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Cuddle Core

Source: Red Bull Gaming / Cuddle_Core

Don’t let the name fool you. Cuddle_Core loves to throw virtual hands when playing Tekken, and she’s exceptionally good at it.

Jeannail Carter, aka Cuddle_Core, was always destined for Tekken greatness. Growing up in the Chicago Exurb, she became interested in video games, mainly fighting games, while watching her father pick up the sticks and play those types of games on the PlayStation console.

She played Tekken for the first time between the ages of 5 and 6. Before becoming the Tekken pro she is now, she cut her teeth not only playing games like Tekken but fan favorites like Capcom vs. SNK 2 and Soul Calibur.

Her dad was her first major competition, and she used that time to hone her skills in the game to the point that he could no longer take rounds from her.

While her skills in gaming were still brewing, her professional career didn’t take off until she was in her 20s. Cuddle_Core also had a passion and talent for art, earning her degree in illustration, but she still played video games when she had time.

Life changed for Carter in 2018 when she was invited to participate in a televised Tekken tournament. Her strong showing earned her a spot on the Equinox pro team, a decision she says “changed her life.”

Carter would eventually join Counter Logic Gaming and Red Bull eSports and is now considered one of the best professional Tekken players on the planet.

HHW Gaming caught up with Cuddle_Core to discuss her pro career, favorite games, representation, and more. Read the interview below.

HHW Gaming: When did it click for you that “you’ve got skills, you’re nice,” and that you can compete in this game professionally?

Cuddle_Core: I think there’s tons of points in a player’s career where they’re not really sure, but there’s something addictive about it because you see yourself shine, maybe after plugging away at different tournaments. You see the evolution of your play style come together, but I do start to think that it came together around 2018 when I competed at ELeague. I was considered an upcoming player, but even at the time, my focus was school, so going to a very big event that was televised in North America for a TV station or a broadcast station for the game that just came out, Tekken 7 at the time, it was a very big deal, and I had never been on a stage like that.

Cuddle Core

Source: Red Bull Gaming / Cuddle_Core

I competed a ton, but that was a little different. The stakes were very different, so I did very well there. I had a lot of great matches and wins there. I think that did prove something to myself because the only person I want to prove something to is myself and growing and things. “I was like, wow, something that’s a hobby that I love is something that, like, okay, I’m good at this because I played a ton of people who, they’re my training partners and my friends.” They were going to tournaments, so they were evolving, and even though I couldn’t go to tournaments all the time, I was still playing them.

So that stuff, all those skills that they were learning going to tournaments and training all the time, was rubbing off on me. I was getting all of that, too, so I think I was naturally evolving with them even though I wasn’t always playing. So yeah, I think 2018, when I competed at ELeague, was huge.

I got it. So, basically, it’s like when boxers have sparring partners and their sparring partners usually pick up on their tendencies and apply them to their fight plans. 

In so many ways, yeah. They had already started competing more consistently. Like I said, I was still in school, so maybe in that way it was like maybe I didn’t think about it at the time, but they definitely were my training partners and I played with them online. Online was my tool a lot of the time, except for spring breaks. I’d go to tournaments then, so yeah.

Awesome. You said you started with Tekken 7, which was pretty much the one you played professionally. Now Tekken 8 is here, and it’s one of the most impressive fighting games ever. Are there any of the new features that you like, don’t like, or feel the game is missing? Do you think the game is missing any features?

Yeah, so with Tekken 8 and having played it, even when I played it at a Red Bull Pindrop, it was very interesting because I hadn’t gotten to play it a ton, even when the tests were out. But when I played it at the Pindrop, it was very interesting because “I’m like, wow, the way these moves feel, the animations, the stages, the graphics, this is all so different.” It’s Tekken, but it’s so new. But it was something that I quickly invited because I think change is important. I liked the environmental damage that was happening on stages. The music was so well thought out when it came to each and every stage. Even the character, when I had gotten some time with Xiaoyu, who is one of my other characters, but Alisa, I hadn’t gotten any time with her because she wasn’t on the tests. So I played her, and I said, oh my God, the revamps are insane. The revamps of each character are super unique. Now, everybody stands out completely.

