Friday, July 18, 2014

Evo 2014 - Et cetera (plus thoughts on the FGC and eSports)

Evo 2014 - Champions

In addition to the anticipated championships for Ultra Street Fighter IV and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Evo 2014 was also host to a number of other tournaments and events. Among those I happened to catch, one of the more memorable was X-Mania USA, the first American edition in Japan’s premiere Super Street Fighter II Turbo competition, a single-elimination 3v3 team tournament.

X-Mania USA

Three of Japan’s “Five Gods of Capcom Fighting Games”—Daigo “The Beast” Umehara, Shinya “Nuki” Onuki, and Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi—joined together to form Team Japan 1. U.S. legends Alex Valle, John Choi, and Mike Watson also answered the call to take on their Japanese rivals one more time as Team OGSF. These six players have had so many classic battles between them over the years in Super Street Fighter II Turbo tournaments at Evo, before the game was finally retired from the official lineup after 2008. Nuki might be the only one among them who still practices the game; he placed 2nd in the previous day’s Tournament of Legends II. But those old school skills die hard, as do storied USA vs. Japan rivalries.

The new school of U.S. top players was represented by Team Special Forces, composed of Jason “AfroLegends” Nguyen, Damien “Damdai” Dailidenas, and Biran “Ganelon” Su, three Super Street Fighter II Turbo enthusiasts who came up well after the game’s prime years, but have since established themselves as the country’s top specialists, which they would prove here by besting Team OGSF for a respectable 3rd-place finish.

But, in an all-Japan final at X-Mania USA, it would be two teams composed of Super Street Fighter II Turbo grandmasters attending Evo 2014 to compete in this game only. On one side, we had Team M3: MAO, Mattsun, and TMF. On the other side was Team Japan 2: Noguchi, Hanashi, and Kurahashi. These were all near-mythic names, the living legends and true diehards of the game, for whom Super Street Fighter II Turbo never ended and there were no other games.

Now, all grandiloquence aside, for anybody who wants to argue that the old games were more skillful, more strategic, more balanced, just take a look at what happens when either MAO or Noguchi steps up to the joystick and plays as Vega (claw) (“Balrog” in the video, as they were playing on the Japanese version). These “grandmasters” basically just spam Vega’s wall dive technique over and over again, and their opponents can barely do anything about it. This is a character so mindlessly overpowered that, at one point, he was reportedly “soft-banned” in Japan, meaning that, although there was no written rule against using Vega in competition, everybody in the arcade would shun you if you won with him. And when it’s time for MAO and Noguchi to play one another? Pure slapstick. I bet even Vega players hate Vega.

The King of Fighters XIII

I also happened to catch the finals of The King of Fighters XIII. I find this a dreadfully boring game to spectate, because 1) matches take way too long, 2) there are too many mirror matches, especially involving the DLC characters (which I never quite felt like paying for), and 3) I find that comebacks are less feasible in the 3-on-3 elimination format of King of Fighters, as compared to more typical 1-on-1 round-based games. But there was some minor intrigue to be had from the grand final, between Japan’s Tokido and China’s Zhuojun “XiaoHai” Zeng.

Tokido, one of the aforementioned “Japanese gods,” is probably the most versatile fighting game player on the planet. A perennial top player in whatever the marquee Capcom fighting game of the moment is, he’ll nonchalantly sign up to compete in just about every other Japanese fighting game at any event he attends as well, because it’s easy money if he can win without trying very hard. He was never even really a Super Street Fighter II Turbo player, but, as is his method in all his side games, he quickly picked up the cheapest character, in this case Vega, and subsequently outperformed the U.S.’s most veteran warriors at multiple Evo tournaments. At the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary Tournament, he was the only person on the planet to qualify in all four games (Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition, Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012, and Street Fighter X Tekken). He is one of only two Japanese players ever to win a major Marvel vs. Capcom tournament in the U.S., doing so in Marvel vs. Capcom 3 right at the peak of that game’s profile shortly after its release. And he has even made Evo top 8 before in some of the 3-D fighting games, such as Tekken 6 and Virtua Fighter 5.

