For fighting game enthusiasts, this past weekend was Evo 2010, this year's installment in the biggest fighting game championship in the world. Over the course of three days and nights, thousands of players and spectators gathered in Las Vegas for this fan-run tournament showcasing the highest level of competition in Super Street Fighter IV, Tekken 6, Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars, and Marvel vs. Capcom 2. Katsuhiro Harada, director of the Tekken series, and Yoshinori Ono, producer of Street Fighter IV, even made guest appearances--separately and together--to show their support for the community, and Capcom also gave attendees a sneak peak at the upcoming Marvel vs. Capcom 3.
But the main event had to be the Super Street Fighter IV tournament. Approximately 1,800 competitors battled it out for a hefty pot and the title of "world's greatest" in the most popular fighting game since the glory days of Street Fighter II: The World Warrior. In the end, it came down to American Ricky Ortiz as the challenger against defending champion Daigo Umehara from Japan.
Ricky was, once upon a time, the nation's best overall 2-D fighting game player, but he was never able to win Evo. His most memorable match was probably in the Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike tournament at Evo 2003, when Ricky played Daigo to a controversial time over with equal health in the second round, which the game's virtual judges then randomly ruled in Ricky's favor. Because Ricky had won the first round and the players had already split two games, this decision would have given Ricky the game AND match over Daigo. The Evo committee, however, never anticipating such a scenario occurring in actual tournament play, let alone in such a critical match, felt this was a bit bogus, as nobody even understood the in-game judgment system, so they forced both players to replay the round. Daigo won that round and the next, officially winning the match. But seeing Ricky's dissatisfaction with the overrule, Daigo offered to play one more decisive game, which he then proceeded to win handily, performing many taunts as well. And that was Ricky Ortiz. When Justin Wong far superseded him as the top American, representing his country admirably on the international stage, Ricky kind of just stepped aside and joined Justin's cheering section.
But Justin was denied a rematch against Daigo this year, and suddenly Ricky found himself once again, for the first time in years, the last American standing, with only Daigo and a Korean player in the way of his winning the most coveted title that had so long eluded him. As the crowd began cheering his name upon his clutching out a victory against the tough Korean player, securing America's position as at least the number two Street Fighter power for one more year, the camera captured the elation clear on his face for the nearly 30,000 viewers watching the online stream. He had missed the spotlight, if not the pressure. One more hard-earned chance to win it all, it was the moment that every competitive player dreams of--playing on the biggest stage for the highest stakes, more than his own pride on the line, the home crowd cheering him on to become, not just a winner, but a national hero.
For Daigo Umehara, it might as well have been Tuesday.
The real story of this year's Evo was, of course, Justin Wong's failure to make the finals. The biggest upset of the tournament came probably in the round of 32, when Justin found himself matched against Vance "Vangief" Wu, a relative newcomer who plays Zangief on a stock PS3 pad. (Actually, there were two pad players in the final 8 this year. Not only that, but HD Remix, the most classical game at Evo, was actually won by a new player using Zangief on a MadCatz FightPad. Yes, the PS3 one with the bulging battery slot and the unreliable wireless dongle. The moral of the story is, as I've said before, only scrubs would still insist that the only way to get good is on a joystick. The actual top players find ways to win with whatever they are comfortable with.)
Justin is reportedly proficient with multiple characters, but his tournament main since the original SFIV has always been Rufus. After Daigo swept his Rufus with Ryu at the GameStop championship last year, Justin tried to surprise Daigo with some different character choices during their last few encounters, but he still sticks with Rufus against most other players. And with the new Super edition, Rufus, already a very solid character in the original SFIV, has become widely regarded as the strongest character in the game, largely on account of his new Ultra Combo II, the Big Bang Typhoon, which allows him to spin through projectiles, tipping the odds in his favor now against formerly troublesome fireball characters such as Ryu. So Justin should have been coming into this tournament very confident for his expected rematch against Daigo's Ryu. That said, even Rufus has weaknesses, and one of them happens to be Zangief.
The Justin vs. Vangief match is actually not very exciting to watch unless you have a highly advanced appreciation for the game, so I'll just summarize. Like two taekwondo experts "respecting" one another, both players spend eternities just dancing in and out of each other's ranges, each hoping to bait the other into making a mistake. It's competitive Street Fighter at its most fundamental and usually where Justin shines. He wins the first game, but Vangief adapts to take the second. In the first-to-two-games format, Justin has an opportunity to switch characters after losing the second game. Zangief has the advantage against a close-range character such as Rufus, but he himself also faces more nigh impossible match-ups than almost any other character. As confident as Justin may be in his Rufus to overcome the mismatch, surely the safer bet, after having already lost one to this Zangief, would be to counter with Sagat or Akuma and zone the Russian out. Instead, in a decision he'll long regret, Justin sticks to his guns with Rufus and pays the price, losing the decisive third game.
All that was really prelude, however, to the best match of tournament. In this double-elimination tournament, the loss to Vangief merely sent Justin to the losers bracket, where he had one more chance to qualify for the final 8. In an elimination match, he needed to defeat "GamerBee," a Taiwanese Adon player.
For a player on the verge of elimination, it is almost a worst case scenario to be matched up, in a first-to-two format, against an unknown player using an unknown character this deep into a tournament. You've got only a few games to figure out an opponent--both player and character--that you've probably never seen before, and even though, in theory, Adon should be easily beaten, the truth is that nobody knows how to approach the Adon fight. Why would you need to know? Nobody would be fool enough to bring Adon to Evo, right? Nobody with skills enough to matter, anyway.
Actually, some of the cooler things to see in these huge international tournaments often come during the early pools. Although the final rounds invariably come down to a handful of familiar selections (Rufus, Ryu, Akuma, Honda), it's a guarantee that, with so many players in attendance, there will be at least one mysterious entrant showing off his mastery of an obscure character. Maybe somebody will get to take Gen onto the big screen and come away with a crowd-pleasing victory using the one nasty Gen trick that nobody else knew about. For a game or two, he'll have people believing that Gen can actually contend, or at least that "it's the player, not the character." Then an established player using a better character will see through the parlor tricks, declare "We've let these humans win enough," and send the briefly inspiring Gen player packing.
One would have expected the same thing to happen to GamerBee and his Adon, rarely seen but generally considered a low-tier character. Instead, he proceeded to progress deeper and deeper into the tournament, toppling many solid players along the way. He wasn't exploiting any secret combos either; on paper, Adon still looked like a weak character. Yet many a favored top player must have been quaking in his boots as GamerBee frustrated one opponent after another with his repeated Jaguar Kicks (the hopping axe kick) and perfectly timed Rising Jaguars (Adon's equivalent to the Dragon Punch). These should have been moves with obvious counters, right? Yet GamerBee was playing Adon as though he were the best character in the game, and nobody seemed to have an answer. Hell, even I got nervous watching him win--I've spent about half my life, after all, believing that Adon is a pretty worthless character.
By the time GamerBee drew Justin, the Adon shenanigans were far past being cute. With all the pride to lose and probably none to win, you definitely did not want to be a top player losing to some Taiwanese Adon on the big screen at Evo. It would be competitive Street Fighter's equivalent to getting struck out in schoolyard baseball by a girl pitcher (even if that girl's skills are legit and your bros, even as they laugh at you, are secretly praying that they won't be next). No, the gag had gone far enough. Or had it?
Actually, although I say GamerBee is unknown, he had actually won a bit of Internet fame already for the YouTube videos showcasing some of his tight online battles against top Japanese players, including Daigo himself. I'm sure Justin and other top players were wishing during Evo that they had studied those matches more closely.