So I don’t know if there’s exactly anything I don’t like. I think the mechanics are just very new and inviting. Something that I wanted from seven to eight was some sort of adjustment to rage drives, and what we have kind of in place with that, I think, is a heat system.

That is, I call it a creative tool that you can use for offensive options, defensive options, and combo extensions. It’s your creative device to use however the way you want to, and I think that promotes a lot of creativity, which Tekken is already known for, but through that mechanic, they’re doing it even more, and I have loved seeing what I can do with that given the game has been out a week and a half and there are a lot of adjustments like certain strings, certain moves, things that you had muscle memory for which were highs or mids and things you could step.

That has changed a lot, but I really liked it because it keeps the game fresh. What those strings and attacks are used for are very different now.

Right. Do you feel this game is more inviting to those who, let’s say, are not Tekken fans or are always intimidated by Tekken games?

I think a bit more, yes. I think this Tekken is a lot more inviting for newcomers and I don’t know if it’s just because of how flashy and explosive it can feel at times, but I do think it’s also because of practice mode.

From what I had read and what had been communicated, that was one of the biggest things that was daunting for newcomers, at least, and that’s what made it overwhelming. Tekken was known to be infamously layered and deep, but I’ve been using practice mode like crazy since the game dropped, and a lot of people have been praising how phenomenal it is.

The fact that you can take over your replay while it’s going on as you’re watching it, and you can have 10 to 11 seconds to figure out a better solution to something that hit you, maybe something you didn’t know was punishable, that’s huge for any level of player coming into this game. So I think it’s a lot more inviting to newcomers for aesthetics, for maybe simplification on some things in the game, and just practice mode is a lot easier to break down and understand.

Yeah, I agree. I definitely was blown away by the whole replay and then taking over. I thought that there were some really cool features. I do like the new, and I don’t want to say simplify button configuration for those who want to try to pull off some really cool combos and things like that. I think things of that nature; some people might think they’re like cheats or make the game cheesy, but I do think there are players who don’t have the coordination or the quickness to pull off eight-hit combos and things like that. So, to allow people to get that same feeling, I think that’s pretty cool on their behalf and how they implement that into the game.

Yeah, there’s even a feature with L1 that makes those shortcuts much easier, so the process is still enjoyable for everyone, regardless of skill level.

Absolutely. Now you did mention some characters you played with, but before Tekken 8, did you specifically main one character or you one of those people that I can get busy with anybody, just give me some time.

Yeah, so in Tekken 7, I mained Alisa Bosconovitch and Ling Xiaoyu, and then towards the end of seven, I also had Claudio. I added him to my roster as well. So I don’t really, I always say I don’t believe in maining one character. I main two to three, and I have for a very long time since these two, Alisa and Xiaoyu, since Tekken Tag Tournament 2, and that’s when I started competing, anyway, so that was my team. Still, it was so funny. I used to always see myself as a Ling player, a Ling Xiaoyu player for a long time, and Alisa was kind of like my backup, but that doesn’t exist anymore.

I’ve evolved both characters to the point competitively where both of them are super valuable to me in tournaments. I’ve won things placed really well, been consistent with both, and so at one point, I did give up Xiaoyu in the beginning of seven, kind of in the beginning ish, maybe first or two years in, and my friends and they encouraged me.

They’re like, bring her back into your roster. She had gotten nerfed a certain way. That kind of made me feel a little weird. I don’t really know how to approach her.

Since then, once I brought her back in and really figured out the flow of her and how she works against other people, especially with the way I play her, I never gave her up since then. It’s been years. I never dropped her after that. I always have my, I always call them my babies. It’s always my two now, my two to three.

