Monday, July 14, 2014

Evo 2014 - Ultra Street Fighter IV

Ultra Street Fighter IV Poster

That time of year again, this past weekend was Evo 2014, the biggest fighting game tournament in the world. The marquee game was still Street Figher IV, though this year it would be Ultra Street Fighter IV, the first new edition since 2012.

After five years of some version of Street Fighter IV already at Evo, I wasn’t sure if there was anything more that competitors could show, even with it being a new edition. And, over the last two years, there had been no clear “player to beat” at the top of the game, which meant no real narrative to fulfill heading into Evo. Maybe the competitors themselves were, by this point, too bored of the game to even feel motivated to play their best.

Whatever my expectations (and I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect), by the time the tournament concluded on Sunday, Evo 2014 had completely defied and, for the most part, exceeded them. Whether revitalized by the release of Ultra Street Fighter IV, or just deepened by the accumulated years, the competition proved, in fact, fiercer than ever before.

Here, I will recap, to the best of my recollection, not only Evo 2014, but the entire Street Fighter IV tournament season leading up to it.

The Largest Fighting Game Tournament in History

The tournament kicked off Friday morning, when a record-breaking approximately 2,000 competitors were divided up into 125 qualifying pools—essentially, 16-man brackets unto themselves—where the top two placers would progress to the quarterfinal round of 256—one through the winners side, one through the losers side.

Like most major fighting game tournaments, Evo runs on a double-elimination format, meaning that each player has two losses to give before they are eliminated from the tournament. Every player begins in the winners bracket. Then, upon suffering their first loss, they move to the losers bracket, where they still have a chance. Eventually, all but potentially one player must end up in the losers bracket, but it is to a player’s advantage to try to remain in the winners bracket as long as they can, because 1) every fight in the losers bracket is a tense elimination match, and 2) the earlier you get sent to the losers bracket, the longer your road to the championship, because now you have to eliminate the other losers as they get sent down from the winners side (meanwhile, there's no way to move from the losers side back to the winners). A player who never loses could win the championship having played only 12 matches, whereas a player who lost their first match in pools would have to win their next 21 in order to take it all.

To ensure the fairest and most accurate results, players are distributed across pools according to rank, reputation, region, and finally randomly. The system is not without a bit of controversy, as there is no unified world tour of Street Fighter, and thus no “official” rankings. For Evo 2014, the top 8 seeds were determined by standings on the Capcom Pro Tour, which were definitely skewed toward players in the U.S., which had been host to the largest number of events on the tour. Other known competitors were also “seeded” (though not given numbers), and the Evo organizers additionally posted the brackets online a few days before the tournament to solicit public feedback. Overall, there was not too much outcry over the draws, and the pools proceeded mostly uneventfully, with the “name” players winning their pools as expected in nearly every case.

The only notable oversight in the bracketing set up surely the featured match of the morning: Kevin “Dieminion” Landon, long regarded as the East Coast’s top player in the Street Fighter IV series, as well as probably the greatest Guile specialist in the world, versus Zhuojun “XiaoHai” Zeng, China’s most famous player, whose Cammy had recently gone undefeated in a Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012 invitational against Japan’s best players. Both players were expected to qualify out of their pool, but it was unfortunate that one of them would have to do so through the losers bracket this early.

(Video uploaded by StreetFighterCentral.)

For spectators, the pools are more typically equivalent to early heats in Olympic track or swimming events. Contenders and players of interest show off their skills and generate hype for themselves by pounding the hell out of hapless no-names. An early such highlight was Koji KOG’s first match on stream.

“Hidden Masters”

It has long been accepted that the best Street Fighter players in the world are in Japan, with the cream of the crop competing in the Topanga League and receiving sponsorships to pay for them to travel and dominate in international tournaments. For a few years now, stream viewers have been treated to seeing Japanese greats, such as the Mad Catz trio of Daigo, Tokido, and Mago, exhibit their prowess against the rest of the world’s best on broadcasts. But, of course, there are numerous lesser-known Japanese players, who aren’t able to secure sponsors to cover their expenses for trips outside their home country.

In a very cool move, Twitch, provider of the main platform for video game streams but not generally a content-producer itself, decided to spice things up for fighting game spectators by paying to fly out to U.S. tournaments several of these Japanese players that fans had maybe heard of but never seen in action.

It began with SoCal Regionals in March, when Twitch brought over Wao and Michael-tan, the two major Topanga League players who had never competed in the U.S. The move was a great success, as viewers were able to witness Wao’s fabled Oni squaring off against Evo 2012 champion Infiltration (South Korean, but a player who had made his bones primarily in U.S. tournaments, and whose legitimacy was consequently joined to that of the U.S. competitive scene).

Infiltration vs. Wao in SCR 2014 Losers Final

(Video uploaded by TokidoBlog.)

From there, Twitch would have to dig a little deeper, however, in its hunt for Japanese players that viewers hadn’t seen before. For the annual Community Effort Orlando (CEO) tournament in June, Twitch scouted outside the Topanga League and found three somewhat more obscure players who had had some success in Japanese arcades. This time, the results were embarrassing, as all three Japanese guests were handily defeated by U.S. players, thus seemingly bringing an end to the “hidden masters” idea—the belief that Japan was so densely populated with killer Street Fighter players that even a complete unknown from over there could materialize out of the mists and wordlessly dispatch our most famous national champions. But, even before that result, Twitch had already committed to flying over another three lesser-known Japanese players to compete under its banner at Evo 2014.

