Thursday, July 23, 2015

Evo 2015 – Ultra Street Fighter IV

The 2015 edition of the Evo Championship Series, the largest gathering of fighting game players from around the world, continued the trend of each year being bigger than the last. The Street Fighter IV tournament, for the seventh and assuredly final time the main event, again set a new record with over 2,200 entrants.

Last year’s event, which saw big names and past champions, including Daigo Umehara and Seonwoo “Infiltration” Lee, knocked out on the first day of competition, proved the futility of trying to pick an odds-on favorite in today’s game. The field is simply too deep, and, in the best-of-three format, almost anything can happen. Even the most decorated player can potentially run into an opponent they just aren’t prepared for and quickly find themselves sent to the losers bracket. Never mind trying to pick a favorite to win it all, I’m not sure any player coming into Evo 2015 had even odds to make top 8. Rather, with almost every name player in attendance, there were probably at least thirty or so competitors with roughly an equal shot at making it to the money rounds.


Evo’s sheer scale is part of what makes it one of the hardest tournaments to win, but, in the early rounds, that size just means that the seeded players have to endure a greater number of pool matches against nobodies before progressing as expected. The quarterfinals are where the action really begins, as big names face off against one another just to crack the top 32.

The most intriguing matches are those pitting top players against competitors from other regions. In one such case, reigning Evo champion Olivier “Luffy” Hay faced off against Guile specialist Kevin “Dieminion” Landon, one of the best players in New York and in the U.S.

When Luffy won Evo 2014, it was a bit of a blow to the U.S. community’s ego. When the Americans were losing to the Japanese, they could always point out that the U.S. was playing with a clear handicap, since the Japanese tended to receive the games earlier and benefitted from both healthier arcades and faster internet to develop their skills. What excuse could the Americans possibly offer for falling behind the Europeans, who arguably had to start from even further back?

Top U.S. players had a lot to prove, not only against the Japanese, but now also against Luffy, who entered Evo 2015 with a target on his back. They had had to wait quite a while for their chance, as Luffy doesn’t generally travel to the U.S. except for Evo, nor do U.S. players very often travel to Europe. But Dieminion was someone who, as it happened, had traveled to France multiple times, so he was well-prepared take on the European players.

(Video uploaded by StreetFighterCentral.)

Luffy would subsequently lose off-stream to Japan’s Hiromiki “Itabashi Zangief” Kumada, who became, for the second year in a row, the man to eliminate the previous year’s Evo champ.

The most exciting quarterfinal match had to be that between SoCal’s Alex Valle and last year’s runner-up, Masato “Bonchan” Takahashi of Japan. Although semi-retired now, Valle was the best U.S. player of his generation back in the days of the Street Fighter Alpha series. Traditionally a Ryu player in every game, Valle had been playing casually a lot of Hugo, ever since the gigantic grappler was added to the roster in Ultra Street Fighter IV. Hugo is a character that still isn’t much represented at the highest levels, but, almost every time a Hugo does make it onto a major tournament stream, something crazy happens.

Grapplers are traditionally mismatched against Sagat, whose projectiles can be hell to navigate for the slow-footed titans. The difference between Hugo and Zangief, however, is that Hugo has some surprisingly quick far-reaching attacks, some of which also advance him forward, allowing him to maintain pressure as he pushes opponents toward the corner.


Both the defending champion and the previous year’s runner-up were knocked out before the top 32, but other favorites remained, including former champions Daigo and Infiltration.

In the round of 16, Infiltration would have to face Taiwan’s Bruce “GamerBee” Xiang, the very player he previously defeated in the Evo 2012 championship match. So much has changed for these two competitors since then.

In 2012, the “Year of Infiltration,” the South Korean was the dominant player using the game’s dominant character, Akuma. In 2015, with Ultra Street Fighter IV’s new Delayed Wake-Up mechanic having severely nerfed Akuma’s offense, Infiltration has become known as the most versatile player in the world, having scored tournament victories with nearly a dozen different characters. Against GamerBee, he would go with Evil Ryu, the character now considered by many to be the strongest in this edition of the game.

GamerBee, long the world’s preeminent Adon specialist, has now also become the top Elena player in Ultra Street Fighter IV. Opinions on the tier placement of this character have varied and shifted considerably in the short time she has been in the game. Without high-damage combos or tricky mix-ups on knockdown, she is not dominating in the ways that Street Fighter IV’s most notoriously powerful characters have been. What she possesses instead is a superior neutral game consisting of quick pokes with those long limbs of hers, angled in ways that make her very hard to approach directly. Her unusually diminutive profile while crouching further stymies opponents’ offenses, since many ordinarily reliable setups specifically will not work on her. This peculiar design, which allows her to effectively control the ground using only basic attacks, has led many frustrated players to declare her a cheap character, albeit not an overpowering one in the conventional Street Fighter IV sense.

(Video uploaded by StreetFighterCentral.)

For the most part, Infiltration doesn’t try to approach with his Evil Ryu. That may have less to do with the particular threat Elena poses than with Infiltration’s personal style. He’s always been a cautious and conservative player. The problem is that, if Infiltration isn’t going in, he isn’t taking advantage of Evil Ryu’s main strength—his explosive burst-damage combos. Sure enough, his Evil Ryu looked maybe not ready for prime time, as GamerBee handily took the first game.

As mentioned, Infiltration is a man of many characters, however, as well as one of the tour’s savviest minds. His decision to switch to Chun-Li shows just how deeply he has studied this game. For a long time considered among the least potent characters in Street Fighter IV, Chun-Li had not been brought up as a potential answer to Elena (or to any character, for that matter, other than grapplers). The character’s one strong point, her great ground control, had never seemed to matter in previous editions dominated by top tiers that could deal so much more damage than her in so much less time. Against Elena, however, this strength would be key. Elena is tough because she is a foil to so many conventionally powerful characters, but Chun-Li is one character who excels in the same area and can therefore fight her on equal terms.

Interestingly, although this contest of footwork and poking would be considered unconventional by Street Fighter IV standards, it is a more broadly exemplary Street Fighter match for precisely that reason. With no crazy combos or vortex setups to turn to, the participants end up relying on their mastery of the fundamentals that have been at the core of fighting games since Street Fighter II.

GamerBee was still alive in the losers bracket, but, in order to qualify for the top 8, he would have to win an elimination match against the Evil Ryu par excellence, Daigo Umehara himself.

(Video uploaded by fohstick a.)

In this match between the top Evil Ryu and the top Elena, each character’s strengths are clearly on display. Daigo, a much more assertive Evil Ryu than Infiltration, is determined to advance on Elena, and we see just how hard that is to do, as he repeatedly runs into Elena’s kicks. On the other hand, while GamerBee may land far more blows with Elena, Daigo only needs a few openings to more than erase any life deficit with his destructive Evil Ryu combos.

Daigo takes the early lead, but he ultimately falls due to his continued lack of caution (he never stops running into those kicks) and his failure to respect Elena’s Ultra Combo I: Brave Dance, which can blow through Evil Ryu’s fireballs to punish on reaction.


Last year saw some of the most successful competitors in Street Fighter IV history crashing out early in an Evo tournament that was held, some argue prematurely, on an edition of the game that had been available to the public for barely over a month. I would never try to diminish Luffy’s victory a year ago, considering the list of players he had to beat to get there. But this year’s results aligned much more closely with expectations of a mature competitive scene with an established order in its player rankings. Both Infiltration and GamerBee reached the Evo top 8, each for the fourth time in their Street Fighter IV careers, and they were joined in the final 3 by Japan’s Yusuke Momochi, the reigning Capcom Cup 2014 champion, still considered by most the man to beat.

At the beginning of 2015, Momochi carried the momentum from his Capcom Cup victory into a truly dominant run, where it seemed no one else in the world could touch him. Once the 2015 Capcom Pro Tour got fully underway, Momochi was unable to score any major victories at the Premier level (the highest tier of tournament, next to Evo), but the results don’t tell the full story. Anybody who watched him play would surely agree that he was clearly the strongest player. In the matches he won, it would often appear as though his opponents were moving in slow motion. He would swat them out of the sky or otherwise catch them in situations where the data suggested it shouldn’t have been possible for him or for any human to react in time.

Part of it has to do with his devious “throw tech uppercut” option select, whereby he can manipulate the game engine to read three inputs simultaneously (guard, Shoryuken, throw tech (breaking a grab)) and automatically output only the most advantageous of the three options in any given situation. But Momochi’s form and conditioning are also second to none, likely because he puts in more training than almost anybody else. That means he has the experience to recognize a wider range of scenarios more quickly than anybody else, and he has honed his responses to be instinctive. Basically, he can operate at a faster speed because he doesn’t have to think about what to do.

The players who beat him in 2015 did so by showing him things he couldn’t have trained against, whether it was Bryant “Smug” Huggins’s one-of-a-kind Dudley at CEO, Gustavo “801 Strider” Romero’s patented anti-Momochi tech at NorCal Regionals, or Daigo Umehara playing out of his mind at Stunfest. The idea is to get Momochi thinking by confronting him with situations he can’t just process automatically. When top players start thinking, that’s usually when they lose.

In the Evo 2015 winners final, could Infiltration bring to the table something Momochi hadn’t seen before?

Leading off with Evil Ryu was probably not the best decision for Infiltration. This was not a character he had used very much on the Capcom Pro Tour, but, against the strongest player in the world, perhaps he felt he needed the edge of the strongest character. Unfortunately, as powerful as Evil Ryu is, many people believe he actually loses head-to-head against the other Shoto characters (Ryu, Ken, Akuma), the problem being that his longest-range pokes are just slightly slower than their equivalent attacks, meaning that he tends to lose neutral exchanges. Even setting that aside, Momochi was clearly playing more cleanly and confidently.

Infiltration’s switch to Abel was a desperate move but, in classic Infiltration fashion, also an inspired one. Perhaps he remembered how 801 Strider had beaten Momochi with Abel at NorCal Regionals.

It was a great call, but a little too late. Responding to Infiltration’s response, Momochi in turn was allowed to switch characters going into the decisive game, and, of course, with so much on the line, he went cheap with Elena.

Now in the losers bracket, Infiltration would have to face a runback against GamerBee. Their last match showed off Infiltration’s ability to quickly regroup to counter a formidable tactic from GamerBee. Given two days to revise his game plan, how would GamerBee answer back?

It was a match that truly showed the game at its best and its worst. In what was quite probably the longest best-of-five match in Street Fighter history, both players pushed themselves to their own limits and to the breaking point of the game itself.

What GamerBee remembered this time was that Infiltration is, by nature, a low-risk player. Infiltration’s strategy had been to hang back and, instead of dealing with Elena’s stifling defense, waiting for her to come after his Chun-Li, who was capable of turning the tables on Elena with her even better control of the horizontal axis. On review, the problem with that strategy was that it amounted to countering a counterpuncher with a better counterpuncher. What happens if nobody actually threw a punch? That was the question that broke the game.

In a lot of sports, two sides take turns switching between offense and defense. One player strikes first, and then the other player must respond or risk falling behind, and the rest of the contest all proceeds from that. But what if nobody takes that first turn? You actually see this situation a lot in combat sports. Instead of immediately going at one another, the two fighters dance around one another for a bit (or a lot). It’s called respect. Not respect for your opponent’s quality of character, mind you, but for the threat they pose. If you attack them, then you’re not defending yourself, which puts you at risk. If you see that they’re not attacking, it tells you they’re on defense, which means that they’re safe. When the stakes are high, everyone would rather be safe than at risk, so nobody wants to attack first.

There’s always been an element of this to the “footsies” in fighting games, but never to this degree. Maybe the stakes had never been so high. For most of every round between Infiltration’s Chun-Li and GamerBee’s Elena, neither side would assertively engage. In many respects, it was probably the highest-level Street Fighter match ever played. There’s a reason that Floyd Mayweather is the most successful boxer, the richest, and frequently praised as the smartest, even if spectators can’t stand watching him do the opposite of fighting. Now just imagine two Floyd Mayweathers squaring off against one another. Boxing aficionados would wet themselves at all that insufferable brilliance.

It was like a game of chicken in reverse, where each side was daring the other to start, and nobody knew for sure what would happen if neither did, but one side was a little more terrified to find out. In this case, Infiltration was the one cracking. He was the more naturally conservative player, therefore the one in the more unfamiliar position, faced with an opponent who, for once, was at least as risk-averse as himself. He would fire off projectiles, theoretically one of Chun-Li’s key advantages over Elena, in a desperate bid to make GamerBee move. But GamerBee wouldn't budge. He simply absorbed the temporary damage as fuel for Elena’s Ultra Combo II: Healing.

Healing is the other part of Elena’s game that makes her so demoralizing. Even though it heals Elena instead of damaging her opponent, it has the same net effect as other Ultra Combos: it adjusts the health differential in her favor. But, while other Ultra Combos are best used to punish opponents not being careful enough, Healing alone has the ability to punish someone for being too careful. With Infiltration staying in his own corner, GamerBee could perform Healing repeatedly almost with impunity, effectively giving Elena limitless health.

I’ve said that GamerBee’s strategy here was about avoiding risk, but, in another way, I suppose it was a huge gamble. The clock was still a factor, which, with neither player gunning for the KO, would eventually decide the outcome of each round. That meant every round would come down to a last-second scramble to finish with the life lead. GamerBee was betting on himself to win most of those scrambles. He was betting his Evo life on the chaos of a few seconds. But this was the plan he had settled on. Confident or not, he was committed, and that gave him the edge.

In fact, the players traded games, and, had they persisted in this manner, it could have gone either way. But Infiltration didn’t have GamerBee’s faith or his commitment. He needed to try something else. He needed to pull out one of his signature momentum-shifting plays, instead of continuing to play along with the dynamic imposed by his opponent.

Returning to the character select screen, he hovered over Decapre, the closest thing he’s had to a main in 2015, but he must have realized this would be a bad idea. This was another character based around sitting in the corner. Infiltration next considered Rolento, which the crowd strongly urged him against. Maybe it was because they had just one match earlier seen GamerBee dismantle Naoki “Nemo” Nemoto, the top Rolento in the world. I think it’s more likely they didn’t want to see Infiltration’s dry style of Rolento. After the longest timeout ever, the former champion ultimately assented to the crowd pressure. As tense as this match had been, Infiltration went against his own better judgment and selected Juri, proving himself forever the people’s champion.

At a glance, GamerBee was the one ruthlessly working to win by any means, while Infiltration was willing to play to the crowd and entertain. But the Juri pick probably only worked because of the crowd. At first, she certainly looked like a downgrade from Chun-Li, gaining better projectiles that made no difference in this matchup, while losing the ability to go limb-for-limb against Elena. But, whenever he activated Juri’s unpredictable Feng Shui Engine, the crowd’s cheering basically willed the guesses to go in his favor, so that he could land those critical combos that finally put Elena down.

Just as it was against Momochi, however, Infiltration’s opponent would get the final word on character selection. At last, GamerBee brought out his signature Adon. After his Evo 2012 grand final loss to Infiltration, GamerBee would never again play Adon against Infiltration’s Akuma. Despite conventional wisdom that Adon actually had the advantage against all Shoto characters, GamerBee had zero confidence in that matchup and would (usually unsuccessfully) try to counter Akuma with Yun instead. But with Infiltration himself having mostly dropped Akuma, now was Adon’s time to shine once more.

In an almost tragicomic finish to the most grueling match in Evo history, after Infiltration finally managed to force GamerBee to switch away from “most disgusting character in the game” Elena back to his usually honest and aggressive Adon, still the final round would end in a time over, and with GamerBee’s scummiest play yet at that. He blatantly robbed Infiltration using the “timer scam” technique, whereby a player activates their Ultra Combo during the final seconds of the round, exploiting the canned cut scene animation that momentarily freezes the opponent in place but doesn’t stop the clock from ticking down. Thus did GamerBee book himself a place in the grand final against Momochi.

Grand Final

It’s a credit to the reputation GamerBee has built for himself as a fan favorite that, even after what he just pulled on Infiltration, the crowd was now fully on his side in his match against Momochi. They understood, certainly, that GamerBee was coming from the losers bracket, and they wanted him to reset the bracket just so they could witness more action. But, beyond that, GamerBee is simply that kind of player you can’t help but root for. That was true from the moment he made his Evo debut as an unknown Adon player in 2010.

I spoke before of Momochi’s conditioning. Without question, the Japanese player was the fittest competitor going into Evo 2015. Nine times out of ten, it is the fittest competitor who wins, but he’s not the guy that people cheer for. Though famously hard-working in his own right, GamerBee is a different kind of player. True to his name, he’s a gamer, and I mean that in the sporting sense. Lacking perhaps the analytical mindset or the resources to replicate Momochi’s training regimen, GamerBee has learned to match the geniuses of the game through mettle and sheer determination, along with a touch a shrewdness and guile (no, not that one). He overcame Infiltration by fully committing to a strategy that even the hungriest of competitors would have had a hard time stomaching. No player had ever pushed the game to that brink before. Perhaps nobody had ever wanted it so badly. Nobody had ever cared so much as GamerBee.

I’ve painted GamerBee as the underdog in this match against Momochi, and indeed he was, going by the player’s respective records in 2015. But I should also point out that, historically, GamerBee has always been Momochi’s hardest matchup—his demon, if you will. GamerBee won his first major Street Fighter IV championship, Season’s Beatings: Redemption in 2010, by trouncing Momochi in the grand final. In the Capcom Cup Asia Finals in 2013, GamerBee demolished Momochi in a seven-games-straight shutout. Just a year ago, GamerBee also defeated Momochi at Evo 2014. The Momochi of 2015 is a different animal, but, even so, GamerBee dominated their most recent match at NorCal Regionals in April, doing so through repeated use of basically just one button, Adon’s standing heavy kick, which happens to directly outclass Momochi’s favorite entry tool, Ken’s step kick, at the same range.

At Evo, GamerBee would lean on this one button again. Momochi would manage to win some of the exchanges just by being the cleaner player, but GamerBee stuck to his guns and ultimately came out ahead to reset the bracket, overcoming Momochi’s immaculate Ken through unwavering commitment to a simple but shrewd tactic.

After such a mentally taxing marathon match against Infiltration, you had to wonder if GamerBee would have anything left in the tank. But now, suddenly, he even looked like he had the upper hand in the grand final against the best player in the world.

Momochi, once upon a time known for his skill with multiple characters—a rarity among top Japanese players, who are typically character specialists and loyalists—finally broke through last year to win Capcom Cup 2014 while sticking with Ken the entire way. Here at Evo 2015, against GamerBee’s Adon, it seemed we had reached the limit of Ken. If Momochi was going to cross that finish line, he would have to leave his signature character behind. And if he was at all disappointed about that, victory would surely help him get over it. His opponent clearly had no shame about exploiting character matchups, and Momochi himself had already had to switch to the game’s dirtiest character, Elena, to beat Infiltration. Now he would turn to Evil Ryu, the game’s strongest.

GamerBee, although he too had the option of switching characters for the second set, opted to go the rest of the way with Adon. It was a bit of a surprising decision. After all, GamerBee had beaten Infiltration and Daigo’s Evil Ryus with Elena. Maybe he felt Adon was the better matchup against Momochi the player. Or maybe, on the cusp of his long-awaited Evo victory, he was feeling sentimental and wanted to ride or die with the character that brought him to this same stage his first time at Evo.

Either way, Adon, as stated, is generally considered to have the advantage against Shoto characters. One major factor is his Ultra Combo I: Jaguar Revolver, which can blow through projectiles at long range. It’s not Adon’s preferred Ultra Combo in most other matchups, since it has less reliable damage potential than his Ultra Combo II: Jaguar Avalanche, but the threat of it serves as an effective deterrent against projectile characters, shutting down one of their key options.

Against Momochi’s Ken, GamerBee actually didn’t even bother equipping Jaguar Revolver, probably because Ken’s fireball is slow enough that GamerBee didn’t feel the need to respect it. Evil Ryu’s fireball is much better, however, and that surely informed Momochi’s strategic switch. In a way, there’s a deterrent on both sides. When Momochi has a projectile option that demands GamerBee’s respect, GamerBee must forgo his own biggest weapon in favor of Jaguar Revolver, which he’ll probably never even use. Thus, Momochi doesn’t get to utilize Evil Ryu’s long-range option when Jaguar Revolver is in play, but GamerBee has to give up Adon’s combo into Jaguar Avalanche. One could say that both characters were having to fight at half strength, which was kind of poetically representative of how drained the players too must have been by this point. And this final match would yet ask a lot more of them.

GamerBee could no longer as comfortably spam standing heavy kick. The risk would be too great, because Evil Ryu’s high damage meant the punishment for any misplaced kick would be severe. Without any other cheap tactics left to game the game, GamerBee had to fall back on his oneness with Adon, a character whose every facet he was sole master of. When we analyze in relative terms at these highest of levels, we usually think of GamerBee as more of a grinder than a technician. It’s easy to forget that GamerBee is still more technically skilled than 99 percent of all players. That gave him a fighting chance even against the best player using the best character.

It also helped that Evil Ryu was not Momochi’s main character. When I say Momochi is immaculate, I suppose what I really mean is that he is immaculate when using Ken, the character he has poured most of his training into. His Evil Ryu was a lot rougher, and suddenly he looked more like a really good but still mortal player, who was even maybe succumbing to the pressure of the moment. On match point, in the third round of the fourth game, he would fail to complete a combo that would have sealed it. Then, almost immediately after, he would get another chance, only to drop it AGAIN and have GamerBee steal the round and the game back. That’s the price of Evil Ryu. Those combos are devastating, but they’re also the hardest to perform. Nobody, not even Daigo, can nail them with more than 75 percent reliability.

What’s extra amazing about that sequence is that, when you review the footage, you can see that Momochi thought it was all over. He exhales deeply, looks momentarily lost, then raises two fingers at GamerBee to confirm that the score was only now 2-2. He had thought the score was already 2-2 in the last game and that he had just lost Evo on a twice-flubbed core Evil Ryu combo. But it turned out Evo wasn’t done with him or GamerBee yet.

“Not Like This”

As amazing as all of that preceding action was, including a match I earlier called the “highest-level Street Fighter match ever played,” Evo 2015 will likely be remembered for one unfortunate moment above all else: the pause.

(Video by Hold Back to Block.)

More accurately, it was a stick malfunction triggering an automatic pause (the game's way of letting you know that your controller has turned off), which the tournament rule book treats the same as any pause. Whoever was responsible must forfeit the round. They can’t just unpause and resume, because the round’s natural rhythm has been compromised. Without some penalty, unscrupulous players would just pause every time they felt a need to interrupt the opponent’s momentum.

What makes the ruling so harsh, in the case of a stick malfunction, is that the player really has no control over that. You can argue that a competitor must take responsibility for their own equipment, but, beyond making sure that your controller is officially licensed and hasn’t been dropped on the floor a bunch, what measures can you really take to ensure that it won’t fail on you?

Even worse, Momochi actually didn’t even have full control over what stick he carried into tournaments. His sponsor, the eSports team Evil Geniuses, had been in turn sponsored by Razer. All of their Street Fighter players had been contractually obligated to use the Razer Atrox arcade stick. Now, EG’s partnership with Razer did terminate just a month before Evo 2015. The team’s new peripherals provider is SteelSeries, which doesn’t manufacture arcade sticks (or any console stuff). I suppose, as of a month ago, Momochi has been free to switch to any other stick of his choosing. But why would he have? The Razer Atrox was officially licensed, highly reviewed, and built with literally the same exact joystick and buttons as pretty much every other Japanese-style arcade stick from any other manufacturer. There was no compelling reason whatsoever for him to switch from a stick he’d already been using and winning with in favor of any other basically identical stick.

But, ultimately, it was Momochi’s stick that crapped out, and he was the one responsible for it, even if he kind of wasn’t. (Is there anything in the warranty about Razer being liable for winnings lost as a result of equipment failure?) If you never imagined both sides in a competition could get robbed by the same ruling, well here it was. I don't blame the judges, mind you. It was an impossible situation. No proposal could possibly have turned back or rectified a cosmic unfairness that had been created by a freak occurrence.

The only consolation you could take from it was that at least this didn’t decide the game and match. It handed the round to GamerBee, tying up the game at one round apiece, taking us to the final round of the final game of the final match of the biggest tournament in Street Fighter IV history. Of course, that didn’t happen right away. To scrub the lost round as cleanly as possible, the judges couldn’t allow either player to build extra meter after they unpaused. Once the stick issues were sorted out, they would have to sit there and wait for the round to end in a time over.

As the clock ticked down, the seconds felt both interminable and yet insufficient, the tension building and building to a slow crush. And then, finally, after all the work these players had put in, it would all come down to a single round—a single round that they were going into cold. It felt wrong, and it sucked.

When Momochi won it by wiping out about a third of Adon’s health in one single Evil Ryu combo, the new Evo 2015 champion barely even celebrated. He must have felt pretty good in that moment, but only from a tremendous sense of relief, not triumph. There would be none of the latter for anybody this day, though GamerBee at least got to hear the crowd chant his name. Five years earlier, when a theretofore unknown Adon player defeated Justin Wong to qualify for top 8 at Evo 2010, the crowd chanted GamerBee's name as though he'd won the whole damn thing. Now they were chanting it again after having just seen him lose the big one. It was the definition of bittersweet.

If you want to look for a silver lining, I suppose it was in the small ways that even rivals pulled together to deal with that difficult moment. When they realized Momochi’s stick was faulty and needed to be replaced, Infiltration’s was available. It was also a Razer Atrox, but, as it turned out, a personally customized one, because Infiltration famously prefers the bat-shaped Crown joystick (“eggplant,” the Japanese call it) over the more typical Japanese Sanwa lollipop. On to plan B (or was it C?), Momochi had to instruct his nearby girlfriend and EG teammate, Yuko “ChocoBlanka” Kusachi, to run and seek out his friend Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi (whom he had beaten just a few matches earlier in the top 8), who would provide (courtesy of his own sponsor) the MadCatz stick that ended up winning the day. Most interestingly, with oddly no designated Japanese translator on hand from either the Evo staff or Momochi’s own people during that crisis, it fell to the apparently trilingual GamerBee to interpret the judge’s directions, given in English, and translate them into Japanese to let Momochi know what was going on. Perhaps the true beauty of the game is how shared passion unites competitors into community.

At the end of the day, as disappointing a finish as that was, it was also definitely a one-of-a-kind Evo moment—an unforgettable way to close the book on seven years of Street Fighter IV at Evo, which I suppose is all we could have asked for.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Taylor Hicks Called It

When Bill Trinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager for Nintendo of America, made known he would be entering the Super Smash Bros. for Wii U tournament at Evo 2015, the question on everybody's mind was "Will he place higher than Taylor Hicks did?"

Hicks himself answered on Twitter, "Doubt it."

Shots fired!

For reference, the former American Idol allegedly competed in Super Smash Bros. Melee two years ago at Evo 2013, where he placed... well, it doesn't matter, because Trinen never showed and won't even get a last-place "participant" badge. Turns out, he canceled in light of the passing of Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata.

A fair enough reason, I grant. Anyway, looks like Taylor Hicks was right. Somehow he knew.... (Not to start any conspiracy theories.)

But what vastly more famous person did make it out to Evo 2015? None other than silver screen scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis!

The star of Halloween and True Lies alluded in an interview way back in January that she would be taking her total gamer son to a "fighting game convention" for his high school graduation present. She didn't mention Evo by name, but she did assure that she played Street Fighter "more than you will ever know," even going so far as to name Cammy as her character of choice.

For Street Fighter fans, it was a cute story at the time, but I don't think anybody truly believed she would show (not at a grassroots, nerd-filled event that might even have furries in attendance!), especially considering she mentioned in that very same interview how hard it was for her to go anywhere in public because of how recognizable she is.

But she was clearly three moves ahead of all of us, as she figured it out and followed through, arriving with husband Christopher Guest and the rest of the family, all in costume as various fighting game characters (not obvious ones, either!). She may not have competed, but clearly she deserves the award for "coolest mom on the planet."

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?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

(Euro) White Girls Can Dance (Street)

Last week on Season 12 of So You Think You Can Dance, the judges finally whittled down this year’s crop of contestants to select their top 20 who will be performing in the live rounds. The final selection came down to a decision between Czech krumper/animator Jana “Jaja” Vankova and French popper Marie Bonnevay (stage name “Marie Poppins”), both of whom should have been quite familiar to avid followers of the street dance subculture.

Jaja was previously a winner on America’s Best Dance Crew in 2011, where she teamed with renowned popper Phillip “Pacman” Chbeeb (whose Season 3 audition for So You Think You Can Dance still rates as my favorite in the show’s history). Marie Poppins is a commercial dancer who has appeared in advertisements and music videos with Justin Bieber and Tiesto, among others.

So You Think You Can Dance viewers likely remembered both women from their auditions the previous year. At the time, I thought they were far and away the two best female street dancers the show had ever seen. Neither of them was able to assimilate the other styles of dance well enough to make the final cut, although Jaja came very close.

Jaja Vankova - So You Think You Can Dance Season 11 Audition

(Video uploaded by CDplayABDC6)

Marie Poppins - So You Think You Can Dance Season 11 Audition

(Video uploaded by Terry Byrd II)

This season introduced a new format, however, splitting the top 20 equally into stage and street teams, opening the door for a greater number of street contestants than any previous season (apparently at the expense of standard ballroom representation, hence why judge Mary Murphy is absent this year).

Jaja and Marie both returned this year to try for a spot on the street team. In her audition, Jaja looked, in my opinion, considerably sharper than even just a year ago, having trimmed any lapses of inspiration from her choreography, as she melded mesmerizing animation poses with fierce whiplike krumping motions. Marie’s audition, meanwhile, was relegated to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clip within a montage of judge-pleasing routines. With these early episodes being taped and edited well in advance of broadcast, usually when a known contestant gets montaged, it’s because they auditioned to music that Fox didn’t get the license to. At any rate, it’s disappointing that we didn’t get to see Marie’s Season 12 audition, but she was still named and briefly spotlighted in subsequent rounds, where her fluidity and rhythmicality remained superlative.

Unfortunately, although the new format meant the show could accommodate a larger number of street contestants, it also meant that auditions drew more (ladies especially) than ever before, and so there was simply too much competition for both of them to make the cut. Personally, I might still have taken both of them over some of the other dancers who made it onto the street team, but that’s probably just because I love to watch that robot-like style of dance. Perhaps, with both of them also being white Euro females (and the street team, as a whole, being already 60 percent female with the addition of just one of them), they were too similar stylistically and demographically for them both to be on the show at the same time.

Interestingly, although the show never mentions this (even though it probably would have made for more dramatic TV), Jaja and Marie were actually well-acquainted with one another before they ever appeared on So You Think You Can Dance. In fact, by the later cuts, many of the contestants are people who have crossed paths before in the world of street dancing. Another contestant this season, Mexico’s Lily Frias, as far as I know the first waacker ever to make it to the live rounds, has collaborated with both Jaja and Marie before. It makes sense. The dancers who audition for this show are, after all, often masters already in their chosen disciplines. You don’t rise to that level without others in your field noticing.

There are several videos online of Jaja and Marie Poppins performing together, perhaps most notably the “White Girls Can’t Dance” video they made together.

And, of course, as both ladies came up through the world of dance battling, it’s inevitable that they would have battled one another at some point. Earlier this year, they appeared together to put on an exhibition at Urban Street Jam 2015. Not a serious battle, as there were no judges nor any real winner or loser, but still both women brought out some sick moves.

Ultimately, for Season 12 of So You Think You Can Dance, it was Jaja that got the nod for the top 20, where hopefully she'll go far. Who knows whether there will be a Season 13, whether Marie Poppins will get another chance, but I’m sure she’ll continue to have a successful career in dance regardless.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

How well did Taylor Hicks really perform at Evo 2013?

The competitive Super Smash Bros. community was abuzz last week with the report that Internet-famous Bill Trinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager for Nintendo of America (and also Shigeru Miyamoto’s interpreter), would be at Evo 2015 next month competing in the 2,000-player Super Smash Bros. for Wii U tournament.

Trinen will be the most notable quasi-celeb to compete at Evo since American Idol Season 5 winner Taylor Hicks placed 257th in Super Smash Bros. Melee at Evo 2013. Speaking of which, although it’s uncertain whether Hicks has any idea who Bill Trinen is, he was nevertheless moved to respond on Twitter at the suggestion that Trinen might perform better than Hicks did two years ago.

Evo 2013’s Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament reportedly drew approximately 700 entrants, so many news outlets that picked up the story saw Hicks’s 257th-place finish as quite respectable. As GameSpot observed at the time, “Hicks finished better than most.”

But did he really?

Many reports seemed to misunderstand Hicks’s placing to mean that he outperformed 443 out of 700 competitors, which would, indeed, be impressive for a non-pro player at the world’s biggest fighting game tournament. But that’s not what the results actually mean.

In an elimination-format tournament, every competitor does not play against every other competitor. Rather, they are paired off, so that, for example, 32 players are distributed into 16 one-on-one matchups occurring simultaneously (maybe not literally at the same time, but in the same round, at any rate). The winners move on to the next round, while the losers are eliminated, effectively halving the field after each round, until the final two are left to compete for the championship. For any fan of professional tennis or anyone who follows team sports playoffs, this should all be very familiar.

The key point here is that all of the players eliminated in the same round finish with the same result. In other words, there will be ties—not for 1st or 2nd place, no, but for the lower ranks, and more and more the further down you go. Most fighting game tournaments utilize a double-elimination format, as opposed to the single-elimination format common among professional sports. The relevant difference is that double-elimination tournaments produce fewer ties, but there are ties even so. Two players will tie for 5th place, four for 9th place, eight for 17th place, sixteen for 33rd, and so on.

Do you begin to see what this means for Taylor Hicks’s 257th-place finish? It means he tied with a crapload of other players. But let’s actually do the math and get more specific. Below are the number of players that tie for each place in a double-elimination tournament:


As you can see above, I also noted the total number of players accounted for, top-to-bottom, at each placing. Thus, with his 257th-place finish (tied with 127 other people), Taylor Hicks finished in the top 384 out of 700, behind 256 players and ahead of 316. So it’s not exactly accurate to say that Hicks finished “better than most.” That would be like someone placing 4,097th in a 6,000-person tournament and pretending that meant they finished ahead of some 2,000 people, when the reality is that they tied with those 2,000 for dead last. But you also can’t say Hicks finished in the bottom half either. He was in a broad middle range, which is unfortunately as precise as we can get with the double-elimination format.

That’s still pretty respectable, right? Well, in the rightmost column above, I also included an “adjusted rank” that I feel more intelligibly conveys each placing’s relative position in the overall order. In a 700-person tournament, there are 19 possible placings. Out of those 19, Hicks’s 257th-place finish was 17th best, or third-to-last. That’s pretty close to the bottom, but, again in fairness, the lower ranks are considerably fuller than the higher, so he was in plentiful company.

Or maybe the most sensible way to put it is to say that, in order to have placed 257th, Hicks needed to have progressed through two rounds. That is, he must have won two matches. And, since this was a double-elimination tournament, he must have lost twice. So his final record would have been 2-2. For a tournament the caliber of Evo, I’d say going 2-2 is definitely respectable for any amateur participant, let alone an easy-to-ridicule middle-aged full-time musician with no documented history as a gamer.

Except that, even after Evo 2013, there exists virtually no record of him ever having played Super Smash Bros. Melee!

You won’t find his name on any list of final tournament results. Partly, that’s because ordinarily nobody would ever bother to report results beyond 49th place (because who the hell cares?!). (I mean, in the real world of professional sports, nobody even cares who finishes 3rd, which is maybe why the "tied for 17th" concept may seem a bit foreign even to avid followers of sports playoffs.)

Hicks’s name is also not listed anywhere in the official tournament bracket. It’s known that the online bracket is not 100 percent complete; the posted bracket initially did not include day-of on-site registrants (which is why we don’t have an exact count for the number of entrants), so maybe some names in the first round were never posted. Some of those “Byes” listed in the brackets were definitely filled in with actual players by the time the tournament began. Maybe Hicks, who was working a residency at Paris Las Vegas at the time, just stumbled into the Evo ballroom at the same venue, and decided, on a lark, to request a last-minute entry into the Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament. If it was that spontaneous, that would also explain why there was zero buzz before the event about an American Idol winner registering to compete at Evo.

But if Hicks really did go 2-2, that should have been enough progress to have been reflected in the brackets somewhere. Yet there is no unnamed player anywhere in the bracket who ended up going 2-2. The only “Byes” who made progress through the tournament were in pools B60 and E62, but those unidentified players both went 3-2. Every other entrant with two wins or more was named and accounted for. If Hicks was somewhere in there, it would have had to have been under an alias, which admittedly is not outside the realm of believability.

But then there’s also the matter of there not being any footage anywhere of Hicks competing, no photos, no anecdotes whatsoever from anybody who played against him or even just saw him play. It is possible that Hicks’s demographic is simply too far removed from the sorts of people who would go to Evo to play Super Smash Bros. Melee, so maybe nobody there had any idea that he was anybody famous. Still, in this day and age of everybody having a smartphone to take pictures or live-tweet their experiences, this total lack of any record is just strange. The only proof anywhere that Hicks was there is this tweet by Seth Killian, which every other report on the topic can be sourced back to:

Sure enough, that’s Taylor Hicks with an Evo badge around his neck. So why didn’t anybody else spot him during the tournament?

Keep in mind, Seth Killian is someone with ties to the production side of the video game industry (he was a lead designer at Sony Santa Monica at the time, and had worked on Street Fighter IV before that) and even deeper ties to Evo (on his LinkedIn page, he lists himself as a founder, and, to this day, he still does commentary for the Street Fighter tournaments). My only point is that publicity would actually be a consideration for Killian; this wasn’t just a "Soul Patrol" member randomly running into Taylor Hicks at Evo (although Killian might have been that too). Maybe Killian caught Hicks after a show and was able to convince him to wear the Evo badge and pose for a picture, then afterward made up (maybe as a joke) the story that Hicks entered the tournament.

Finally, even supposing Taylor Hicks really did enter the Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament, we have no idea the quality of the players he beat. Remember that Evo is an open-entry tournament. It attracts the strongest players from around the world, yes, but also any rando can put up the entry fee and register. I don’t follow the Super Smash Bros. competitive scene that closely, and I didn’t watch any of the tournament in 2013, but I’ll just guess that the top 128 players were probably all very strong. At Evo 2013, the round of 128 was when the quarterfinals began; everything before that was qualifying pools (and, at least in Street Fighter, which I’m more familiar with, there aren’t ever more than two pro-level players in the same Evo pool). I’ll go ahead and guess also that players 129-256 were good journeymen Smashers—non-pros who nevertheless understand high-level mechanics and would dominate the vast majority of people casually playing Super Smash Bros. at home. Below that, though, I’d guess that the skill levels vary widely. When I watch the Evo pools for Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs. Capcom 3, I always see at least a few people who clearly had no idea what they signed up for. Maybe Taylor Hicks got lucky and was matched up against toddlers, and that’s where his two wins came from. Of course, it’s also possible that he beat two really good players, and is himself really good, and he only lost because his pool was stacked. There’s no way to know for sure, so, while the luck of the draw is a factor, I'll maintain that, on average, going 2-2 at Evo is pretty good.

It’s also possible that, even if he was technically entered into the tournament, he never actually had to play anyone. Doubtless, some registrants failed to show up to their early-round matches and became byes for their scheduled opponents. Maybe Taylor Hicks’s two wins were actually two byes. Of course, it’s also possible that Taylor Hicks, a grown-ass man who was in Vegas for work, never actually lost to anyone, but rather himself became a bye when he had to leave the tournament early. Hick’s calendar for that weekend indicates he was performing during the first two days of Evo 2013, and was free on the last day (but, going by his placing, he would already have been knocked out of the tournament by that third day). (Bill Trinen, by the way, is scheduled to get a first-round bye, according to the not-yet-finalized Evo 2015 bracket, so he'd only have to beat one other player to match Hicks's alleged 2-2 record.)

If Taylor Hicks really did compete in Super Smash Bros. Melee at Evo 2013, he went 2-2 for 257th place. That’s a mere two rungs up from last place (out of 19 places). Still, I’d say two wins is pretty respectable. Unfortunately, other than the one photo, there’s no evidence that Taylor Hicks really competed at Evo 2013. To my knowledge, even Hicks himself hasn’t ever acknowledged these reports… until this recent tweet at Bill Trinen, which is the only reason I’m inclined to believe that he really did enter Evo 2013! If nothing else, it suggests that Hicks at least knows what Super Smash Bros. is, knows what Evo is, and cares enough to respond to a random tweet that did not specifically name either of those things and gave hardly any context besides (and, no, Taylor Hicks does not just respond to every tweet that mentions him).

I've dug and conjectured as far as I can, and I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions based on the evidence or lack thereof. Me, I'm going to believe that Taylor Hicks beat two people in Super Smash Bros. Melee at Evo 2013, finishing 2-2 and ahead of 316 other competitors. Again, for an amateur player, that's very respectable.

Still, he'll never be my Season 5 American Idol! Nor my preferred American Idol contestant-turned-Smash star! #McPheever