Although Ultra Street Fighter IV was the marquee event at Evo 2014, for many U.S. competitors the more coveted title was the Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 championship. Marvel vs. Capcom has always been “America’s game,” after all, the release of Marvel vs. Capcom 2 in 2000 coinciding with the burgeoning of the FGC (fighting game community), as access to the Internet made it much easier for players across the country and beyond to discuss high-level strategy, share match videos, and organize national tournaments to settle newly formed long-distance rivalries. The greatest U.S. fighting game player of all time, Justin Wong, made his bones in Marvel vs. Capcom 2, winning 6 of 9 Evo titles in the game from 2002 to 2010, not including his breakout 2001 victory at B5 (basically, Evo before it was called “Evo”). The partiality of Evo’s home nation for Marvel action continued on into the next generation of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 tournaments. At Evo 2014, the stream of Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3’s grand final was, by a sizable margin, the most-watched moment of the entire three-day event. Ultra Street Fighter IV attracted only the third-largest audience, behind Super Smash Bros. Melee.
As Friday was Ultra Street Fighter IV’s day, so Saturday was dedicated to Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, as the tournament organizers conducted round after round of battles to whittle an initial pool of over 1,000 competitors (admittedly about 300 entrants fewer than in 2013) down to a final group of the 8 strongest, who would then slug it out for the championship on Sunday. This was a double-elimination tournament, following the same basic rules and format as Ultra Street Fighter IV (and every other official tournament at Evo). Unlike Ultra Street Fighter IV, in which matches are played best-of-3 until the top 8, at which point it becomes best-of-5, matches in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 are best-of-5 throughout, in accordance with tournament standards established by the community.
Compared to Ultra Street Fighter IV, there is both more and less excitement in the current competitive circuit for Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. On the one hand, the field is far less deep. Outside of the U.S., the only player who might possibly contend for a top 3 placing would be Japan’s Naoki “Nemo” Nemoto, who would not be in attendance at Evo 2014. Even within the U.S., there are only a small handful of elites who might have any claim to the title of “world’s best.” Between those few, however, the competition has been far more consistently heated than that in probably any other fighting game.
The clear top 3 players, over the last two years, have been New York’s Christopher “NYChrisG” Gonzalez (recently relocated to SoCal but still, for the moment, representing the East Coast), NorCal’s Ryan “Filipino Champ” Ramirez, and SoCal’s Justin Wong, generally in that order. Evo 2013 champion Job “Flocker” Figueroa, based in Florida, probably belongs in that same category, although his precise ranking is harder to place, because he doesn’t as often travel to meet the others in tournaments. Any match not involving one of these four giants of the game would be basically inconsequential to the final outcome of Evo 2014, and, as they would obviously be seeded apart from one another, the early rounds would offer little in the way of drama. There might still be other very special players, of course—users of rarely seen characters, not in it to win it, but ready to entertain on the grandest stage and before the biggest audience they would ever reach—but, unless you were especially keen to see what a tournament-level Captain America or Phoenix Wright looked like, you could safely skip watching the qualifying pools without missing out on anything.
The quarterfinal and semifinal stages were where upsets might happen, as the “big four,” although still overwhelmingly the favorites, began to be matched up against other known players. Definitely the quarterfinal match of interest was that between Chris G and Martin “Marn” Phan.
Marn was, once upon a time, one of the FGC’s most beastly players and personalities—Evo’s first and only Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars champion back in 2010, and also a great Guilty Gear XX player. He was one of the first Zero players when Marvel vs. Capcom 3 landed. Well before that character became recognized as one of the cheapest and most popular picks in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Marn was the original Zero, having used the morally ambiguous Maverick Hunter to dominate in Tatsunoko vs. Capcom. Then Marn turned his focus instead to League of Legends, before taking an extended break from competitive gaming entirely and even leaving the country for personal reasons. He returned to the FGC just in time for Evo 2014, where his uncertain ranking left him a dangerous floater, landing in Chris G’s quarter of the draw.