Among them was Koji Kazuyoki (AKA “Koji KOG”). Koji KOG is not a Topanga League player. What notoriety he has owes to his being a specialist with T. Hawk, traditionally regarded as the most hopeless character in any Street Fighter game to include him. It is a notion that perseveres more by custom than by actual reasoned analysis (years after Super Street Fighter II Turbo was retired from the Evo lineup, new T. Hawk tricks were discovered that catapulted the character to near the top of the tiers in that game), but the flying grappler had indeed been miserable throughout the Street Fighter IV series, to the extent that, any time Capcom would poll the public on how to improve the game’s balance, some Twitter troll or another would immediately respond with the meme “Just give T. Hawk a gun.”

At last, with Ultra Street Fighter IV, Capcom did not give T. Hawk the gun, but it improved his speed and mobility, and word out of Japan was that this was a character now to be feared, albeit tournament results had yet to bear out such speculation. On the most-hyped fighting game stream of the year, would Koji KOG be the player to finally show all the Twitch watchers at home what T. Hawk was really capable of? Or would a quick exit at Evo be the final nail in the coffin, both for the “hidden masters” idea, and for any fancy that T. Hawk might ever be viable in serious Street Fighter IV competition?

(Video uploaded by ProudSausage.)

Quarterfinals, Hereafter to be Remembered as “The Bloodiest Stage in Evo History”

After hours of bouts to whittle down 2,000 entrants to an exclusive 256 (that includes a few byes, if you’re trying to work out the math), the real tournament was set to begin. Somewhat unusually, especially for a tournament of its size, Evo traditionally runs through pools, quarterfinals, and semifinals all in a single day, afterward granting the top 8 competitors a full day off from Street Fighter IV, before rounding them up again for the finals on Sunday. For the 256 players still in it at this quarterfinal stage, however, the end to the longest Friday in their competitive experience was still a long way off.

The quarterfinals at Evo are when the grandmasters are expected to pull away from the merely excellent. Or, alternatively, this is when a back-home favorite needs to make a name for himself and prove that he is not merely a big fish in a small pond, but someone who can hang with the true world warriors. If an upset is going to happen, this is the time.

This being the first Evo held on Ultra Street Fighter IV, and taking place only a month after the game’s release, the playing field was perhaps more level than it had been in a long time, as even former champions were having to adjust to new mechanics and balance changes. It was hard to declare a favorite going into Evo, but 2012 champion Infiltration was looking very strong indeed, having won CEO, the last pre-Evo major, where he trounced Japan’s Yusuke Momochi, who himself had just a week prior won a stacked tournament attended by nearly every top player in Asia except Infiltration.

Momochi vs. Infiltration in CEO 2014 Grand Finals

Another competitor to watch was Ryota “Kazunoko” Inoue, a Japanese Topanga League player. A great many players took up Yun in Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition, when that character was absolutely dominant, but Kazunoko was the only one who stuck with Yun even after the character was nerfed in Arcade Edition Ver. 2012. He subsequently became known as THE Yun player, and his loyalty was seemingly rewarded when Yun quickly emerged as once again the strongest in Ultra Street Fighter IV. Thus, as the preeminent user of the game’s most powerful character, Kazunoko had to be regarded as one of the heavy favorites in any tournament he entered.

Daigo Umehara, the most legendary fighting game player of all time, must always be weighed as a favorite simply because he’s Daigo. But he had cut back on his tournament schedule over the past two years, making very few appearances outside Japan, leading some to question his conditioning. He did prevail with his Ryu in the Topanga World League invitational in Ver. 2012. Then, after switching to Evil Ryu in Ultra Street Fighter IV, he quickly established himself as the no. 1-ranked player in Japanese arcades. But, with only his regular arcade routine as practice, how would he hold up in a high-pressure double-elimination tournament as big as Evo?

On the U.S. side, a player not truly expected to win, but one to keep an eye on nevertheless, was Bryant “Smug” Huggins. Smug was the most exciting up-and-comer to emerge since last year’s Evo. Although he had had relatively few battles so far against California’s top players, let alone international powerhouses, Smug had made a name for himself as one of the best in New York, as he regularly thrilled viewers with his performances on the weekly stream of Next Level Battle Circuit, one of only two nationally recognized weekly arcade tournaments still running for Street Fighter IV in the U.S. (the other being Wednesday Night Fights in Southern California). He is a specialist with Dudley, a rarely seen character that was widely considered among the weakest, until Smug started winning with him. Smug’s strong performances against two Japanese players at CEO this year were surely the highlight of that tournament, and gave the impression that, even in Japan, there are no Dudleys of Smug’s level.

Smug vs. Nishikin in CEO 2014 Top 32

Momochi vs. Smug in CEO 2014 Top 16

The Evo 2014 quarterfinals stage began happily enough, as Koji KOG and American Putthivath “XsK Samurai” Chea kicked off the broadcast with an entertaining match that, even if none of Twitch’s Japanese guests achieved anything else on stream, would alone have justified bringing them to Evo.