At first glance, Tokido’s success in The King of Fighters XIII would seem to be a case of merely his natural genius taking him far in another side game, where the competitive scene might not be especially developed. But it’s a little-known bit of trivia that Hajime Taniguchi’s long-held nickname, “To-Ki-Do,” actually derives from the most scrubby style of Iori Yagami play in The King of Fighters ‘98 (Tobi = jump, Kikku = kick, Doushita! = what Iori yells when he performs his fireball). And, after a fairly effortless 4th-place finish last year, he had stated his intention to focus heavily on the game, his sights set on an Evo championship for 2014. So this title really did mean something to him; it was not just easy money.

As for his opponent, XiaoHai, this is a guy who made his name (quite literally) by becoming, at a tender age, China’s “god of KOF,” who has made a parlor trick of crushing challengers one-handed in The King of Fighters ‘98. The King of Fighters is a series that traditionally had never had much of a competitive scene in either Japan or the U.S. But it developed a huge following in regions such as China and Mexico, which have not historically been prioritized as lucrative markets for closed-platform video game publishers, but where piracy runs rampant, the old Neo Geo games being among the easiest to clone and cheaply distribute across arcades in these lands. So, although XiaoHai has, of late, proven himself one of the most formidable competitors in Street Fighter IV, it would be proper to say that The King of Fighters simply runs in his blood.

With both Tokido and XiaoHai having suffered disappointing early exits in Ultra Street Fighter IV the previous day, this King of Fighters XIII grand final was now their Evo.

… And it was a miserable bore again, aside from the amusement to be had when the Iori vs. Iori mirror match came up, leading to slapstick moments (witness the opening exchange at 9:30) coincidentally almost exactly like those in the Vega vs. Vega Super Street Fighter II Turbo match.

(Video uploaded by FRMA.)

The one great moment to come out of this tournament was actually after all the fighting was done (at 36:40). After the top 8 finalists lined up on the main stage to receive their Evo medals, the crowd began a chant. But it was not a boorish “U-S-A” chant, nor any particular competitor’s name. Rather, it was “K-O-F,” a chant in appreciation of the tournament itself, for all the competitors and for a series and scene that has long struggled to be taken seriously by the larger FGC. As all the finalists joined in on the chant in unison, it created an Olympics-style moment of camaraderie in competition through shared love of the game. Awesome. (And then, of course, that gave way to a random “U-S-A” chant from the crowd, which, okay, was pretty great in its own way.)

Killer Instinct

I saw bits of the Killer Instinct top 8. I don’t have a very complete understanding of what’s going on in this game. It looks pretty fun, and I especially appreciate that it includes a smaller roster of very distinct characters (as opposed to most games these days, which have humongous casts, such that even the top players in the world can sometimes be caught having no idea how to approach rarely seen matchups), but, as it’s exclusive to a console I don’t own, I can’t really get into it.

The current competitive scene for it is interesting, though, because Killer Instinct has been, for whatever reason, the one “crossover” game, where top Street Fighter players and top Mortal Kombat players have been duking it out for supremacy. This is the one game that has seen Justin Wong returning to the role that he once owned within the U.S. FGC, as the most-wanted bounty head and invading Goliath. Or, depending on your perspective, maybe the invader is Emmanuel “CD Jr” Brito, one of the greats in Mortal Kombat (2011), and now one of the dominant forces in Killer Instinct as well. Mortal Kombat, as a tournament game, has never enjoyed the popularity or the respect of Street Fighter, but let there be no further doubt as to the legitimacy of the players who have chosen to express their talent through the Western-developed fighting games, as CD Jr has been holding his own (and then some) against the likes of Justin Wong in Killer Instinct.

Of course, the scene for this game is still pretty small, and limited by it being on the Xbox One, so we’ll see whether it grows or just fizzles. I’ll say that, as a spectator, I find it much more entertaining than past games that never caught on, such as Street Fighter X Tekken, or even The King of Fighters XIII, for that matter.


BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma

But the most intense grand final of any tournament all Evo may actually have been for the game with the least hype, BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma.

