Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Collection Is Complete


Pictured is the near-mint copy of Street Fighter EX2 Plus that I just received in the mail. The game was released more than fourteen years ago. At last it is mine, bringing to a close not only the hunt for Street Fighter EX2 Plus, but to hunting for games in general.

Street Fighter EX2 Plus was never, truthfully, that rare or that valuable a game. Certainly, if you want a copy that is complete (including case, manual, inserts) and in “like new” condition (scratch-free disc, crease-free manual), then you should expect to pay above the original retail price. But there are enough copies floating around on the secondhand market still (as of 2014) that, if you’re vigilant in watching the listings, you should be able to snag a pretty good one for less than the cost of a brand new current-generation game.

It took me this long to add it to my collection because, back when it originally came out, I was still a teenager with a very limited budget. I could only afford a few games a year, and this non-canonical Street Fighter side story was never near enough to the top of the list of titles I wanted. Even as I later got a job and a steady income, the number of new releases constantly being added to the list, along with the rapidly advancing oldness of Street Fighter EX2 Plus diminishing its appeal, never mind all the non-gaming expenses I now had to consider, only made hunting it down less and less a priority with each passing year.

Then came a day I would never have anticipated back in 2000: the day when there were no more new releases being added to my list of games to get. Make no mistake, I still purchase and play new video games, albeit at a slower rate than I did in my twenties. But I no longer buy them with a collector’s mindset, and I no longer worry about games becoming hard to find if I don’t snatch them up within the first two years of their release. I no longer have to.

The industry is transitioning to an all-digital model—a move I welcome with open arms (and subscription-based cloud gaming can’t come quickly enough). I’ll still buy a physical copy of a game if there’s an especially good deal, but I can also rest easy knowing that, even if I postpone picking it up for years, the digital version will still be available for me to purchase at my convenience whenever I actually feel like playing it. These days, I’ll usually just wait until a game is offered for free with my PS Plus subscription, as many of the big titles eventually are. Even many games of previous generations that were on my list have now been checked off, not because I acquired them, but because they have been re-released and preserved digitally. If the physical library is not now altogether obsolete, then, let’s say, its canon is closed. Or, at least, mine is, now that I have finally added Street Fighter EX2 Plus to my collection.

The Street Fighter EX games have yet to receive the “PlayStation Classics” treatment. Capcom has announced no plans to bring them out of the vault, even as it has consistently proven itself one of the publishers most eager to capitalize on its back catalog. (I mean, they even put the Genesis and TurboGrafx(!) versions of Street Fighter II on the Wii’s Virtual Console.) It’s likely that there are rights complications (the Street Fighter EX games are partly owned by developer Arika), in which case the odds would be against Capcom going to the trouble to bring these games back. I could be wrong; Capcom could release them all tomorrow, and I’d feel quite the fool.

But I wasn’t counting on ever seeing these games re-released digitally, and so I just decided one day that it was finally time to hunt down the last one missing from my library. Thus, at last, almost surreally, Street Fighter EX2 Plus was on its way through the post and then in my hand to place on my shelf.

With this one checked off the list, what else could possibly be left?

Well, the PS1 versions of X-Men vs. Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom are odd and original takes on those games, and the licensing issues would probably rule out any re-releases. But their secondhand prices are simply outrageous for what are now mere curiosities. Street Fighter Collection for the PS1 includes a unique, not-likely-to-ever-be-seen-again version of Super Street Fighter II Turbo, though not one that would have any value except to a real-life completionist. The original Guilty Gear for PS1 has maybe some historical significance, and again there may be some rights complications standing in the way of a North American digital release. But I’m okay living without it. And if really nobody feels like bringing it out here, I can always just get it off the European PSN store. Silent Hill 4: The Room is a PS2 game that I never played and still want to, but I remain optimistic that we will see that one again someday.

No, Street Fighter EX2 Plus will very likely be the last previous-generation game I ever buy in physical form, the last video game I ever have to hunt down.

Until now, I'm not sure it ever even occurred to me that there could ever be such a moment, when I could declare with anything approaching finality that I am done collecting. Yet here we've arrived. It's all rather like a dream. And I expect I will dream better tonight.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Poster

As I child, I loved watching the old Planet of the Apes movies and live-action television series on the Sci-Fi Channel. Tim Burton’s wretched 2001 reimagining, on the other hand, left me wishing that filmmakers would leave the classics well enough alone and not further tarnish the good name of Planet of the Apes with any more unnecessary remakes, reboots, etc. But then Rise of the Planet of the Apes turned out to be, I thought, unexpectedly one of the best films of 2011. When Rise director Rupert Wyatt left the sequel, I was disappointed and concerned, but, despite also cutting loose most of the cast of the first movie, 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ably carries on the rebooted series’ winning streak.

