Friday, December 20, 2013

Where is the champion? Where is Daigo?


The Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012 tournament at this year's Capcom Cup featured some amazing play from eight of the strongest competitors in the world. Notably missing from that field, however, was Japan's Daigo "The Beast" Umehara, a two-time Evo champion in the Street Fighter IV series, last year's runner-up at the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary tournament (the precursor to Capcom Cup), and overall someone who is always in the conversation when discussing the best in the world at the game.

Daigo's results had slipped in recent years, with other top players, most notably South Korea's Seonwoo Lee (AKA "Infiltration") and Singapore's Ho Kun Xian, seeming to have his number. Infiltration, the most dominant player in 2012, was consistently standing in Daigo's way at major championships, trouncing him two Evos in a row, and also ultimately dismantling him in the 25th Anniversary tournament grand finals, despite Daigo having obviously trained hard to try to get back on top for that event. Xian, the Evo 2013 champion, had beaten Daigo convincingly in long sets on two separate occasions. Daigo was still a perennial top 8 finisher at Evo, but quite a number of people were ready to write his obituary as a serious contender for the title.

But fighting games, while not without a significant physical component, are not exactly like athletics, and the professional gamer's career need not mirror the athlete's arc of irreversibly declining performance over time. Capcom Cup winner Naoto Sako is in his mid-30s and has been playing competitively since the Street Fighter II days, and he is still regarded as the most dexterous player with the finest execution anywhere in the world. Age isn't that big a factor, and sponsored Japanese players like Sako and Daigo also aren't really going to "grow up" and out of heavy gaming 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 determination to be the best, as he responded by subsequently delivering some high-profile beatdowns that were brutal even for "The Beast."

The first came a little over a month after Evo 2013, when Daigo was booked to take on Xian in a "Mad Catz Unveiled" first-to-10 exhibition at the PAX Prime festival in August in Seattle, WA.

Going into the exhibition, Xian led their head-to-head, but the ever-humble Evo 2013 champion acknowledged that Daigo had seemingly adapted, narrowly prevailing 12-10 in their most recent encounter in the Topanga Asia League in May 2013. So a victory for Daigo would not have been a total shocker. Still, this was the reigning Evo champion he was up against—a player only a month removed from having fought his way out of a field of over a thousand to claim that title. A 10-0 demolition, such as Daigo rendered here, was something nobody could have predicted, but Daigo made the champ look like a helpless chump.

As much as it restored respect for Daigo's game, that result also raised questions about the legitimacy of Xian's crown and about the legitimacy of Evo itself as the most coveted title in the fighting game community. Some pointed out that Xian had been fortunate, on his path to the 2013 championship, to dodge Infiltration, whom many still had pegged as the no. 1 player. Another first-to-10 exhibition, this time between Daigo and Infiltration, had already been scheduled for September at the Tokyo Game Show expo.

The final result was 10-2 Daigo, with Daigo winning the first 5 (meaning Daigo would have come out on top, even if it had been a more standard best-of-3 or best-of-5 set). This result may have been even more impressive than the 10-0 blowout against Xian, since Infiltration surely would have been aware of the earlier exhibition and had a month to prepare himself in order not to have the same thing happen to him as happened to Xian. But, whatever preparations Infiltration made, Daigo's must have been superior, as he finally figured out and paid back his recent nemesis in emphatic fashion.

Whatever his disappointment at Evo, with the potentially even more prestigious inaugural Capcom Cup scheduled to close out the season, all eyes were once again on Umehara as the man to beat. But then the tournament came and went, and Daigo wasn't even present. What happened?

Well, the very next day after his remarkable steamrolling of Infiltration, Daigo did compete in the Capcom Cup Japan qualifier, which was also being hosted at the Tokyo Game Show, but he lost in the second round to Yuki Ishigaki (AKA "Kyabetsu" or "Cabbage"), one of Japan's better C. Viper players. Daigo lost 0-2 to Kyabetsu, not even taking a single round.

Infiltration and Xian also both entered the 64-man tournament and, although they fared better, it was not by much. Infiltration went out in the third round, and Xian made the fourth-round quarterfinals, both of them losing, interestingly enough, to a Japanese Sakura player known as Juso.