BlazBlue could probably be filed under “games that never caught on,” alongside its predecessor Guilty Gear. The 2-D “anime fighters” developed by Arc System Works have never attracted a large competitive community in the U.S.; they’ve been just steady enough to earn typically one Evo spot annually for whatever the most current Arc System Works game of the moment is. This year, however, Arc System Works and publisher Aksys Games teamed together to raise BlazBlue’s Evo profile in a big way, donating a bonus $30,000 to make the tournament’s prize pot the largest of any game at Evo 2014. This boosted entrance numbers by about 100 competitors over last year’s Persona 4 Arena tournament, and perhaps it also played a part in attracting a contingent of reportedly Japan’s top BlazBlue specialists.

I remember, at past Evos, the Guilty Gear XX tournaments would come down to the top specialists in the U.S. getting run over by whichever Japanese players happened to be at Evo, and for whom Guilty Gear XX was merely a “free money” side game. This year, with Japan’s actual best BlazBlue specialists all coming to participate, would the finals prove to be an even more anticlimactic mockery of the weak U.S. scene for these anime games? Would the entire top 8 be all Japanese players “going to work” on Sunday against the same guys they play against every day back home, as though the biggest BlazBlue tournament in North America were just another day at the office for them?

Well, to the first question, sort of, as indeed 7 of the top 8 (and 10 of the top 16) were Japanese. As for the second question, well… so it seemed, at first.

As with Killer Instinct, I don’t understand this game too terribly well either, and was having to learn the rules as I watched, but the Arc System Works games generally share a few signature characteristics. They are high-execution games, where you cannot expect to compete unless you can perform lengthy combos with consistency, and air-dash around the screen with speed and precision. On defense, there’s usually a metered mechanic that allows you to negate chip damage as you block. And your real lifeline is the “Burst” technique—a combo-breaker, which takes a LONG time to refill once you use it.

So the basic arc (no pun intended) and flow of a match proceeds thus: characters fly around and deal big damage very quickly, but a player with only slivers of health left can still hang in there for quite a while if their defense is on point, and the decisions on when and how to spend one’s precious Burst can be absolutely pivotal, as using it at one point can save your life at that time, but then doom you later when you need it and don’t have it.

I had the top 8 playing in the background and found it kind of a snoozer, notwithstanding some freaky cosplaying exhibited by the Japanese competitors:

But, again, understanding that these guys all probably played against one another every day in the arcade made this all seem very anticlimactic to me. What could this U.S. tournament, populated mostly by competitors far below the level they were accustomed to, really mean for these Japanese (well, other than a big payday)? To my astonishment, the grand final answered that question in a way that completely changed my mind.

As Ryo “Dogura” Nozaki, coming from the winners bracket, sat on championship game at 2-2, having just pummeled Keiji “Garireo” Okamoto in two straight rounds in commanding fashion, it looked like our anticlimax was nigh. Garireo, one game away from elimination in the losers bracket, was seriously on the ropes against the competitor who had already beaten him convincingly to send him there in the first place. I must confess, I hadn’t even been paying attention. But then the stream exploded with the sounds of the commentators and crowd going nuts.

In the fourth game, Garireo, facing match point, having dropped the first round and now one hit away from defeat in the second, began to rally! And the 8,000-person ballroom was now behind him all the way!

Garireo pulls out the round. Cue crowd eruption. With momentum on his side, Garireo takes the next round as well, resetting the bracket to send the match to a second, decisive set. And that’s when Garireo lets out a primal roar (14:30) that is to become the single most impressive image of Evo 2014.


Dogura, for his part, unfazed, would answer back with four straight dominating rounds to race to a 2-0 lead in the second set. Garireo, facing the possible end of the road again, looked even more done than he had at any time in the last set. Cheered on by the crowd, he nodded to signify his readiness for the next game, only to find himself again just two combos away from losing it all in the third round. And again Garireo dug deep and somehow found his way back to make it 2-1 Dogura.

The pattern repeated. Dogura, looking at most bemused, took an early lead to within pixels of the championship, only to see Garireo somehow rally back to level the score at 2-2.

At this point, both players had to pause before heading into the final game. Garireo let rip another cry of elation, while Dogura at last succumbed to the tension of the moment, burying his face in his hands, straining to gather himself. Then Garireo also had to bow his head momentarily to the pressure.

