Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Evo 2016 - Street Fighter V Preview

It’s that time of year again. This weekend, July 15-17, thousands of fighting game players from around the world will gather in Las Vegas to compete at Evo. This year, however, we will have a brand new game as the main event. After a good seven-year run, Street Fighter IV has been retired, with Street Fighter V taking its place.

With the game only just having been released in February, the competitive scene is yet in its infancy, many of the Street Fighter IV veterans still struggling to find their way with new characters and new mechanics. On the one hand, this means we may not see the same high level of polished play and depth of competition that we saw the last two years with Ultra Street Fighter IV at Evo. On the other hand, a new game is more exciting to watch for the simple reason that the competitors themselves are more excited. There’s much more room to grow as a player at the beginning of a game’s life than at its end, so it’s more fun and not as much of a grind.

But Evo is especially exciting this year because 2016’s season so far has provided a real narrative heading into the tournament. For the first time since—well, since Street Fighter IV’s worldwide debut in 2009—we’ve had a serious rivalry brewing, with two players, Japan’s Tokido and South Korea’s Infiltration, clearly ahead of the rest of the field. Four times these two players met in grand finals this year: three times in Premier events (next to Evo, the highest tier of tournament on the Capcom Pro Tour) and once in the prestigious Red Bull Kumite invitational.

The Road to Evo 2016

I’ve said before that, nine times out of ten, the fittest player is the one who wins. Pretty much from the moment he made his Street Fighter V tournament debut at Final Round in March, Tokido has looked like that guy. Immediately you could see that he was playing much more cleanly than anyone else. With his immaculate Ryu, he was the only guy who seemed to arrive at Final Round with a complete game, as meanwhile other players were still kind of just mashing their way through with Ken. And, just like Momochi in 2015, like Bonchan in 2014, he had that gift of seemingly being able to make his opponents move in slow motion. Usually, this is the effect you get when one player has been playing the game a crap-ton more than his opponents. He has become so familiar with myriad scenarios and has honed his perfect responses to be instinctive, such that he can basically play the game without having to think. That’s why his opponents, who are thinking hard, look like they’re moving so much slower. Alternatively, you could say it looks like this player can see into the future—a phenomenon that players back in the day used to describe with the term “psychic DP (Dragon Punch).” In my experience, the only way to beat someone like that is to show them something they haven’t seen before, something they can’t just process automatically.

Infiltration did exactly that. Repeatedly. As far ahead of the rest of the field as Tokido was, Infiltration seemed just that much farther ahead of Tokido. If Tokido was playing as though he could see one second ahead, then Infiltration looked as though he was playing from two seconds into the future. Playing Nash in a way that the game’s designers never conceived of, and that opponents and spectators alike were at a loss to follow—patternless back-and-forth dashing, random standing jab checks, springing forth with the offense unexpectedly but always at the perfect moment—Infiltration blew Tokido away at Final Round to claim the first ticket to the year-end Capcom Cup. A week later, at NorCal Regionals, he was not eligible to win a second ticket, but he decided anyway to once more deny Tokido that Capcom Cup spot (it will instead, at season’s end, go to the ninth highest-ranked player without a Premier championship).

At that point, there had been two Premier events so far on the Capcom Pro Tour, and the same guy, Infiltration, had won them both, both times beating Tokido in the grand final. When the two met again a month later at the Red Bull Kumite exhibition, first in the winners final and then in the grand final, it looked like we had ourselves a story. If only the rivalry weren’t so one-sided.

As the season progressed, Infiltration, having secured his Capcom Cup spot, cut back on most of his traveling. Tokido, meanwhile, seemed to finally be losing ground to the rest of the field. At the next two Premier events, Stunfest in May and Dreamhack Summer in June, with no Infiltration to stand in his way, Tokido was instead foiled by his fellow Tokyo players Momochi and Fuudo.

Finally, at CEO, traditionally the biggest tournament before Evo, Tokido and Infiltration were both in attendance, as was Momochi, who, in addition to beating Tokido in multiple tournaments, had managed a stunning perfect record against Infiltration over the course of the Street Fighter 5 Crash team competition.