Obviously, Chris G remained the safe bet, as indeed he would have been, no matter the opponent, with his masterful Morrigan/Doctor Doom team posing a problem to which the entire rest of the field held no solutions. But Marn was no stranger to the role of spoiler; he once knocked Daigo out of a major in Super Street Fighter IV. Here, at Evo 2014, even under the weather, he showed that he was not intimidated by the no. 1 seed.
(Video uploaded by ChiTownEnuff.)
However much respect you had for Marn’s game, you had to admit that this was a stunning upset, as Chris G was sent to the losers bracket early. And, most impressively, even in the games Marn lost, he was still hanging tough with Chris G. This was not just a case of the Zero player getting lucky the right amount of times to steal three games in five, as can happen when you use the most explosive character in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3.
So, for the second year in a row, Chris G found himself in the losers bracket early at Evo. This certainly made things more interesting. Chris G was still the favorite, and the entire losers bracket instantly became “the Chris G bracket” upon his arrival there, making it even more forbidding than usual. But those still progressing through the winners bracket could cling to the hope that maybe, just maybe, someone in losers would take out Chris G for them, or that the sheer number of opponents he would have to face on his now much longer road to the championship would wear him out.
On to the semifinals, the most anticipated match was that between Filipino Champ and Vineeth “ApologyMan” Meka. ApologyMan was the dark horse of the tournament, the one guy outside of the big four who maybe had a shot at taking Evo 2014. In a game full of cheap characters and teams (“Zero May Cry” (Zero/Dante/Vergil), “MorriDoom” (Morrigan/Doctor Doom), “Team Nemo” (Nova/Spencer/Doctor Strange)), ApologyMan has engineered the most blatantly unfair strategy yet. His point character, Firebrand, is a better-than-average point character, who, like many in the game, can pretty quickly KO a full-health character in just a combo or two, given the right resources. But it’s what happens after Firebrand gets that first KO that makes ApologyMan’s team so unfair.
Firebrand has a special move, Demon Missile, that, when charged up, cannot be blocked; the opponent has to clear out of its way or get hit. After your point character is KO’d, however, you have only limited control over how your on-deck character enters the fray. During that moment of vulnerability is when Firebrand must strike with Demon Missile. The trick is to summon one of Firebrand’s teammates to attack right as the opponent’s next character drops in. The right assist will cover the screen in such a way that the incoming character will have no choice but to block, which, with Firebrand ready to fire off a fully charged Demon Missile, is actually not an option at all! On ApologyMan’s team, with Super Skrull’s assist backing Firebrand up, he can set up the unblockable to be virtually inescapable for the opponent’s incoming character. And, with Doctor Doom and some Hyper Combo Gauge, he has an unblockable setup that is entirely inescapable. Zero is feared for the ease with which he can KO any character of any health off just about any hit anywhere, after which the opponent’s remaining characters are each only one wrong guess away from being taken out as well. But ApologyMan’s team can potentially wipe out your entire team off one hit! And you don’t even get to guess with your back two characters—the hits are guaranteed, doesn’t matter what your name is!
The only thing that has kept ApologyMan from completely breaking the Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 competitive circuit is that Firebrand still has to work to get that first KO. Until then, there are other point characters that outclass him, and if Firebrand falls, the entire game plan is shot, because ApologyMan’s strategy is so dependent on the perfect synergy of his three characters.
Nevertheless, ApologyMan had seemed in dominating form this Evo Saturday, at one point delivering an unheard of triple-perfect against an early-round opponent. Even Filipino Champ might have had reason to be wary. ApologyMan had earlier this year defeated him in the grand final of SoCal Regionals. As it turned out, Filipino Champ, ever the shrewd gamer, had something special ready just for this rematch.