The opening sequences, depicting the apes living peacefully in the forest some decade or so after their escape from the city, play to the strengths that made the first film so distinctly effective. The chimpanzees, brought to life through an artful combination of performance capture and computer-generated visual effects, actually look and move marvelously like real apes, as opposed to the perversely evolved “ape-men” of the old movies. The ape characters communicate with one another mostly by signing, so, for a significant portion of the first act, not only are there no live actors (because there are no human characters), but there is very little spoken dialogue (and not much more signed and subtitled dialogue). Instead, it is left to Andy Serkis and his fellow motion-capture actors to carry the action through their physicality, and to composer Michael Giacchino to convey the story’s emotional arc through his resonant score.

And, as throughout the first film, there is, even in these peaceful moments, a mood of muted tragedy. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the mood was self-contained to that story, because the entire narrative was set into motion by the James Franco character’s tragic obsession with finding a cure to his father’s Alzheimer’s, even at the cost of compromising on his research ethics. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes reveals the immediate post-ape-ocalypse his experiments have wrought, most of humankind wiped out by the “Simian Flu” he unwittingly engineered. But if you’re familiar with the bleak original series of films set in the far future, then you know that worse days yet lie ahead for both human and ape. Although the new films exist in their own timeline separate from the old, still events seem to grind fatalistically toward that iconic image of Charlton Heston down on his knees in the sand, as every pivotal decision characters make in this movie presents merely another opportunity to agonize over the wrong turn they have taken toward doomsday.

When the apes realize that some humans have survived and that they remain inclined to violence, ape leader Caesar (Serkis) must decide quickly how to manage this potential threat to their way of life. As the warrior apes march en masse to the gates of the human city, the film delivers some of its strongest images. Most of the apes do not so much march as nimbly scale verticals and stride along the rooftops of ruined buildings, which again effectively illustrates the true “ape-ness” of these characters as not merely humans in heavy makeup. Then, when the hundred or so on foot form up to stand together with their horseback brethren at civilization’s doorstep, the message behind their display of controlled power and unmistakable intelligence is appropriately intimidating.

It has been suggested to me that the degree to which nature had managed to overtake abandoned man-made structures in a mere ten years, as depicted in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was unrealistic. I honestly have no idea. It’s disheartening to think that, so soon after our departure as a species, the monuments we leave behind could fall to such desolation—buildings crumbling to pieces and covered with moss and vines. There have been examples in the real world showing how rapidly untended shopping malls can structurally decay, or how quickly the earth works to reclaim its territory, when humans are not around to continually battle back against the forces of nature. But whole redwoods sprouting up around a hydroelectric dam within a mere decade? I don’t know about that. Frankly, I think it even more unbelievable that the apes would have stayed put in this national park these ten years without even the slightest inkling or curiosity what was going on in the rest of the world.

The middle portion of the film, when a group of human characters, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), work with Caesar to try to mediate a peace between the two mutually hostile sides, is less compelling, mostly because the characters are all so thinly developed, with the possible exception of Caesar, who is MIA for significant stretches. Malcolm has no great backstory to suggest why he is so committed to this peace, nor why he feels such an affinity with Caesar. He’s just blandly a good guy, who desperately wants to avoid war and all it entails (though it’s unclear what he personally knows of it). This is a huge problem, because Malcolm is really the lead character for a larger portion of the film than even Caesar.

As for Caesar, it’s a pity that, try though he might to lead with the same strength, sagacity, and charisma as his namesake (no, not any of the Roman historical figures; I refer, of course, to the redeemer ape played by Roddy McDowall in the last two of the original films!), he has not the conviction, ultimately, to remove from within his own camp the warmongering influence of his unreasoning lieutenant and brother ape, Koba (Toby Kebbell).

When the heavily scarred and sinister-looking Koba first appeared in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I immediately pegged him as Caesar’s evil counterpart, and I fully expected the movie to climax in a battle between the two chimps over the life of the James Franco character. One of the qualities that so impressed me about that first film, then, was how it resisted forcing such predictable turns, recognizing rather that Koba’s arc would have been, at most, of tertiary interest, better left to be resolved in a sequel that was, at the time, hardly guaranteed (and, indeed, for most of the cast and crew, there would be no sequel).

Again, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I expected Koba to play the Scar to Caesar’s Mufasa, and again I was impressed to find things not so simple. Up until the humans arrive on the scene, Koba is actually kind of a likable character. He’s like that uncle who is full of stories, generally fun to be around, and always looks out for his own, but who also happens to be seriously racist, which everybody just uncomfortably pretends not to notice, as they take care to keep him off certain topics. When he inevitably does become the villain, it is not for personal profit but more so for ideology, which I suppose is less villainous.

The same is true of the human faction’s leader, Dreyfus, played by Gary Oldman. It’s a small part for a big actor. Seriously, when he showed up late in the film, I was shocked that he was in it, even though, in fact, he had had a few scenes already by that point. But, as always, Oldman entertains. His incredulity at the suggestion of a peace with talking apes is probably the best part of the movie. He plays his character as someone who sincerely thinks himself in the right and working in his people’s best interests. Dreyfus and Koba alike are guys with the guts to make the hard decisions, but not the wisdom to think them through.

When the film at last violently climaxes in the apes laying siege to the human city, the results are thrilling. The nighttime raid is not yet so dark as the ending to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), which the sequence clearly evokes, but the way that the apes engage in warfare—leaping and swinging about—makes the conflict something fresh to behold. Meanwhile, the sight of a chimpanzee on horseback and dual-wielding assault rifles is as terrifying as it is absurd, as has always been the allure of the Planet of the Apes films.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes drags on for a little while longer after that, and, I must confess, my interest dropped considerably once the one major action sequence was concluded. There are still some good bits after, but, with the expectation that the events here were fated to lead into the original premise of the entire franchise, I did not see that there was much that any of the characters could meaningfully achieve during the remainder of the film. By that point, I was ready for them to bring on the next story, when finally those astronauts would return to find the planet not as they left it.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Evo 2014 - Et cetera (plus thoughts on the FGC and eSports)

Evo 2014 - Champions

In addition to the anticipated championships for Ultra Street Fighter IV and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Evo 2014 was also host to a number of other tournaments and events. Among those I happened to catch, one of the more memorable was X-Mania USA, the first American edition in Japan’s premiere Super Street Fighter II Turbo competition, a single-elimination 3v3 team tournament.

X-Mania USA

Three of Japan’s “Five Gods of Capcom Fighting Games”—Daigo “The Beast” Umehara, Shinya “Nuki” Onuki, and Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi—joined together to form Team Japan 1. U.S. legends Alex Valle, John Choi, and Mike Watson also answered the call to take on their Japanese rivals one more time as Team OGSF. These six players have had so many classic battles between them over the years in Super Street Fighter II Turbo tournaments at Evo, before the game was finally retired from the official lineup after 2008. Nuki might be the only one among them who still practices the game; he placed 2nd in the previous day’s Tournament of Legends II. But those old school skills die hard, as do storied USA vs. Japan rivalries.


The new school of U.S. top players was represented by Team Special Forces, composed of Jason “AfroLegends” Nguyen, Damien “Damdai” Dailidenas, and Biran “Ganelon” Su, three Super Street Fighter II Turbo enthusiasts who came up well after the game’s prime years, but have since established themselves as the country’s top specialists, which they would prove here by besting Team OGSF for a respectable 3rd-place finish.

But, in an all-Japan final at X-Mania USA, it would be two teams composed of Super Street Fighter II Turbo grandmasters attending Evo 2014 to compete in this game only. On one side, we had Team M3: MAO, Mattsun, and TMF. On the other side was Team Japan 2: Noguchi, Hanashi, and Kurahashi. These were all near-mythic names, the living legends and true diehards of the game, for whom Super Street Fighter II Turbo never ended and there were no other games.


Now, all grandiloquence aside, for anybody who wants to argue that the old games were more skillful, more strategic, more balanced, just take a look at what happens when either MAO or Noguchi steps up to the joystick and plays as Vega (claw) (“Balrog” in the video, as they were playing on the Japanese version). These “grandmasters” basically just spam Vega’s wall dive technique over and over again, and their opponents can barely do anything about it. This is a character so mindlessly overpowered that, at one point, he was reportedly “soft-banned” in Japan, meaning that, although there was no written rule against using Vega in competition, everybody in the arcade would shun you if you won with him. And when it’s time for MAO and Noguchi to play one another? Pure slapstick. I bet even Vega players hate Vega.

