Friday, October 18, 2013

The Professor and the Professional

Earlier this week, Patrick Miller posted up an amazing interview he conducted with Seth Killian on SRK ( Game industry enthusiasts may know Killian as formerly a community manager and Street Fighter brand ambassador at Capcom, more lately a game designer at Sony Santa Monica for PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. Before he started working on designing fighting games, Killian was, of course, a player—one of the more highly respected competitors, in fact, at least as far as reputation went in an age before SRK, before EVO, before international competition was a thing. The interview eschews discussion of Killian's current projects and duties to instead revisit that earlier period in his life, prompting a genuinely thoughtful and enlightening look back not only at his personal history with fighting games but also at the beginnings of how a once nebulous motley of local arcade kings, online theory fighters, and cave-dwelling blowhards came to be organized into what is now a national and even international FGC ("fighting game community") hosting some of the most prestigious (if not perhaps the most lucrative) contests in all of competitive gaming.

In the pre-SRK days, players could be found discussing strategies and local tournament results at a few places online, including the Usenet newsgroup, the IRC chatroom #capcom, and some fairly random GeoCities pages (Gouki's Page of Whatever and Migs' Marvel vs. Capcom site, which just happened to be some of the only Street Fighter-related websites to provide open forums (or, rather, repurposed guestbooks/bulletin boards) circa late '90s Internet). I never was a competitive player, but I have always loved Street Fighter, and, as someone who regarded fighting games as a more skillful version of chess, I enjoyed reading discussions of the competitive game—strategies, tiers, matchups. The information you would find on the forums and on would be part tutorial, part research, part debate, even part philosophy. Of course, these places were also overrun with trash talk and garbage info (or, worst of all, off-topic posts). If you didn't know any of the posters personally, you could still tell the somebodies from the scrubs not only by how frequently others dropped their names but also simply by how intelligently they could speak about the game. Seth Killian was probably the most respected regular poster on An old-school Street Fighter II champion, his online persona may have been as someone who overly reveled in zinging scrubs, but, as far as the games went, he always knew what he was talking about, or else he wouldn't talk.

When a few independently wealthy California players founded SRK in 2000, Killian joined up as a columnist for the new one-stop site for online Street Fighter discussion, penning a series called Domination 101. The articles were written in the same somewhat ruthless voice with which Killian posted on Usenet, but, rather than attacking any specific post in an ever-repeating cycle of unenlightened messages on Internet bulletin boards, Domination 101 set down, once and for all, some of his ideas on what separated top players from loudmouthed scrubs. In articulating some of the more intangible aspects of the Street Fighter metagame—not just combos and tactics but the habits, psychology, and attitude of a serious competitor versus someone who never leaves the safety of their couch—Killian was no longer merely demeaning scrub players but actually helping novices to think about the game in a deeper way. Even now, more than ten years since when they were written, I would still recommend "Controlling Space" and "Critical Breakdown" as some of the best reading available to help newcomers looking to understand the competitive side to fighting games. What Killian lays out about the more abstract fundamentals and about the arc and flow of a match can help to inform not only how you play the game but also how you spectate it. In this day and age, when high-level match footage can be found even on IGN and GameSpot, simply watching two pros duke it out still may not be that instructive (or interesting), unless you first read up on the metagame concepts behind why, for example, these top players seem to spend so much time dancing in place and whiffing normal moves.

As Killian revisits his column, it's interesting to hear his observations on how the competitive scene has changed, perhaps how far it has come, from his heyday as a player compared to what it has become, with Domination 101 having been a turning point in the schooling of a new generation of players. He stands by the content, if maybe not the tone, of his old articles, but, as Miller interviews him, they also reconsider them in the context of more recent games and tournaments, and the many insights that Killian articulates in his now more professional voice collectively make the interview worth reading as a de facto new installment in Domination 101.

The most thought-provoking part of the interview is the final question, where Miller asks Killian what topic he might tackle were he ever to return to writing Domination 101. Killian answers that he would talk about legendary Japanese player Daigo "The Beast" Umehara, and the reasoning behind Daigo's choice to play Ryu in the current version of Street Fighter IV. As Killian gets into it, he does kind of give us a new mini-installment of Domination 101, which has left me with a newly philosophical appreciation for Daigo's game.

Daigo was already the greatest player in the world when Killian was writing his column over ten years ago. You can find YouTube videos of "The Beast" defeating U.S. great Alex Valle for the Street Fighter Alpha 3 world championship back in 1998, and he was still the top player in the world over a decade later, winning EVO's first two Street Fighter IV tournaments in 2009 and 2010. But Daigo has not won any of the major tournaments he has entered over the last two years, leading some to declare him washed up. Seeing how badly Korean player Infiltration demolished him at Evo 2013, I was ready to draw the same conclusion.

Some Daigo apologists argued that he was held back by his loyalty to his character, Ryu, who is generally regarded as upper mid-tier in the current version of SFIV. It's true that Daigo is often identified with Ryu, whom he has also used in Super Street Fighter II Turbo and Street Fighter Alpha 3 (although, in the aforementioned Alpha 3 world championship, Daigo used Akuma, while, in Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, he played Ken). Killian dismisses that notion of Daigo basing his choice on mere character loyalty, however, explaining, "He plays Ryu because he feels the character lets him express himself at every point." Killian has brought this up before, while commentating on Daigo's matches—the idea that Daigo, a player who has already achieved everything achievable in the world of Street Fighter, now plays the game as his form of "expression."

The first time I heard that, I was skeptical. It just sounded like more excuses. Was Daigo "expressing" himself in performing Dragon Punches whenever he felt like it, instead of whenever it was called for? But now Killian elaborates:
Unlike a lot of very strong characters like Akuma or Cammy, Ryu has very few “set plays” (knockdown into your choice of vortex/unblockable). Obviously those techniques are very powerful, and creating them is fun, but he dislikes them in practice–not because they are strong, but because it basically takes away the element of inspiration. You aren’t really playing SF during a vortex, you play a real game to knock them down, but from there you’re on autopilot. Daigo is at his happiest when both he and his opponent are making meaningful choices. Vortex characters turn many situations into somewhat meaningless choices. There’s a guess, but often it’s just that–a guess.

This is in no way excusing Daigo's losing, which is really a separate discussion, but what Killian says is worth considering. With characters like Akuma and Cammy, the simple gameplan is to knock the opponent down, and then, as they get up, you just press your advantage by running through rote sequences, and the opponent's only way to escape the cycle of knockdowns is to outguess you. Ryu, on the other hand, is one of the most honest characters in the game. He has no such shenanigans to lock the opponent into a defensive guessing game, but he still has options for every range and every situation. In that sense, every choice the Ryu player makes is deliberate and meaningful.

It makes sense. Daigo has been competing in fighting games for a long time. What may once have been a teenager's hobby is now a major part of the identity of a man in his 30s. More than something to do, it is who he is, as much as basketball is who Michael Jordan is. Even as Jordan is too old now to play professionally, basketball remains his job, his business, his day-to-day activity, his legacy, his life. Likewise, Street Fighter, for Daigo, is about more than playing a video game, about more than winning tournaments. The game has come to permeate his life, and so his life in turn permeates his play. Hence, when Daigo plays Street Fighter, he is expressing himself. It's an idea that Killian can probably relate to, because he too has been around a long time, during which fighting games have become far more than a hobby for him.

No comments: