remembers first being enthralled with video games at the curious age of just three years old. Unable to take his eyes off of all the action from his older brother playing Tekken 3, simply put, the impressionable Middletown, Delaware, toddler was instantly addicted.
Ten years later, at the age of 13, he was playing in his first organized Mortal Kombat tournament for cash.
Today, at 19 years old, McLean is recognized as arguably one of the world’s most-dominant professional gamers amongst fighting titles and has pocketed over $300,000 — and counting.
He has bodied his competition so consistently that when he failed to clinch first at the Evolution Fighting Game Championships in Las Vegas this past July, it overshadowed the news of the eventual Injustice 2 winner, Ryan “Dragon” Walker.
Perhaps that’s because Sonic’s loss marked the first time he exited Evo, which drew live coverage from ESPN and he described as the “Super Bowl of fighting games,” without a title in three years.
Hampered by a rough bout of food poisoning leading up to the event — not that he made that an excuse — Sonic wasn’t his sharpest, but was still good enough to tap his thumbs to a fourth-place finish after being upset in the top eight by eventual finalist Tim “HoneyBee” Commandeur.
McLean doesn’t know what gave him food poisoning, but it was strong enough to knock him down for a bit.
“I have no idea, but it was pretty bad,” McLean told BET.com at the time. “Luckily I pretty much got over it on the day of EVO and got a lot better. I’m proud of my finish.”
It has been a dizzying few months for McLean, who finished third in Injustice 2 at the Community Effort Orlando (CEO) 2017 gaming tournament in Orlando in June and dominated the Combo Breaker gaming tournament at The Mega Center in St. Charles, Illinois, before that in late May, winning first in Skullgirls: 2nd Encore and Injustice 2, while placing third in Mortal Kombat XL.
Up next: The Injustice 2 Pro Series Grand Final in Los Angeles this weekend.
“The reason why it’s the biggest tournament of the year for me is because essentially all the tournaments I’ve been going to have been leading up to this,” McLean explained. “Only the best in the world are going to be in this, so with me being the No. 1 seed for the entire tournament, I have a really good chance of winning the whole thing. It’s going to be a good task.”
McLean says winning the Injustice 2 Pro Series Grand Final would give him a prize of $125,000. As long as he finishes within the top eight of the tournament this weekend, he’ll qualify for ELEAGUE’s Injustice 2 World Championship, which will air on TBS next month. On the line there? A prize pool of $250,000.
With his signature blue furry hat, which might as well be a crown covering his wiry frame, McLean vows to be “ready for absolutely everything” because that’s what anyone in his position would do.
SonicFox is a super athlete in his own right, counting his mind and ridiculous reflexes as his biggest weapons in this often relentless, brain-numbing world of eSports. Consider the controller to him what the basketball is to a LeBron James or Steph Curry — able to push the right buttons with a quick-thinking IQ to make the play that will end opponents’ night.
McLean had eviscerated competitors for so long that he was rather unbothered placing third in Mortal Kombat XL at Combo Breaker in May.
“I don’t really care to play Mortal Kombat XL anymore,” he said at the time. “I haven’t practiced that game in about five months, so it really didn’t matter much to me.”
SonicFox represents one of the more dominant names in the booming world of eSports, which is covered and televised by giants like ESPN and Turner Sports. The team he plays for, Echo Fox, is one of the more successful squads in the entire industry, touting other stalwart gamers as well.
We spoke to McLean about falling in love with video games, the preparation behind keeping his place as the most-dominant fighting title gamer, balancing eSports, the national tournaments and college and his dream of creating his own fighting game and community someday.
Way back when I was like three years old, my father got a game for my older brother called Tekken 3. My brother let me play with him and I was super addicted to that game at just three years old. After that, he got Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance and I remember watching him play. I was like, "Man, I really want to play this game." Since that point on, I just always loved playing fighting games and played as much as I possibly could and here I am today [laughing].
I have been playing since the very end of 2011, so roughly six years. There was one time I was on this website called MortalKombatUnited and I was having a conversation with one of the chat members. Essentially, he said I should try an offline event. He actually helped me out a lot with it and I had a lot of support from my online friends, who said,"Yeah, you're pretty good online, you should do an offline event." I said, "Sure, I'll try it out." I went to the NEC (Northeast Championship) tournament in Philadelphia. Even though I got ninth place in my very first tournament, the experience, the people there, the hype ... it just made it so exciting for me to want to go back out and play in more like it. From that point on, I've been playing ever since. That was in 2011.