These were the moments (27:40), when we knew for certain that these greatest BlazBlue players in the world were not coming from Japan just to brush aside some free Americans and then go through the motions against one another on what would really be, for those in the money, just a paid vacation to Las Vegas. No, the emotions, the passion, the pain were visible for all to see. They recognized Evo for what it truly was: the largest BlazBlue championship ever, here or anywhere. This right now was exactly why they played the game.


When all was said and done, and the top 8 finalists were lined up to receive their awards from BlazBlue creator Toshimichi Mori and voice actress Kana Ueda, the top 3 finishers looked overcome by the moment (even as one was standing there in a ridiculous Strider Hiryu cosplay outfit)—the agony and the ecstasy, and the cheers of an appreciative audience. I’m sure the extra-large pot didn’t hurt, but, for these players who had shed blood, sweat, and now literally tears to get here, clearly the achievement itself was the prize.



But that does raise the question that must eventually be addressed, of how and whether the FGC should grow from such phenomenal but still grassroots community-run events as Evo to something more professional. Community is wonderful. Achievement for its own sake is great. But, at the end of the day, pride doesn’t pay the bills. Even at Evo, the largest fighting game competition in the world, the payouts hardly justify the amount of work—hours a day, every day, approaching a career—that all the top players invest to be able to compete at the highest level. And now that these and IGN streams have brought all the Evo action to massive audiences and made stars (if only for a weekend) of guys like XiaoHai, CD Jr, and Garireo, does it not seem appropriate that these champions should be compensated with checks truly commensurate to the hours they put in, the number of viewers they draw, the amount of buzz they generate with the shows they put on?

It’s a question that has crossed every top player’s mind, but when the few are outspoken enough to voice it, they get booed, called selfish and mercenary by a community that has always proudly but also fearfully resisted becoming assimilated by the “eSports” world full of flash but without heart, too reliant on corporate interests, and operated by organizations like Major League Gaming, headed by guys who have just never been a part of the FGC and cannot appreciate fighting games as anything other than another market, to go along with their RTS and FPS programming.

In the lead-up to Evo 2014, Japanese publication 4Gamer posted a round-table discussion among top Ultra Street Fighter IV players. It’s a fascinating read for any enthusiast of the game, as they approach a number of points in thoughtful and enlightening ways. Mostly, they talk about the game itself from a critical perspective. But eventually the discussion ventures into each player’s philosophical approach toward competing in fighting games, and this is where none other than Daigo himself broaches the issue of money:
Now prestige and attention definitely have their merits, but in that sense, the past where we only fought for prestige must change. I know we're entering a sensitive topic, but I think everyone here is aware of this issue.

This is the most famous fighting game player on the planet—not quite a household name maybe, but even people who are only casually into competitive gaming have probably watched his amazing “Evo Moment #37” comeback (the top video of it on YouTube currently has over 1.6 million views, and it’s not even the only or original upload of it, as many have disappeared and been replaced over the years, and the clip was even originally distributed pre-YouTube as just a downloadable file). He’s one of the very few “professional” Street Fighter players who probably makes his living entirely off his involvement with the games. He’s one of the lucky ones, in other words. (I mean, I know he obviously worked hard to get here—as hard as anyone who devotes their life to performance in competition, no matter the arena.) Yet even he’s saying that there’s something not quite right about what the players are getting out, compared to what they’re putting in.

Should the prize pots be bigger? If so, where is the money going to come from? Do players need real sponsors that will not just pay their tournament travel expenses but actually go out there and get them lucrative contracts and endorsement deals? Or should “name” players like Daigo, so crucial to generating hype for those tournament streams, get a cut of the advertising dollars? Are there even advertising dollars?

Those are the questions of how to make this more of a realistic profession, which the players, tournament organizers, game publishers, and sponsors are all struggling to find answers to right now. But there’s also the question of whether the game, as we now know it and love it, could even survive transitioning to a more professional model.

Momochi, never the winningest player among the Japanese greats, says that “results are not everything.” In other words, he doesn’t play just to win and to make money. That sounds like an excuse, but he elaborates:
Well if there was a worldwide USF4 tournament for 100 million yen I would probably use Yun. If I say this maybe it will kill the entire discussion, but fighting games have yet to reach that value for pure competition.

