The Evolution Championship Series (Evo), the largest annual fighting game tournament in the world, was held this past weekend in Las Vegas. Within the U.S. fighting game community, undoubtedly the most coveted trophy was that for Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3.
As a spectator, I have to say, this game is pretty broken. That's not necessarily a negative; most fighting games, at the competitive level, are broken in some way. It's only a question of whether it's the good kind of broken (the kind that opens the game up to all sorts of crazy and entertaining shenanigans that the creators never envisioned) or one of the bad kinds (the kinds that render the game either too insufferably narrow or too random and competitively compromised). UMvC3 seems to me, more than any of the other games at Evo, one where matches are pivotally determined by unforced errors. In a game of such drawn-out combos, where full-health characters often die off a single hit, and where a comeback, even from down to the last sliver of your last character against a full three-character team, is never out of the question, provided you still have "X-Factor" (a massive power-up, which every player can activate once per round), any time a competitor "drops their combo" (fails to complete their combo due to an input error), they are, in effect, granting their opponent an extra life. You'd like to imagine that, at the highest level, players would have perfect execution, but the reality is that even the best players in the world drop their combos multiple times per match. Thus, who wins a match is almost, in a way, not so much directly determined by who KOs whom but indirectly by who finishes with the most extra lives courtesy of their opponent's errors. But, as with many spectator sports, it is often not the most polished play that produces the greatest entertainment, and UMvC3 produced some of the wildest, most dramatic, and most memorable moments at Evo this year.
The narrative heading into Evo 2013 was "Who can stop Chris G.?" A year prior, New York's Christopher Gonzalez had innovated the strategy of activating Morrigan's "Astral Vision," which creates a mirror image of the character on the opposite side of the screen, then filling the screen with fireballs coming from both sides, smothering the opponent in a nearly inescapable gauntlet of projectiles chipping away at their health. Chris G.'s projectile-spamming strategy quickly earned him the scorn of spectators, but some regarded it as merely tricky shenanigans. Sufficiently skilled players were still able to thread the needle through the wall of projectiles to get at Morrigan, whereupon Chris G.'s team would quickly unravel without her. Within another year, however, Chris G. had honed his Morrigan skills to near perfection, winning nearly every tournament he entered along the road to Evo 2013.
Check out this sequence between Chris G. and Justin Wong from CEO 2013, the last major tournament before Evo, and observe that, once that Morrigan gets going, there doesn't appear to be anything that Justin, though himself the most accomplished player in Marvel vs. Capcom history, can do:
Morrigan's fireballs own the ground, Doctor Doom's "Hidden Missiles" assist intercepts any advance, and there's not even any waiting out the Astral Vision technique, because, by the time it runs its course, Chris G. has almost accumulated enough Hyper Combo meter to activate it again. With such domination as had become routine for Chris G. throughout the 2013 season leading up to Evo, he established himself as not only the safe-money bet but also the villain among those bored and frustrated by his demoralizing style of play. People were praying that someone would be able to stop Chris G. at Evo, but who could possibly climb that mountain?
Actually, it happened a lot earlier than anyone expected. In the quarterfinal round, player WindZero came out with a surprising point character choice of Chris Redfield, who could actually go prone under Morrigan's fireballs. Together with a likewise unconventional anchor of Jill Valentine, this was enough to help WindZero sneak a victory past Chris G. Evo being a double-elimination tournament, however, Chris G. was still alive, albeit in the unenviable position of having to fight his way back through the losers bracket. With nobody else able to finish the job WindZero started, destiny would have it that WindZero himself would cross paths with Chris G. again later that same day, and the result the second time around was much closer to what everyone expected, Chris G. winning handily.
Meanwhile, in a different section of the bracket, Justin Wong, the aforementioned winningest Marvel vs. Capcom 2 player of all time, but someone whom most had counted out in this game, was making his own bid to get back on that finals stage. It began with a semifinal match against Evo 2012 champion Ryan "Filipino Champ" Ramirez.
Filipino Champ, one of the cockiest players in the scene, plays a team anchored by Phoenix, who was formerly the most terrifying character in the original version of Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Although she was by far the most fragile character in the game, if the Phoenix player's team managed to build up the maximum 5 Hyper Combo gauge stocks, she would be able to resurrect upon death and become Dark Phoenix, easily capable of decimating an entire opposing team by herself within a matter of seconds. Despite a few tweaks that made it harder to achieve Dark Phoenix mode in the Ultimate revision, still few players have a reliable answer once Dark Phoenix does awaken.