The King of Fighters XIII

I also happened to catch the finals of The King of Fighters XIII. I find this a dreadfully boring game to spectate, because 1) matches take way too long, 2) there are too many mirror matches, especially involving the DLC characters (which I never quite felt like paying for), and 3) I find that comebacks are less feasible in the 3-on-3 elimination format of King of Fighters, as compared to more typical 1-on-1 round-based games. But there was some minor intrigue to be had from the grand final, between Japan’s Tokido and China’s Zhuojun “XiaoHai” Zeng.

Tokido, one of the aforementioned “Japanese gods,” is probably the most versatile fighting game player on the planet. A perennial top player in whatever the marquee Capcom fighting game of the moment is, he’ll nonchalantly sign up to compete in just about every other Japanese fighting game at any event he attends as well, because it’s easy money if he can win without trying very hard. He was never even really a Super Street Fighter II Turbo player, but, as is his method in all his side games, he quickly picked up the cheapest character, in this case Vega, and subsequently outperformed the U.S.’s most veteran warriors at multiple Evo tournaments. At the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary Tournament, he was the only person on the planet to qualify in all four games (Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition, Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012, and Street Fighter X Tekken). He is one of only two Japanese players ever to win a major Marvel vs. Capcom tournament in the U.S., doing so in Marvel vs. Capcom 3 right at the peak of that game’s profile shortly after its release. And he has even made Evo top 8 before in some of the 3-D fighting games, such as Tekken 6 and Virtua Fighter 5.

At first glance, Tokido’s success in The King of Fighters XIII would seem to be a case of merely his natural genius taking him far in another side game, where the competitive scene might not be especially developed. But it’s a little-known bit of trivia that Hajime Taniguchi’s long-held nickname, “To-Ki-Do,” actually derives from the most scrubby style of Iori Yagami play in The King of Fighters ‘98 (Tobi = jump, Kikku = kick, Doushita! = what Iori yells when he performs his fireball). And, after a fairly effortless 4th-place finish last year, he had stated his intention to focus heavily on the game, his sights set on an Evo championship for 2014. So this title really did mean something to him; it was not just easy money.

As for his opponent, XiaoHai, this is a guy who made his name (quite literally) by becoming, at a tender age, China’s “god of KOF,” who has made a parlor trick of crushing challengers one-handed in The King of Fighters ‘98. The King of Fighters is a series that traditionally had never had much of a competitive scene in either Japan or the U.S. But it developed a huge following in regions such as China and Mexico, which have not historically been prioritized as lucrative markets for closed-platform video game publishers, but where piracy runs rampant, the old Neo Geo games being among the easiest to clone and cheaply distribute across arcades in these lands. So, although XiaoHai has, of late, proven himself one of the most formidable competitors in Street Fighter IV, it would be proper to say that The King of Fighters simply runs in his blood.

With both Tokido and XiaoHai having suffered disappointing early exits in Ultra Street Fighter IV the previous day, this King of Fighters XIII grand final was now their Evo.

… And it was a miserable bore again, aside from the amusement to be had when the Iori vs. Iori mirror match came up, leading to slapstick moments (witness the opening exchange at 9:30) coincidentally almost exactly like those in the Vega vs. Vega Super Street Fighter II Turbo match.


(Video uploaded by FRMA.)

The one great moment to come out of this tournament was actually after all the fighting was done (at 36:40). After the top 8 finalists lined up on the main stage to receive their Evo medals, the crowd began a chant. But it was not a boorish “U-S-A” chant, nor any particular competitor’s name. Rather, it was “K-O-F,” a chant in appreciation of the tournament itself, for all the competitors and for a series and scene that has long struggled to be taken seriously by the larger FGC. As all the finalists joined in on the chant in unison, it created an Olympics-style moment of camaraderie in competition through shared love of the game. Awesome. (And then, of course, that gave way to a random “U-S-A” chant from the crowd, which, okay, was pretty great in its own way.)

Killer Instinct

I saw bits of the Killer Instinct top 8. I don’t have a very complete understanding of what’s going on in this game. It looks pretty fun, and I especially appreciate that it includes a smaller roster of very distinct characters (as opposed to most games these days, which have humongous casts, such that even the top players in the world can sometimes be caught having no idea how to approach rarely seen matchups), but, as it’s exclusive to a console I don’t own, I can’t really get into it.