Awesome. Now, do you feel there are certain particular characters who are a bit OP, or there’s some kind that shouldn’t come around, or there are characters that people like to really cheese a lot with? Do you feel any of those characters exist in the game?

Yeah, with any fighting game, those kinds of characters were considered OP busted from [the] jump. That stuff always exists. I’ve been on the receiving end of all of it. It’s always so funny because the difference here with Tekken 8 is that stuff exists, like I said, with any fighting game, but Twitter, fighting game Twitter, and Tekken Twitter are so vocal about this stuff. They are very active in showing you why this is busted or they @ the developers at everything they produce. It’s very funny, but it’s effective because yeah, that stuff is, or they watch the tournaments, they also watch the tournaments, and they’re like, yeah, this is super busted. We need to tone this down.

Cuddle Core

Source: Red Bull Gaming / Cuddle_Core

Thank God for patches because character can still be strong. That’s okay. But some things are just completely just ridiculous and hard to fight against for tons of reasons. Certain things that are super powerful in frames for strings and not being able to step. And yes, over time, that stuff gets toned down. So yeah, there are definitely overtoned characters, especially right now. Oh my gosh. But thank goodness for patches because even with that stuff, there are ways around it. It’d be even easier once certain patches come out, so that’s good.

Are there other games besides Tekken that you are good at or competitive in?

There’s other games that I’m good at, but I kind of just enjoy them to enjoy them. So I love survival horror games. I love adventure games. I love retro games. I play pretty much anything, but I don’t really try and be good at it. I just enjoy it a ton.

Fighting game-wise, I used to also play Soul Calibur, and I had a pretty good understanding of it because it really did feel like Tekken and because it’s from the same company. So I played both kind of interchangeably at one point years ago, but I kind of stopped doing that, but I still really do appreciate Soul Calibur. So yeah, Soul Calibur was another one that I was pretty good at.

I used to love Soul Calibur on PS1. Oh, man. I was unstoppable, but back in my day. You also said survival horror. What’s on the top of your survival horror list? What game is that?

Yeah, Resident Evil is the series for me. I grew up with it because I did not play it when I was a kid, and it was too scary. My parents wouldn’t let me. But I remember I was an art kid, and I always loved the jewel cases, and I just thought the book art for it was so good. I liked the artwork for it in general, and that was something I used to look at all the time, and I was like, man.

So then when I actually did play the game years later, Resident Evil 2 was one of my favorite games of all time. I was like, wow, this is amazing. And then since then I’ve been nothing but a fan. Code: Veronica, Resident Evil 2, all of them. I played so many of them. They’re masterpieces and they’re art. I’m a big fan.

I played The Evil Within, which, I think, the producer [Masato Kimura] of is the one who made Resident Evil (Gamecube) or something like that, one of them. So it’s funny. So I like them, but it’s still another series. It’s literally just Capcom-related in some way. So yeah, I love survival horror so much.

Me, too. I just have to work up the nerves to play those games because I have to play them for maybe an hour or two. I can’t play those games for more than two hours because my nerves just get so bad. You’ve been a huge voice for better representation in gaming. Looking at the space now, where do you feel it’s at right now? Where can it improve? Do you feel it’s in a good space?

I think it’s okay. I don’t really fully engage in parts of it because I’ve had to separate myself from that because it’s hard when you seek change, you try and push for it and maybe the community isn’t growing at a rate that you’d like, and so you do your own thing. You create your own path.

So I’ve had to create my own space, my own path, my own community because I can’t wait around for that. I’m not a patient person, and I don’t want to be for this, no. But I have been motivated to see how, not just in the fighting game space but in the gaming space as a whole, it has evolved and changed.

There are a lot of figures in the gaming industry, such as Black gamers, who have created these spaces, different spaces that have motivated me so much. People I’ve talked to, people I’ve been on panels with, and people I’ve worked alongside, I do see the change. I do, and it’s definitely happening, maybe not always at the rate that I’d like, but it is because something that I always used here is if you don’t feel like you’re welcomed in a space or if you feel like it could be better, you make your own.

