Tuesday, December 17, 2013

2013 Capcom Cup

Traditionally, fighting game tournaments, separate from the rest of the "eSports" world, have always been community-run events. In the arcade days, Capcom, Namco, etc. would develop the games with limited consideration for the competitive scene, and then the players themselves would organize events at the local, regional, national, and even international level. As the Evo championship has grown bigger and bigger each year, the fighting game community as a whole has begun to enjoy more support from sponsors, including game publishers such as Capcom and Namco, but still even Evo remains a community-run event that could not persist but for the passion that its organizers and staff have for the scene. Although the community arguably does more than Capcom itself does to keep Street Fighter relevant—Evo actually emerged and only continued to grow during that seven-year drought between the releases of Capcom vs. SNK 2 and Street Fighter IV—it's hard to fault the Japanese developer and publisher for not being more engaged with the competitive scene, since Capcom is, at the end of the day, a business. It may be the case that Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs. Capcom 3, years after their original releases, still attract the most attention at tournaments, but that sustained popularity among the players unfortunately doesn't translate to continuous sales of old games. Still, Capcom did a great job last year celebrating Street Fighter's 25th anniversary with a tournament series that was probably even bigger than Evo. The positive response to that series encouraged Capcom to follow it up on a smaller and admittedly less glamorous scale this year with the inaugural Capcom Cup, its new (hopefully annual) year-end fighting game tournament, which, after three months of qualifying events across the globe, concluded last Saturday, December 14, 2013 in Burlingame, CA.

Street Fighter X Tekken

This year's competition featured three titles, the first and least of which was Street Fighter X Tekken, Capcom's newest fighter, which, only a year ago this time, was the headline game at the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary tournament. I've been critical of the design of this game in the past, but a lot of that has to do with my personal tastes. I think it's a bad game because it rewards lame play styles (turtling and running down the clock), rather than encouraging the sort of more aggressive play that I would consider fun and exciting. But it's not a degenerate game by the strictest standards. It's still a game that involves a high level of skill and where the better player usually wins. Most would agree that the best player in the world at Street Fighter X Tekken is Seonwoo Lee (AKA "Infiltration"), who won the 25th Anniversary tournament, as well as both years this game has been at Evo.

Having proven his prowess at the game, Infiltration received a direct invitation, along with three other top players, into the eight-man Capcom Cup tournament. The remaining four spots were determined by qualifying tournaments held online. Thus, the Capcom Cup tournament was billed somewhat as an "online warriors versus battle-tested veterans" story, although, in reality, all of the online qualifiers had traveled to and had some success at tournaments before (three of them even had sponsors), while one of the invitees, Du Dang (AKA "NuckleDu"), rose up from an online background. Nevertheless, it was interesting to note the contrast between the three most illustrious players—Infiltration, Justin Wong, and Alex Valle—who all played with arcade joysticks, versus the five "new school" players, who all played on gamepads.

In this double-elimination tournament, the four invitees were matched up against the four qualifiers in the first round, and, somewhat anticlimactically, all four qualifiers lost. Only one of them, Dexter James (AKA "Tampa Bison") came back in the losers bracket to score victories against the invitees, clawing his way back and defeating NuckleDu, Valle, and Wong to set up a final round match against Infiltration, who then won it handily, proving himself still to be on another level in this game.


High-level or no, though, this game is still a terrible bore to spectate. At this tournament, not too many rounds ended in time over (well, it was still a lot, but not a majority or anything), as I had complained about previously, but another problem is that, unless you've spent a lot of time yourself getting to know the ins and outs of it, all the characters kind of seem the same. For almost every character, even the ones with long-range zoning options, the game plan is to dance in and out of the opponent's range in an attempt to bait out and punish their whiffed attack with a clean hit of your own, which you then convert into a drawn-out combo that takes them to the wall. This is unlike Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, where even casual observers, who will only grasp the game at a most reductive level, should quickly be able to discern the significant differences between commonly seen characters. In UMvC3,  you only need to watch Morrigan or Zero or Phoenix each win a match or two to grasp the strategy for each character, and they're all very different from one another. Morrigan crowds the screen with projectiles to pin the opponent down and chip away their health. Zero goes in and makes a rag doll of the opponent with his combos. Phoenix has to first depend on her teammates to build super combo meter for her (without spending it themselves), whereupon she can then take over and mop up as the overpowering Dark Phoenix. High-level UMvC3 can be exciting to spectate, because even if you don't comprehend much else of the game's intricacies, once you grasp the distinct strengths of these very distinct characters, you can grasp the narrative going into any match involving them. You know what the Morrigan or Zero or Phoenix wants to do, and consequently you also know what their opponent has to watch for and try to foil, and the tension is in seeing what tactics each player employs to try to execute on their respective strategy. In Street Fighter X Tekken, on the other hand, every character kind of seems to want to do the same thing in the same way. Thus, with narrative being determined by matchup, and with every matchup looking much the same to the untrained eye, there is no narrative tension to a Street Fighter X Tekken match. It's just, "Well, each guy wants to hit the other guy. I can't really tell what specific advantage either has over the other toward pulling that off, but eventually one guy pulls it off first. Of course, the other guy seemed to be trying to do the same thing in the same way, and I'm not sure what made the difference. Honestly, it just seems random." Of course, it's NOT random, I realize, but the point is that there's almost nothing there for the average spectator to latch on to to help contextualize any of the decisions the players are making mid-match.

Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3

After the Street Fighter X Tekken competition concluded, the event moved on to Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. The eight competitors for this tournament were determined by a Capcom poll asking fans to vote for which players they wanted to see compete. This seems a terrible way to determine who gets to play for what should be one of the most prestigious trophies of the tournament season. If you open this poll up to the general gaming public, they're most likely not going to have any idea who the best UMvC3 players are at the moment, and will probably just vote for the one fighting game player they might ever have heard of, which is Justin Wong. Or, you might think, probably anybody who would even care enough to take the time to vote would know who's who in the fighting game community. But then that leads to the opposite problem, which is players voting for their own friends or people they like in this fairly tight community, rather than for the player who has had the best results but maybe isn't the most popular or likable guy. Ultimately, when the polls closed, the results, though not met without controversy, did not go too awry, as the fans voted in the largely agreed upon top 3 players, one dark horse from Japan, a former champion and pillar of the community, and then three guys who would probably never make top 8 at Evo but who stand out by playing unorthodox teams.

The competition kicked off with a match between Japan's top UMvC3 player, Naoki "Nemo" Nemoto, and underachieving fan favorite, New Jersey's Kyohei Lehr (AKA, "MarlinPie"). Ever since Marvel vs. Capcom 2 (and, well, probably even before that, but nothing before that really mattered), the series has always been considered "America's game"—the one game where those in the U.S. fighting game community can confidently expect to crush their Japanese rivals. Owing to Marvel's lower profile in Japan, the series was never historically as heavily marketed or distributed in Capcom's home country, so the Japanese scene for these games has always been fairly small. And, without a healthy scene, it's hard to cultivate a high level of skill. There are a handful of Japanese players who love UMvC3 as what is, over there, a cult game, however, chief among them Nemo, who is credited for devising the incredibly cheap team of Nova/Doctor Strange/Spencer (dubbed "Team Nemo" by the fighting game community).

Always a dark horse (since he obviously can't fly over from Japan to compete regularly in the U.S. circuit), Nemo disappointingly fell short of the top 32 at Evo this year, losing to some American mid-carders. He made his biggest splash not in the Evo UMvC3 tournament proper but with his performances in a couple private "money matches" involving bets in the thousands of dollars. Playing in a first-to-20 set, Nemo crushed America's (and, by extension, the world's) clear No. 2, Ryan Ramirez (AKA "Filipino Champ"). In response to that wakeup call, the U.S. contingent then sent forth the No. 1 player, Chris Gonzalez, to take back America's game in another first-to-20. And then Nemo crushed Chris G. Off the backs of those shocking blowouts, Nemo garnered the most votes of any player for the Capcom Cup, and he made a strong opening statement by defeating MarlinPie 3-0.


The other first-round story was the match between Filipino Champ and Michael Mendoza (AKA "IFC Yipes"), the "hypest" man in the fighting game community. Yipes was a top MvC2 player—one of only two players ever to defeat Justin Wong in an Evo final—and he remained a strong competitor in MvC3 and UMvC3, but is perhaps more often regarded nowadays as a personality and color commentator. Having contributed perhaps more than anyone to the MvC community's peculiar meme-based lexicon, Yipes is understandably a very popular figure within the community, but few analysts would argue that his results in UMvC3 warrant his inclusion in a top 8 invitational. In that same above-linked "ChrisG vs Nemo" video, Filipino Champ, responding to the suggestion that the U.S. send up Yipes to take on Nemo, dismissively refers to Yipes as "Mr. Commentator." So, when Yipes got the call for Capcom Cup, and to face off against none other than Filipino Champ in the first round, he knew he would have to step up his game, both to 1) put on a good show for his many fans who voted him into a slot he maybe hadn't earned, and 2) punish Filipino Champ.