If winning were everything, of course he’d use the strongest character, Yun. But Momochi has never been that guy that goes top tier just to win. His signature characters in Street Fighter IV (Ken, Cody) have always been mediocre, and one could say he has paid the price in tournament results for his choices. He believes that there must be something more to get out of playing than just victory. But even he acknowledges that he may only be at liberty to believe this because, as things are now, there is nowhere near enough money at stake to properly motivate a “win at all costs” results-oriented attitude. All the players agree, if the money were there, every serious competitor would pick Yun in Ultra Street Fighter IV (or whichever character might counter Yun).

This is perhaps something that Japan has actually been slower to accept than the rest of the world. As Itazan mentions, they used to give out only trophies, no cash prizes, for winning national tournaments. In Japan, it was considered gambling, and thus illegal, for arcade tournaments to have prize pots made up of money from entry fees, as was always the standard in U.S. tournaments at every level (and even extending to Evo today), so Japanese players were accustomed to competing without money at stake. You’d think that should have been a barrier to them realizing their competitive potential, since they were never monetarily incentivized, as were players in the U.S., to be so cutthroat in training with the specific goal of beating every other person in the arcade. But, of course, we know that the strongest players have always been in Japan, and some have even credited their greatness precisely to their different philosophical approach.

In the early days of U.S. players traveling to Japan to check out the arcade scene there, they would always report back with astonishment, not only how far ahead the Japanese were in Street Fighter, but also how little they cared about tiers while dominating with whichever characters they simply felt like playing. The theory was that, although the Japanese recognized that some characters were more advantageous than others, they never felt the need to rely on the advantage of picking a strong character, because, after all, they didn’t “need” to win either. And so that freed them up to more deeply explore characters that, in the U.S., might have been quickly dismissed as not being viable for use in tournaments.

The “soft ban” on Vega in Super Street Fighter II Turbo is a perfect example. When U.S. player Julien "Zass" Beasley first reported back around the late '90s on what he observed as an unwritten rule in Japan against picking Vega, the immediate reaction among players in the U.S. was something along the lines of "What the hell? 'Soft ban'? That's weak! Do they not have the concept there of 'playing to win'?"

Shunning a player simply because they wanted to win? Okay, that may have been a bit extreme, and maybe a cultural thing. But the Japanese did not soft ban Vega because they were afraid to face him in tournament. Rather, all the serious players chose not to play him, because they found him uninteresting. Keep in mind, the game was already years old at this point. Even in the thriving arcade scene of Japan, the only people still devoting serious time to Super Street Fighter II Turbo would have had to have been doing it for love of the game. Among these veteran enthusiasts, what more was there to be gained or proven from doing wall dive after wall dive? For the Japanese, there was neither money nor pride to be gotten from winning that way. The character’s presence did not add anything interesting to competition, actually rather detracting from it. And so, unlike in the U.S., where Vega has always been a tournament staple, the regulars in Japan agreed to stay away from the character (and also the likewise overly cheap and soft-banned "Old" Sagat, and, of course, Akuma—the one character, to my knowledge, that has always been banned in the U.S., purely on the grounds that he is too powerful), instead devoting their energies to the rest of the cast, subsequently taking even supposedly “low-tier” characters to heights never imagined possible in the U.S.

X-Mania, the largest Super Street Fighter II Turbo event in Japan and in the world, is a format that never could have come out of the U.S. scene, where team tournaments are a foreign concept. In Japan, big U.S.-style multiple-day, double-elimination majors were never the norm. They never served much purpose, for one thing, since, Japan being much smaller geographically, the top players all lived within relatively close proximity and could regularly play one another at the arcade, leaving little mystery as to who was best. (This is another reason that competition among Japanese players tends to be less serious than rivalries in the U.S., and why perhaps the Japanese BlazBlue players at Evo were so emotional—as often as they played one another back home, they had never competed before in such a dramatic format. At least, I hope those guys don’t cry like that just every time they have a close set in the arcade.)

