When I was twelve, my family went to the Grand Canyon. We were a part of a tour group that traveled the state of Arizona but— as a close-knit family— we kept to ourselves and didn't interact with the other tourists. Our stonewall act didn't last for long, however. Through some sort of super crazy magic, I ended up meeting my best friend on the opposite side of the country.
We were standing in a desert waiting to ride a Jeep through the Slot Canyons when a girl who looked my age came up to me. “I love your shirt!” she said. I looked down. It was my Uchiha Sasuke shirt. No way. No way did this super pretty and bubbly girl watches Naruto. That’s impossible.
Twelve years later, we still say it all began with a Sasuke shirt.
Leslie and I became fast friends and spent time together for most of the trip. I’d never had someone want to be friends with me so badly. I was an awkward otaku kid who wore the boy’s uniform and sat alone at lunch. Having a girl my age start a conversation with me was not something that happened. We were inseparable, sitting next to each other on long bus rides, eating dinners together, and staying up late in the hotel so we could talk about life and anime. There was an amazing thrill to talking about anime with a peer. Imagine having a friend that liked the same things as you? I didn't want the trip to end; once it did, I was probably never going to see her again.
But as fate would have it, the girl I met in Arizona actually lived 40 minutes away from me in New York. This wasn’t just a fast friend; this was a fast friend I could keep. I thank Sasuke every day for being in my life. Sasuke gave me Leslie.
We kept in touch over the phone (this is before cell phones) and wrote letters. Then, Leslie invited me over to her house. It was October 10th, Naruto's birthday. Wanting to seem cool, I brought a box of doughnuts and came clad in my Naruto jacket ready to party (the opposite of cool). Again, Leslie laughed. “I have someone we can celebrate with! Let me call him over.”
When her friend arrived, my jaw dropped. He was wearing my Naruto jacket— the exact same one. He saw me and burst out laughing.
“You knew it was his birthday too?! Hi, I’m John.”
Leslie, John, my brother Thomas, and I became best friends. We didn’t see each other often because of distance (we couldn't drive yet ) but we talked on the phone, had occasional playdates and played online games together. I remember playing Naruto Uzumaki Chronicles with John on the PlayStation 2. This was before online play, so we would do the same mission, talk over the phone, and pretend we were playing together. When XBOX Live came out, we thought we died and went to heaven. We could talk, play, and see each other on the screen. But the technology hadn’t advanced enough to accommodate our ideal gameplay. We could only fight against each other. Why would I want to beat up John? We’re shinobi, dare I say nakama. I don’t want to fight him. I want to fight with him.
A few years later, the four of us were sitting around a fire talking about our friendship (the exact moment is pictured here). After cornily promising to be friends forever, we decided to cement our bond like any anime characters would: we gave our friend group a name. With Naruto’s ninja squad being called Team 7, we became Team 15 in the fifteenth summer of our lives. Naruto’s team, no matter where they were or who they were fighting, were bonded through their ties as teammates. We wanted the same. And, even as the years have passed, we still call ourselves Team 15; it’s the name of our Facebook chat, it’s how we refer to each other in real life. Somethings just have a way of sticking and we are stuck. Friends for life, easy as that.
The years passed and we all got older and went to college. Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, all over the place! We lost touch a bit but never thought of each other as anything but best friends. When we graduated and returned closer to home, we started talking again (always about anime, always about fun). But with Leslie teaching in Mexico (go her), John, Thomas, and I became the core of the team as we await her return.
But our world just got turned upside-down. I don’t remember being so excited about a game.
Last week was the release of Naruto to Boruto Shinobi Striker.
A game where you can fight multiplayer. Not against your friends, but with your friends.
Having a real Team 15 was possible.
We bought the game as fast as we could.
It seems silly that a game means so much to me, especially one I’ve only played for two days. But no one knows of the hours spent playing shinobi in the backyard, writing ninja stories about ourselves in our heads. We have been hyping this game up for 12 years without knowing it. We get to fight as comrades in the Naruto universe. Bring on the sleepless nights and groggy mornings. I’m suddenly 12 again wearing a Naruto jacket. I’m all in, baby.
The game is pretty good too (always a bonus when the game’s actually good)! There are some major issues right now, but the game launched last week so it’s expected. The character design in amazing; you get to make your own ninja! It’s like Bandai read our minds and gave us everything we wanted. I play a red-haired, face-painted ranged attacker who spits fireballs but can't jump and land on buildings to save her life (literally). John is our taijutsu and ninjutsu specialist (in the green), attacking in a flurry of fists, flames and ink. And my dearest brother is our healer and strategist, the guy on the headset scouting the field and telling us where to go next. We are finally the ninja squad we always wanted to be! There's just one thing missing...well, one person.
As if it's mocking us, the game supports 4-man teams, constantly reminding us that we are incomplete. When Leslie comes back to the US, our squad will be whole again. But for now, the three of us will be a smaller version of Team 15, battling, losing, laughing, dancing, streaming, and screaming. We will be twelve years old playing shinobi in the backyard, vicariously living through the game we always wanted.
Next year Team 15 will be turning 25. I wonder what 25 will bring. Will we still be playing Shinobi Striker? Will we still live relatively close? There’s so much craziness in a twenty-something’s life, I can’t really say. But I’m so grateful for the friends I have right now and the time to be with them both virtually and physically. And, in the end, we’re always going to be Team 15, so what does it matter where we are? We’ve got each other, anime, and a stable internet connection. I think we’ll have adulthood covered. Believe it.