And that’s something that they do when they do it so well, so much so that they create these massive communities that creates more diversity and representation because people that look like them come in because they see people like them shining.

I’ve learned that, and it has actually impacted me, which I never really knew until people told me that. So I do think it’s changing. Like I said, not at the rate that maybe I’d like, but as a whole, yes, it is.

You mentioned Red Bull. How does Red Bull Gaming help support your professional gaming career? 

Something that I realized with being invested in being supported is I’m one of those people that if you give me tons of support, I just grow, especially, like I said, in a space where there is judgment that you’re a woman, you’re a pro. Still, sometimes you’re judged first as a woman, in your looks that has nothing to do with you actually being good at the game. This happens, and sometimes I think for anybody coming into it or even having experience in general, it’s super discouraging because you’re like, I’m just as good as somebody else or anybody else, or I’m putting in the work like anybody else, why can’t that just be appreciated?

So, just Red Bull pouring into me as much as they have through mental performance coaching, nutrition, and all-around support, sending me to these events, believing in my skill, and always showing that love. It really has made all the difference in the last two years that some of the things I’ve accomplished, I guess I would’ve never thought about them before I got on the team, but I am such a more confident player now than I was in the past.

Cuddle Core

Source: Red Bull Gaming / Cuddle_Core

I used to hope that maybe the strong, capable version of myself would show up for a tournament that day, but that’s not a thing. Through mental performance coaching through Red Bull, I learned I can have that version of myself, turn that version on when I need it, cultivate it, believe in myself so much more, and keep that consistent.

So that’s been through Red Bull, through just having my own Tekken coach and good friend, having training partners, that has been so beneficial in me achieving my goals as a competitor. I’m so grateful because having that support, having my own community, which includes Red Bull, has allowed me to have my own, lay my own path, and that nothing can get in my way of achieving, and I’m grateful to all of them for that, especially Red Bull, too.

Awesome. Shout out to Red Bull for providing you with the tools necessary to advance your pro gaming career. What advice do you have for anyone who wants to pick up that sticks competitively, slightly competitively, or even professionally in Tekken?

So, I do feel like one of the biggest pieces of advice I can give is to pick one to two characters but explore the whole roster first. I always say the character will choose you because it does, the character does for whatever reason, based on the things that you like and explore. This game is what we talked about in the last question: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

I think people are so ready, especially with access to so much through the click of a phone or button. They’re so used to the instant gratification of things. Still, a lot of things in life are you working hard and plugging away at something for however long because it’s something you care about and you love, and if it’s something that you genuinely want to get good at, take your time, ask questions.

In the same way, your favorite athletes have to follow training regimens, have good diets, and have mental performance coaches. If you care about it like that, you have to do the same things and treat it like that.

Cuddle Core

Source: Red Bull Gaming / Cuddle Core

It’s a game, an art, a skill, and you have to invest in your body to ensure that you do that skill correctly. You also need to be around people who are like you and who are enjoying the game so that you can share techniques and strategies and things like that.

It honestly makes me think about my own practice with Red Bull and how I’ve been playing for years, but there were even more ways that I learned how to be even more involved with my practice and training that I had no idea about. Those resources, regardless of your skill level, are so important. So, I have a mental performance coach, a nutritionist, and a Tekken coach. All those resources have helped me really be focused when I play the game; they help me take in information a lot better.

The things you put in your body really help absorb anything that takes so much time. Competitive gaming is taxing, so you want to make sure that as you’re getting into this, you are setting yourself up for success.

I think that’s just insanely important. Don’t go to a tournament and eat hot wings the night before and fries; save that for afterwards as a good job. Exercise, drink water, stay hydrated, and make sure you’re giving yourself those positive affirmations. Go to your locals, please go to your locals. Play online.

