This weekend, one of the largest fighting game events in the world is taking place. Community Effort Orlando 2015is in its fifth year, and it just keeps getting bigger and better each and every year. As part of my continuing converage of the event and anything related to it, I took the opportunity to interview CEO’s CEO — the one and only Alex Jebailey.
How did you get started playing games? More importantly, how did you start playing fighting games, and why did they gain such a hold on you?
I was raised in a family where I was the youngest of 4 kids, and I had 2 older brothers that were into Atari, Nintendo and arcade games, so it kind of rubbed off on me. My earliest gaming memory was at about 6 years old, when the first Legend of Zelda came out. If you reset the game or turned it off the wrong way, you would lose all of your progress data. So I used to accidentally do that to my brother’s save files, not knowing what I was doing. After that, it kind of stuck playing with them. When I was around ten years old, Street Fighter II Turbo came out on SNES. I remember my brothers going to Toys-R-Us to pick their copy up — which was $80 back then — I was instantly hooked, and spent all my time playing it at home. I was big on Blanka. Back then, I was simply just a fan of most games in general, from platformers to racing games like Test Drive on PC.
I think I realized that fighters would become my favorite genre when the Blockbuster Video Game Challenge was happening back in 1993. Street Fighter II Turbo was one of the final games to get a high score in, and I knew this was a game in which I had some talent. I taught myself how to get consistent perfects against the default AI by using Ken. I would throw 3 fireballs, get the AI dizzy, go in for a jump FP, close FP, DP (ed. note: jumping toward the opponent with Fierce Punch, pressing Fierce Punch as soon as the character lands, and immediately launching a Dragon Punch while the opponent is open), and this would earn multiple perfects. This would skyrocket my score into first place and get me into the finals.
In the 90’s, I used to go with my brother to Malibu Grand Prix in Orlando and drive go-karts with him, but then I starting getting addicted to Mortal Kombat — much moreso than Street Fighter. I was always one of the first to play each iteration in my teen years, from MK1 to MK4. It wasn’t until about 2001 I got back into Street Fighter with Capcom Vs SNK 2, and the rest is history.
CvS2 is one of my favorite fighters of all time, so I totally get the love affair. What about it drew you back in?
It’s kind of a funny story: For my birthday, I got a gift card to FYE and I went to the store to spend it. Now, this was a time where the only game I would play religiously was Dance Dance Revolution, and I’d play nearly every day. So I had a PlayStation 2 for DDR at home, and when I was looking at stuff to spend the gift card on, I stumbled upon CvS2. I hadn’t played a fighter at home in a while, probably since MK3, MK Trilogy or Tekken 3 on the original PlayStation. I thought, “this looks cool,” so I bought it. I took it home, loaded it up and had no idea which characters were any good. I actually thought King (SNK) was top tier because she had a double fireball.
I then started attending UCF, and they had a CvS2 cabinet in their student union. I would develop my skills there through old and new friends that were already ahead of me in the game. This eventually led to my infamous 57 Win streak there with S Groove — which is noted as one of the worst grooves to use — and I got it via random select. That’s still a bit of an urban legend at the place. Then, I started traveling with some old friends, Trent and Rick. They were some of my first mentors in fighting games. I’d go with them to out of city tournaments, and I’d place well. Then, I picked up 3rd Strike, dabbled in a little bit of MvC2 and so forth. To this day, if it weren’t for CvS2, CEO probably wouldn’t exist.
What made you decide to start CEO?
It’s quite the fabled story in the Florida Fighting Game Community. After Street Fighter IV came out, I was running smaller tournaments at other gaming events that had games like Halo or Super Smash Bros. Melee. Through that, I had experience running brackets, but nothing in terms of renting space, hotels or equipment. A particular guy wanted to create a big tournament in Orlando called GAMME in 2010, which ended up canceled with 3 weeks left to go and the tournament organizer unable to fulfill any of the promises that were made. With nobody else wanting to step up and replace the event, I took it upon myself to do so with the help of the Florida FGC, and we were going to pick up the pieces at a time where major events in Florida were nonexistent.
With the help of a Smash TO named Jonathan Graybeal and the local communities for Street Fighter, Tekken and Blazblue, I was able to secure a fairgrounds warehouse and put on the event with only 2 weeks of prep time. This led to a fun weekend with about 350 attendees from mostly Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Fast forward five short years later, and here we are with CEO 2015 — where we have over sixteen countries and forty US States in attendance, all represented by fighting game fans and sponsored, professional fighting game players alike.
What does that feel like? I’ve organized tournaments before, and it was amazing just seeing fifty people come to play. I can’t imagine holding an event that carries a true global scale.
Honestly, I tear up from time to time just thinking about all the appreciation and support it’s gotten over the years. Not the “Mufasa dying in The Lion King” kind of tears, but happy, proud tears. Just to have it grow from something really small built with great friends, blossoming into something that people the world over talk about as one of the best fighting game tournaments around. It makes me incredibly happy.
