Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Evo 2013 - Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition

Although now a five-year-old game, Street Fighter IV remained the main event at this year's Evo, the largest annual fighting game tournament in the world. Still the most prestigious title within the international fighting game community, this fifth SFIV Evo championship (the second held on this specific edition, Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012) drew over 1,600 competitors from all over the world. In the early years of Evo, it was a big deal whenever a small crew of top Japanese players would be invited to take part, as much to put on a show as to compete for the prize money, which would hardly cover airfare. Now, in 2013, Evo had literally dozens of Japanese entrants, the vast majority of them unknown regular players, independently booking flights across the Pacific in order to test themselves against the world's best on the grandest stage. So stacked was the competition with players who had spent years training toward mastery that simply making it out of initial qualifying pools (essentially 100+ 16-man tournaments unto themselves) was equivalent to winning a high-level local tournament, and national champions would be squaring off as early as the semifinals.

Early highlights included a match between France's Olivier "Luffy" Hay and Singapore's Ho Kun Xian in the semifinal round of 32. Besides being national champions, these guys are the premier specialists in the world with two rarely selected characters. With his Rose, Luffy had already scored notable victories over Evo 2010 runner-up Ricky Ortiz and famed Japanese player Kenryo "Mago" Hayashi. Meanwhile, Xian's immaculate Gen, which had first made waves when Xian decisively defeated none other than Daigo "The Beast" Umehara in a first-to-7 set (as honest as it gets!) at the 2012 South East Asia Major, entered Evo 2013 as a favorite to place top 3 at least. This is a matchup you would not likely find anywhere other than at Evo, and, with impressive play from both sides, it proved an excellent display of the diversity in the game even at the highest levels.

But the most exciting match from the first day of competition had to be the round of 16 encounter between Eduardo "PR Balrog" Perez and South Korea's Seon-woo Lee (AKA "Infiltration"). PR Balrog, despite being originally from Puerto Rico, had been viewed, going into Evo 2013, as the last great U.S. hope for a trophy (or at least a spoiler) in SFIV. The state of the U.S. Street Fighter scene had come rather to resemble the state of U.S. men's tennis, as no American had ever won SFIV at Evo, and results over the last couple years even suggested a trend toward further irrelevance for the U.S., as players from not only Japan but also South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore were outpacing America's best. PR Balrog had at least managed a respectable 3rd-place finish at Evo 2012, and, true to his placing, he came to be widely regarded as the best player in the U.S. But here he was up against the guy who had actually won Evo 2012.

Infiltration not only won Evo 2012 in dominating fashion but also took the perhaps even more coveted grand prize at Capcom's official Street Fighter 25th Anniversary tournament later that year. He is the cleanest, most complete Street Fighter player I've ever seen. His knowledge of the game is unrivaled, as he truly approaches it with a scientific perspective, thoroughly researching the mechanics and studying footage of other players, and always consulting the copious notes on his smartphone even between rounds of a match. Technically, mentally, emotionally, he never shows any cracks in his game, and his Akuma is known for simply wearing down opponents. Clearly the best in the world at SSFIV, he has lost a few tournaments here and there, usually to Cammy players, the lightning-fast Cammy being probably the most shenanigans character in the game and therefore capable of scoring random upsets even against the best. But PR Balrog doesn't play Cammy. What were the odds that he would be able to score an honest victory over the reigning and undisputed champion?

After a disastrous first game with a tentative Fei Long, PR Balrog came back with his old signature character and took the fight right to Infiltration. No tricks here, and no character advantage against Infiltration's Akuma, PR Balrog plain beat Infiltration two games in a row to uproarious applause, sending the Evo 2012 champion to the losers bracket in this double-elimination tournament.

Among the other disadvantages of being sent to the losers bracket early, Infiltration would later face the unhappy prospect of having to play an elimination match against Ryan "Laugh" Ahn, his good friend and partner/coach. A veteran member of the community, who lived for a long time in the U.S., Laugh is often credited as a large part of why Infiltration is such a dominant force now. The other half of their scientific team, Laugh could always be counted on to offer mid-match counsel at Infiltration's side through all of the Evo 2012 champion's major tournament wins. But Laugh is also a competitor himself, and, with advancement at Evo on the line, he was going to make his friend earn it. Infiltration did, winning it 2-1, but the night wrapped on a room-chilling note with their match, as clearly neither was happy with the way things turned out.

After a first day that saw numerous top players and former champions go down as that initial pool of 1,600+ was whittled down to a final 8, the real tournament was ready to begin as the main event at Evo. It was as stacked a final 8 as one could imagine, including not only Infiltration and PR Balrog but also Xian, Taiwan's Bruce "GamerBee" Hsiang, and four of Japan's "Five Gods of Fighting Games" (Daigo Umehara, Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi, Sako Naoto, and Tatsuya Haitani (the fifth, Shinya Ohnuki, was not in attendance)). Nearly every match would be an instant classic, and kicking it off was an elimination match between Infiltration and Daigo, the two players many predicted would face off in the grand finals.

