Photo Credit: LA GEMA

“Every week, every day, a new gem in the scene is born.”

LA GEMA, a multifaceted organization celebrating its tenth anniversary, is more than just a fighting game event, production company, or talent management agency. It's a beacon of opportunity for skilled players in the Latin American region. Evo had the honor of conversing with LA GEMA co-founder, tournament organizer, commentator, event producer, and Evo 2021 Online Mobile Suit Gundam Extreme Vs. Maxiboost ON Side Tournament finalist Pablo Montero. He shared the unique origins of the event from a concert background, how it champions its players, and the thrilling platform it creates for skilled players to showcase their talents and gain international recognition.

LA GEMA, which translates to 'The Gem' in Spanish, embodies a transformative mission for Montero and the team. At every event, they strive to unveil the potential in each winner, presenting them as a 'Gem.’ There are countless skilled players in Latin America, and LA GEMA is doing its part to elevate the visibility of the FGC in the region.

“We have a slogan, so to speak: ‘Every week, every day, a new gem in the scene is born,’ said Montero. “That happens because every day, maybe we'll have a top player whooping in one game, or maybe one day, out of nowhere, a new player will come up and create a new storyline for themselves. So that's what makes it special or differentiates what we have in LA GEMA from other tournaments.”

Montero worked in music events before launching LA GEMA with friends in his hometown of Veracruz. Veracruz didn’t have a very active alternative music scene then, but they were doing their part to help it flourish. Upon attending Smash Factor in 2015, everything changed for Montero and his friends. They found a new way to channel their talents into supporting the FGC.

“We went to a Smash Factor event in 2015 and loved the vibes,” said Montero. “We got the bug that motivated us to create an event and start running Smash tournaments in Veracruz. Producing gaming events had a similar energy and dynamic to what we did with concerts and music shows before that. It started getting even more traction than the music stuff that we did, so we started slowly pivoting towards that 100%. After that, Smash Factory, the guys at Main Game who made the Lord Knight Masters Invitational, recognized us and said, ‘Hey, we like what you're doing in your region.’ We ran Smash Melee for Smash Factor that year. After that, we started doing Smash events for Melee, Smash 4, back in the day, and then Smash Ultimate.”

LA GEMA continued to build as it established itself by holding events throughout Mexico. The team’s influence grew from managing singular Smash Bros. events as part of Smash Factor into a nationally recognized organization. LA GEMA even worked alongside the Mexican government to host an event that received massive fanfare.

“We’ve done many live events not only in our hometown of Veracruz but also across Mexico, doing events in Mexico City, Monterey, et cetera,” said Montero. “For example, we've reached the point where we're doing events in collaboration with the government of Mexico. We did one that was happening in Los Pinos, which was the presidential residence back then. When they made it a museum, we did a tournament there, which also got some coverage on national television. We were a very prominent organization back then until COVID happened. Then, events shut down, and we shifted online.”

With the increased focus on online events, LA GEMA would support fighting game events featuring Super Smash Bros in their lineup. In 2021, the team pivoted 100% into fighting game events, starting with Guilty Gear -Strive- as the main title. They would eventually go on to support other major fighting games like Street Fighter while also providing a platform for competitive titles with passionate communities in need of a platform.

“We started creating a broadcast channel for fighting game tournaments in Mexico. We wouldn’t just feature fighting games like Guilty Gear, Street Fighter, et cetera, but all sorts of communities. We did speed running events, events for Gundam games, and events for Mega Man games, so basically, we're supporting as many communities that wanted something out there, and if they reached out to us, we would try and host it to make that happen.”

While LA GEMA views itself as a fighting game organization, it is presented as a kind of television channel in hopes of receiving support from brands and the general public. Monday through Thursday, LA GEMA features a different title and community from within Latin America. Whenever you tune in, something exciting is happening across the region. Montero shares that their programming is a true collaboration with the community. There are guaranteed LA GEMA blocks, but there is room to build different regions and players as they engage with their supporters.

“You can come in one day, and you will find Street Fighter,” said Montero. “The next day, you will find KOF. The next day, you will find Granblue. You will find Smash. Sometimes, we'll do a speed run thing. It comes down to what we are cooking up and what the community asks us for. It's like a television channel where you can see fighting games and the fighting game communities in Latin America. What they're doing, what's happening, who are the best, the storylines happening and going on.”

Becoming a hub for all the different communities in Latin America hasn’t been without its share of challenges. Latin America is a massive region with 33 countries and countless players seeking opportunities to shine. Ensuring they are all represented and can compete in the best environments, especially in online events, is a balancing act that LA GEMA is proud to achieve.

“We have communities come to us and say, ‘Hey, we would like to have this game featured, but also for this specific region,’ because Latin America is so big,” said Montero. “The Mexican community was like, ‘Hey, we would like to maybe have something a little bit more stable, maybe for, you know, like Northern Latin America.’ So then we pivoted to that, but because we didn't want to exclude the South American community, we started to say, all right, we can pivot to doing tournaments both for Northern Latin America and Southern Latin America. So I think that one of the challenges, so to speak, is understanding those communities and also catering to the broader spectrum of Latin America because it's not just Mexico, it's Argentina, it's Chile, it's Peru, it's all of these countries and making sure that we're servicing all of them and no one's left behind.”

For LA GEMA, it isn’t enough to just provide a platform for the various communities in Latin America. Montero and the LA GEMA team build storylines and narratives for their players to keep viewers engaged and highlight longtime competitors and newcomers making waves. One of those newcomers, Luis “DarkAngel” Castillo, has become an internationally recognized competitor and is among the world's best THE KING OF FIGHTERS XV players.

