Rob “RobTV” Burney is a YouTube content creator, Street Fighter V pro player, and a contestant on Eleague’s new esports reality TV show, The Challenger. He lived with six other contestants in a house, Big Brother style, all of them competing for a spot in Eleague’s upcoming Street Fighter V Invitational. What’s at stake is a shot at a $250,000 prize pool — and bragging rights. The Challenger airs on TBS at 11 p.m. Pacific on Fridays, and the last episode will be on May 18.

Burney was pursuing a business degree at Miami University in Ohio when he got the entrepreneurial itch. He decided to quit school and commit full-time to his YouTube career, and when he was searching around for something he was passionate about, Street Fighter V came to mind.

“I always played video games, Street Fighter, heavily. When I went to do YouTube, I didn’t know I would be specifically doing Street Fighter. I didn’t know that I would pursue Street Fighter as a career,” said Burney in a phone call with GamesBeat. “In college I didn’t have any scene. There weren’t Street Fighter players around me. I’d never been to a tournament like that. First tournament I went to, I beat everyone really badly. I went undefeated. Before I knew it, I started traveling to more tournaments, making more videos on Street Fighter, and it was just a natural progression of things.”

Burney is about a year into his Street Fighter V pro career, and he takes it very seriously. He doesn’t have many opportunities to play new games (“[Dragon Ball Fighterz], that game is dope,” he says, but he can’t afford to “split his time”), and his schedule is comprised solely of making videos, traveling to tournaments, and training.

Training means playing matches or “theory fighting,” which is coming up with scenarios and working out what strategy would work in each one. But it also means gleaning insight from various sources. Boxer Floyd Mayweather is a big inspiration, and Burney is currently studying Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

Though Burney’s pro career is fairly new, he’s on the board. He placed third at the Red Bull Conquest fighting game tournament in Chicago and second at the NorthEast Championships Street Fighter V tourney last year. And he recently picked up a sponsorship from esports organization Hazardous.

The difference between casual and pro

Above: From left to right: Jayce “Dayasha” Alexander, Rob “RobTV” Burney, and Dalauan “L0WTIERGOD.”

Image Credit: Eleague

In particular, Burney is a big advocate of theory fighting and diving deeper into the strategy. In one of his videos — titled “Why Strong Players Don’t Usually Train with Weaker Players” — he emphasizes how newer players can learn a lot more from just asking a pro player questions and learning how they think rather than actually playing a match.

“A lot of people are like, stronger players should train with weaker players and help the scene out,” said Burney. “But what they don’t understand is, if you just hit me up and invest five minutes into having a conversation with me, you’d get way more than if we played matches together for two hours straight. Five minutes versus two hours, and you’re getting better from the five minutes. But most people don’t want to hear that. So theory fighting is the most important part of improving, I would say, at least in my opinion.”

Burney says that part of the issue is that pro video game players don’t get as much respect as other athletes. Becoming a pro Street Fighter player seems more attainable to people than becoming, for instance, a pro basketball player. And because of that, most people underestimate the time and effort that goes into becoming an esports athlete.

“I play basketball sometimes at the rec, but that doesn’t mean I’m as serious as someone who’s really trying to go to the NBA,” Burney said. “But what’s frustrating is, people at the rec playing basketball don’t even have the misconception that LeBron James should be helping them train. They don’t have the misconception that they’re as serious as these people. Whereas in gaming, since anyone can pick up the controller and play, the line between casual and serious players is so blurred to people.”

Street Fighter V’s accessibility is also part of its beauty. It’s the idea that, with some training, anyone can become a competitor. You don’t need to build a high-powered PC or assemble a team, like in 5-on-5 games like League of Legends. It’s just you and your opponent.

“Obviously, Daigo’s looked at as the god, the Michael Jordan of our stuff historically,” said Burney, referring to Daigo Umehara, a legendary Street Fighter player who has earned multiple Guinness World Records. “When I was first starting out, there was always something cool to me about the fact that, man, this guy is that great, but all he has is a controller, just like me. He has the same characters to choose from that I have. He’s just performing better. It gives you a lot of belief that you can do that stuff too.”

The fighting game community

Above: Eleague’s 2017 Street Fighter V Invitational.

Image Credit: Eleague

If you haven’t seen the reaction video to the Super Smash Bros. reveal for the Nintendo Switch, it goes like this: At the end of a fairly uneventful Nintendo Direct livestream, fans finally got what they were waiting for. Super Smash Bros. is coming out later this year — and everyone erupted in screams of joy. It was the kind of unbridled excitement that reminded me of past reveals like the auditorium-shaking roar of approval when Blizzard unveiled StarCraft II in South Korea.

The fighting game community (FGC) is extremely passionate. That’s partially because of the excitement of watching two players go head-to-head. Along with that comes a kind of WWE sensibility where talking trash is encouraged and respect has to be earned. It’s a community that wears the label “hardcore” with pride.