The Evo 2012 champion has two main teams that he is known for: his endgame-dominating classic team, Magneto/Doctor Doom/Phoenix, and his anti-Chris G zoning team, Magneto/Dormammu/Doctor Doom. It’s fair to say that Filipino Champ is the best in the world at using each of the four characters on those teams. But, against ApologyMan, Champ called an audible, pulling out a Morrigan/Magneto/Doctor Doom team. In the Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 tournament scene, Morrigan is, of course, associated with Chris G, in whose hands the Morrigan/Doctor Doom combination is fully realized as absolutely the strongest in the game. In less skilled hands, MorriDoom is merely a good team, not to be unusually feared or respected next to other good teams. With all due respect to Filipino Champ, all other hands are “less skilled hands” when it comes to playing MorriDoom. But maybe Filipino Champ had a read on ApologyMan that nobody else did. Both players hailed from NorCal, after all, so they were no strangers to each other’s games.
Their match more than lived up to the hype, going all the way to a deciding game 5, and with some heart-stopping moments and also amazing comebacks on both sides. The fourth game in particular may have been the most incredible I’ve ever seen. That ending!
The rest of Saturday went according to predictions. Filipino Champ, Justin Wong, and Flocker all qualified into the top 8 through the winners bracket, while Chris G persevered in the losers.
Kicking things off on Sunday was a rematch of last year’s grand final between Justin Wong and Flocker. In fact, it was at this exact round of 8 last year that Justin and Flocker first faced off in the winners bracket. A year ago, Flocker won convincingly, sending Justin to the losers bracket, where Justin then began to crawl his way back with a remarkable run that included an unforgettable victory over Chris G, before Flocker himself brought an end to the “Cinderella story” in the grand finals.
In the year since that disappointing ending, Justin had shown himself to be hungrier than he had been in years, as, tournament after tournament, he barely dropped even a game to anyone other than Chris G or Filipino Champ. His Wolverine proved definitely the best there is—super aggressive and able to shred any foe in seconds. And Justin’s slippery Storm, not the deadliest character in the game, but still as annoying at keep-away as Justin’s was in Marvel vs. Capcom 2, allowed him to hang in there with the zoning play of giants Chris G and Filipino Champ.
Flocker, meanwhile, had made the call to bench Hawkeye, his signature anchor from a year ago. Feared for his Zero, the best in the world, he was now running the popular “Zero May Cry” team against Justin, banking on Dante’s tricky assist to further enhance his Zero mix-ups against an opponent who had gotten the best of him in their most recent encounter at CEO 2014.
To see Flocker so losing confidence in his Evo 2013 championship team was worrying, but, for all who had followed Justin’s miraculous run last year through to its bitter ending, maybe this would be a moment of redemption.
On Filipino Champ’s side of the draw, Jan-Michael del Rio was trying to challenge the Evo 2012 champion with a team of Hulk/Shuma-Gorath/Haggar.
Although this is a game where almost any character can, with the right resources, realistically mount even a 1-on-3 comeback, still Jan’s team of oversized brutes was clearly outclassed against a player of Filipino Champ’s caliber. It was not a beautiful or exciting match. It became amusing, however, when Filipino Champ decided to wantonly antagonize every person watching by playing the match as lamely as possible, even when he already had Jan beat. When Jan’s team was down to just Haggar with a full 40 seconds left (game seconds, at that, which are actually longer than real seconds), Champ decided, rather than put the former pro wrestler-turned-mayor of Metro City out of his misery, to instead spam Magneto’s Repulsion technique to continually push Haggar backward, knowing that there was absolutely nothing the slow-footed, short-ranged brawler could do about it. It was a total dick move, but the fact that one of the three best players in the world would pull this on the Evo finals stage is exactly what makes the competition for Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 more entertaining than for Ultra Street Fighter IV. The top players are not just technical machines, but are out to elicit emotional reactions with their play, even if it be white hot rage from the opponent and all spectators. They are not “having a conversation” as they duel, but they are out to make statements.