Sure enough, the tournament would come down to these three duking it out for supremacy.

First, Tokido battled Infiltration in the winners semifinal.

(If you don’t have time for the whole video, just skip to 12:27 for the highlight.)

It looked like Tokido had studied hard for this match, as he confidently won the first game. The scary thing about Infiltration, however, is that not only is he hard to read in the first place, but the moment you think you’ve figured something out, he adjusts very quickly to make sure the same trick doesn’t work on him a second time. Once again, Tokido looked lost, as Infiltration won the next three straight, including one ridiculous sequence of four throws in a row. Was Tokido’s mind completely shattered at this point?

Next, in the winners final, Infiltration got his chance to redeem himself against Momochi.

(You don’t really need to watch this one. The two videos after this, however, are the two best matches of the year so far.)

Maybe people got a little carried away crowning Momochi the new No. 1-man after he won a few games against Infiltration in a three-on-three off-tour weekly event held for Korean television. Or maybe this was another case of Infiltration learning and adapting with a vengeance, because he convincingly 3-0’d Momochi this time.

In the losers final, it was then Tokido and Momochi in an all-Japan Ryu vs. Ken classic.

With that amazing comeback in the third game (6:00), Momochi certainly appeared the mentally tougher, more confident player. Yet somehow Tokido managed to compose himself after that dispiriting collapse to stage an even more remarkable recovery from down 0-2 to winning three straight.

Once more, it was Tokido vs. Infiltration in a grand final.

Coming from the losers bracket, Tokido needed to win two sets in a row against the guy who had had his number all year—indeed, the guy who had just a few matches ago beaten him here. How did Tokido do it? With style, for one thing.

It’s hard to account for how Tokido adapted so dramatically to turn things around. Partly, that’s because I could never account for anything Infiltration was doing in the first place. I’ll say that those parries, besides being incredibly hype to witness, may actually provide key insight.

The parry, when it was introduced in Street Fighter III, altered competitive Street Fighter in a fundamental way. It was a tool that could literally beat every attack in the game, which meant attacking suddenly became the riskiest play at all times. If you could just anticipate your opponent’s next move, the parry gave you the power to turn the tide in an instant. That’s what Evo Moment #37 was all about. In Street Fighter II and Street Fighter Alpha—almost any other 2D fighting game up to that point—Daigo would have been a dead man for sure. But because of the parry, all it took was one godlike read (and some tremendous execution) to turn what once would have been assured defeat into the greatest comeback in Street Fighter history.

As amazing as that moment was, the parry itself remained a divisive mechanic, and it did not return in Street Fighter IV. In Street Fighter V, however, Ryu has a parry, yet it has not affected the game in any fundamental way. It hasn’t even really been a factor. Everybody seems to forget it exists and just plays the game as though it were Street Fighter II. At least, that was the case up until this grand final.

Analysts have been reluctant to directly tie the outcome of the match to the parries, cool as they were. Each of Tokido’s three moments (2:06, 9:31, 12:26) did lead into victorious rounds, but they didn’t really come at tide-turning junctures. But remember that, at high levels (not for scrubs like me, who occasionally just guess right), parrying is principally about anticipating your opponent’s moves. It’s about reading the other player and the situation. It’s about being psychic, in other words. And here Tokido was pulling it off against an opponent who, for so long, had seemed unreadable. There could be no more emphatic way for Tokido to assert that, at long last, he had well and truly ascended and figured Infiltration out. As I watched the turnaround in that grand final, returning to that idea of Infiltration playing from two seconds into the future, I now visualized Tokido catching and outrunning him mid-race.

The Path to Victory

So what does this mean for Evo? Well, it would certainly suck for me to have written all that only for both Infiltration and Tokido to crash out early. I mean, it could happen. This is Evo, after all. But is Evo really so different from all the other tournaments these guys have dominated?