Pablo Montero and DarkAngel at Smash Factor - Photo Credit: AngelFreak

“We've had many storylines come about, for example, DarkAngel, who has become the best Mexican player, if not the best KOF player in the West,” said Montero. “As a kid, he played KOF 2002, the classic KOF version in Mexico played in the arcades and basically a national sport. If you were in Mexico, you know how to play that game. He pivoted to KOF XV and started coming to our KINO events, where he started building his name. Eventually, our team at LA GEMA sponsored him, and he's coming to Evo Japan to compete and prove himself on a global stage.”

DarkAngel discovered LA GEMA by hearing about the tournaments they’ve made and their work to support communities throughout Latin America. He would compete in their KINO KOF XV event each week, proving his skill as one of the best players in the region. With LA GEMA’s sponsorship, DarkAngel was able to take his career to the next level.

“I started playing different types of fighting games like KOF 97 and 2002 many years ago, not competitively, but fighting games have something that makes me want to play them a lot; they entertain me, and you can say it's been my hobby,” said DarkAngel. “LA GEMA has supported me and given me the chance to compete more professionally, travel the world, and play internationally.”

DarkAngel traveled to Costa Rica to play in a qualifying SNK World Championship 2023 event. He won and secured his spot. Unfortunately, DarkAngel could not compete in the SNK World Championship Finals due to difficulties obtaining his visa.

“At that moment, the location for the Finals was not confirmed,” said Montero. “It wasn't until sometime after that that it would be in Los Angeles. That's when we started scrambling to try to make this happen. Throughout that whole process, we worked with Sherry from eFight Pass.”

Sherry "Sherryjenix" Nhan is the founder of eFight Pass, an organization that supports foreign players seeking assistance to compete in the United States. Arslan AshQueen ArrowRohit JainAnya, and El Tigre are some of the players eFight Pass has been able to help receive visas since the organization's founding. However, everyone's situation is different, and obtaining a visa is not guaranteed. Sherryjenix offers her insight into what DarkAngel and other players experience when they try to get a visa to the United States. 

"It is so hard to completely understand what foreign players have to go through just to compete in the United States," said Sherryjenix. "When players qualify for finals, they usually don't qualify until maybe 2-3 months before the finals, especially when it is a point-based qualification system. A lot of countries don't have any available interview appointments for at least six months. Mexico didn't have any for almost TWO years out. The only chance is booking the soonest available appointment and then putting in a request for an emergency interview. However, if this is denied, you can't even appeal it. You are married to whatever date you choose. For DarkAngel, his emergency request was denied, meaning he doesn't have an appointment until 2025. It's very disheartening to see what players with so much talent go through when they lose the opportunity to show how much time and dedication they've put themselves through."

Unfortunately, DarkAngel’s visa request was denied twice, including an emergency request, due to the short time frame needed to compete in the SNK World Championship. While the outcome wasn’t what DarkAngel and LA GEMA hoped for, they took it as a learning opportunity for future competitions. DarkAngel would continue to prove his skill in other events, later earning 9th place in Evo Japan 2024 in THE KING OF FIGHTERS XV.

DarkAngel and Pablo Montero at Evo Japan 2024 - Photo Credit: LA GEMA

“It was a motivating thing at the time,” said Montero. “The new SNK season is coming up. We're trying to get ahead of it for the future, whether in the U.S. or somewhere else, you know, basically do that all in time. Right now, in the context of Mexico, if you try to get a visa appointment now, sometimes you won’t get it until a year after because it's so backed up. You have to go online daily to see if someone canceled and try to backfill that slot. I think programs like what Sherry does with eFight Pass helped because we could make the interview date happen before that. We didn't have to go through the whole year-long process for that. And we even had two shots at it.”

The fighting game community in Latin America is thriving. Thanks to the community's dedication and supporters at LA GEMA, new players, storylines, and communities can thrive and reach across the region and onto the international stage. Montero hopes that the foundation LA GEMA has built will make Latin America more visible to major brands and organizations, helping it grow even more and giving additional opportunities to talented players throughout the region.

“We're trying to ensure the fighting game community is visible over here because we've got killers. We've got some of the best in KOF, some of the best in Smash Bros, and we try to highlight that, and we're trying to set the stage for when the next big thing comes. For example, when 2XKO comes out, we're trying to say, ‘Hey, this is the place where things are happening. You can come and support this.’ We want to ensure that brands and organizations look at what we're doing in LA GEMA and try to support this and make this bigger.”

Montero is excited about LA GEMA’s tenth anniversary. The team is cooking up exciting ways to celebrate their accomplishments with the community. Whether players have been there since day one or are joining in on the fun, you are welcome at LA GEMA.

“Coming into the anniversary celebration of the ten years of LA GEMA, we are making a robust content itinerary spanning from the second half of 2024 to the first half of 2025. We’re ramping up to celebrate this with a full year of activities culminating in one big, larger event. Stay tuned for more about that.”

DarkAngel is also hopeful regarding the future of LA GEMA and the FGC in Latin America. He hopes more players can grow alongside him to create a stronger regional community. Thanks to its players and supporters, the future looks as bright as LA GEMA’s namesake.

“I hope that LA GEMA can achieve unity among the FGC in Spanish because of all the games they support and their reach across Mexico and LATAM, so we can all enjoy good and epic shows,” said DarkAngel. “I'm thankful to LA GEMA and all the people who keep supporting me. I'll give my best in each game I focus on to keep rising to the top.”

Are you a player in Latin America looking for a regular event to compete among the best in the region? Follow LA GEMA on social media and sign up for their tournaments on Who knows, maybe you could be the next “gem” whose story is about to unfold.