The next anticipated match was a knockout bout between Chris G and Marn. Yes, that’s right—after delivering the upset of the day on Saturday by sending Chris G to the losers bracket, now Marn found that it was back to him to try to finish the job he had started. Cruel is destiny, to demand that Marn beat all odds and do the impossible... and then give a repeat performance the next day! But perhaps this is how it should be. Let there be no ambiguity, no excuses.
For Chris G, all he had last year were excuses, after Evo 2013 ended and he didn’t have the trophy. He griped that the Evo organizers had foolishly run the tournament on the laggy PS3 version of Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. And he played down his failure to live up to expectations by saying that Evo wasn’t really that big a deal—he would still win every other tournament and be paid just as well (or poorly, rather). But, whatever his true feelings on the matter, the fact is that Evo is the big one, and once more anything less than total victory would be construed as a failure to live up to everyone’s expectations. Was this now Chris G’s opportunity for redemption? To prove that, though others might get the occasional fluke victory over him, when the dust settled, he was the real deal? Or was Chris G, in fact, cursed to underperform at Evo?
Chris G’s victory over Marn positioned him to take on Flocker in an elimination match between the no.1 seed and the defending champion.
Flocker had managed to avoid running into Chris G on his way to the championship last year, but when he was later invited to take on Chris G at Capcom Cup (which Chris G had just won), it did not go well for the Zero master. As in the match with Justin, Flocker would try for a different result this time by swapping out his Zero/Vergil/Hawkeye team for the more conventional “Zero May Cry” combination of Zero/Dante/Vergil.
The match was a slaughter, and a great showcase for Chris G’s MorriDoom. Like so many of the teams regarded as top tier (Zero/Dante, Team Nemo, ApologyMan’s team), Chris G’s team is designed to turn Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 into a single-player game, controlling the action to such a degree that the opponent is not even allowed a chance to play. In Chris G’s hand, MorriDoom manages this better than any other team, as Morrigan crowds the screen with four projectiles at a time coming from both sides to pin the opponent down, while the Doctor Doom assist rains down missiles to further cut off angles of approach (or escape, for that matter), or else save Morrigan by interrupting opponents’ offenses any time they do manage to catch her through the bullet hell of projectiles. He doesn't even need to land a clean hit on you, as, indeed, you'll die just as quickly blocking against this team.
A few more quick matches to dismiss the remaining non-contenders, at last it was down to the final 3, and it was exactly the big names everybody expected, no deviations from script as in Ultra Street Fighter IV. From here on, every match was a classic.
First up was Justin Wong vs. Filipino Champ in the winners final, with Chris G waiting in the wings to take on the loser. Filipino Champ ran his A-team of Magneto/Doctor Doom/Phoenix.
We didn’t really get to see the power of this team when Filipino Champ fought Jan, because he was so dominant with just Magneto and Doctor Doom that he never needed to call upon Dark Phoenix. Dark Phoenix was anchor to the most powerful teams in the original Marvel vs. Capcom 3, but the character is not as en vogue these days. Filipino Champ makes this team work better than anybody else, but even he has had to develop alternate teams for when it can’t get the job done. Against Justin Wong in the winners final, however, Filipino Champ was determined to bet everything on his Phoenix team.
The idea behind the team is that Phoenix, if she is KO’d while stocked with a maxed-out Hyper Combo Gauge, will resurrect as Dark Phoenix, a superlative anchor easily capable of sweeping entire teams by herself. It takes time to build that much meter, however, and the first two characters on the team are basically hamstrung by having to fight without spending any of it themselves. Picking Phoenix means committing the entire team to a strategy of saving all resources just to try to get Dark Phoenix, on the belief that getting her will be worth it, which it usually is, since there are very few answers to her once she’s in play. And, in Filipino Champ’s case, he is actually capable, with his unparalleled movement and patient long-range game, of playing effectively and even winning matches with just meterless Magneto/Doctor Doom, so he’s not entirely reliant on getting Dark Phoenix. The simple threat of Dark Phoenix looming in the back forces the opponent to play differently, which is sometimes edge enough for Filipino Champ.