Alas, things quickly unraveled from there, and none of the favorites quite lived up to expectations, as the bloodiest day at Evo 2014 saw all fantasy brackets torn to shreds, with one giant falling after another. For spectators, the worst part was that so many of these top players were eliminated off-stream. With so many rounds to get through, obviously the Evo organizers had to run multiple matches simultaneously, only directing a portion of them to the main stage (and the Twitch stream).

Thus, viewers would be watching one match—maybe not even a very exciting one—only to have the commentators relay mid-match the shocking result of a different match happening off-stream. And this kept happening all day. The commentary became almost a "stream" of notifications about stunning upsets or titanic clashes that would have been headline bouts at any other event. For example:
Veloc1raptor has defeated Infiltration.
Shinba has defeated Alioune.
Insaynne has eliminated Alioune!
Infiltration has eliminated Veloc1raptor!
Snake Eyez has defeated Tokido.
Xian has defeated Luffy.
Luffy has eliminated Tokido!
Chaotix has defeated Ryan Hart.
Kazunoko has defeated Nuki.
Pugera has defeated Kazunoko.
Ryan Hart has eliminated Nuki!
FilipinoMan has defeated PR Balrog.
XiaoHai has eliminated PR Balrog!
Yossan has eliminated XiaoHai!
Dakou has defeated Smug.
Latif has eliminated Smug!
Filipino Champ has sent Daigo to the losers bracket!

Those were all real results, by the way, none of them streamed.

In fairness to the Evo staff, they obviously had no way of knowing when a matchup was an upset in the making. That’s what makes an upset an upset—that it goes against expectations. They had to keep things running and make calls on the fly as to what sounded like potentially a good match for the stream. And they also had to be fair and feature a variety of players; they couldn’t just put every Daigo match on the main stage. On the other hand, while it was fair to overlook the first match between Infiltration and Veloc1raptor, when the two met again later, shouldn’t that have been deemed a match of note to feature on the stream—the top seed facing elimination against a guy who had already beaten him once that day?

But I’m probably naive in thinking that things are even half that organized. 2,000 players to manage just in Ultra Street Fighter IV alone, the Evo staff did the best anyone could, and I can have nothing but respect for the job they did. And, actually, one of the charming things about these community-run tournaments, Evo included, is how characteristically analog they are, that the commentators often do not have ready access to real-time brackets or official word on who’s even playing the match they’re calling. Most of the updates being relayed on off-stream matches were merely the commentators reading aloud tweets they had received from random people presumably in the building.

Thus, early on, the broadcast got trolled by the misreport that Daigo had been eliminated by an unknown player with the handle “shinakuma666.” That turned out to be a complete lie, as thankfully there was no such player. But the end really did come for Daigo not that much later. And, yes, it happened off stream.

Daigo’s first loss came at the hands of Ryan “Filipino Champ” Ramirez, one of the world’s greatest Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 players, but a guy who, although one of the better Dhalsim players in the U.S., clearly treats Street Fighter IV as a side game. But this is also a guy who actually has a history of beating Daigo with his Dhalsim zoning game, so, again, maybe this should have been recognized as a match of note and featured on stream. Oh well.

Two matches later, when Daigo was set to face Alex Valle, they made sure to put it on the main stage. These are two players whose rivalry has spanned more than fifteen years. Their 1998 match for the Street Fighter Alpha 3 world championship was essentially the beginning of international fighting game competition. Valle had stepped back from active pursuit of titles even before the first edition of Street Fighter IV, but has perhaps made the fighting game community an even bigger part of his life since. A janitor back during his prime years of competition, Valle is now the president of Level Up, his own production company for video game broadcasts, as well as the founder of Wednesday Night Fights, a weekly arcade tournament, which has produced just about every one of SoCal’s current generation of top Street Fighter IV players.

Although it’s probably generous to Valle to call him Daigo’s rival today, still anybody who knows their FGC history cannot help but get giddy any time these two meet in Evo’s marquee tournament. At Evo 2011, they faced off in the round of 32 and had a surprisingly close match in Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition. Commentator Seth Killian at the time jokingly credited Daigo’s victory partly to his “turning to the dark side,” dropping his signature Ryu in favor of Yun. At Evo 2014, the line would have been even more literally apt, as Daigo turned to Evil Ryu, while Valle stuck with normal Ryu.

(Video uploaded by TokidoBlog.)

This time, their encounter did not produce a classic. The best part of it was probably the reverent applause as the two competitors took to the stage.

So Valle was done, sent out early by the guy who, sixteen years ago, first showed him that the U.S. was not the world, and there were fighters out there stronger than he could have imagined. Little did anybody suspect that Daigo himself was living on borrowed time, with only two more matches to play, both of them off stream. And when the Beast fell, it would be to, of all people, Valle’s American rival from even further back, John Choi.

