Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Game Has Changed

EVO 2010 ended unsurprisingly with defending champion Daigo Umehara's Ryu triumphing again over a top American Rufus player in Super Street Fighter IV. But the real story of the tournament was Taiwanese player GamerBee. When he came out of nowhere with his Adon to stunningly upset Justin Wong, en route to a 5th place finish that made national television news in his native Taiwan, it sent shock waves through the community.

If what happened really happened, then everything was thrown into question. It had been one of life's understood truths that Adon was among the most hopeless characters in the game. What did it mean that a virtual unknown from nowhere could take this bottom-tier fighter and defeat several of America's top players in convincing fashion? Suddenly, up was down, snow fell in the summer, two plus two equaled five, and horses rode people. Okay, so maybe the situation was not so dire, but it at least suggested that the tier list was not so figured out as we believed.

The repercussions of GamerBee's run could be seen at last weekend's Season's Beatings: Redemption, the first major international tournament since EVO. Perhaps it was not as big as EVO (and maybe EVO still isn't Japan), but most of the top players were in attendance, including Justin Wong, Daigo, and GamerBee himself.

This time, GamerBee entered as a legitimate favorite, so perhaps it was not so surprising to see him win it all. Well, no, it's still hard to come to grips with an Adon player winning a major competition. But Season's Beatings was full of unexpected results that would have been thought inconceivable just a few months ago.

The first stunner was Daigo's early exit. Who took out Umehara's Ryu? His first loss came at the hands of TwistedJago, by some accounts the best Bison player in America. It was a close match, and with this being a double-elimination tournament, Daigo still had a chance to come back by fighting his way through the losers bracket. His first opponent in losers was Marn, one of the East Coast's top SFIV players since the original version's release. Ever since Super came out, Marn had been maining new character Dudley, and he had not had very impressive results to show for it. Sticking to his guns against no less an opponent than Daigo, would he pull a "GamerBee" and manage a major upset using an obscure low-to-mid-tier character?

The other highlight of Season's Beatings had to be the much anticipated rematch between GamerBee and Justin Wong. The tournament's "Redemption" moniker seemed specifically chosen to hype up a possible match between Justin and his unexpected EVO vanquisher.

Actually, before they could meet in the tournament proper, the two would face off as members of opposing teams in the 5-on-5 "USA vs. The World" exhibition. Once again, it was Justin's Rufus against GamerBee's Adon, and instead of Justin avenging his EVO loss, it was GamerBee winning in commanding fashion, proving that his last victory was no fluke.

Of course, the top American players tend to regard these exhibitions as merely arenas for sandbagging. Most experts will tell you that winning is a matter of knowing your opponent, more so than knowing the game. But even in this online age, it's not exactly a simple matter to arrange a sparring session against a player even just from another state. So an exhibition with no money at stake is a good chance to feel out a foreign opponent who might later prove an obstacle in the main tournament. A shrewd player like Justin has been known to use such opportunities to get a read on a potential threat's tendencies, while he himself holds back and saves his best for the money rounds.

Sure enough, when he inevitably ran into GamerBee in the main tournament, Justin revealed that he had been saving something especially for his Taiwanese rival. This time, he would turn the tables and leave GamerBee scratching his head. For this opponent, Justin swapped out his signature Rufus for his own eyebrow-raising character choice of Makoto, another one of the game's worst characters, who is virtually unrepresented in the competitive scene.

Now, you might think that Makoto should be the sandbag character and Rufus the money character, in which case Justin was seemingly disrespecting his opponent. But Justin Wong is a guy who lives off his tournament winnings, and even if Season's Beatings isn't quite EVO, he's in it to win it, especially up against the very guy who eliminated him in EVO, thus robbing him of both prize money and pride. And Justin has shown before that he actually has rather a large and eclectic bag of secret weapons. After his Rufus lost badly to Daigo in their first SFIV match, Justin experimented (unsuccessfully) with Abel, Balrog, and Fei Long against Daigo's Ryu in subsequent major tournament situations. There aren't many players who could thus push Justin to stray from Rufus just to counter them, so his resorting to Makoto here was truly a testament to his respect for GamerBee's skill with Adon. It also meant that he truly believed Makoto had potential, and he came in fully prepared to prove it.

So, a match between an Adon and a Makoto as the most anticipated bout of a major tournament? It sounds just a bit ridiculous, yet there it was, real and competitive, and perhaps it was time for everyone watching to forget what they thought they knew about "tiers."

Of course, that was not the end of it. Although Justin had avenged himself, this was, once again, a double-elimination tournament. Unlike Daigo, GamerBee would fight his way back through losers, and Justin would find himself having to try and finish what he started, facing GamerBee once more, this time in an elimination match in the top 3, which was perhaps only proper.

Again it was Makoto versus Adon, but this match perhaps revealed the difference between the two users of these low-tier characters. GamerBee is old school. He doesn't pick Adon just to take advantage of his opponents' unfamiliarity with the matchup, but because Adon truly is his character, whom he'll live and die by. Meanwhile, Justin's choice of Makoto may have been somewhat of a gimmick, due to run its course, once his opponent caught up to his own rudimentary knowledge of the character's tricks. Yes, as both players proved, there are more characters than just Rufus and Akuma, but the deeper lesson that GamerBee teaches us here is that it really does come down to the player, not the character.

Ultimately, GamerBee managed to adapt to the Makoto matchup, leaving Justin to reconsider his character choice. Unfortunately for Justin, he didn't really have a backup plan, and you can see at the end that GamerBee just beat the fight out of him. He would do very much the same to his final opponent, Momochi, another top Japanese player on a par with Daigo.

Momochi plays Ken, another mid-tier character that is rarely seen going far in tournaments, but he is himself as technically solid a player as anyone in the world. Even so, GamerBee made him look ordinary, and although their match started close, by the end Momochi looked lost and desperate against a character that no one even in Japan plays to half the level that GamerBee does.

So, an Adon, a Ken, and a Makoto as the top 3. Daigo "The Beast" Umehara going out to a Dudley. Usually, as players grow more experienced with a game, the tournament results narrow toward a list of three or four proven top-tier characters. With Super Street Fighter IV, however, I suspect we may only now just be getting started plumbing the depths of this game.

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