A seemingly inconsequential, outlet-relegated sneaker gained new relevance this week, the full story of its video game-inspired design surfacing two years after it was produced. The shoe, a white pair of the Nike Air Force 1 dressed in blue accents, nods to Evo Moment #37, the extraordinary conclusion to a Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike game from 2004 that still stands as the most iconic moment in competitive fighting game history.
But what was meant to be a sneaker celebrating the fighting game scene arrived without any overt connection to it, and was doomed to obscurity up until now. Professional fighting game player Justin Wong, who was on the losing end of the Moment #37 battle, learned of the Air Force 1 inspired by his most famous match just a few days ago.
“At first when someone tagged me, I thought it was a troll or a fake,” Wong says, recalling how he only saw the shoe after a follower showed him a photo on Twitter.
Moment #37 happened in Pomona, California, at the the 2004 installment of the fighting game event Evo. The sequence goes something like this: Wong, playing as Chun-Li, patiently lands blows on an opposing Ken, played by Daigo Umehara, until his life bar is down to a pixel-thin sliver. With a healthy chunk of his own life still left, Wong moves to finish the fight, performing a 14-hit super move. If any single hit lands, Wong wins. Even if his opponent tries to block, Wong still wins, because the game will let through a tiny amount of “chip damage” when a super move is blocked.
“Let’s go, Justin,” one crowd member cries as Wong’s move initiates.
Umehara, at the mercy of an oncoming barrage and an infinitesimal margin for error, leans into Wong’s move with a parry—better than a block—pressing forward on his joystick for a maneuver that will fully cancel out the damage of the hit. He has to land the parry right as Wong hits him, within a tenth of a second of the blow connecting. Then, he has to flawlessly parry 13 more hits, inputting each in successive tiny windows of time.
As he links them together, the spectators cheer in a crescendo. Umehara as Ken steers through the impossible, parrying each of the 14 hits from Wong’s Chun Li. After that, Umehara hops up to parry a final kick. He caps off the defense by responding with his own super move at the end, his Ken taking Chun-Li down in a hail of kicks as the audience erupts.
Though Wong lost that game, the Air Force 1 tied to Evo Moment #37 is not a traumatic piece of footwear for him. He bought two pairs this week when he discovered the shoe—one from eBay and one from StockX.
“Even though it’s a loss for me, it got so many people into fighting games and that’s the point,” he says. “Our community is small so if I have to take the L for the growth of the community that is a W for me.”
While not an official collaboration with Capcom (the video game publisher that makes Street Fighter) or Evo (the annual event where Umehara executed his full parry) the Nike Air Force 1 based on Moment #37 is loaded with details winking to the game. The cool blue used on the dubrae and the midsole line are meant to look like the super meter in Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike. The spiky ring around the top lace hole resembles the parry graphics in the game. The doubling of the Swoosh on the side represents how the characters are superimposed during super moves, and the doubled Nike Air branding mimics the drop shadow treatment on the “KO” at the end of a round. The Air Force 1’s white canvas upper is fashioned after Ken’s gi. Most explicit, though, are the characters tucked on the inside of the tongue label that break down the full button input for the Daigo parry and his subsequent finisher.
After one of Wong’s followers alerted him to the shoe’s existence on Monday, the story of its development took shape on Twitter. Mark Julio, who works for Evo, explained that he’d connected with Nike years back to help design a sneaker based on Moment #37. Julio posted a sample version of the Air Force 1, saying he met with Nike in January 2020 to finalize the design. A former Nike employee named Hayden Walling added more details, saying he’d met Julio at the E3 video game convention in 2019 and convinced his colleagues at Nike to make a shoe celebrating the fighting game community.
The shoe arrived but the celebration never did. Even sneaker blogs, keen on logging every update to the status of a sneaker release, did not pay the Moment #37-inspired Air Force 1 any attention beyond the leak of the initial photos. A release date was never confirmed. Nobody knew what the shoe meant. There’s no evidence of stores other than Nike outlets carrying them. Julio didn’t know they had actually been produced until photos circulated on Twitter this week.
“It was supposed to honor an iconic moment in competitive fighting game history. None of the storytelling that was discussed came to fruition,” he wrote on Twitter. “What a sour feeling.”
Julio, who’d helped design the shoe, quickly bought pairs on the resale market upon realizing that the shoe had been made available at retail in whatever quiet way. As other fighting game fans learned the story of the special edition Air Force 1, interest in the shoe immediately exploded on the secondary market.
Dating back to Feb. 28, 2021, StockX has recorded around 200 total pairs sold, over half of which were moved within two days of Julio and Wong posting about the shoes on Twitter. Their tweets sent the resale value of the Moment #37 sneakers up 34 percent this week. On Aug. 1, the day that the story behind the sneakers emerged, views on the product page on StockX went up 1,000 percent compared to the previous day.
The Air Force 1s are still floating around at Nike outlets in the US, too, where they’re being sold for their original retail price of $140. Most of the pairs listed on eBay are missing the lids to their boxes, meaning they were likely purchased at outlet stores, where shoes are often sold in incomplete packaging. Some of them have Nike Japan tags—the Moment #37 shoe was originally intended to be released only in Japan and the US.
Why did Nike go through with making the shoe only to refrain from marketing it and release it in the most reticent manner possible? The brand did not respond to a request for comment about the Evo Moment #37-inspired Air Force 1. An employee at Nike who worked on the design declined to speak about them.
The tag on the inside of the Street Fighter-inspired Air Force 1 shows that the shoes were produced between April and June 2020. The sample Julio posted on Twitter this week comes with a tag designating it as a Fall 2020 release.
Sources close to the project say Nike decided not to give the Evo Moment #37 Air Force 1 a full release because the shoe didn’t align with the brand’s priorities toward the end of 2020. The company was going through a major re-org that fall, which meant significant job cuts. It was also operating in an era of peak sensitivity. A pair of SB Dunks meant to drop in 2020 that featured a coughing strawberry character was pushed back a year; coughing at that point carrying deadly connotations on account of COVID-19. A Puerto Rico-style Air Force 1 release was canceled outright after customers pointed out one of the flags on the shoe was reversed.
For Nike, releasing a shoe to celebrate a Street Fighter victory may have been deemed trivial against the backdrop of coronavirus and the ongoing protests in the US against systemic racism and police brutality. One source connected to the shoe heard that the brand decided its source material, a fighting-game tournament, was not appropriate to highlight at that moment. The 2020 Evo event was canceled after co-founder Joey Cuellar, then Evo’s CEO, was publicly accused of sexual misconduct. Cuellar was immediately replaced by an interim CEO and Sony bought Evo the following year, but it’s easy to see why Nike wouldn’t want to be associated with the organization in 2020.
The fate this shoe suffered is not uncommon for projects in big sportswear companies. Much can change over the typical 18-month course that a shoe takes from ideation to release. Teams shift, budgets change, people leave the company, and strategies are different. Because of this, a product can arrive without any of the context that originally informed it.
The Nike Air Force 1 that references Evo Moment #37 regained some of that context this week as the public finally discovered the shoe. The real story behind the Nikes serendipitously arrived right before the latest Evo event, which is happening in Las Vegas this weekend. Julio is taking advantage of the timing: he plans to give a pair to Umehara and have both players sign the shoes.
For Wong, much like his defeat in the classic bout opposite Umehara, the casualty of the sneaker’s release has not been a total loss.
“I was super bummed out. It would’ve been so cool to have that story out there to grow the community,” he says of the way the shoe arrived. “But overall, I am also excited to own a pair that tells my story.”
This story was updated to include the allegations of sexual misconduct against former Evo CEO Joey Cuellar.