Choi is one of the very few players still in the scene who was a Street Fighter II champion in Street Fighter II’s own time. When Valle rose up as SoCal’s top player in the Street Fighter Alpha 2 days, John Choi was his NorCal rival and fiercest opponent. Ultimately, Choi’s competitive prime would actually outlast the younger Valle’s, as, in 2008, he became one of the very few players ever to win in two games at the same Evo, as well as one of the only U.S. players ever to win an Evo tournament attended by top Japanese competitors, doing so in both Capcom vs. SNK 2 and Super Street Fighter II Turbo. But most people probably didn’t even know that he played Street Fighter IV at all.

Daigo and Choi’s match, fortunately captured on handheld camera by someone in attendance, was not a classic, either. If nobody told you their names and histories, you would never guess that either of these guys were contenders. But Choi’s spacing, at least, is immaculate, in this old-school Ryu vs. Ryu matchup (even if Daigo’s is Evil Ryu). He keeps Daigo always at the optimal range, so that he can keep firing well-timed Hadoukens that Evil Ryu must block. These are the fundamentals that haven’t really changed since the Street Fighter II days, and they continue to serve Choi well, even if he doesn’t have nearly as much experience with Street Fighter IV specifically. Daigo, for his part, should also be a master of those Ryu fundamentals, but he seems frustrated and at a loss here. He comes across tentative and uncertain whether to go in and try for some of Evil Ryu’s unique tricks, or to mirror and contest Choi in a more traditional shoto vs. shoto game.

(Video uploaded by Arturo Sanchez.)

In the end, Daigo couldn’t even take a single round. In six years of competing in Street Fighter IV at Evo, it was by far Daigo’s earliest exit ever, the first time he’d ever failed to make the final 8. And, with likely no year-end Capcom Cup for him to look forward to (unless he decides to start traveling to other tournaments again to try to earn a spot), he’ll have another long year to think about this one.

It was a stunning result, though hardly the only one of the day. Nobody really knew what to make of it. Maybe Daigo’s Evil Ryu wasn’t quite ready for prime time, and he should have just stuck with Ryu. Maybe the game was just too new, and people hadn’t had enough time to adjust to the changes. (But would that really explain Daigo losing to two part-time players, one of whom even played as though this were a much older game, rather than a new one?) Some even suggested that maybe the Evo staff had screwed up somehow and set up the off-stream station with a laggy monitor. I have no explanations, but I’m also not going to make excuses, as that would discredit the many great players who did make it through to the semifinals and prove themselves worthy of their placings with magnificent performances.

Semifinals - Every Match a Main Event

The 256 players in the quarterfinals having been further cut down to an elite 32, the carnage only continued, and with still only the one stream to capture the main stage action, many big names continued to be sent home off-camera. But, at this stage in an Evo, every player is so good that no result can rightly be considered an upset. Even making it to the round of 32 is at least equivalent to winning any other major tournament.

Infiltration was immediately eliminated off-stream, in a mirror match against another Akuma, no less. In fact, it was Japan’s Hiroyuki Nagata (AKA “Eita”), one of the first great Akuma players, but someone who had lately become regarded as an overrated joke, as he kept crashing out early in every big tournament he entered. This year, at the biggest tournament of all, he would outlast both of the “major” Akuma players, Infiltration and Tokido, and all the minor ones as well.

Looking at the overall makeup of the top 32, we see also the apparent demise of Cammy as a threatening character in this edition. We already saw how the advent of Delayed Wake-up put a leash on XiaoHai’s Cammy, when he played Dieminion’s Guile in pools. XiaoHai lost that one, and then was sent home along with all the other noted Cammy players during the quarterfinals. Seth has taken the transition to Ultra Street Fighter IV even harder, going seemingly extinct at the championship level, as even great Seth players from years past, such as Benjamin “Problem X” Simon from the UK, have dropped the character in this edition.

Fei Long, on the other hand, seemed as overpowered as ever, as all three top Fei Long players—Fuudo, Mago, and Gackt—made the cut. One C. Viper player, 2011 runner-up Abdulatif Alhmili (AKA “Latif”) from Saudi Arabia, made it through. Intriguingly, one player, Hooman “HooDaMan” Ghahremani from the U.S., took Decapre all the way to the top 32. Alas, none of his matches were caught on stream, so there’s not much that can be said on that. And maybe T. Hawk really was a strong character now! There were TWO T. Hawk specialists in the top 32, as Koji KOG was joined by Hung “Hungbee” Han, a Wednesday Night Fights regular. Hiromiki Kumada (AKA “Itabashi Zangief”), Japan’s most famous Zangief player, also kept T. Hawk as an alternate.

As for Yun, the supposedly peerless new no.1 in Ultra Street Fighter IV? Sure enough, there were multiple (well, two) Yun players in the top 32—Kazunoko on the losers side, and a lesser-known Japanese player, Kenichi “Taiga” Miyamoto, on the winners side. More amazingly, however, both Japanese Yun players would fall to an Ibuki player, Yu Tobinaga (AKA “Pugera”), who had also beaten Sweden’s Simon “Popi” Gutierrez, another Yun player and one of Europe’s best, who always picks the cheapest character. So maybe the “unbeatable” power of Yun was a tad overblown, as was the transformative effect of EX Red Focus, barely employed by any other character at Evo 2014. The fact that all three Yuns were defeated by Pugera, an even more obscure Japanese player than any of the three that Twitch flew in, and who ended up going further than all of them, perhaps also lent some credence to the “hidden masters” idea.

