Monday, April 20, 2009

Street Fighter IV National Tournament

The biggest fighting game competition in history recently concluded last weekend in San Francisco. The sixteen-man tournament was the culmination of weeks of qualifying rounds sponsored by Capcom at GameStops around the country. In the end, Justin Wong, long recognized as America's top Capcom fighting game player, prevailed, earning the right to compete in the international exhibition against Poongko (Korean National Champion), Iyo (Japanese National Champion), and Daigo (ranked No. 1 on Street Fighter IV's arcade points tracker). In the round-robin, Wong lost only to Daigo, who managed a perfect record to come away with the title of "Street Fighter IV World Champion."

I'm sure this is all very boring to anybody who thinks competitive gaming is a joke, but, as one who has long admired the depth of Street Fighter, I think it's at least as legitimate a sport as competitive eating. The skill of these players is no joke, and the consistency of their results is the proof. Daigo "The Beast" Umehara in particular has reigned atop Japan's scene for over ten years now. He first acquired renown within the international community when he defeated U.S. champion Alex Valle for the world title in Capcom's official Street Fighter Alpha 3 tournament in 1998 (also the last time Capcom held an official tournament).

To give some perspective, in the time since Daigo won the Alpha 3 world title, twelve different men have held the World No. 1 ranking in professional tennis. Even excluding the short-lived reigns of minor champions such as Carlos Moya and Patrick Rafter, that leaves six men (Sampras, Agassi, Kuerten, Hewitt, Federer, Nadal) who managed to hold it for at least thirty weeks straight during that period (actually, Sampras's longest streak during those years was twenty-nine weeks, but let's not be petty). Keep in mind, that's just the men, not the number of times that the ranking switched back and forth between them.

Daigo, meanwhile, maybe hasn't been the absolute best at every Capcom fighting game, but he's won major tournaments in most of them, and no other player has been as good at all of them (besides the Marvel games, which never caught on in Japan), let alone for so long. That level of consistency is remarkable, and it should silence any accusations of the game being random. But perhaps match footage can tell the story better than result reports.

First up is the video of Justin Wong in the U.S. finals against Mike Ross. The two Americans so respect/fear one another that, on multiple occasions, both men simultaneously retreat to opposite corners. Granted, that's kind of the nature of a Honda match, but it's also very characteristic of top U.S. play. Neither player wants to put himself at risk by attacking first, so they hang back and allow one another to build up meter while waiting. It's not exactly exciting, but these players are used to playing for money, which has encouraged smart rather than sensational play. It's the cautious approach, equivalent to two tennis players duking it out from the baseline.

But now let's take a look at the match between Daigo and Iyo. In this battle between two of Japan's best, there are no breaks for meter-building. The attacks are close to ceaseless on both sides, and the two regularly find themselves face-to-face, despite the fact that they both play long-range characters.

Finally, it's time for the international finals. With there being so little money in competitive Street Fighter, international meets are still not exactly common, but Justin and Daigo are no strangers--their classic 3rd Strike match in the Evo 2004 tournament provided one of the most widely seen video game-related clips on YouTube. So Daigo has played Justin enough times in previous games to grasp the American style, and he knows all too well that its strength can also be its biggest weakness. As the very first round begins, he's determined to put Justin's defense to the test. Largely dispensing with projectiles, he repeatedly rushes in, boldly challenging Justin to out-execute him at close range. There aren't many players outside Japan who have the technical skill to make this a viable tactic at the competitive level, which is surely why Justin has such difficulty trying to adapt.

More videos can be seen at Kineda. Hopefully, this has been at least somewhat informative or interesting.


Czardoz said...

Did you see that Justin was using that new fat guy? And he didn't take a single round. Very sad.

Street Fighter is like tennis at a million miles per hour. But will there ever be a codified Grand Slam of street fighting tournaments?

Henry said...

Indeed, I think the main thing holding it back as a sport is the fact that it's also a product, and companies must continually release new games to stay in business. As a result, the tournament games are always changing. Could you imagine any legitimate sport rewriting its rules every year just to keep things fresh? Super Street Fighter II Turbo has achieved some degree of permanence, but that's about it.