We often carry the things we connect to as children forward with us into adulthood.
Favorite teams don’t change, unless you’re that guy. While your palate expands and contracts as you age and experience different culinary adventures, there is always that one dish from your youth – Mom’s macaroni and cheese; a pepperoni pizza from that joint down the block; Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings – that will forever be your go-to when someone asks what you would eat for your last meal.
It’s the reason songs from our childhood stick with us and bring a smile to our face whenever we hear them and why the music from “back in my day” is always superior to life’s current soundtrack. It’s not because everyone that isn’t Generation Right Now is an old man shaking his fist at a cloud, but because that’s what was imprinted on us early on, spoke to us when we started wanting to listen and remains meaningful all these years later.
Hobbies often work the same way.
Not the “flash in the pan, all the cool kids are doing it” things you tried for the hell of it and gave up on in a couple of weeks, but if you take inventory of the things you do for fun today – reading, pick-up basketball, baking, building models – chances are the foundation of those pleasurable pursuits took root when you were a kid.
That’s how it was with Demetrious Johnson and video games.
The 29-year-old is the first and only flyweight champion in the history of the UFC and in hot pursuit of Anderson Silva’s record for consecutive successful title defenses. He is one of the five best fighters on the planet and suggesting there might be four people in front of him feels disrespectful.
He is one of five fighters in UFC history to win 10 straight fights, is unbeaten since the promotion introduced the 125-pound weight class into its ranks and is one of seven fighters to have competed in 10 or more championship bouts inside the Octagon.
Before he was all of those things, while he is all those things and after he has retired from being all those things, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson was, is and always will be a gamer.
He traces his connection to what remains one of his greatest passions to his days teaming up with his mother to conquer the sequel to the game that taught everyone the Konami Code.
“Me and my mom would argue about it because she would want the spread ball power-up,” laughs the UFC champion, who returns to the cage in search of his ninth successful title defenses when he takes on Wilson Reis at UFC 201 on July 30 in Atlanta, Georgia.
“‘That’s my spread ball!’” he adds in an imitation of his mother’s voice. “She’d get pissed at me, but yeah, Super Contra was the first game that grasped me.”
While Johnson’s introduction to video games as a child is decidedly uncommon, the reason why they became his adolescent entertainment staple is a twist on the norm.
For a lot of kids who grew up in the advent and expansion of the console age – that stretch of time from Atari’s arrival to Nintendo change of the landscape with the NES – having a video game system at home was one option in a slew of entertainment choices. Fresh consoles and cartridges showed up and sent G.I. Joe back to the barracks and made that Hot Wheel racetrack look less appealing.
But “The Real American Hero” and that favorite red sports car were never completely discarded and other options existed as well. That wasn’t really the case for the UFC titleholder.
“Growing up, coming from a family that wasn’t wealthy, our entertainment as children was to play video games,” he explains. “My mom didn’t have a car and she didn’t have a lot of money so we couldn’t jump on the bus and go out to Chuck E. Cheese or go do this. So basically, me and my brother, we had each other and our Nintendo console.
“All through elementary school, middle school, high school, video games were always a part of my life and after I got out of high school and I was going to college, training mixed martial arts, I still played video games and to this day I still play video games.”
Johnson saying he still plays video games today is akin to simply describing him as a mixed martial artist; it’s factually correct and valid, but it doesn’t quite cover the depth and breadth of his involvement.
The 24-2-1 fighter is now all-in on Twitch, the live-streaming platform that focuses primarily on video gaming and attracts more than 100 million monthly unique viewers. What started as an investigation to see what all the fuss was about and if anyone was playing Mega Man X has spawned the creation of his own channel and community, complete with merchandise, meet-ups and some thoughts about a post-fight career on the controller.
“I got introduced to Twitch when I had my first kid,” recalls Johnson, whose handle on the platform is Mightymouseufc125. “I can’t remember where I heard about it, but I heard somewhere that you can watch people play games online. I did a little more research on YouTube about how you stream on Twitch and it was like, ‘Oh, if you have PS4, it’s one button. If you had Xbox One, is it more buttons?’ So I started streaming Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn and at one point, I had two people in there and I was walking around with my shirt off, in my underwear and everybody was like, ‘Look at the champ!’
“One thing I would do was post on Twitter or Instagram when I was going to be live, but that's when you bring the f--king trolls.”
“There are always f--king trolls.”
“So I didn’t post and my wife was like, ‘You should post.’”
Johnson took his wife’s advice and started advertising when he would be streaming and the two viewers turned to five. Five turned into a dozen and eventually prompted Twitch to reach out to him.
“They were like, ‘Hey man, if you’re interested in taking this to the next step, let us know and we’ll talk to you and point you towards the right equipment, hook you up with the right companies.’ My wife said, ‘You might as well do it because you’re going to play video games as it is, so why not try to connect to your fans in that way? Build your brand and fan base that way?’
“I said, ‘Okay, but if I’m going to do this, I’m not doing this half-assed; I’m doing it all the way. I’m buying the f--king sick computer, a bunch of monitors.’ (She said) she was fine with that and gave me the push. I hooked up with Twitch and Origin PC and here we are with The Mighty Squad.”
As of press time, Johnson’s Twitch channel has over 64,000 followers and has been watched by more than 1.37 million viewers since it’s launch.
He has a logo that occasionally gets printed on t-shirts he can’t keep in stock. There is a team of Twitch users who have helped him build and maintain his channel and earlier this summer, there was a “Mighty Squad Meet-Up,” where the flyweight champion got together with a bunch of followers, even though he was a little skeptical about the idea at first.
“At first, I was like, I don’t know because you never know who is going to show up, if they’re going to be a creeper or whatever,” Johnson admits. “But I was like, ‘Let’s do it!’ We did it, a lot of people showed up and it was awesome. A lot of people showed up with the Mighty Mouse shirt – the logo – and we went out to a pizzeria and we ate and shared stories about the stream.
What started as an Internet search and a mission to check out some Mega Man X action has turned into an engaging side venture and meaningful partnership for Johnson, who can’t say enough good things about the people he works with from Twitch.
“It’s awesome because not many companies come after me and say, ‘Hey dude, let’s build you; let’s harness this because we know you’ve been a video game player all this time’ and for them to reach out like that and give me this opportunity to build my platform, build myself and a community for myself is awesome. I’ve met so many people online through Twitch that have helped me build my Twitch and The Mighty Squad, so I’m just really grateful that Twitch reached out to me.”
And the self-described frugal UFC champion has taken the same approach to his Twitch channel as he did in the early stages of his fighting career.
Throughout his climb up the regional ranks, into the WEC and on to his bantamweight championship bout with Dominick Cruz in October 2011, Johnson worked a full-time job. He began training in mixed martial arts as a way to stay in shape, fought as a way to remain competitive, but never stopped punching a clock, instead opting to fit training in around his work schedule.
“The biggest thing I always tell people and it’s kind of how it was in mixed martial arts for me: when I started mixed martial arts, I had a full-time job that covered all my bills. I didn’t need one penny from fighting at all. Even when I fought professionally in the WEC and UFC, every check I earned, I threw it right in the bank and never touched it.
“With that being said, that’s kind of how it is with my Twitch – I’ve been able to monetize and generate a little revenue from it, but I haven’t had to spend one penny from my Twitch checks. I just throw them in the bank and put them right back into the stream – pay an artist to do this or make a shirt.”
His success in the Octagon (and a stern talking to from his long-time head coach Matt Hume) led to Johnson eventually leaving his job to commit to fighting full time, so now that he’s seeing positive returns in the infant stages of his Twitch career, can the pound-for-pound standout ever see himself trading in his four-ounce gloves for a controller?
“If it came to a point in time where I was making enough money, why not?” he says without hesitation.
Johnson is far from alone when it comes to mixed martial artists that stream on Twitch. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Max Holloway and Angela “Overkill” Hill all get their game on for all to see as well, and there have been times when the various fighters have gone head-to-head. This leads to questions about which MMA fighter is the best gamer.
Just as determining the best fighter in the sport is a subjective exercise with multiple layers to work through, Johnson says it’s the same when it comes to determining the top gamer. Everyone has their own favorites and figuring out how everyone stacks up is a complicated exercise.
“The hardest thing is that how do you judge gaming talent off certain games?” he asks rhetorically. “Rampage Jackson and Max Holloway, they’re very good at first-person shooters. I’m not bad either, depending on what game we’re playing, but what if we were going to play a fighting game? Let’s say we do Street Fighter V, which has been around longer than any of us – probably not Rampage – or we could do Tekken or Bloody Roar ... hopefully I’ll have an edge in the fighting game.”
At this point, Johnson is talking as quickly as he moves in the Octagon, bouncing from genre-to-genre the way he strings together combinations. A few familiar words and names ring out.
World of Warcraft.
Finally there is a pause. This is what his opponents must feel like at the end of a round.
“It’s really, really hard to determine who’s the best gamer,” he concludes.
But Johnson is hoping to test himself – not against his fellow fighters, but against some of the best in the gaming world.
“I’m actually training – not training, but putting in hours on Street Fighter V just in case PAX Seattle has a Street Fighter V tournament. I’m going to enter it and see how well I do.”
Given how successful he has become with the last hobby he “put hours into,” don’t be surprised if Johnson adds another kind of championship to his mantle somewhere down the line.
(Header image via MMAWeekly.com)