But the most exciting semifinal match (at least, among those on stream) was surely that between defending 2013 champion Ho Kun Xian from Singapore and Darryl “Snake Eyez” Lewis from the U.S. Xian is basically the only Gen player of consequence on the competitive circuit, while Snake Eyez, himself an Evo champion (in Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix in 2010), is arguably the greatest Zangief specialist in the world (it’s between him and Itabashi Zangief), maybe the most skilled Street Fighter IV player in all of North America, only his character of choice fares so poorly in certain matchups that it's nearly impossible for him to go all the way in a big tournament without the lucky aid of a favorable bracket. These are two of the most mentally tough, most strong-willed, and most gutsy players in the world—two guys who have made an art of snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat against opponents who should have had the character matchup advantage. Sure enough, their match was a back-and-forth classic that went down to the wire and ended in unbelievable fashion.

The Final 8 - New Day, New Gods

After a long day of competition, Evo 2014 at last had its top 8 Ultra Street Fighter IV players. Nobody could have predicted this final lineup, though none of the names was individually a surprise. The ones who survived the Friday bloodbath to fight again on Sunday included four Japanese Topanga League players, two Americans who came to Evo only for Ultra Street Fighter IV, a fearsome European champion from France, and the Singaporean training partner of the guy who won it all a year ago.

When Daigo and Infiltration went out early, admittedly a lot of drama and hype went out with them. There were no storied rivalries to settle, no year-long narratives poised to culminate in these Evo 2014 finals. Smug, “Prince of New York,” was, by this point, long buried; I don't think he even had a single match on the main stage. The heavy favorites were now Japan’s Masato “Bonchan” Takahashi and Evo 2011 champion Keita “Fuudo” Ai. But the fan favorites had to be Snake Eyez and France’s Olivier “Luffy” Hay.

The only player to repeat from last year’s top 8 was Naoto Sako, one of Japan’s legendary “Five Gods of Capcom Fighting Games.” One of the big stories heading into Evo this year was that, this time, all five gods would be in attendance to compete in Ultra Street Fighter IV. Last year, four of them entered Evo, and all four made the final 8, so expectations were high to see them do even better and form the veritable Mount Olympus of Evo 2014. It was not to be, as four of them went out in the semifinals or earlier, leaving Sako the lone god still living on Sunday. Maybe Sako would be enough. He was, after all, the winner of the 2013 Capcom Cup, a prize second only to Evo, if that.

Sako became a father shortly after that Capcom Cup victory, however, and that naturally took him away from Street Fighter for a while. He was barely seen in competition between Capcom Cup and Evo 2014, and there was no indication that, like Daigo, he had been training hard at home. Vaunted for his execution—the finest in the world, he has combos named after him, not only because he discovered them, but because he may be the only guy who has performed them in live competition—he showed up at Evo 2014 looking rusty. He used an assortment of characters on Friday, playing not especially sharply with any of them, but he somehow kept coming up with wins. Having made it into the final 8 on the losers side, his first opponent would be Ricky Ortiz from the U.S.

If there were a “Five Gods of U.S. Street Fighter,” Ricky Ortiz would unquestionably be among them. The Evo 2010 runner-up, he is, along with Snake Eyez, one of the few top U.S. players who does not also compete in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Street Fighter IV is his main game and his only game. One of the top two Rufus players in the world, together with his fellow American Justin Wong, he is also maybe the most consistently high-placing U.S. player in tournaments, although his character always seems to run out of tricks and out of steam right before the finish line. Having been sent to the losers bracket by Bonchan, Ricky was a long shot to win it all. First, he would have to get past Sako.

Neither Ricky nor Sako performed at a level to intimidate the other remaining players, but the match offered a few highlights. For those rooting for a U.S. player to win, it was encouraging to see Ricky playing with such confidence and aggression, as though Sako was the one that needed to earn his respect and not the other way around, as tends to be the case in these U.S. vs. Japan bouts. At one point, Ricky even inserted a bit of showmanship that called back to 2009 (when Rufus was winning A LOT on the grand stage), thrusting his palms skyward to mimic the pose on Rufus’s round-taking “Space Opera Symphony” Ultra Combo. And the entire arena raised the roof right along with Ricky!

For Sako fans, it was nice to see him bring back Evil Ryu—the one true Evil Ryu, before the character became everybody’s new favorite in Ultra Street Fighter IV. This was the character Sako won Capcom Cup with, and he had made up his mind to bet this entire match on his Evil Ryu skills. His rust continued to show, however, and it was not until the third round of the third game that Sako was able to finally complete one of his patented high-execution extended combos. But when he finally pulled it off (check out 7:43 in the video below), it was that much sweeter, as the crowd’s oohs and aahs grew exponentially in intensity with each successive hit.

Ricky’s next opponent was Snake Eyez, who had just lost badly to Fuudo’s Fei Long. Traditionally, the Zangief vs. Rufus match had been considered to be in the Russian wrestler’s favor, but Ricky had already eliminated Japan’s legendary Itabashi Zangief on Friday to qualify for the top 8. In fact, the match had gone so poorly for Itabashi that the Japanese Zangief master even tried switching to T. Hawk, but to no avail.

