Thursday, July 16, 2015

Top 5 Street Fighter IV Moments in Evo History


This weekend, July 17-19, is Evo, the biggest fighting game competition in the world. The event only gets larger every year, but Evo 2015 may well end up being the biggest Street Fighter IV tournament there will ever be. Next time this year, we can expect the upcoming Street Fighter V to take over as the new marquee game. Given that we will have had seven years of Street Fighter IV at Evo, I can imagine quite a few players and spectators alike will be glad to finally send it off into retirement. Of course, Capcom Cup 2015 is still coming at the end of this year to provide a more final capstone to the years of grueling Street Fighter IV battles. But Evo has always been the grandest open-entry tournament, drawing hundreds and even thousands of competitors—world warriors from far and wide, some for whom Evo might be the only trip they take outside their home country all year, flying out on their own dime to “quarter up,” as it were, against the best of the best, not for cash prizes but because this is what they are passionate about—and where theoretically an unknown could inscribe their name into legend by taking a game off Daigo “The Beast” Umehara himself. In honor of what Evo means to the fighting game community (FGC), and of the game that has headlined its years of most significant growth (so far!), let us reflect on some of the greatest Street Fighter IV moments in Evo history.

#5 - Poongko Tames The Beast

Evo 2011 was kind of an odd year for Street Fighter IV. Fools that we were, some of us actually thought the competitive scene for the game was winding down. Street Fighter X Tekken was looming on the horizon, and, although Capcom had reneged on its promise not to milk Street Fighter IV with any more revisions after 2010’s Super upgrade, the eventual Arcade Edition seemed a hastily assembled, mischievously conceived, even deliberately broken release designed just to shake things up, not to meaningfully extend the game’s life.

Two-time Evo Street Fighter IV champion Daigo Umehara of Japan seemed to be thinking the same thing. Having won back-to-back championships with his Ryu, perhaps he felt he had little left to prove in the game. It was time for him to just have some fun, ditch Ryu and go straight top tier with new addition Yun, a character that producer Yoshinori Ono basically admitted was purposely designed to be overpowering. What would happen when the strongest player in the world used the most juiced character in the game—the best playing the best? In other words, what would total domination look like in Street Fighter IV?

As it turned, a lot of things didn’t go according to plan. Street Fighter X Tekken never caught on. Street Fighter IV, not even halfway through its competitive life, would see several more major and minor revisions. And Daigo? Well, he ran into “The Machine.”

(Video uploaded by FightersMixHD.)

The ending to this match is a clip that the Evo organizers subsequently tried to manufacture into an “Official Evo Moment,” dubbing it “Evo Moment #13,” as if to suggest that it was as amazing as the famous “Evo Moment #37” Daigo parry.

In fact, there isn’t much to analyze in this match. Daigo’s opponent, Chung Gon “Poongko” Lee (AKA “The Machine”), was a Street Fighter IV Korean national champion. The two had faced off previously in one of the earliest Street Fighter IV international meets in 2009, and it had not gone well for Poongko. Of course, back then they were both Ryu players. Poongko, the consummate showman of the FGC—who readied himself for this Evo 2011 match by flinging his jacket into the crowd and chugging a can of Red Bull right there on the main stage (and who has also been known to take his shirt off, when on the ropes, as a way to “power up”)—had since switched to Seth, a character whose volatility perfectly reflected Poongko’s own personality. Street Fighter IV’s ultimate “glass cannon,” Seth was the game’s most fragile character, but also one that could have the opponent seeing stars (or birdies or skulls) in short order, blitzing them in a few nutso sequences of attacks from all angles. Win or lose, it would happen quickly with this character, and in one-sided fashion. That’s what happened to Daigo. Poongko was all over him, and the result was a perfect round, where Daigo never got a chance to play. In other words, it played out like a typical Seth win.

Still, it’s true that this moment has persisted in people’s memories. Although it was not the highest-level, most substantial match, it was one of the hypest, in large part thanks to Poongko’s theatrics. And hype and theatricality have always been essential to the FGC and to Evo. Meanwhile, hardly anyone remembers now that Daigo was still alive in the losers bracket after this loss, and it was actually Saudi Arabia’s Abdullatif “Latif” Alhmili, a C. Viper player, who finally eliminated him, thus ending his Evo reign.

#4 - East Meets West (Not the Coasts)

Grinding his way through the losers bracket with his patented Rose play, and doing so with his signature original PlayStation digital controller, France's Olivier "Luffy" Hay became, in 2014, the first European ever to make it into Evo’s top 8 in Street Fighter IV, but he wasn’t going to stop there.