I think well over $300K. And it's happened in the last couple of years, too, because of Mortal Kombat, really.
My main strategy is to rely on multiple characters because you don't want to run one character into the dirt. So, it's good to have characters to choose from, but I also like to always have a character for every single match that I feel like another [competitor] might struggle in. If you could at least cover every single one of your matchups in any game ever with multiple characters, then you're set.
[Deep sigh] Oof! Let's see, we have Cassie Cage, Erron Black, Kitana. At this point, it could be 10 other characters [laughing]. It's a lot.
My strategy in the first game was I played with a character known as Batgirl. Two people are put in a vortex. It’s a situation where they get hit … and they’re put into a situation where it’s a coin flip of heads and tails. Except this vortex has … pretend you had to throw two coins instead of one coin and in order for you to get out, you had to get heads on both of them. So, it puts you in coin-flip situations over and over and over. So, as long as you can keep the vortex going on, they couldn’t escape. I’ve learned the main fundamentals of the game and it makes vortex situations a lot easier.
I'm just playing online, learning matchups as much as I can, playing as many people as I possibly can, playing a bunch of dark horses that might show up at the tournament and may potentially upset people. Just overall researching. Research is extremely important. If you go into a tournament blind, you're probably going to lose. You need to be ready for absolutely everything — knowing what characters can do, what strengths they have, what situations they can put you in.
I'm just playing online, learning matchups as much as I can, playing as many people as I possibly can, playing a bunch of dark horses that might show up at the tournament and may potentially upset people.
It varies over the game a lot, actually. There are many top African-American players. There are players like Lord Knight, DJT, Perfect Legend ... there are many. And the pool is diverse. There are so many different cultures in one gathering that are all loving and trusting of each other.
I always learned what I did wrong. If you don't [learn that], you'll keep losing to the same people over and over again. So long as I learned why I lost, it's always considered a win for me because next time I come back five times stronger.
Yeah, when you have a rival in eSports you can't play them like any other person because he knows what you like to do the most and it's vice versa. So, you have to do things that completely throws him off or you'll never ever pull it off casually because they know what's coming and how to deal with it. Against another player that's not my rival, who actually feared me, I would just go HAM.
We do have to compete against each other. Fighting-game tournaments are always, always, always 1-on-1. So, if he does well and I do well, we will meet. If he keeps winning and I keep winning, we will cross paths. But because we're on the same team now, there's a little bit more leeway. He'll be seeded completely across the bracket from me.
We both know how we like to play, so we have to really, really, really take some extraordinary risks to try to open each other up. What if you take the risk and they just block it? Now, you’re going to eat some damage.
What mainly started it was ESL [Pro League] coming in and we blew up from there. It was one of the more recent instances of a fighting game being put on TV. Now, you're seeing Street Fighter being put on TV from e-leagues all around. I'm really excited to see what the future holds. ESPN contacted me before for an interview.
My mom has been very supportive of me. My older brother [Christian McLean] is actually a competitive gamer with me. He's actually the best Dead or Alive 5 player. Or at least top three. He and I actually both go to the competitions together and play a lot. My friends have always been supportive of me. They didn't expect me to get that big, but I've always had support from all of my family and friends all around. They're really happy for me because I came from nothing to something.
People believe we have no life, which is not true [laughing]. Or they don't think we're athletic, which is also not true. But I don't see a lot of negative aspects that we get in eSports. Not a lot of people stereotype us so much. Usually, something I get from people who never heard of us is, "Wow, wait … tournaments for video games exist?" I'm like,"Yeah, of course!" I get that a lot.
Usually, once a month or every other month.
I finished my first year three years ago. New York Institute of Technology.
Well, for my first year, it wasn't really. I was able to study and play, so it wasn't that hard. I hope to do better next year.
Yes, I'll be attending again this fall.
It depends. If it's a local tournament or regional, it's not that big. A couple of top dogs might be there like me or Scar. If you're talking about a major, major like Combo Breaker, you're talking about players all around the entire U.S. flying out. Not only the U.S. Players from Europe start flying out. We all compete. Everyone's like gritting their teeth. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do.
I'd like to eventually make my own video game. I'd love to make my own fighting game. I'd like to be the next person to make a community from a fighting game and have lot of players come out and play it and support it. And I'd like to compete for as long as I possibly can.
I have a lot of ideas. I think I would know what to put in the game, but part of what to apply to a game comes from communication with other people in creativity. I may have a good idea, but someone might have another idea. We'll always go with the better idea. I do think I know what it takes to make a really good fighting game. We'll see.