burr, Robert Schimmel, and Mike Epps, among many others. Yet, as always, DeCuir’s focus as a comedian isn’t on others but on himself. “You have to grow a thick skin” as a comedian, he tells me. “If I did a TV show and you didn’t like me, it’s all good – ultimately it was me as my character. Stand-up, you’re basically you. They don’t like you. That’s why it’s so scary.”
Perhaps that’s also why DeCuir sticks with it. Good feedback hurts, he says – “but it’s great.” For DeCuir, comedy is almost a trial by fire. “It’s hard because the only way to learn is to go up there. You won’t even know what your style is until five or six years in. Even then, you could be wrong.” All of his idols found “a ‘thing’ they do that makes them who they are and mastered it. I’m still trying to do that. The journey is fun and the most important part.” DeCuir makes no bones about it: failure is frightening and progress is painful, both in the FGC and in standup. But what’s even more painful for him is the idea of surrendering. What’s even more terrifying is the thought of looking back and seeing that he didn’t even try.
DeCuir admits that his approach to life is difficult. “It means exposing yourself to [the world],” he explains, “and we all know how cruel [the world] can be.” He says that he often finds kindred spirits in other artists and comedians, who throw themselves into hardships knowingly. His mother, an amateur photographer, would understand. His father still doesn’t, at least not entirely: “He was from a different era,” DeCuir says, “Vietnam, MLK, race wars. You didn’t have time to grow, just to survive.” DeCuir wants so much more for himself than mere survival.
In his comedy, DeCuir seeks an outlet. “I tend to hold everything in and that backfires,” he says. “The better I’ve become, the more topics I’ve been able to let out on stage. I’m working on one about my parents, and that’s a great feeling.”6 In the FGC, he has an emotional crucible. “I genuinely love the characters I play,” he says. “I can imitate every last one of them – Vega, Dee Jay, Terry, Kyo, Yuri.” But “when I lose, I feel like I let [all of my friends] down.”
DeCuir describes himself as “a very emotional player” and one who “still struggle[s] with composure. I think it’s because, since I don’t get to see the one thing I love the most in this world” – his son, Isaac – “I’m never truly at peace.” But nothing is over for DeCuir; nothing is set in stone. He knows that he needs to earn his way back into his son’s life, and he knows that he can use Street Fighter to get there. “When I got upset [about Isaac] or rage settled in, I labbed Street Fighter IV. It relaxed me. Then I could think clearly, and take the next step to working on myself. I have to be [better] if I want to see him again. The better I get at improving myself on my journey, the calmer I’ve become.”
And DeCuir shows no signs of stopping. “Ragequitting is hilarious,” he says. People who just play “one and done just make me sad. But the worst are people that just give up and stand there. That actually makes me the angriest. Your life will go nowhere if you just take the beatings when they come. You have to fight. Both my parents instilled that in me. I’ll complain, I’ll get depressed, I’ll literally say ‘I give up,’ but I’m actually still fighting. At my core, I can’t quit. I don’t know how.”
In the end, DeCuir makes it sound easy: “I’ve been through a lot and still smile.” But you should know that he earns every one of those smiles. True to both his standup and his life in the FGC, DeCuir is determined to be – no, to become – a force for happiness and positivity in the world, no matter how hard he has to fight to do it.
Eli Horowitz (@BODIEDnovel) is a writer and software professional who lives in Pittsburgh. His first novel is set in the FGC.
6You can watch one of his recent sets here.
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