Like GamerBee's Adon and Xian's Gen, Luffy's Rose was a character that most had never seen played to such a high level before. Nobody seemed to have figured out yet how to deal with his use of Rose's alarmingly quick dashes or his mastery of the Soul Satellite technique. Always, the orbs were a momentum-killer that threw opponents off their game and set them on the defensive. Against Luffy's nerves of steel, any such instance of hesitation or passivity would prove costly, and the Rose specialist slowly but surely carved a swath toward the Evo 2014 grand final.

After two years straight of Evo grand finals contested between players from different eastern parts of Asia (South Korea vs. Taiwan in 2012, Singapore vs. Japan in 2013), it was a breath of fresh air for the Evo crowd to see a finalist representing "the West," even if it was an Asian Frenchman. Indeed, as Luffy faced off against Japan's Masato "Bonchan" Takahashi, the world's strongest Sagat, it was the "East vs. West" dimension that made this the most electric Street Fighter IV grand final since the early days of U.S. vs. Japan bouts, before the Americans fell so hopelessly behind the Japanese and even players from other parts of Asia. A partisan U.S. crowd didn't seem to much care that Luffy proudly hailed from a different country and continent; in that moment, they were behind him all the way.

On review, the match was maybe not the prettiest. We can see that Bonchan really was quite lost on how to approach Rose, and, even if he had had more experience playing against the character, that matchup is terrible for Sagat (as Luffy has shown by beating Bonchan even more badly in multiple encounters since). So maybe Luffy had his opponent at a bit of a disadvantage in that grand final.

Of course, it wasn’t as if Bonchan was the only player Luffy beat on his way to victory. In all, Luffy would have to go through no fewer than eight Japanese players (as well as top talents from the U.S. and Singapore), including such stars as Tokido and Mago, who had had experience facing Luffy’s Rose in prior events. Truthfully, the gauntlet that Luffy had to run through was probably the toughest path any competitor had ever taken en route to the Evo championship. And it was definitely the longest, since he spent more than half of it in the losers bracket. So let there be no doubt that he earned it the hard way.

Once the dust had settled, one more point became clear. Luffy had not "won one for the West." Rather, the U.S. had been put on notice, as another continent claimed an Evo Street Fighter IV trophy before they had theirs.

#3 - Infiltration Wins the Crowd

The winner of Evo 2012 was one Seonwoo “Infiltration” Lee of South Korea. This may have been the least exciting Evo for Street Fighter IV, but that is only because Infiltration was so untouchable throughout the tournament, not dropping even a single game during the entire top 32 at least (I don’t have the data for the earlier rounds, but I’d be shocked to learn that any of his early-round opponents took a game off him). It was the most impressive tournament performance, and part of the most successful season, by any player in the history of Street Fighter IV. Words almost do not suffice to convey how amazing Infiltration was during that period. And yet the response was not always one of appreciation for the quality of his play. Rather, his sheer dominance, even against the likes of Daigo Umehara, sapped Evo 2012 of much drama, and an almost resentful crowd (mostly, spectators not actually involved in the “community” part of the FGC) found it easy to cast him as the heavy.

Part of it may have been because he never had much to say, seeming to let his coldly efficient play style do the talking for him. (The reality, of course, is that, at the time, he knew barely any English, and was shy besides.) People were also maybe sore that he slew their hero, Daigo, and crashed the longstanding U.S. vs. Japan rivalry. And there were those who genuinely just didn’t like the way he played the game. First of all, he used Akuma, who, besides being a gross-looking villain in the actual in-game story of Street Fighter, was also regarded as the best character in that edition of the game (Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012). Going top tier may get you wins, but it doesn’t always earn you respect. Infiltration’s style was, as stated, efficient, but arguably uninspiring, built around repetitive and hard-to-escape vortex setups that sometimes looked downright unfair. And, beyond the action on the screen, Infiltration employed tools theretofore unheard of. He would consult his phone between games, presumably looking up notes on his opponent or their character. He would have his friend/coach, Ryan “Laugh” Ahn, sitting right next to him during matches, advising him and strategizing with him between rounds, such that, for opponents, it was almost like having to play against both of them at the same time. Nowadays, these techniques are commonplace in tournament settings, but, back in 2012, they suggested, together with Infiltration’s fierce brow, an excessively serious, even ruthless, approach to the game.

Thus, in 2013, when Infiltration entered Evo as again the favorite (though not quite so prohibitively this time, as Singapore’s Ho Kun Xian was also having a banner year), spectators were inclined to root against him. And when NorCal-based Puerto Rican Balrog (boxer) player Eduardo “PR Balrog” Perez stunningly sent Infiltration to the losers bracket in the top 16, the chants of “U-S-A” and the roars of approval were the loudest heard all night that Friday. When Infiltration and PR Balrog ran into each other in the brackets again in the top 8 on Sunday, the crowd was ready for their boy to do it one more time.

