How LI Joe's stardom extends beyond Street Fighter

Joe "LI Joe" Ciaramelli became a household name in Street Fighter after his Cinderella run at the Evolution Championship Series 2016. Vincent Carchietta for USA TODAY Sports

FAIRFIELD, N.J. -- Joe Ciaramelli did not even compete at East Coast Throwdown this past weekend, but he was still the biggest star there.

Fighting game fans and casual viewers alike won't soon forget "LI Joe" being the lone American to qualify for the Top 8 in Street Fighter V at the Evolution Championship Series in 2016, and his reaction after finding out his father was in attendance in Las Vegas.

A little over a year later, at the Crowne Plaza in Fairfield, New Jersey, Ciaramelli was serving as host and emcee of the fighting game event he and his buddy John Gallagher have been putting on since 2009.

"I'm OK with it," Ciaramelli said, of not competing. "I put the work in for [the other players], so I wanna watch and have a good time; I wanna watch good matches. But if I'm anywhere else? I wanna play."

Ciaramelli's profile has certainly increased since his stunning success at Evo 2016, including offers to become a professional gamer.

"There were companies trying to get me on their team and stuff like that," Ciaramelli said. "I just never really felt like anything was worth it for me.

"I do have a full-time job. A lot of the companies, they ask a lot of you. And I just felt like it didn't outweigh what I already had going on. I'm not gonna quit my job to be sponsored by a team that's gonna pay me half the money that I [currently] make."

Ciaramelli, 32, works as a manager at a furniture company. But he's still open to the possibility of turning pro, if the right kind of offer comes along.

"This stuff is my passion," he said, of fighting games. "It's been a part of my life since I was a kid. If there was the ability where I could do this for a living, I would 100 percent do it. It's just not easy. Very few people can do it."

Some of those people were at East Coast Throwdown, including Victor Woodley -- aka "Punk" -- the 18-year-old from Philadelphia who earned $150,000 for winning the first ELeague Street Fighter V Invitational back in May in Atlanta.

Woodley, currently the No. 1 ranked Street Fighter V player in the world, cruised through the preliminary rounds on Saturday to advance to the Top 8 finals. There were 201 SFV entrants in total, including several other players ranked on the Capcom Pro Tour.

East Coast Throwdown also featured competitions in several other fighting games, including Tekken 7 and Injustice 2. You could watch the whole thing via Twitch, including live commentary. And if you attended in person, another large ballroom was set up as an arcade -- open 24 hours -- plus there were vendors selling clothing and artwork, raffles for video game equipment, etc.

"We did really well this year," Ciaramelli said. "We kind of upped the production value of the event, and I think that's the next step for people that want to run events. You need production value -- you have to make it entertaining for not only the people at home, but the people that are here also. It's not just about getting games in a room anymore and playing them. You have to entertain."

The main ballroom was full for the Street Fighter V finals on Sunday evening, with fellow competitors and fans cheering wildly as the matches unfolded. The Top 8 was packed with highly ranked players. Woodley started out with a three-game sweep of Derek "iDom" Ruffin, who had upset him at Defend The North in White Plains, New York, a few weeks back. Then he overcame a 2-0 deficit to defeat Kenneth "K-Brad" Bradley 3-2.

In the grand finals, Woodley faced Naoki "Nemo" Nemoto, currently ranked No. 50 in the world. Again the match went to a fifth and final game, but Woodley ended up on top.

Woodley is clearly the man to beat in Street Fighter V right now. But it's worth noting that while Woodley has 19.9K Twitter followers, Ciaramelli is still well ahead of him at 27.4K.

Ciaramelli didn't do nearly as well at Evo this year, failing to make the Top 64 semifinals, let alone the Top 8 finals. (Woodley finished second overall.) But there were extenuating circumstances.

"This year [at Evo] I did more work for them -- I was doing stuff on stage, I did commentary, I did house-mic stuff for them, it was a totally different experience," he said. "I was playing, but I didn't really play that good. Right after Evo [last year], I got promoted at my job. I love this stuff still, but my job always takes precedence."

So why does Ciaramelli remain so popular? Perhaps people are still touched by the video of him and his dad from 2016. Or maybe it's just his personality, and the way he carries himself in general.

A glance at his Twitter feed from Evo this year reveals picture after picture of him posing with delighted fans. And he appeared to have time for anyone and everyone that flagged him down in Fairfield.

"I'm just doing the same things I've always done," Ciaramelli said. "I just like games, and I try to be as humble as possible.

"I always try to put my best foot forward when I'm talking to people, or if people want pictures. I've heard some players be like, 'No [pictures], I'm OK.' You can't do that. If someone asks you for a picture, it's a picture, man -- take a picture with your fans."

Planning for East Coast Throwdown 2018 will soon be underway, but Ciaramelli has some other plans too - and they actually don't center on Street Fighter.

"The new Marvel game comes out in a couple weeks. That is where all my energy is gonna go into," he said. "I really want to be good at a different game besides Street Fighter.

"I dabble in every single fighting game, but I'm not at that competitive level in all of them obviously. But when Marvel comes out I'm really gonna try to stamp my name on that game. I even took 3-4 days off work, so when it comes out I can sit down and kind of learn it. That's the next big thing for me, 100 percent."

Sounds like we haven't heard the last from LI Joe.