I do have a fear of complacency in life, so I always do my best to add something new every year, and not just throwing a tournament for its own sake. I want to create experiences that’ll last a lifetime. If you told me ten years ago that gaming would become as mainstream as it is today, I wouldn’t have believed you. There was a time when I was ready to quit gaming altogether and start focusing on a career, but I just let my passion take over when it came time to bring CEO to life. Now, it’s led me to a career that I love, working with Iron Galaxy Studios. All of this would never have happened if it wasn’t for everyone else, everyone that comes to CEO sharing the same passion for fighting games that I do.
What’s the best thing about running a tournament on such a major scale? For that matter, what’s the worst?
I just love everything about running CEO. I’m still a competitor at heart, but the bigger that it grows, the more I realize that I want everyone else to have a great time. Fighting games have done so much for my life that I want to pay it forward to a new generation of fighting game fans. It really is a full time job, but because of the attendees’ appreciation for my hard work, it makes me fall more in love with running CEO every time it’s over. I can see myself doing this for quite a few more years.
Having some amazing sponsors supporting the events have helped build some great relationships inside and outside of the industry, ones that I really appreciate every single day. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be able to make CEO as entertaining as it is, nor run as smoothly as it does. Plus, it helps that all of my staff and friends that help are just as passionate about fighting games as everyone else is.
The hardest part of organizing tournaments on such a grand scale are the finances needed to secure great venues that can hold tons of people. From there, it’s filling up the hotel rooms with traveling gamers, gathering sponsors, renting equipment, making hard decisions in terms of scheduling, and preparing for bigger turnouts than you expected. When you have over 3,000 people at an event — like we’re expecting with CEO 2015 — anything and everything can go wrong. One such example is hotel internet capability being a potential issue, especially so when streaming is a huge resource for event growth, which attracts sponsors to keep that event growing in the future.
But as a TO, you have to find ways to prepare for the worst and you always need to have a backup plan. While there’s a million other events that happen throughout the year, everyone can’t attend each and every event. Because of that, I feel that I have to do my best to make the people that attend CEO feel like they’re an integral part of it. Without the fans, supporters and fresh faces, Community Effort Orlando would be nothing.
Has there ever been a showstopper problem during one of these events? If so, how did you get around it?
Last year — when I cosplayed as Black Adam, no less — it had started raining and lightning actually struck the building and cut the power out. Power issues can always be a problem when you’re running a large event, especially when you have over 100 setups across hotel ballrooms that are used to just tables, chairs and a stage for corporate events. It’s a challenge for sure, but I’ve been at the Wyndham Orlando Resort for 5 years now, and they keep expanding and growing around it, so I have no reason to leave such a great venue.
Attendees really love it here, and I think a sense of familiarity does help to draw them back every year, they’re looking forward to their resort stay and not just the event itself. I want to create a weekend that gives people everything they deserve in a good event experience. Other problems that can arise usually happens with staff running brackets. With numbers getting as overwhelming as they are now, you really have to find reliable people that are willing to call out names and keep a close, watchful eye on things.
Luckily, the CEO staff has learned from any mistakes each and every year, and it’s only gotten better. I also have my own issue of trusting people to take over responsibilities that I enjoy doing, and letting go of the fun stuff can be kind of hard. I’d rather blame myself for anything that goes wrong than blame anyone else, too. But since but people have really stepped up, this year will be the first year I can hopefully relax and enjoy the event come finals day.
The first few CEO’s, I’d handle registration, created brackets with a couple buddies late into the night, I’d be watching over the streamers, etc. Now, all of that is being handled by some of the best organizational talent in the fighting game community, and I just love working with them. All in all, you have to always be ready for the worst, especially when you have tons of people and situations that can go wrong at any moment. But being able to keep your composure, keeping to a strict schedule and sticking to your core values of running a great event for everyone has been what’s kept me going strong.
That’s a pretty tough question. There have been a ton of games I’ve enjoyed that I’d like to see a lot of people play. Capcom Vs SNK 2 is still my favorite Street Fighter game before SF4 that I would love to see more people playing again. Other than that, I’m very progressive. I like seeing new games carry the torch, and I like seeing them do well when they come out after the previous game in the series has had its heyday. I’ve had an awesome past across multiple game genres, but I know when to move on, try something new and see if it takes off.
Usually, I’ve gone straight back to my day job the very next morning. Knowing how big this year would be, I took the following Monday off. This usually ends up in a fun day eating/hanging out with the attendees that are still here. I also spend the week catching up on all the awesome tournament action I couldn’t watch during the event. CEO is usually like a three-day dream where I don’t remember much, because I’m stuck running around all the time. It takes a few weeks to mentally recover from the event, but it gets peaceful pretty fast.
I don’t have the millions of emails and registration confirmations to sift through, which is a little weird since I’m used to having to pay attention to everything building up to the event. I’ve been working weekends at my day job for the last thirteen years, so I’ve kind of forgotten what relaxing is like. I’m used to it, and honestly, I enjoy it. Soon, I’ll only be working for Iron Galaxy full time — which I absolutely love doing — so I plan to relax again on weekends and catch up on playing videogames wherever I can.