For some, the takeaway here was that Daigo may be some kind of rock star when he comes to the U.S. and beats Justin Wong at Evo, but, amid the abundance of very good players in Japan, he (and Infiltration and Xian) is just another guy. Maybe winning Evo isn't as impressive an accomplishment as the U.S. fighting game community believes. Maybe Evo is a bit like the Olympics, which is certainly the largest, most prestigious event for most of the sports it features, but which, for some sports, maybe doesn't actually feature as high a level of competition overall as some countries' national championships.

The obvious example is Olympic basketball. A contest of nations in basketball could never field as many strong teams as the NBA playoffs, because the majority of the best players in the sport all come from a single country, the United States of America. Any American recognizes that the NBA championship trophy counts for a lot more than an Olympic gold medal in basketball. But there are many Olympic sports which are similarly dominated by other nations, and those of us in the U.S., who don't follow those sports except during the Olympics, might not realize that their national championships might actually feature a higher level of competition than what we tune in to see only every four years.

Likewise, some have speculated that a Japanese Street Fighter player might be able to find better competition on any given day at their own local arcade than they would by flying over to the U.S. to compete in Evo. Just about every non-Japanese player who has visited one of those Tokyo arcades would agree that there is no place in the world harder to win. But I'm not personally convinced that Japanese tournaments are more accurate than Evo in determining the best player in the world.

For one, most Japanese tournaments historically, including that Capcom Cup qualifier at TGS, have been single-elimination, which most tournament organizers outside Japan would agree produces less reliable results, since it's not that unusual for even a top player to suffer a random loss, but it's far less likely that they'll suffer two at the same event. For another, we've observed how Western players travel to Japan and then note how hard it is to win there, but it may be more of a two-way street than many realize—a lot of those lesser-known but very talented Japanese players are lesser-known, not because they don't come to Evo, but because, when they do, they don't fare as well as they do at home. Kyabetsu, for example, was at Evo this year, and he didn't make it out of his qualifying pool. As another example, Japan doesn't even have a serious national championship equivalent to Evo here, but their highest-profile competition is the Topanga League, a round-robin series featuring the alleged best players in the nation competing in a more intimate, more relaxed format for a million-yen grand prize. Well, in this year's Topanga A League, Daigo came in 5th. Of the four players above him, three of them attended Evo 2013, only one of them making the round of 16. The Topanga A League winner, Masato Takahashi (AKA "Bonchan"), tied for 17th at Evo. Daigo, meanwhile, tied for 7th. Rather than it being the case that simply whoever wins in Japan is the best in the world, I think being the best in the world means being able to win consistently in tournaments across the world. That's what Daigo, Infiltration, and Xian have done.

Back to Capcom Cup, however it happened, the fact is, Daigo wasn't able to qualify in Japan. There were still other opportunities to earn a spot. Daigo could have traveled to one of the qualifiers in other countries, as Naoto Sako and Hajime Taniguchi (AKA "Tokido") did, qualifying in Brazil and Australia respectively. But he just didn't.

What did he do instead? Well, other than the Topanga League, the only other event he entered following that early exit at TGS was the SSFIV tournament at DreamHack Winter 2013 in Sweden. "The world's largest digital festival," DreamHack hosts multiple eSports competitions, and, although the SSFIV tournament is not one of its bigger events, this year's tournament did boast reportedly the largest ever prize purse for the game. Held on November 30, the tournament featured many top European players, as well as several well-known Asian competitors, including Daigo and Xian.

Ultimately, at the end of a long tournament that included many high-level matches on a par with what was seen at Capcom Cup, it came down to Daigo in the grand finals against another one of the biggest names not at Capcom Cup, Taiwan's Bruce Hsiang (AKA "GamerBee"). It was a spectacular finals, the first round perfectly encapsulating the legend that is Daigo "The Beast" Umehara.

As amazing a player as GamerBee is, this was no blowout, and yet it had the feel of one. Daigo was simply on fire, and, even when he would lose a round, he would seem to retain momentum. It was almost like GamerBee was only there to build hype toward Daigo's inevitable victory.

With Daigo looking as sharp as he ever has, it really was an unfortunate blow to Capcom Cup that he wasn't there, but, after 2013 passed without any clear "man to beat," anyone who follows the competitive scene for SSFIV should now be anticipating Daigo's next appearance at an international major, where I have to believe he'll enter as the favorite. (Of course, Ultra Street Fighter IV should be the new standard by Evo 2014, so maybe that will just completely destroy the status quo anyway.)

No comments: