AX 2019 Interview with Street Fighter Executive Producer Yoshinori Ono

This year CAPCOM and Street Fighter veteran Yoshinori Ono made his first appearance at Anime Expo. Despite having been to Los Angeles on multiple occasions, Mr. Ono’s first Anime Expo shook the entire building, quite literally as his panel was shaken by the foreshock from Ridgecrest. However, that didn’t dampen his spirits or his fans’ as they showed up bright and early for his panel. Knowing how to work a crowd, Mr. Ono spoke candidly about his job and his passion for games. Striking a pose for APA with his signature Blanka, Mr. Ono took time out of his busy schedule to discuss the future of Street Fighter as well as reflect on his long career. This interview took place before the announcement at EVO which welcomed the newest additions to Street Fighter V.

APA: How do you feel to be in Los Angeles and at Anime Expo?

Yoshinori Ono: I’ve been interested in Anime Expo since a long time ago, but I’ve been in Los Angeles several times for different events such as E3 and Street Fighter competitions. From the experience I had yesterday, I’m kicking myself for not coming to Anime Expo before.

APA: How was yesterday’s panel?

Ono: There was a huge earthquake at the beginning of the panel, so I was a little shaken and the attendees were also shocked. We got off on a rocky start, but luckily the panel was at half capacity, to which I’m very grateful for. One of the things I found out was that as a game developer the categorization between anime and games is very black and white, when in reality, they are actually very similar. Street Fighter has a lot of animation within the game itself, and with only that little portion of animation, the fans love the IP and have created cosplay inspired by the game. I’d love to reach out to them more.

APA: Before this interview and at yesterday’s panel, you said that there are only three of these Blanka figures in the world left. Why is that? Are they just that rare?

Ono: The origin of this Blanka toy is that a burger chain in the Philippines had it as part of a kids’ meal. When I went back to Japan, there was a huge bag filled with this Blanka toy on my desk. Looking at it, it’s an intense Blanka. It’s very impactful and I thought of using it as an icon of Street Fighter. In 2006-2007, that’s when SNS started to rise and that was a very good opportunity to iconize this Blanka toy. However, I travel a lot for events and interviews and I’ve left them in hotels and front pockets in airplanes; there’s probably a Blanka randomly in hotels and planes all around the world.

What I told fans yesterday at the panel was that if they find any of these Blankas to please mail it back to CAPCOM USA. It’s pretty rare and old. Even the pants on Blanka are wearing away.

APA: Looking back at the past 30+ years of Street Fighter, what are your thoughts on how far the franchise has come?

Ono: I’ve been at Capcom for 26-27 years, and I began during the rise of Street Fighter 2. My history at Capcom is equivalent to the history of Street Fighter. The brand will continue as long as I’m here and until I retire. One of the things that went beyond my imagination was the terminology that sprung up in the West: eSports.  At first, we thought it would be an extension of gaming events that were already in place. But it’s more than that. It wasn’t a onetime beat and continues to grow.

This will continue to affect Street Fighter as a brand and will be a new era for Street Fighter. I’m not the only one who feels that way; I’m sure the young developers think the same as well. They will strive hard to expand and evolve the brand in the future.

APA: Street Fighter has had different collaborations such as the TEKKEN vs. CAPCOM series. Who’s responsible for these partnerships?

Ono: I’ve been at the head of Street Fighter brand for over 15-16 years, which I took from my predecessor. My one policy was to do whatever I can to make current fans happy and to grab the attention of potential new fans as well. The most interesting collaboration I’ve seen was the Hello Kitty x CAPCOM partnership from over a decade ago. When I spoke with Sanrio’s people, they told me that I should consider doing more of these collabs with other games and non-games.

Their advice was for me to reach out to wider audiences and get them interested in the IP. We had Kitty wear a Chun-Li costume and they gave us permission to use Kitty in promotional material. What surprised me was that the top members of Sanrio were really open to others using their IP. When you get to a certain level in a company, executives tend to turn conservative and reject unnecessary partnerships to keep their IP as safe as possible. However, that wasn’t the case with Sanrio, as they were willing to open up and gave us a lot of freedom so that Kitty would be well known. That influenced me a lot, and that’s why I want to continue doing it for Street Fighter.

APA: Being in charge of this long-running franchise, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced?

Ono: The core challenge of developing Street Fighter is that developers have to make changes and balance those changes so that they’re appealing to legacy players as well as enticing to new fans. Obviously, as the franchise has continued for more than 30 years, generally people understand what Street Fighter is, but new trends arise. When you look at the fanbase of Street Fighters, it’s quite diverse, from very young teenagers to people in their 50s like myself.

I have some friends at Bandai Namco, and we talk about the same difficulties with Gundam. Their legacy is much longer than Street Fighter, but they have to please 50+ year old fans such as myself who have been with the franchise since day 1. If I only created content just to appeal to people like myself, it would be hard for new fans to get into it. These are the challenges that motivate me to continue evolving and thinking of new ideas.

APA: You mentioned Street Fighter’s evolving nature. For example, the look of Street Fighter has changed from sprites to 3D models. But how do you imagine the next generation of fighting games will look like?

Ono: This doesn’t just apply to fighting games, but all games. Similar to what I said before in the previous question, there needs to be a balance. Regarding fighting games, obviously it involves fighting, winning, and losing. What’s important is not only to change the overall game experience, but also the concept of winning. The current status of fighting games is that you have to put multiple hours into training so that you can get better and win in a tournament.

Fighting games are reaching out to the eSports portion. The point of eSports is that it’s electronic. If you’re putting too many hours into training, that feels more like physical sport where you’re spending too much time touching keyboards, mouse, etc. That’s something I’d like to look into. There must be more efficient methods for people to win. I probably won’t be able to find out the answer during my career, but I believe in the younger generation who are following in my footsteps. They will eventually find that goal and change this whole industry in the future.

Kalai Chik

Pop culture writer focusing on animation, music, and games. Los Angeles native, USC alumni, and contributor for Asia Pacific Arts since 2015. Follow me on Twitter, @kalai_chik.

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