But the greatest match of the tournament, and indeed of Capcom Cup as a whole, had to be the second-round match between Justin Wong and Chris G. Justin's brilliant comeback against Chris at Evo 2013 was a classic, but, historically, both before and after that Evo meeting, Chris has held the upper hand against Justin and against everyone, his failure to win Evo the only blemish on his record as the undisputed best UMvC3 player. On Evo, Chris basically said that 1) he didn't give a crap about Evo, and 2) the results weren't legitimate because Evo was conducted on the PlayStation 3 version of UMvC3, which is known to have performance issues. That latter complaint generated enough controversy that Xbox 360 has become the standard for every significant UMvC3 tournament since and going forward. Thus, at Capcom Cup, the most prestigious event since Evo, with no more easy excuses, would Chris G. be able to prove, once and for all, that he was without peer in this game?


The matchup was again a classic. Morrigan/Doctor Doom is probably the strongest combination in the game, and, when Chris G. plays it, not only should any spectator be able to grasp the strategy but they'll probably come away thinking that the team is simply unfair. Yet Justin always manages to play him hard, and Capcom Cup was no different. Their best-of-5 went down to the final game, which started off horribly for Justin, as Chris took out two members of his team within the first 12 seconds, leaving Justin to take on Chris's entire team with only Storm, considered a mid-tier character at best by most players. Yet Justin hung in there and began to mount one of his signature comebacks as the most clutch player in the game. He took Chris to the brink—as close as it gets, Chris was down to just Morrigan with zero health left—but, when it was all over, Justin fell just short, as this time it was Chris who clutched it out, hushing the room into a silence that seemed to last the rest of the tournament. It was a heartbreaker, for sure, but, then again, they had just played in the winners bracket. Even if Justin had won, it would only have sent Chris to the losers bracket, where, still the strongest player, he would almost certainly have come back with a vengeance.

As things went, however, Chris didn't have to come back; he was never sent to the losers bracket, and ended up winning the tournament without suffering any losses. Yipes came in 2nd, never really challenging Chris, but at least validating the fans who voted for him, and managing to beat Filipino Champ not once, but twice. Justin, meanwhile, had to play Filipino Champ immediately after losing to Chris, and, clearly mentally destroyed by his loss, Justin stood no chance against the game's No. 2 player. The only other notable match was Filipino Champ eliminating Nemo in a couple of very close games. It was a strong 4th place finish for the Japanese player, if still a little disappointing to those hoping for this invader to shake up the UMvC3 world order. Before the night was over, however, Nemo would win a few thousand dollars in side money matches dominating random American challengers, lending credence to the suggestion that he is perhaps the best UMvC3 player in long sets, or maybe the best with bets on the line.

Immediately after the tournament's conclusion was a first-to-5 "Clash of the Champions" exhibition pitting Capcom Cup winner Chris G. against Evo 2013 champion Job Figueroa Perez (AKA "Flocker"), with an extra $1,000 up for grabs. Flocker had clearly been screwed over by the voting. The reigning Evo champion, Flocker is a top 5 player (at least), but the voters completely snubbed the Zero master. Indeed, the weirdest thing about this tournament was the lack of any Zero representation, when the character usually appears on multiple players' teams in the final 8 of any major. Capcom, recognizing how ridiculous this omission was, was good enough to extend to Flocker a special invite and chance to play for $1,000 (equivalent to placing between 2nd and 3rd in the tournament proper). But it was still lame that Flocker had to go in completely cold against Chris, who was riding high and getting stronger with every victory. In the anticlimactic match between champions and between arguably the two strongest characters in the game, Chris G.'s Morrigan team made Flocker's Zero look like any helpless chump.



Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012

Chris G. went from being the heavy favorite in UMvC3 to being the underdog just a few minutes later when the Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition tournament commenced with his first-round match against Japan's Naoto Sako. The only invitation sent out for this tournament was to Evo 2013 champion Kun Xian Ho (or, another way to look at it is that Evo was a qualifying event for Capcom Cup). The other seven spots were determined by qualifying tournaments conducted around the world in the months prior to Capcom Cup. Yet even this process was not without controversy.