For the player facing a Phoenix team, the objective is to never let her get to a full five stocks of Hyper Combo Gauge. You can either try to blow out the opponent before they can accumulate the stocks, or if that seems impractical, you perform a “Snapback Attack” on one of the first two members of the opposing team, which will force Phoenix onto the field as point character, so that you can try to take her out while she still has fewer than five stocks. A third strategy is to just take out the first two characters, then try to hold the lead against Phoenix until time runs out, never actually KO’ing her. That approach has been rejected by most players, as even regular Phoenix, although exceedingly fragile, has some of the best tools in the game to punish a passive opponent.
For Justin Wong, clearly victory would depend on him being able to successfully apply the second strategy, as the last thing he would want would be to have to face Dark Phoenix with his own anchor, Akuma—not truly an anchor at all, but a character Justin includes on his team primarily for his usefulness as an assist. Not that Justin hadn’t staged some incredible late-game heroics with his Akuma in the past, including in last year’s match against Chris G. But what about this year against Filipino Champ? Well… you’ll just have to see for yourself.
In the losers final, it was now Filipino Champ against Chris G. Out of all players in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Filipino Champ is the one guy who has shown himself consistently able to fight on a near-even level against Chris G’s MorriDoom. Against Chris G, Filipino Champ typically runs a team of Magneto/Dormammu/Doctor Doom, trading Dark Phoenix’s anchor power for Dormammu’s ability to press Morrigan at range. Truly, this is the only matchup where Chris G’s MorriDoom seems remotely fair, as Filipino Champ routinely goes the distance, trading shot for shot, and even sometimes managing to make it look like a fight in Dormammu’s favor. At Evo 2014, the two titans of Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 would go the distance once more.
So many times Filipino Champ would seem actually in control of a game, with victory well within reach, yet, as has happened to him before against Chris G, it would be input errors, of all things, to cost him critical points. And so our grand finalists, after two all-out wars already in the top 3, were Justin Wong and Chris G.
This was, of course, the way it needed to be. Not only was it fitting that each of the top 3 players in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 would have to face both of the others, but if Filipino Champ had defeated Chris G and then lost to Justin Wong, again we would have to hear about how the Evo champion, like Flocker last year, had been lucky not to have to go through Chris G. No, it just had to be Justin Wong vs. Chris G, both with a lot to prove. For Chris, it was time to prove, once and for all, no excuses about laggy PS3s this year, that he was indisputably the best player on the biggest stage. For Justin, he was only one match away from the trophy that was so cruelly denied him last year, and that everyone watching was so desperately pulling for him to get, only of course it would be meaningless if he didn't earn it.
Despite Justin’s amazing victory over Chris G last year, their rivalry since then had continued to be fairly one-sided in Chris’s favor. This time, however, Justin prepared something special just for Chris G. Switching around the order of his team, he played Storm as his point character instead of Wolverine. This meant forgoing the opening move of blitzing Morrigan with Wolverine before she could get set up with her projectiles, but maybe Storm’s mobility would prove more key. In any case, Justin also had the tremendous advantage, courtesy of Marn, of being able to play from the winners side against Chris G in the losers side, giving Justin another full set to play with, in case this gambit didn't pay off.
In the end, Justin didn’t even need the second set, seeming in nearly full control as he took it 3-1 to thunderous applause. Chris G, Evo trophy or no, is the world's greatest Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 player nearly every other day of the year. Nobody truly doubts that. But this day belonged to Justin Wong. And, rather than his victory redeeming his falling just short last year, one almost feels that this was the perfect ending that was always meant to be, only the story was much longer, and finally more fulfilling, than anybody knew. It was Justin’s heroics in defeat last year that set the stage for this year’s hard-earned and well-deserved victory.