The difference between Evo and every other tournament is the scale. No other fighting game event draws multiple thousands of entrants to compete in a single game. Before this year, even a thousand competitors at any other tournament was unheard of. Street Fighter V at Evo has over 5,000 people registered—more than double Ultra Street Fighter IV’s record-breaking number from last year.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Infiltration has to beat 5,000 other players. The minimum number of matches for any player to win Evo this year is fourteen. That’s if they can stay in the winners bracket all the way through. Fourteen matches sounds easily doable for a player of Infiltration's caliber, right? But that’s not all.

Compared to a regional major, the larger number of entrants at Evo traditionally means that it’s longer in the beginning (because of all the extra no-names to wade through in pools), tighter in the middle (because ALL the name players are present, including people who don’t usually travel), and pretty much the same once in the top 8 (i.e. mostly Japanese guys, plus a few other East Asians and maybe one or two lucky Westerners who drew easy brackets).

With 5,000 entrants this year, that beginning stage will be longer than ever, but I have my doubts about the tightness of the pack in that middle stage. Street Fighter V being still such a young game, I don’t think, frankly, that there are even thirty-two elite-level players in the world yet. (Unless there are a bunch of super-good Japanese guys we’ve just never heard of. There are a bunch of random Japanese players registered....)

When you look at it from that perspective—Infiltration only has to win fourteen matches, and the opponents don’t start getting serious until maybe eight matches in (when he might potentially have to face Sako)—then it doesn’t seem like such a mountain for a clearly superior player to climb.

Thus, I’d say Infiltration and Tokido are pretty much locks for the top 8, and I’ll throw Momochi’s name in there too. (I mean, just check that guy’s expression when he plays. He’s not in this to lose, and you can bet he’ll have done his homework since CEO.) I would consider these three to be the co-favorites. Between the three of them, it’s much harder to call, but I’ll say that, after CEO, the ball is in Infiltration’s court.

Standing in the Way

Assuming the current brackets hold (and it sounds like they’re pretty much final, as of this writing), Infiltration and Tokido are actually in the same half of the draw, which means they would likely meet at the start of the top 8 on winners side. Momochi, meanwhile, is in the other half, with Fuudo being his likeliest opponent in top 8 winners.

I’d consider Fuudo to be right behind the three co-favorites. His character, R. Mika, is not as steady, and he hasn’t won a major tournament yet this season. But he has definitely shown himself capable of beating Tokido and Momochi. These guys play each other all the time in Tokyo, so they’ll all know what to do against one another.

For that same reason, I’d consider the other big Tokyo players, Mago and Kazunoko in particular, as threats, not to win Evo, but to potentially spoil Tokido’s run. They’d have to get pretty deep into the bracket before that can happen, but Tokido could be running into random Japanese players as early as his second pool (his fifth match, supposing he doesn’t lose beforehand), and he could potentially face Daigo in the second round of the quarterfinals (ninth match).

Besides Infiltration, Momochi, and Tokido, there are actually two other guys who have won Premier events on the Capcom Pro Tour this year. Phenom of Norway, the highest-ranked player in Europe, won Dreamhack Summer. There’s not enough data to say with certainty where he stands in relation to the rest of the world, but that tournament was attended by pretty much all of the Japanese name players, none of whom seemed prepared for his Necalli. Necalli is not at all a rare character, and Phenom’s did not have any special tricks. It was almost the opposite; he just dispensed with the mind games and kept nailing the Japanese with wakeup uppercuts (the most obvious option, which at high levels is among the least expected). We’ll see if that will hold at Evo.

China’s top player, Xiao Hai, won G-League, his home Premier, which was actually the most recent Premier event, taking place just this past weekend. For some reason, those Asian tournaments almost always have crazy results, so I wouldn’t read too much into Tokido and Momochi’s shockingly low placings at G-League. I don’t know how it went down, because the garbage Chinese stream was garbled or worse for most of the event. All I heard is that, at the end, Xian brought out Ibuki, which is crazier than all the rest of it. Xiao Hai still took it 3-0, though, which is not a huge surprise. As was the case in Street Fighter IV, Xiao Hai can beat anyone in the world but will just as likely fold to second-tier players. Either could happen at Evo.

About that Ibuki from Xian, it’s crazy because that character was only added to Street Fighter V a little over a week ago. One of the exciting things about the Capcom Pro Tour this year was that the game was expected to continuously evolve, not only because players would be learning a new game, but because downloadable characters would be added every month. Capcom couldn’t quite maintain that monthly schedule, and, so far, the downloadable characters have been designed more conservatively to be fairly mid-tier. Still, when it was announced that Ibuki and Balrog (boxer) would be legal for use at Evo—a decision met with cheers from spectators, grumbling from competitors—the fear was that, with the community not having had time to adequately vet or practice against these characters, some mountain man might show up to Evo and bust out some totally broken secret Ibuki tech to score a major upset.

Xian, a former Evo champion, has been fairly quiet in Street Fighter V, and most blame that on his character of choice, F.A.N.G., being among the worst in the game. But if he’s discovered something with Ibuki (and he is exactly the sort of player to find and exploit these things), that could be a game-changer. Sako, the Capcom Cup 2013 champion, is another player that comes to mind. He lives in Osaka, which is more on the fringes of the Japanese scene, so he hasn’t been seen much in tournaments. He has an affinity with the character of Ibuki, having used her in Super Street Fighter IV: AE 2012. And he’s known to be one of the most technically skilled and innovative players in the world.

As for the US players, there was some optimism before the season began that this might be the Americans’ year. There would be no arcade release for Street Fighter V, which cut out a significant chunk of the Japanese competitive scene. Evening the playing field, everybody got their first looks at the game at pretty much the same time via the worldwide beta test. A handful of California players even managed to get their hands on the final version of the game before anyone else. And the game itself was simpler and more streamlined than Street Fighter IV. It was closer to Street Fighter II, which the US used to occasionally win at Evo. All that optimism faded quickly, however, after the top four spots at the first US Premier event ended up going to foreign players.

And yet it probably is true that the chances of a US champion at Evo are higher than they’ve been in years. That is, one specific player has an outside chance to win. Through a string of victories in second-tier Ranking events, Justin Wong has actually risen to the top of the Capcom Pro Tour leaderboard, ahead of Tokido and Infiltration. Outside of Premier events, which have all been gobbled up by foreign invaders, he has been clearly the best player in North America, almost as untouchable as Tokido and Infiltration. He even extended his dominance to South America, doing in Brazil much the same thing that Japanese players have repeatedly done in the US: making their top local players look like rank amateurs. His character of choice, Karin, suits his methodical style of play much better than Rufus ever did. At NorCal Regionals, he came within inches of beating Tokido, and, while he’s yet to get a crack at Infiltration, many believe he matches up stylistically very well against the South Korean. The problem for Justin is that his local competition is nowhere near good enough to prepare him for the depth of foreign experience he’ll eventually have to fight through if he progresses far enough. As the No. 1 seed thanks to his ranking, he does at least have a favorable bracket. He won’t run into any real contenders until the top 32 (tenth match, assuming no losses), when he’ll likely face either Hong Kong’s HumanBomb or NuckleDu, the next-best player in the US.

After NuckleDu, the rest of the US is pretty free. For a minute, it looked like SonicFox—the teenage LeBron James of fighting games, who has been completely dominant in Mortal Kombat and Injustice (and random other games nobody cares about)—might become both the worst nightmare and the best hope for the US Street Fighter community, as he promised to finally bring his talents their way in Street Fighter V. Unfortunately, his skill in Mortal Kombat X hasn’t quite translated. Still, the kid is a fighting game genius who thrives on the big stage, so I wouldn’t count him out entirely.

The Evo Factor

The other factor that makes Evo different from smaller tournaments is Evo itself—just the gravity of the event. Over the length of the three-day tournament, the tension is only going to build, and then, once the finalists are on that grand stage competing for the most storied trophy in all of fighting games, anything can happen. You could argue that the big names have all been through this before, but the reality is we’ve seen that professionals across all sports and at every level still experience nerves. They’re only human. That’s kind of what makes it great.

Oh wait, Tokido’s a god. One of Japan’s five gods of fighting games, isn’t that what they say? I guess we’ll find out this weekend.