This has led to some accusations that the FGC is toxic. In a recent match, Burney lost to Victor “Punk” Woodley, who celebrated his victory by saying, “Know your place in this world. Know your place.” Kotaku covered the showdown, and the article’s comments are mostly folks frowning with disapproval. People called Woodley “arrogant” and a “sore winner.” But Burney has a different perspective.

“To me, him talking trash is a sign of respect to me,” said Burney. “If I was going up against a weak player that’s new to the game or something like that, I wouldn’t talk trash. I wouldn’t pop off. That’s bullying, to me. What’s the point? That’s ridiculous. If I pop off on someone or talk trash or teabag or any stuff like that, it’s a sign of respect, because it’s like, wow, you got strong enough so that you’re strong enough to the point where I care about beating you.”

Burney cites his father as the source of his point of view. His dad’s a big sports guy, and he always told him that “if you don’t want them to run up the score, stop them from scoring. If I didn’t want Punk to talk trash, I should’ve beat him then. And if I did beat him, I would have been talking trash,” said Burney with a laugh.

A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Burney grew up in a rough neighborhood. According to him, the “cool kids” in school weren’t athletes — they were drug dealers. And he definitely wasn’t that, but he still had to develop a tough exterior to survive. Going to college was a culture shock for him when he discovered that most of the people there avoided confrontation and preferred what he calls a “passive-aggressive” approach instead. Adjusting to that is still something that he struggles with, but he says he’s proud of his roots, which has helped him cope with high-pressure situations like competing in front of the camera.

“Overall, I have support, from my YouTube videos and helping people out and stuff like that. But there are some people who’ll look at me as a bad guy,” said Burney. “The bad guy in wrestling or something like that. That’s a big adjustment for me, because I grew up as one of the good kids. I’m not a bad guy or anything like that. But me just being confident, talking trash, stuff like that, it rubs some people the wrong way. Really it’s just the way I grew up. I’m proud of it, to be honest.”

Though talking trash is unavoidably part of the FGC, in Burney’s experience, new players are welcomed into the community. Proving themselves will come later.

“I don’t want to discourage people from joining, because they should join the scene. It’s dope. But—let me see. It’s rough. OK. It takes a while to prove yourself,” said Burney. “But that’s something that players like myself, or somebody who’s starting to beat those players, will deal with. As far as a new player coming into the scene, you’re not going to get nothing but love, honestly. People know, OK, you’re not that strong yet. You’re just getting into it. Everyone’s going to be trying to help you out, get you stronger at the game, introduce you to people, stuff like that.”

‘The Challenger’

The competitors on Eleague's The Challenger.

Above: The competitors on Eleague’s The Challenger.

Image Credit: Eleague

Another aspect of talking trash is this: It makes good TV. Not always literally, but in Burney’s case, he says his big personality helped get him a spot on The Challenger. Talking trash and cultivating a sense of bravado gets people to care.

“That’s hype. I’m selling the fight. If I lose, it’s hype. Aw, you lost. If I win, it’s hype. But people are actually emotionally invested,” said Burney. “In wrestling, in WWE, when a wrestler is doing horrible, when his career is in danger, is when he goes out there and no one cares. It’s not when people boo him. If you’re booing me, good. You care. If you’re cheering, you care. If I come out there and the crowd is just looking at their cell phones, I’m about to lose that contract.”

In Eleague’s trailers, a clear villain emerges: Dalauan “L0WTIERGOD” Sparrow, or “LTG” for short. Even before everyone’s had a chance to get acquainted, some of the folks have beef with him. He’s talked a big game online, and people are raring to face off against him and hopefully make him eat his words. But even though Burney had a tense moment with LTG early on — there’s a clip of him going off on LTG — he says they’re friends now.

“I don’t want to put it like an annoying cliché, but basically, you don’t really know anyone until you know them? That type of thing. Book by its cover and all that stuff. I’ve heard of all these people,” said Burney. “But everyone has some subconscious—it can even be a positive judgment. But everyone makes some subconscious assessment of other people. Pretty much every single damn time, when you actually meet that person, even if you had a positive perception of this person, maybe now, after you meet them, you have a positive perception still, but it’s completely different from what you had originally.”

The stakes are high on The Challenger. Every person there wants a shot at the $250,000 prize pool, and Burney describes it as “going to war.” But more than that, he’s aware of how a show like this is changing the perception of esports and the FGC. It’s the first time a reality TV show has centered on competitive Street Fighter V play.

“I would say, when I saw the house, the camera crew, stuff like that, that really showed me how much the FGC is growing. People aren’t investing that much into it for no damn reason. I knew the potential it had,” said Burney. “And for me to be the seven people picked on there, it increased my confidence even more. It let me know that I’m on the right track. We were playing for so much. There was so much on the line. Going to regular tournaments now, it’s like—I just played in front of America, you know what I mean?”