Flocker was not the only "missing man" at a Capcom Cup tournament. Conspicuously absent from the Street Fighter X Tekken tournament was Japan's Hajime Taniguchi (AKA "Tokido"). The only player who might actually be better than Infiltration, he placed 2nd last year at the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary tournament and even beat Infiltration convincingly in their most recent bout in the Canada Cup 2013 finals. But he didn't get an invite to Capcom Cup, and he wasn't eligible to compete in the online qualifiers, which were open only to U.S. residents. But it was the Capcom Cup SSFIV tournament that had the most glaring omissions: 25th Anniversary champion Infiltration and all-time legend Daigo "The Beast" Umehara.

Infiltration fell just short of winning a spot at the stacked Asia qualifier (actually a multiple-tournament series, where players had to qualify for the chance to qualify). After a dominant 2012 season, he had seemed very vulnerable throughout 2013, so maybe it was not a total shocker that he missed Capcom Cup. The bigger surprise was Daigo not making it, especially after The Beast had seemed so resurgent post-Evo this year, scoring blowout victories over both Infiltration and Xian in first-to-10 exhibitions. Daigo went out in the second round of the Japan qualifier for the Capcom Cup. Not to make excuses for the man, but I'll say that that Japan qualifier was a very strange tournament. For one, it was single-elimination, which can produce all manner of weird results (Infiltration and Xian were also there and suffered early exits). Second, it was in Japan, where even a no-name off-the-street player might be a master. Even more than the competition being of a generally high-level, though, it being in Japan meant that Daigo was up against players who probably played against him all the time and knew all his tendencies. That doesn't mean that any random guy in Japan is stronger than Daigo; there are a lot of players who are very good when playing in their hometown arcade against the regulars, but who might not fare so impressively on the road or on a big stage like Evo. I mean, the guy who eliminated Daigo at this Japan tournament was actually at Evo this year, and he didn't make it out of his qualifying pool. At the end of the day, though, the fact is, Daigo lost, and that Japanese tournament was the only Capcom Cup qualifier he even entered. It wasn't anybody's fault but his own that he didn't make it to Capcom Cup, but, still, his absence raised questions about how seriously this championship could be taken.

Even without those former champions, however, the field at Capcom Cup was very strong. Half of it directly mirrored the final 8 at this year's Evo, including Evo champion Xian and three of the "Five Japanese Gods of Fighting Games"—Tokido, Sako, and Tatsuya Haitani. Another Japanese player, Keita Ai (AKA "Fuudo"), is someone you would have expected to have seen in the final 8 at Evo. The Evo 2011 champion, Fuudo is sure to go down as one of the top 5 all-time in the Street Fighter IV series, and, although he exited surprisingly early at this year's Evo, he qualified into Capcom Cup without too much difficulty. The remaining three qualifiers were less decorated. Chris G. was the lone U.S. qualifier. French player Alioune Camara was the lone European, a somewhat mysterious competitor, even if you follow the European scene, since he doesn't regularly compete against the better-known UK players. But he was a qualifier at last year's 25th Anniversary tournament too. The dark horse here was Ghim Kee Eng (AKA "Gackt"), Xian's fellow Singaporean and teammate, who beat out Infiltration and other big names for a spot at the Asia qualifier. Yes, the two Westerners were the first ones eliminated.

The SSFIV competitive scene right now doesn't have a clear best player dominating the way Infiltration and Daigo had in previous years. There are, instead, a lot of really good players, who are all capable of beating one another and winning major tournaments. On the one hand, that can be exciting, since it makes the results less predictable than when there's a dominant player. On the other hand, it means there's no "main event" matchup to anticipate going into a tournament like Capcom Cup. There was no match here that I was especially excited to see play out, and, although the level of play was high throughout, I don't know if any of the matches stood out at classics.

Haitani was perhaps the sentimental favorite, on account of his playing sort of an underdog character, Makoto, who isn't often seen winning tournaments. And the way Haitani plays is pretty nuts. Makoto isn't a terrible character, by any means, but, against the Fei Longs of the world, she just doesn't seem to have the buttons to go toe-to-toe or blow-for-blow. Haitani wins against even Fei Long players, however, because he doesn't try to match his blows to theirs (since Makoto can't), but he also doesn't sit patiently and wait for his chances (which might seem the safest and only option, except that Fei Long is always going to win any slow-paced attritional contest). Instead, he seems to constantly seize his chances from out of the lion's jaw, going for gutsy plays that seem highly inadvisable, but, before you can even finish the thought that he shouldn't have gone for this or that move, you see his opponent getting improbably struck by it. Indeed, Haitani seems to depend almost entirely on making brilliant reads to pay off his gambles, somehow as if able to react not to what the opponent is doing but to what they're planning to do.