Daigo almost needs no introduction; he's the most legendary fighting game player in history. He has fallen short at recent majors, leading many to question whether he's still got it. A runner-up placing at the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary tournament, including an impressive 3-0 victory over Infiltration, proved he still has the skills and the hunger, but then Infiltration answered back that same tournament, winning 6 straight games to take the trophy.

It's an interesting contrast between these two top players. Infiltration is a technically flawless, mentally unbreakable, admittedly mechanical player, whom everybody kind of wants to see get taken down. Meanwhile, Daigo is a player who famously operates almost purely on instinct. When he steps up to play, the commentators are reduced to poetical language about his philosophical approach or spiritual state, because his game defies coherent analysis. When he nails an opponent out of nowhere with one of his signature "Ume-Shoryu" Dragon Punches, he seems either to have had his opponent on a string or to be flat-out psychic. When he misses and misses badly, as he often does, he looks like a rank amateur just throwing out random uppercuts. But we know they can't be random, because he wins far too consistently! And, even when coming into a tournament as the favored Goliath, nobody ever really roots against Daigo, because there's something oddly, yes, inspiring and even almost heroic about the way he plays—daring, individual, unfettered.

At Evo 2013, in this clash of styles between the uncompromising maverick and the consummate student, Infiltration once again held the upper hand, and, in textbook Infiltration fashion, it was never really in doubt.

The demise of Daigo's Evo hopes were followed up by another elimination match, this one between GamerBee and Haitani. GamerBee first burst onto the scene at Evo 2010, where he stunned the world by eliminating Justin Wong, among other strong players, while using Adon, then considered one of the weakest characters in the game. GamerBee has since grown to become one of the scene's perennial heavyweights, his signature character an acknowledged powerhouse, though still he is the only player to take Adon deep into tournaments, including a runner-up finish at Evo 2012. Haitani, one of the lesser-known "Five Gods" outside of Japan (and I should point out that that appellation, aside from being unofficial, dates to an earlier era in Capcom fighting games; they are not the "Five Gods of SFIV"), plays an equally uncommon character, Makoto, which he has likewise raised to a level few thought within the character's reach. As with the Luffy vs. Xian match, this is an enlightening back-and-forth bout between two masters of very rare and very different characters.

Speaking of Xian, he and his Gen would be facing off in a winners bracket match against Sako, the most technically formidable of the "Five Gods." Sako did not make many appearances on the first day's live stream of the tournament, but he had come into the final 8 undefeated, which said enough about his skills. His Ibuki—yes, another uncommon character—was something to be feared, but, even more frightening, Sako backed that up with Evil Ryu, probably the rarest character of all, as his secret weapon. Against Xian's Gen, Sako would need to bring both Ibuki and Evil Ryu.

On the other side of the final 8 winners bracket were Tokido and PR Balrog. Another one of the "Five Gods," Tokido competes in many U.S. tournaments. A more natural showman than the other Japanese top players, he has long been a popular personality around the U.S. circuit. A fairly consistent top 8 player, he plays Akuma. In an SSFIV landscape ruled by Infiltration's Akuma, all others tend to come across as second-rate, so you might have thought PR Balrog would have the edge coming off his recent victory. But Tokido seemed to have a better read on PR Balrog than did Infiltration, and he was in complete control as he dismissed PR Balrog to the losers bracket.

Returning to the losers bracket, it was Infiltration up against Sako, and there was an interesting sub-narrative developing here. As much as the U.S. Street Fighter scene seems to have fallen behind in recent years, Japan has had even more pride to lose. Japan is the home of Street Fighter and traditionally had been the major power in the competitive scene, until Infiltration, a South Korean, convincingly unseated them. Daigo had already tried and failed to take the title of "World's Best" back to Japan. Now, Infiltration was facing another Japanese legend, one less familiar to him. Did Japan have anything left to show Infiltration, or was the Korean just going to slay one "god" after another?

In the end, Infiltration took it 3-1, even scoring a perfect, and Sako didn't even dare bust out Evil Ryu. Although Japan may still have the greatest number of top players, Infiltration showed the world that that's just a lot of notches on his belt.

PR Balrog then impressively dispatched Haitani, setting up an anticipated rematch with Infiltration. Any time an underdog sends a favorite to the losers bracket in a stunning upset, as PR Balrog had the other day, in the back of that underdog's mind, they've gotta be hoping someone else will finish the job, so that they won't have to see that guy again later in the tournament. But somehow it's almost never that easy. Maybe it's destiny. In any case, PR Balrog, who had already earned one honest victory against Infiltration—maybe the hardest achievement in the game—was now having to do it one more time, and not long after Infiltration had gotten to see PR Balrog manhandled by another Akuma player. What followed was, if perhaps not the most polished, then undoubtedly the most dramatic match at Evo 2013, and maybe the greatest either player had ever taken part in.

In three close games, PR Balrog proved that his first win was no fluke, as he took a 2-1 lead with his Balrog, who just seemed to have Infiltration's number. Down to his last life, the strongest player in the world had to think long and hard about how to proceed. He took things back to the character select screen and, after much quiet deliberation, decided to swap out Akuma for... Hakan?!

One of the unique aspects to Infiltration's game that makes him the most complete player I've ever seen is that, although he is primarily an Akuma player, he is actually, unlike most players, willing and able to play other characters in tournament situations. Back in the days, tournament players generally considered it a good idea to have not just one main character but also at least one alternate you could switch to. In case you ran into an opponent you couldn't handle with your usual character, you could turn to your backup. In the days of games with only 16 playable characters, you could maybe even develop some rudimentary ability with every character, so that you could take advantage of mismatches and "counter-pick" (purposely selecting a character that, on paper, has a favorable matchup against the opponent's). In the Street Fighter IV era, top players still advise learning multiple characters, and often one hears talk about competitors having "secret weapons," but the reality is that I've never seen any player other than Infiltration turn to a "pocket character" and have it pay off. Even Sako's Evil Ryu was ultimately more a gimmick than a legitimate secret weapon; any time his Ibuki failed him, switching to Evil Ryu didn't help.

Infiltration doesn't have secret weapons or desperation characters. He has one main character, Akuma, and then several other characters with specialized uses. And that includes obscure characters like Gouken, whose supreme fireball game he'll turn to as a legit pick to zone out Guile. No, Infiltration's not above switching away from his main character just to get a counter-pick advantage. Heck, this is someone known to wait, even before the first game of a set, to see what character his opponent will pick first, before deciding how to proceed. That said, conventional wisdom has always ranked Hakan among the worst characters in the game. Down to his last life, was Infiltration really going to bet it all on this pick?

Well, Infiltration actually has turned to Hakan in the past, so he has legit experience playing as the character. And, historically, grapplers have always been the natural counter to Balrog. So, in theory, this was actually a shrewd choice, even if it looked crazy. But maybe it was even better to be crazy! Infiltration has never been a player especially to endear himself to spectators. It's not that he has a bad attitude or anything; he's well-liked as a person. But his Akuma, a model of rote ruthlessness is not the most exciting to watch. It's actually a little sad every time watching his Akuma dominate Daigo's hopeless Ryu. But responding with an unconventional low-tier character when his own back is to the wall? The American crowd loves risk-takers, and they loved Infiltration for this, even up against their own PR Balrog.

It came down to the final round of the final game, but, in the end, PR Balrog succumbed to the moment, taking a few too many late-game gambles in his desperation to close it out. Still, this was one of those rare matches where the crowd cheered for both players equally. They cheered for a great match, no matter the outcome.

The remaining matches of the night couldn't quite live up to that high mark. Infiltration's victory set him up to next face Tokido, whom Xian had outclassed to send to losers. Akuma is maybe the most boring character to watch, and, with Infiltration now free to drop Hakan and start afresh with his main character against a new opponent, we were getting an Akuma mirror match. Ugh.

As expected, this battle of the two Akumas consisted of a ton of air fireballs from both sides. The surprise, however, was Infiltration, AKA "the one true Akuma," falling behind early to Tokido's. This is hard to account for, but, in many of the rounds, Tokido seemed just to open with some good reads to gain an early life lead, which took Infiltration out of his comfort zone.

Infiltration's Akuma tends to be a lot more intimidating when he's playing with the lead. Seriously, nobody ever comes back in a round against Infiltration. He's usually the best there is at reading other players, and, when he's got the lead, that makes his opponents that much easier to read. With the clock running down (and Akuma can run down the clock very effectively), they know the onus is on them to make something happen, and, since Infiltration knows their options in that situation probably better than they themselves do, he can completely shut them down by basically reacting to things they haven't yet done but are about to do.

Again, that depends on Infiltration having the lead. When it's even or he's behind, the opponent still has the option of playing defensively. In this case, Tokido, one of the most shameless players around (he's known for picking the cheapest character in every game he plays), is more than happy to play the "run away" game and "lame it out" (run down the clock), but he's also confident enough to go in. While he holds the lead, he's free to do either, which makes it much harder for Infiltration to get a read on him.

Basically, whether by luck or just because he was in the zone that match, Tokido managed to consistently win the opening gambits. From there, he was able to dictate the pace of the round, and, with his very patient play, he simply outlasted Infiltration, eliminating the defending champ 3-1.

Having cleaned out the rest of the losers bracket, Tokido booked a place in the grand finals against the last man in winners, Xian. This was a bit of an anticlimactic ending, as Xian clearly seemed the stronger player and had already beaten Tokido badly once this tournament.

Sure enough, Xian would do it again, and Evo 2013 wrapped with the once unthinkable outcome of a Gen player taking home the biggest prize. In the end, a well-earned victory for Xian in one of the most competitive and diverse tournaments in Street Fighter history.


Where is the champion? Where is Daigo? | FRAGGIN' CIVIE said...

[…] like the rest of us adults. Sustained success has more to do with keeping up the will to win. Daigo’s feeble loss to Infiltration at Evo this year, and the ensuing talk within the community that the fight was gone from him, perhaps reignited his […]

Ultra Street Fighter IV (Capcom, 2014) | FRAGGIN' CIVIE said...

[…] who even places at tournaments using Gen. However, because that one guy, Singapore’s Xian, won Evo 2013 with Gen, it’s as though Capcom overlords, feeling threatened by this Gen player competing so far […]