Meanwhile, Justin runs a team of dubious makeup, mostly relying on his point character, Wolverine, to blitz the opponent. His second character, Storm, was top-tier in Marvel vs. Capcom 2 but is highly suspect in UMvC3. Akuma, as anchor, is on the team mostly for his assist. Clearly, Justin was the underdog here against one of the most dangerous players in the tournament.
The YouTube video cuts off before you can catch the audience's reaction, but Justin's upset victory earned him the loudest applause of any result on the live stream all day. All he had really done was send Filipino Champ to the losers bracket, but, from the cheering, you might have thought Justin had just won the whole thing. Of course, this really was just the beginning.
Having made it to the final round of 8, Justin faced off the following day against Job "Flocker" Figueroa, a player who pioneered the use of Zero on point. Next to Morrigan (Chris G.'s Morrigan specifically) and maybe Dark Phoenix, Zero is the most devastating character in the game. I mentioned earlier that this is a game where a single combo can take a character from full health down to nothing. Zero is the epitome of that, as he can convert almost any hit he lands anywhere on the screen and at any point in the match into a "touch of death" combo (again, provided the Zero player executes). Up against the best Zero player in the world, Justin's team was at a severe disadvantage, and Flocker quickly exposed the deficiencies of a Storm and Akuma team, taking the match 3-0.
That being Justin's first loss of the tournament, he was still alive in the losers bracket. But who else was there lurking in the losers bracket? None other than Chris G., still the odds-on favorite, who was now playing with a vengeance ever since landing in losers. Up against the game's most dominant player, who had had Justin's number their last several encounters, and who was running a team nobody had an answer for, this would be an even steeper climb for Justin than the Zero match-up had been.
The first 2 games in the best-of-5 series played out to script, Chris G. dominating Justin as always. But then (beginning at 5:43 in the video), after regrouping, Justin actually began to mount a comeback. Whatever the final outcome of the tournament, the next 3 games would instantly rank among the greatest ever played on the Evo stage.
This time, you can hear the crowd going nuts, chanting Justin's name even before the final round is over. I went over Chris G.'s role as the community's current favorite villain earlier. Once upon a time, Justin himself had been the villain—the teen vanguard of an East Coast invasion force (or at least viewed so by a fighting game community sown on Shoryuken.com (SRK), the one-stop online forum founded by a couple of West Coast players). That seemed now a lifetime ago—a lifetime ago since Justin Wong had won any tournament of consequence. But if his former dominance had perhaps become a distant memory, Justin was nevertheless ready to remind everyone that there has never been a player more clutch.
The narrative heading into Evo 2013 was "Who can stop Chris G.?" The narrative coming out belonged to Justin Wong. Well, almost. The only worthy followup to that Chris G. match would have been for Justin to go all the way and win it. Three more opponents stood in his way.
First up was Cloud805, another Zero player. Every year, there will be some relatively unknown player showing up with a Zero/Vergil/Dante team (dubbed "Zero May Cry" within the community) and an immaculate mastery of Zero's notoriously high-execution combos, honed through countless hours of home practice and online play. Actually, this year, there were two new Zero May Cry players in the final 8, but Cloud805 was clearly the more serious, and he had already shown nerves of steel while eliminating defending champion Filipino Champ a match prior to much grand stage applause of his own. Again facing this mismatch against Zero, the very character that had sent him to the losers bracket, Justin nevertheless drew on his unparalleled experience and legendary instincts to handle Cloud805 3-0.
Next up for Justin was a match against Angelic. A strong player running a Wolverine of his own and a rare Shuma-Gorath anchor, Angelic had earned the nickname "Mr. 3-0" for his many sweeps during the course of the tournament. No Morrigan or Zero to deal with, however, Justin had more breathing room to control the match, taking it 3-1.
That victory earned Justin a place in the grand finals against Flocker, who had already beaten Justin convincingly earlier that day. And, as Flocker was the last remaining player in the winners bracket, Justin would have to win two sets in a row against him—the first to even the score and send Flocker to the losers bracket, the second to take it all—whereas Flocker would only need to win one to eliminate Justin and win the tournament. Two whole sets against a guy he hadn't been able to take a single game from last time.... Could Justin dig deep and find a little more even than he had already shown?
It went down to the wire, but, at the end of the day, Flocker proved the best UMvC3 player at Evo 2013, Justin falling perhaps one dropped Storm combo short of a fairy tale ending to his nonetheless magnificent run. But what makes these moments great is that you can't script them. As fiction, it would be too unbelievable, but this was real, and that's precisely what makes it the stuff of legend.