Kenny Omega, who is one of AEW’s executive vice presidents, is also the reigning AAA Mega champion. After establishing himself as one of wrestling’s elite during his time in New Japan Pro Wrestling, Omega brought his talents to the United States as he signed on with AEW. He is also a talented gamer, with a passion for Street Fighter.
Speaking with Sports Illustrated from Los Angeles, Omega discussed his role this weekend, as well as AEW’s growth, whether he misses the chance to compete at New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom, and his plans for 2020.
Justin Barrasso: Serving as co-host of the Capcom Cup is a perfect fit for you. You’re passionate about Street Fighter, and you get to provide analysis and highlight the players, and even act as master of ceremonies. How did it all come together?
Kenny Omega: Funny you ask. I’ve always wanted to do whatever I could for these events and always wanted to have some sort of presence. Usually that’s just in a form of offering my services to provide some guest commentary, or on occasion, I’m doing an exhibition match against somebody. In this case, the opportunity presented itself for me to do more than that, and that was to actually host and emcee the entire occasion.
It's a huge deal because it’s the actual world championships, and it doesn’t really get any bigger for Street Fighter. People have been collecting points all year to try to make the top standings for this one last event to determine who is the champion of the season, much like in hockey where there’s a Stanley Cup, or a world championship series.
For me, this is just as important as any sporting event. eSports is my sport of choice. I’m really excited to have one of the best seats in the house.
Barrasso: Looking at the Capcom Cup through the lens of pro wrestling, are there babyfaces and heels competing this weekend for the crowd to get behind?
Omega: In very rare cases at the world championships level do you find a babyface or a heel. You do find there are some more cheered than others. Generally speaking, the underdogs of the event are usually from any country that isn’t Japan. Underdogs are always more fun to cheer for.
It’s always expected that [a player from] Japan is going to take it, so any time you see a European player, an American player, or an underrepresented country making it far into a bracket, or even an underrepresented character–for example, in Street Fighter, there are certain characters that are generally considered more powerful than others and other characters that don’t usually do well–people want to cheer more for those characters. I wouldn’t say there are clear-cut heels or babyfaces, but there are characters and people that get cheered more.
Barrasso: These are clearly some of the most elite players in the world. What would be your gameplan if you were to compete against the finalists?
Omega: At this level, everyone is absolutely way too good. I can hang with the best of them in casual matches, but there is a level at the absolute top and the apex of this sport that can’t be reached by your average Joe. The people competing have put in anywhere from three or four to 10 or 12 hours of work a day. They make this their life, this is their main source of income. Much like professional wrestling, if someone off the street could give me a run for my money in performances, and they’re just doing it casually, I would feel like I’d need to find a new profession. People here take what they do seriously. They’re great representatives of the sport, and now that eSports is offering people the ability to live life around the game and make a living doing what they love, you’re seeing the commitment to their sport and to their game on a completely new level.
It's not only playing the game itself, it’s testing new things in the lab. It’s doing exercises that increase reactionary speeds. Doing exercises that increase eyeball movement and functionality, and even exercises to combat mental fatigue. Some of the competitors even see sports therapists to deal with the pressures of being in a situation where you’re in front of thousands of people and you’re expected to make a comeback from behind. These are all things that only players at this level have to deal with, and everyone is trying to find the way to increase their game to be the best.
Barrasso: Watching the elite perform is a thrill no matter the field. That was also on display as you and Jon Moxley put together a very creative, and unique, main event this past November’s Full Gear pay per view. Were you happy with the idea and execution of the match? And did you anticipate some criticism since it deviated so far from the WWE main event structure?
Omega: I was absolutely happy with it. I really feel that it was a near-flawless performance of what we tried to accomplish. I really tried to make this year something very different than what people were used to seeing of me. Running a TV format is completely different than just going out to the ring and doing whatever you want, and then whenever the match is done, it’s done. Things are much more strict in my world now. Not only that, but going on this new venture with AEW and doing this TV thing, assuming a management role, producing my own segments, producing other people’s segments, producing and structuring matches other than my own–these are all challenges I wanted to assume. Aside from that, I wanted to do things and try new things.
When people call me the best, I take that seriously. It’s not only a compliment, I take it more as a responsibility. You can’t be the best if you’re very good at one particular thing. Some people have been called the best in the world because they’re great high-flyers or because they’re very athletic. Some people have been called the best in the world because they have one type of match that they can consistently perform at a very high level.
For me, I want to be able to perform any type of match, any scenario, any situation–I want to be able to perform better than anybody. That’s why I’ve made trips to AAA to challenge myself in the Lucha style. That’s why I did the deathmatch style with Moxley. That’s why I went back to [what I was doing in the ring] over 10 years ago and I’m starting to show the world what mixed matches are all about with Riho. These are things that are very important to me, and these are things that I think help show what a true ‘best in the world’ performer looks like and acts like, rather than just ‘you had a handful of good matches in one style only.’
For me, it was broadening my stokes, broadening my horizons, and showing that I’m not only multi-faceted, I’m willing to innovate and put myself out there in styles I haven’t even attempted until now in my career.
Barrasso: You mention challenging yourself in new areas, and weekly television is a key component in your role with AEW. What has stood out most to you performing live every week on Dynamite?
Omega: Every week is a new challenge. There are certain things that I’m still easing into, myself. It’s a different role in a universe with a different set of rules. I’ve purposely taken a backseat as an actor/performer. I wouldn’t say a back backseat, but I’m not at the forefront, which I think was an expectation from people–and I’m happy to be that way because I think we have so many stars that deserve a chance to show what they’ve got.
If we don’t move forward with a new generation, then when my time is up, or when Chris [Jericho’s] time is up, or when Moxley’s time is up, we’ll have no one to take the torch. That would be the biggest disservice and injustice that I could do as someone in a managerial position.
Barrasso: We are approaching January, which is, of course, when New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom takes place. You were such an integral part of the past three Wrestle Kingdom events. Is there a part of you that misses the build to the Tokyo Dome?
Omega: It’s strange. That was always a very special time of the year. You’d spend time at home during the holidays with family, you’d do the New Year’s thing, which in my case, I’d do the New Year’s thing in Japan. The next big thing, of course, would be the Tokyo Dome. That was the process, that’s what we would do. For me to approach the end of the year, now that the holidays are coming up, it does feel like there is a bit of a hole there–like I should be doing something, but I won’t be. It’s to be expected, it’s the first year I won’t be there after all my years in New Japan. As time goes by, if I don’t appear next year, maybe I’ll feel less of the emptiness that I feel now. But it’s to be expected.
I never really had any other largescale show that was always on the same day up until the New Japan Wrestle Kingdom shows. We would do big shows in DDT when I was a mainstay there, but the date always changed. It was never the same day. With Wrestle Kingdom, it’s always January 4. It was even strange for me to watch the G1 via computer and not be there at the arena. That was something I’d always expected myself to be a part of.
I’ll be watching in some capacity, and I wish everyone the best. They’re attempting two days this year, and I hope it goes well.
Barrasso: There is so much at stake for you in 2020, as both an executive and a pro wrestler. What are your goals for the upcoming year?
Omega: I felt like it was a very short year for me, just because we got a little bit of a late start. I still feel there are journeys I need to see through until the end. I got a couple mixed matches in with Riho, and I enjoyed every single one of them. I feel like there’s more there to be had, and I really want to show how beautiful, how entertaining, and how fun these matches can be on American soil. It can really open up a lot of people’s minds to the concept of mixed matches if we do them properly. I probably won’t be entering the foray of deathmatch style matches any time soon. I’ve checked that off my list and was very happy with the performance.
There is a myriad of performers in AEW that I’ve yet to tie up with. It doesn’t have to be completed next year, but all of these guys, they all have some kind of reputation. I would like to step in the ring with them and see how it goes. I might be able to find a new type of chemistry with someone I never knew existed. I’m looking forward to mixing it up with guys like Darby Allin, and whether it happens or not, I’m looking forward to exploring this feud more with PAC, who I think is one of the greatest performers living right now. I’ve yet to have an actual regular match with Jon Moxley. These are all things that pique my interest. Whether they all happen next year or not, we’ll see, but they’re all things that I can look forward to. Hopefully a good handful of them happen.
Omega: People have probably heard the term ‘eSports’ thrown around a lot and they’re wondering what the fuss is about. There is no better chance or opportunity to see just what eSports in the fighting game community is about by watching gameplay at the absolute highest level. I may not be a professional player, but I’m someone from another community and another world that is entering this universe and can provide an outside perspective. You’re going to see not only the top-level play, but you’re also going to see a celebration of the game and the community itself, amongst all types of newcomers and people like me, who have been fans of fighting games and videos games in general, and just how happy a world it can be when we all come together. I think it will be a fun experience for first-timers. And if you enjoy fighting games, Street Fighter, or just gaming in general, it’s a good one to check out.