There has long been this unresolved question over who the best Zangief player is—Snake Eyez or Itabashi Zangief? At the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary Tournament back in 2012, Snake Eyez survived longer than any other player not from Asia, only losing (twice) to Fuudo back then as well. Ever since, his inspiring play with a character that has, on paper, among the greatest number of unfavorably lopsided matchups against the rest of the cast has made Snake Eyez one of the most admired and respected members of the U.S. fighting game community. Anybody who saw him play a match like the one in the semifinals against Xian would quickly declare him certainly the greatest Zangief they had ever seen… only to then have to qualify it by adding that they hadn’t seen enough of Itabashi Zangief in action to compare. Both players did not tend to travel outside their home countries, so it had been an impractical question to try to settle. At Evo 2014 as well, the two would not run into each other in the brackets (not that a mirror match necessarily proves who is the greatest user of the character), but Snake Eyez had at least progressed further than Itabashi Zangief. Now, he also had a chance to outperform his Japanese counterpart by besting Ricky Ortiz, the player who had annihilated Itabashi Zangief.

Against Fuudo’s fortress-like Fei Long, Snake Eyez’s Zangief had been completely shut down, with seemingly no way to mount an offense. But, actually, if you watch a lot of high-level play involving Zangief, you’ll probably think almost every matchup looks nigh unwinnable for the grappler! The fact is, even Zangief’s favorable matchups are not easy wins. His attacks deal a ton of damage, and his Spinning Piledriver, at 2 frames, is the fastest meterless move in the game. But he’s so big and slow that it’s extraordinarily difficult for him to safely get in close to use his powerful throws. At range, Zangief simply doesn’t have moves quick enough to punish many opponents’ attacks on reaction, so a Zangief player must rely not on reactions but almost purely on reads. In my honest opinion, to attain mastery of Zangief is the highest pursuit in Street Fighter—a level beyond technique and execution, almost a state of being spiritually attuned to your opponent. Snake Eyez comes as close as any player I’ve seen to consistently achieving that zone. Always it seems impossible for Zangief to get in, but Snake Eyez holds steady and finds the moment.

Now, I didn’t see Itabashi Zangief play any matches other than his loss to Ricky, so I really can’t fairly compare him to Snake Eyez. The guy did eliminate Xian off-stream (as well as Bryan “Yeb” Wayne, the original Gen player from 2009!), so he’s unquestionably a world-class heavyweight. Still, I’ll call it anyway: Snake Eyez is the best.

On the other side of the draw, Luffy was making his run through the losers bracket. Having already won several European tournaments, Luffy first came to many stream viewers’ attention with his memorable Evo 2013 semifinals match against Xian. As commentator James Chen described, it was a meeting of “two supreme character specialists.” Like Xian, Luffy is not only the foremost but just about the sole practitioner of his character competing at the international level. A Rose specialist, he is not a mere novelty act but a serious contender with his mid-tier character, arguably the strongest player in all of Europe. There are a few other guys—Ryan Hart and Problem X from the UK, Alioune Camara and possibly Valentin “Valmaster” Petit from France—who can fight on a level with him, but, among European players—indeed, probably out of any player not from Asia—Luffy has the best record against the Asian masters, having convincingly beaten Kenryo “Mago” Hayashi’s Fei Long on multiple occasions.

And Luffy would have to do it again at Evo 2014. After an off-stream rematch with Xian that ended with Luffy being sent to the losers bracket in the quarterfinals, the French player commenced a remarkable run into and through the semifinals that included no fewer than five straight elimination matches against Japanese players—not only Mago, but also Tokido, Misse, Eita, and Pugera.

None of Luffy’s victories could truly be called upsets. Although he rarely competes outside his home continent, his Rose play has made him a favorite among viewers of the European streams, who will attest that Luffy is one of the toughest, most confident competitors anywhere in the world, who enters every match, no matter the opponent, with at least even odds. Only a disappointing 13th-place finish at Dreamhack Summer in June—Luffy’s first major in Ultra Street Fighter IV, and his last before Evo 2014—where he lost to Problem X and Sweden’s Simon “Ixion” Bellmyr, the premiere Dan(!) specialist in the world, left some questions as to Luffy’s readiness to contend in the new game. A top 8 finish at Evo quickly dispelled any doubts, but, to go even further, he would have to begin by taking out one more Japanese master.

Luffy’s first opponent in the top 8 would be Momochi, a Topanga League player, who had just recently won South East Asia Major 2014, the most stacked of the pre-Evo tournaments. Momochi is not the most decorated of the Japanese players—somewhat like Ricky Ortiz, his cross-Pacific teammate with whom he shares a sponsor, he had had a reputation for always petering out toward the end of a tournament—but he has been a consistent presence at international majors for years. He is the cleanest player out there, whose immaculate Ken almost never sticks out an attack that fails to make contact with his opponent’s character. If there were any way to track this statistic, I’m willing to bet that Momochi, when playing Ken, would average the fewest button presses per round of any top player. And he may be the only other player alive, besides Sako, to be recognized as the best in the world with each of TWO signature characters in Street Fighter IV. He was both THE Ken and THE Cody in Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012. In addition to those two, Momochi also dabbled with Juri and Decapre in recent Ultra Street Fighter IV tournaments. Knowing that his primary character, Ken, never a great power in Street Fighter IV, would be at a disadvantage against Luffy’s Rose, Momochi went to Juri right off.