(Video uploaded by PS3GamingHD.)

An at-times streaky player, PR Balrog was still feeling it two days after his first upset win over Infiltration, and sped ahead to a 2-1 lead with momentum on his side. This was it. The defending champion was on the ropes, facing match game and elimination, and the crowd couldn’t be happier to see him taken down. How would Infiltration respond?

By switching from top-tier Akuma to Hakan, the game’s most bizarre character, as well as one of its least represented, most poorly understood, and arguably weakest!

Infiltration was one of the few players in the world known to have a Hakan in his pocket, but, certainly, he had never tried his Hakan before in such a high-pressure situation, with so much on the line as at Evo. On its face, this seemed like a crazy move. And that is precisely what the crowd appreciated. Infiltration, a reputedly ruthlessly efficient player, now with his tournament life on the line, just bet it all on what was perceived as the most insane gamble short of picking Dan. And, with that one brilliant stroke, not yet having performed a single move with Hakan, the South Korean instantly transitioned from “dark lord” to “people’s champ,” and completely won over the crowd to his side, even against their American favorite. So stoked to see a Hakan on the Evo main stage, they were going to cheer for every blow Infiltration landed.

As impressive as his Evo 2012 victory was, I honestly feel it was this moment, a year later, that made Infiltration as we know him today—a crowd favorite, who plays for the joy of the game. His English and Japanese have progressed rapidly, to the point that he can now even commentate in those languages. He is as much a performer as he is a competitor, often picking unexpected characters for fun and for hype. And, beloved by fans, he has even had people offer to crowdfund his travel expenses, in lieu of an official sponsor.

#2 - That Adon Player

In 2010, Bruce “GamerBee” Hsiang of Taiwan was a 30-year-old multiple-times Virtua Fighter national champion, who was no slouch at Street Fighter IV either, having as recently as a year prior qualified for Japan’s prestigious Super Battle Opera tournament. From Taiwan, he was able to train online against top Japanese players, and replays of some of his matches against Daigo had even caught the attention of hardcore enthusiasts trawling YouTube for any and all Japanese Street Fighter IV footage. But, as far as most anyone at Evo 2010 in the U.S. knew, GamerBee was just “that Adon player,” an unknown entrant using a rarely seen character that conventional wisdom assured was among the least threatening in the game.

It was probably a cute sight at first, seeing this no-name foreigner frustrate opponents with his novelty character and his jump-happy style. By the time he got called up to the stage for his top 16 match against Justin Wong, however, everybody knew who “that Adon player” was (even if they still had no idea who he was), and there was nothing quaint whatsoever about his play. He had already gone on a tear through some known contenders, including J.R. Rodriguez and Japan’s Hiroyuki “Eita” Nagata. Though little was known about him, clearly this GamerBee guy was a master Adon specialist, who had honed his execution to a razor-sharp level to elevate his character far beyond what anyone had considered realistic.

The key was his mastery of the “instant Air Jaguar Kick,” a technique that allowed him to perform the aerial version of Adon’s signature slashing kick just barely off the ground to increase its speed and recovery. It required incredibly deft hands, but, once harnessed, it allowed GamerBee to spam the move to harass unsuspecting opponents almost with impunity. Adon with the instant Air Jaguar Kick was simply a different character from Adon without. Nevertheless, his next match was against Justin Wong, America’s top player, whom many had expected to make it all the way to the grand final at least.

For Justin, this must have been a nightmare made real—this deep into the tournament having to face a strong player he hadn’t had a chance to properly scout, and who was using an unfamiliar character to a level Justin had never encountered before. He had massive expectations to live up to—basically the hopes of the entire American scene riding on him—whereas his opponent had upset all predictions in making it even this far, and was now basically playing with house money. It was the final match of the night, meaning all eyes in the room were now on them. And it was an elimination match, meaning whoever lost would be done for the tournament. The pressure on the American was enormous. And this wasn’t even top 8 yet!

In the end, GamerBee prevailed in what was then considered a stunning upset. Justin Wong, America’s greatest hope for an Evo champion in Street Fighter IV, was eliminated before the top 8. Nobody was even mad about it, though! No, instead the entire room was chanting “GamerBee!” (they sure knew his name now!), the applause the loudest any non-finals performance at Evo had ever received. Other players were raising GamerBee up on the main stage to soak in this spontaneous mini victory ceremony, as though the tournament weren’t just pausing to resume two days later. That was how momentous this was. Back in Taiwan, it was such a big deal that it was reported on national TV news, and Gamerbee was met at the airport with a veritable hero’s welcome.

Five years on, of course, GamerBee is rightly recognized as having long been one of the best Street Fighter IV players ever, and any time Justin Wong (or, frankly, any U.S. player) beats him, that is considered an upset.

#1 - ‘09

The very first Evo grand final for Street Fighter IV still ranks as the most exciting match in the game’s history. It was not the highest level of play necessarily, as strategies and tactics were far from fully evolved, the game having only been out in arcades for a year at that point (and the console version, which added eight characters, having only been out a few months). International representation was also still low at Evo, with the only notable entrants being special invitee Daigo Umehara and his plus-one, another Japanese Ryu player named Takashi “Dan” Hukushi.

But that first year or so is also, in a way, the true prime of any popular fighting game. That’s when a game’s mainstream profile, as a new release, is at its peak. It’s when the competitors’ enthusiasm tends to be highest, since the game is fresh, wide open with things to discover, and top players can level up at a rapid pace, the dreaded wall still far off. And it’s when the tournament hype is greatest, as talents from different areas are not yet certain where they stand in relation to one another, but are eager to find out.

At the inaugural Evo championship for Street Fighter IV, the grand final came down to Daigo Umehara vs. Justin Wong of New York. These are two players who should require no introduction, but, anyway, to give some context, Daigo and Justin were, in 2009, the most famous players from Japan and the U.S. respectively, and also legitimately the best.

Their rivalry began way back in Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, and they looked ready to take it to the next level in Street Fighter IV. At an international round-robin exhibition three months prior to Evo, Justin had proven his world-class prowess at the game, with victories over the Japanese and Korean national champions, Iyo and Poongko, only to ultimately lose in four straight rounds to Daigo. With a few more months to train, Justin was determined to learn and rebound from that defeat. A climactic rematch at Evo was what everybody was anticipating, and neither player disappointed.

Curiously, Justin and Daigo ended up in the same half of the draw at Evo 2009, and so they actually had to play one another at the start of the top 8. Justin, who had used Rufus in his previous match against Daigo’s Ryu, and also throughout this tournament thus far, had decided he was none too fond of that matchup, and so he had prepared a secret weapon just for Daigo: a surprise character switch to Abel.

Usually, these sorts of “secret weapons,” not uncommon among U.S. players back then (“Save that @#$% for nationals” was the maxim of the day) were held back until the last possible moment, because you didn’t want to reveal your whole hand to the rest of your competition, and also, since the surprise factor was such a large part of it, you didn’t want to leave the opponent time to process the gambit and adapt (or “download,” as per FGC parlance).

Unfortunately for Justin, his Abel pick didn’t work as well as he had hoped. An unperturbed Daigo brushed Justin’s Abel aside and then progressed easily to the grand final. Justin was able to fight his way back from the losers bracket to meet him in the grand final, but how would he approach the rematch? Plan Abel had proven a dud, and he still wasn’t confident in his Rufus against Daigo’s Ryu. Was there a Plan B (or was it C now)?

(Videos uploaded by ShaolinSoccerV2.)

In a surprise even to the commentators, Justin dug deep into his arsenal to bring out Balrog (boxer), a character he was known to have some experience with, but not one he regularly brought into serious competition.

Amazingly, Daigo didn’t seem ready for it. Justin’s Balrog was basic but consistent. He didn’t go for max-damage setups, but his grasp of spacing and timing in the Balrog-Ryu matchup actually appeared superior to the Japanese player’s, and he seemed to be the one that had successfully downloaded Daigo’s fireball game, as he just kept catching Ryu with simple but effective combos. Instead of playing to his revered opponent, and instead of playing "theory fighter" with unproven secret weapons, Justin was playing simply Street Fighter. And it was working!

It was everything a world championship of Street Fighter IV should have been. Far from rolling over for the Japanese guest, Justin actually edged him out to 3-2, thereby sending Daigo to losers and leveling the bracket to force a second set. With momentum suddenly on his side, it looked like Justin might actually pull this off.

It went back and forth and nearly the distance, with Daigo ultimately knuckling down to take it in straight rounds in the final game, although he surely had to admit that the American had pushed him hard. It still stands as the closest-fought and best Street Fighter IV final in Evo history, certainly the nearest a U.S. player ever came to winning it.

Capcom Cup and Topanga League may be where the pros can make their living. But Evo is where unknowns can make their names, champions make their legends. What will this year, most likely the last year of Street Fighter IV at Evo, bring?

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