I’m sorry, but I have to say this: One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give to people is to don’t assume that you have to be at a certain rank or skill level to start going to tournaments. I always get asked, Cuds, when’s a good rank for me to start going to tournaments?

I said, honestly, there is none because how are you going to start knowing how you will fair against others if you’re just always waiting for that moment to be better than you were? You get better by playing against better players. That’s how you have to start. And the only way you’ll do that is by going offline or even playing online, playing people who are better than you, and asking questions. You have to start somewhere.

I’m curious: what does a Tekken coach do? I’ve never heard of a Tekken coach. 

Yeah, for sure. My Tekken coach’s name is Trung Mai, or we call him Trungy, but he is phenomenal. He has been working with me for three and a half years now. And what he does is I compete a lot, so we analyze my footage, so things that win or lose, we look at what I could have done better in those moments.

We go over the footage, we go to practice mode, we test out theories. It’s a lot easier now because of that practice mode and those practice mode features I told you about. So even recently, with the replay feature, there are tons of different players I fought against and ranked. Those matches get saved automatically. So then we go into practice mode and look at my fights. I was not sure about this string. I was not sure about where I should have stepped there.

Then we talk about those things or maybe something I did really well in that moment, and then we go from there. Then we’ll test that. Oh, was that the frame data at the bottom, like, oh, this was minus 14, minus 10, stuff like that? Or maybe I could step that. He’ll be like, maybe we can try stepping this, or maybe you can back-dash it, and we’ll test these things after the replay.

Go into practice mode, boom, do that, and that’s how we do it. We test our theories that way, and then we’ll play and then work on maybe some technique I want to do in those sets. Sometimes, we’ll bring on another player, and depending on what I want to study that day, they’re very helpful as a character matchup where I’m trying to play against the character to understand more and get the muscle memory more.

As I said, every character has new strings and attacks that have changed a little bit. So, the more muscle memory there is, the better, especially with some of those weird characters like Yoshimitsu.

It’s a little different now, so you definitely get a lot of experience with him. So Tekken coach, yeah, he’s come with me to events and so if I need my water, he’s got me telling me, gets the game plan going into that particular match. Just making sure it keeps me focused on what the game plan is so yeah.

That’s awesome, man. There are so many jobs. Look at that. So many jobs, a Tekken coach. I would never have thought that existed.

Yeah, he is phenomenal. He’s a very good friend of mine and a great coach. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have some of the successes that I have, and I do. He has another job, but that is something that he really loves because he just coaches overall.

He coaches other people too, but we spend a lot of time on Sundays or different days really studying, and he is a coach like that. He believes in me so much, and those kinds of affirmations from the person who’s training you and they see you as you’re evolving is a beautiful thing.

I attribute all my wins to him, obviously to tons of people, myself included, but to him for sure, because I have to say this: it’s almost like I told him: it’s just something I also just thought about. The fact that you created a safe space for me to grow and flourish is so important, and I don’t think he understands being accepted as a pro player. Still, also, as a woman, that there was no discrimination, there was very important, and I know there are a lot of people who aren’t like that, but in the space, you really just don’t know.

It’s always some sort of tossup, and people discriminate. They do. It’s happened with tons of marginalized groups in these spaces, and so just to be accepted by your peer because this is somebody I used to compete against all the time, and he was one of our veteran GOATS.

He was one of our top American players. He’s kind of toned down on it here and there. But yeah, he just is very, very accepting, very caring, and that’s what you need to build anybody, build any athlete, along with pushing and motivation, of course, and training, but yeah.

Do you have any tournaments lined up where they could see you play?

Yeah, so I have a ton, but some of them, not all the tournaments, have really been announced, but the three that people always expect are Combo Breaker (May 24-26), CEO (June 28-30), EVO (July 19-21). I’ll definitely be there.

We will be locked in and rooting for Cuddle_Core; honestly, you should too.