Rather, many of the most prestigious events in Japan have been 3-on-3 team competitions like X-Mania. The rules typically are that each player on a team must use a different character (no repeats), and players must stick with one character through their entire time in the tournament (no switching). This encouraged Japanese players to master characters outside the top tier in a number of ways. First, since no team could be allowed to have, for example, three Vega players, there was actual motivation to try to make your name as a specialist with a different character. You might never be the absolute best in a 1-on-1 format, but if the absolute best needed a teammate in a 3-on-3 tournament, then suddenly you had something to offer. Second, since you were not allowed to switch to different characters, this meant that, if you ran into an unfavorable matchup (e.g. you’re Zangief and you run into an E. Honda), you would have to just do your best and figure out exactly how Zangief wins that theoretical 1 game out of 10 on the matchup chart. You could not take the easy way out and “counter-pick,” a tactic widely employed by all top U.S. Super Street Fighter II Turbo players. Third (this point following from the previous two), there was special incentive to master characters that may not have been dominant but possessed unique advantages, as a way to provide balance to your team, so that it would not instantly collapse the moment it ran into a player whose character happened to have the advantage against every member of your team. The key concept was, thus, “cooperation” rather than absolute victory.

In playing not just to win, the Japanese actually came to know the game on a deeper level, learning the value of different approaches, and more fully realizing, along the way, the hidden potential of characters and strategies beyond the shortcuts to success. And the way I’ve presented things is actually backward. It is not that the team tournament format was responsible for the Japanese mastering Street Fighter on levels and in directions unheard of in the U.S. Rather, team tournaments like X-Mania only came about in Japan because such uncompromising character specialists were already the norm, in this land where players never felt the need to win with top-tier characters, but were free to use characters simply because they liked them.

(On the flip side, is it possible that ducking Vega made the Japanese more vulnerable to the character than U.S. players, for whom the character’s cheapness was something everybody just had to learn to deal with? Well, considering that Tokido’s day-old Vega basically lit up all the top U.S. veterans in 2005 (and even more so in 2007), it would seem that the U.S. was no better than Japan at combating this character.)

As interactions between different regions have become more frequent over the years, with Evo especially growing into a truly international affair, these philosophical distinctions have lessened. As we saw at X-Mania USA, there are a number of Japanese players now unashamed to win with Vega. Meanwhile, in the current Street Fighter IV generation, nearly all of the top players, even outside of Japan, are nowadays character specialists, who have realized not only 1) the practical benefit of fully mastering a single character, as opposed to picking up only the rudiments of multiple top-tier characters to cover all one’s bases, but also 2) how performing on one’s own terms has value in itself, apart from the pride and prizes that come with winning it all.

But is this something that would all go away, if fighting game players were to become true professionals and not glorified hobbyists, as is the reality right now? What would the value of performing on one’s own terms be, next to that of a lucrative and exclusive contract contingent on your winning against other such professionals in high-stakes championships? If there were a million-dollar tournament for Super Street Fighter II Turbo, would everybody just say, “Screw it,” and go to Vega?

In that case, maybe we should say that the onus is on the game designers to balance their games such that there aren't blatant easy-street characters, like Vega or arguably Ultra Street Fighter IV's Yun, with no real weaknesses. But if you look at major professional sports, which now exist beyond criticisms of design, you'll observe that the highest levels are almost always defined by symmetry in play.

In professional men's tennis, for example, what are the different styles and strategies at the top of the game? Every player is a baseliner. Analysts will distinguish between offensive and defensive baseliners, but successful examples of the latter are rare. Where have all the serve-and-volleyers gone? Dead now, along with the wooden racket. Even Roger Federer, although hailed as a complete all-court player, would, when playing baseliners (i.e. everyone of his generation and the following), spend most of his time trading groundstrokes from the same distance behind the net. What, then, was the practical difference between a Federer and a Davydenko? Only that Federer was a lot better at doing all the same things.

The differences in style in fighting games are precisely what I find makes them interesting to watch. As long as two players are using different characters, their combat will necessarily be asymmetrical, and the tension is in seeing how the clashing personalities interact. On the other hand, mirror matches, like Fei Long vs. Fei Long in Street Fighter IV, for example, are often unbearable to watch. And, man, there are already a lot of Fei Long players in Ultra Street Fighter IV, which is not surprising, since he's a really strong and simple character. I would really hate to see fighting games devolve entirely into that.

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