Juri was, along with Hakan, one of the last truly “new” characters (i.e. not a clone, not a transplant) added to Street Fighter IV, and the community still has only a limited grasp of how she operates at high levels. So it was nice to see this character shown off in the top 8 at Evo. But Momochi’s decision to go with Juri, his secondary (some would even say, tertiary) character at this stage, also perhaps illustrates a lesson about the difference between a pure character specialist and a multi-character versatilist. Momochi didn’t have confidence in his main, Ken, to take on Luffy’s Rose, and so he pulled Juri out of his pocket to get a more favorable matchup. But, even if Juri is better against Rose, Momochi is only playing maybe a “75 percent” Juri. At the highest level of competition, it simply isn’t feasible for a player to dedicate enough training to develop a backup character to mastery. Against Luffy, who is at all times a complete 100 percent Rose, a 75 percent anything isn’t going to cut it.

After quickly falling two games behind, Momochi gave up on that strategy, and fans were able to see that polished Ken on the Evo main stage. He kept it close for a few rounds, but then we also saw how Rose can control that match. Of note was Luffy’s application of the Soul Satellite, which generates two spheres that orbit Rose for a short period of time. Unlike other Ultra Combos, this move is not principally employed to deal damage, but it completely halts the opponent’s offensive momentum. There is no safe approach while Rose has the spheres around her; you just have to retreat or try to block. And so we see, when Luffy has his back to the wall, he simply activates Ultra and can walk Momochi all the way to the opposite end of the stage.

Luffy’s next opponent was Ghim Kee “Gackt” Eng, a Fei Long player from Singapore. Gackt was perhaps the least known of the players in the final 8. He doesn’t attend many events outside of Asia, and he mains the same character as two of Japan’s biggest names, Fuudo and Mago. Being the third most-famous user of a character that is already among the most common and easiest to use, Gackt maybe hasn’t always gotten the credit he deserves. But he also qualified for the Capcom Cup last year, beating out such heavyweights as Infiltration and GamerBee to earn that spot. A top 8 finish at Evo to follow that up, with a run that included victories over Capcom Cup champion Sako and rival Fei Long Mago, proved that he was someone to be taken seriously as among the world’s best. And he also just so happened to be the training partner of Evo 2013 champion Xian. Singapore may be a small country, but one does not become as good as Xian by playing in a vacuum. If Gackt was Xian’s crucible, and Xian Gackt’s, then Luffy was in for a fight.

Luffy brought his incredible win record against Mago into this match, as well as years of experience against French Fei Long players, but Gackt does play a bit of an unorthodox Fei Long—less lame, more aggressive. This was perhaps highlighted in the craziest play of the match, when Luffy activated Rose’s Soul Satellite in the third game (5:26 in the video below). As discussed before, there’s not a lot that Rose’s opponent can do once she activates the orbs, except to assume a defensive posture and wait it out. After seeing how that had worked out in Luffy’s favor a few times already, Gackt decided instead to challenge it with a flying Rekkukyaku kick (AKA “the chicken wing”)—a miserable failure, as he launched himself right into the orbs, but still you had to respect the mad abandon of it on some level.

With only four competitors now left, it was time for Luffy to face off against Snake Eyez in the losers bracket. This was a battle between two of the most respected and fan-favorite players in the world, as well as arguably the two underdogs, with Bonchan and Fuudo still waiting in the winners bracket. Luffy and Snake Eyez are also, coincidentally(?), two players who do not play on joysticks. Snake Eyez uses a Mad Catz FightPad, while Luffy favors a pre-DualShock PS1(!) controller.

Unlike Snake Eyez’s previous opponents, Luffy was not quite as content to play the defensive turtle game and use the clock to his advantage against the sometimes too patient American. Instead, Luffy would often take the fight right to the world’s greatest Zangief, making effective use of Rose’s Super Combo—one of the few that sees regular use in Street Fighter IV, as most characters do better spending their Super Combo meter on less-costly EX techniques—and even switching out Rose’s Ultra II, Soul Satellite, in favor of her Ultra I, Illusion Spark, as a high-damage punish to close out a round. Luffy’s aggressive play loosened Snake Eyez up to play more in kind, however, delighting the crowd with offensive flourishes that showed exactly why previous opponents had approached the Zangief matchup with such caution. It still looked like a very difficult fight for Zangief, but Snake Eyez and Luffy exchanged rounds and games, finally taking it to a decisive third round of the fifth game—the most tightly contested match in the final 8.

Back to the winners bracket, out of an initial pool of 2,000, the only two players yet to give up a loss, and now set to square off for a spot in the grand finals of Evo 2014, were both Topanga League players from Japan.