But the gutsiest play at Capcom Cup may have come from Evo champ and Gen specialist Xian in his losers finals match against Fuudo. Xian was first sent to the losers bracket by Fuudo's Fei Long in the second round. In my opinion, Fei Long is the most overpowered character in the game, and he has clearly been the thorn in Xian's side lately, as shown in his first match against Fuudo here, which Xian lost badly 3-1. Xian fought his way back through the losers bracket, winning impressive victories against Tokido and Haitani, only to find Fuudo once more in his way. Fuudo's win had been convincing the first time; Xian played uncharacteristically tentative and seemingly at a loss. How could the Evo champ adapt mid-tournament to handle the world's strongest Fei Long?


In this battle between Evo champions, Xian dug deep, made all the right adjustments, and won it 3-0. The score doesn't tell how grueling it really was, though—those were some long rounds they played—and Xian seemed completely spent in the grand finals against Sako, a player Xian had beaten earlier this year at Evo, but who was playing on another level here. Renowned for his execution, Sako is most often seen playing Ibuki, but at Capcom Cup he stuck with Evil Ryu all the way, even closing the tournament out in spectacular fashion by landing Evil Ryu's rarely seen version of Akuma's signature Raging Demon super move.



Ultra Street Fighter IV

The only other story out of Capcom Cup was a bit of news on the upcoming latest version of SFIV, Ultra Street Fighter IV. Annoyingly, Capcom still wouldn't reveal who the fifth and final new playable character is, which is about the only thing left that anybody really wants to hear. Between now and the game's scheduled release in June, I can't think of any more fitting occasion than Capcom had here to reveal the fifth character, so the fact that Capcom still held back suggests to me that they really must not have anything ready to show. But the longer they hold out, the greater the anticipation is going to get—the greater, consequently, the disappointment will be when the character turns out to be not that exciting. And all signs point to it not being that exciting.

The clues Capcom has offered thus far have been, first, that the character has never been in a fighting game before. That rules out the characters that fans would really want, like Street Fighter III's Alex and Mike Haggar from Final Fight. They also assured that the character would be very much related to Street Fighter, so nothing crazy like Asura from Asura's Wrath. Most likely, it also means a character that is already part of the Street Fighter universe, as opposed to a brand new creation. Aside from the hints given, there are a couple things we can reasonably infer, most chiefly that the character must involve a limited amount of work put in by Capcom, meaning, in other words, that the character must be a clone of another character already in SSFIV. The only new hint Capcom would offer at Capcom Cup was that the character is female. As I see it, that all but confirms that the character is one of the formerly non-playable "Dolls" (the Cammy clones) from Street Fighter Alpha 3.

The only reason Ultra Street Fighter IV is even happening is because Street Fighter X Tekken was a failure, both sales-wise and within the competitive scene. It comes back to what I said earlier, about how the games still get played years after their release in increasingly large tournaments, but Capcom has no easy way to take advantage and translate that into sustained revenue for them. Capcom's usual model is to cheaply develop updates ("Super," "Ultimate," etc.) to refresh sales of old games and hold down the fort between bigger releases of legitimately new titles. But, because Street Fighter X Tekken failed, Capcom must have had to scrap whatever plans it might have had to draw out that game's shelf life with incremental updates. With no "Street Fighter V" yet on the horizon, however, Capcom still needs to put out something "new" in the meantime. The result is Ultra Street Fighter IV, where most of the revealed new content—four characters, six stages—is transplanted assets from Street Fighter X Tekken. That tells you how limited the budget for this game is. There's no way Capcom is devoting resources to develop anything from scratch. The fifth character has to be a clone. One of the other Dolls (i.e. not Juni or Juli) would fit all the hints and criteria. Furthermore, the Dolls already featured prominently in the Super Street Figher IV Original Video Animation movie, suggesting that Capcom has had plans to do something with them. I'll even go a step further and bet that it will specifically be Decapre, the Doll with the mask and claws, since she'd be the easiest to do (the other Dolls fight with weapons that would require new animations, but, for Decapre's claws, all Capcom would have to do is tack them on to Cammy's existing punches).

If I'm right, it will be disappointing, but mainly because of all this buildup for a character that wouldn't have been on anybody's wish list. That's not to say that a Cammy clone can't offer anything interesting and new-ish to the game. Evil Ryu and Oni from SSFIV: Arcade Edition were mostly constructed out of recycled assets, but they play differently enough from the characters they were based on to make them feel like worthwhile additions to the cast. A Cammy clone might just reuse art assets, but could potentially play very differently, which is what matters more.


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