Bonchan, the only unsponsored player in the top 8, is the greatest Sagat player in Japan and in the world. He started to peak right as Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012 was winding down, becoming champion of the elite Topanga A League. Many who had faced him agreed that he was the best player in the world, although even he had to admit that it was going to be a challenge for him to win in Ultra Street Fighter IV, with its nerfs to Sagat’s fireball game.

His opponent, Fuudo, was the Evo 2011 champion. Out of all the many Fei Longs in the world, Fuudo’s is considered the strongest—the most perfect realization of the character’s on-paper supremacy. Backed by Fuudo’s reflexes, considered to be the fastest in all of Japan, this character is the ultimate spirit-sapping brick wall.

Here at Evo, in the winners final at the biggest tournament of the year, it was like just another day at the office for these two.

Once Luffy defeated Snake Eyez, I imagine everyone watching (except for maybe the Japanese) had to be backing the Frenchman the rest of the way, as he now needed to beat both Fuudo and Bonchan in order to win it all. As much as the Japanese greats deserve our admiration, the least hype outcome possible would have been to have an all-Japanese grand final, with the same two guys again going to work like it was another day at the office. In the losers final, everyone had to be rooting for Luffy to beat Fuudo, if only in order to prevent that dull rematch. Luckily for spectators, beating yet another Fei Long master at Evo was no sweat for Luffy.

That victory set up a grand final between Luffy, coming from the losers side, and Bonchan, still undefeated on the winners side. In this double-elimination tournament, that meant that Luffy would actually have to win two sets against Bonchan—the first to “reset the bracket” by sending Bonchan down to the losers side, the second to take the crown. As regular viewers of fighting game tournaments will attest, it is exceedingly difficult to win coming from the losers side, because the player on the winners side at this point has an entire extra set just to play around with. They can play more loose, maybe even hold back and experiment a bit, and then adjust their tactics in the second set, if need be, having already had several games to develop a read on their opponent.

But if anybody was up to the task of climbing that mountain, Luffy was that guy. He had already spent all of Sunday and much of Friday facing elimination in the losers bracket. He had beaten seven Japanese players just to make it this far—maybe the hardest path a player had ever taken through Evo—and he had done so convincingly. What was one more to him at this stage?

For all his experience playing in the strongest region in the world for Street Fighter competition, it was clear that Bonchan had never faced a Rose player of Luffy’s caliber. He opened inadvisably by trying to play the fireball game—which is Sagat’s game, after all—but Rose is one character who actually holds the advantage over Sagat at full-screen. She can return fire with her own projectiles, reflect Sagat’s back at him, absorb them to fill her Super Combo Gauge, or Focus Attack through them and build her Revenge Gauge to gain access to her Ultra Combo. Thus, rounds would begin with Luffy taking only minimal damage while almost immediately filling up both his Super Combo Gauge and his Revenge Gauge, whereupon he could simply activate Soul Satellite to shield his Rose as he advanced on Sagat with the intention of landing the Super Combo. Maybe Bonchan was reluctant to try to take on Rose at mid-range, recognizing that her newly buffed EX Soul Spiral posed a particular threat, as it could now go through projectiles. But Luffy didn’t even need the EX Soul Spiral; he was content to save his meter to spend on Rose’s Super Combo instead. Bonchan was in serious trouble. Most tellingly, one round ended with him throwing up an errant desperation uppercut—the surest sign that a player is mentally cracking. In the second set, Bonchan was able to adjust but not quite adapt. He played more aggressively at mid-range and had some success, but still found himself outmaneuvered by Luffy, who took advantage of Rose’s tremendous grab range to toss the towering “Emperor of Muay Thai.”

And so, coming from the losers bracket, Luffy took out Bonchan in straight sets, becoming the first Evo champion not from Asia. The battle took place on the new “Half Pipe” stage—not the most dramatic of settings, yet the fresh groove of the background music nicely underscored the dawning of a new day for the competitive Street Fighter IV landscape.

In the end, it was a result that probably nobody would have predicted, that perhaps no fan, if you’d asked them before Evo, would have said they were hoping for. But it was a better result than we’d had probably any right to expect—the most exciting final since the first time Street Fighter IV was featured at Evo back in 2009.

I will neither disparage nor make excuses for the big names that ended up falling short of expectations. I think all it really says is that there are just so many strong players now, from so many different regions, and with so many different characters, that nobody can be expected to just waltz in and dominate a tournament of this scale and magnitude. Which makes it all the more impressive that Luffy was able to emerge triumphant out of that ocean, the lone shark left as the curtain closed on Evo 2014.


Evo 2014 – Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 | FRAGGIN' CIVIE said...

[…] 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. […]

Evo 2014 – Et cetera (plus thoughts on the FGC and eSports) | FRAGGIN' CIVIE said...

[…] 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 […]

Joe said...

This was probably the most spot-on, detailed, and knowledgeable write-up I've ever seen, even taking into account recent results, personal lives of players, balance changes, etc... I look forward to reading more of your stuff on Street Fighter!

Henry Fung said...

Thanks, Joe! I'm not equipped to provide breaking news or high-level analysis, so I tried to cover the events more as a storyteller, making sure to provide context, so that even readers less familiar with the scene, or those looking up the results years later, could follow along and get a sense of all the story lines at play.