The current competitive scene for it is interesting, though, because Killer Instinct has been, for whatever reason, the one “crossover” game, where top Street Fighter players and top Mortal Kombat players have been duking it out for supremacy. This is the one game that has seen Justin Wong returning to the role that he once owned within the U.S. FGC, as the most-wanted bounty head and invading Goliath. Or, depending on your perspective, maybe the invader is Emmanuel “CD Jr” Brito, one of the greats in Mortal Kombat (2011), and now one of the dominant forces in Killer Instinct as well. Mortal Kombat, as a tournament game, has never enjoyed the popularity or the respect of Street Fighter, but let there be no further doubt as to the legitimacy of the players who have chosen to express their talent through the Western-developed fighting games, as CD Jr has been holding his own (and then some) against the likes of Justin Wong in Killer Instinct.

Of course, the scene for this game is still pretty small, and limited by it being on the Xbox One, so we’ll see whether it grows or just fizzles. I’ll say that, as a spectator, I find it much more entertaining than past games that never caught on, such as Street Fighter X Tekken, or even The King of Fighters XIII, for that matter.



BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma

But the most intense grand final of any tournament all Evo may actually have been for the game with the least hype, BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma.

BlazBlue could probably be filed under “games that never caught on,” alongside its predecessor Guilty Gear. The 2-D “anime fighters” developed by Arc System Works have never attracted a large competitive community in the U.S.; they’ve been just steady enough to earn typically one Evo spot annually for whatever the most current Arc System Works game of the moment is. This year, however, Arc System Works and publisher Aksys Games teamed together to raise BlazBlue’s Evo profile in a big way, donating a bonus $30,000 to make the tournament’s prize pot the largest of any game at Evo 2014. This boosted entrance numbers by about 100 competitors over last year’s Persona 4 Arena tournament, and perhaps it also played a part in attracting a contingent of reportedly Japan’s top BlazBlue specialists.

I remember, at past Evos, the Guilty Gear XX tournaments would come down to the top specialists in the U.S. getting run over by whichever Japanese players happened to be at Evo, and for whom Guilty Gear XX was merely a “free money” side game. This year, with Japan’s actual best BlazBlue specialists all coming to participate, would the finals prove to be an even more anticlimactic mockery of the weak U.S. scene for these anime games? Would the entire top 8 be all Japanese players “going to work” on Sunday against the same guys they play against every day back home, as though the biggest BlazBlue tournament in North America were just another day at the office for them?

Well, to the first question, sort of, as indeed 7 of the top 8 (and 10 of the top 16) were Japanese. As for the second question, well… so it seemed, at first.

As with Killer Instinct, I don’t understand this game too terribly well either, and was having to learn the rules as I watched, but the Arc System Works games generally share a few signature characteristics. They are high-execution games, where you cannot expect to compete unless you can perform lengthy combos with consistency, and air-dash around the screen with speed and precision. On defense, there’s usually a metered mechanic that allows you to negate chip damage as you block. And your real lifeline is the “Burst” technique—a combo-breaker, which takes a LONG time to refill once you use it.

So the basic arc (no pun intended) and flow of a match proceeds thus: characters fly around and deal big damage very quickly, but a player with only slivers of health left can still hang in there for quite a while if their defense is on point, and the decisions on when and how to spend one’s precious Burst can be absolutely pivotal, as using it at one point can save your life at that time, but then doom you later when you need it and don’t have it.

I had the top 8 playing in the background and found it kind of a snoozer, notwithstanding some freaky cosplaying exhibited by the Japanese competitors:


But, again, understanding that these guys all probably played against one another every day in the arcade made this all seem very anticlimactic to me. What could this U.S. tournament, populated mostly by competitors far below the level they were accustomed to, really mean for these Japanese (well, other than a big payday)? To my astonishment, the grand final answered that question in a way that completely changed my mind.


As Ryo “Dogura” Nozaki, coming from the winners bracket, sat on championship game at 2-2, having just pummeled Keiji “Garireo” Okamoto in two straight rounds in commanding fashion, it looked like our anticlimax was nigh. Garireo, one game away from elimination in the losers bracket, was seriously on the ropes against the competitor who had already beaten him convincingly to send him there in the first place. I must confess, I hadn’t even been paying attention. But then the stream exploded with the sounds of the commentators and crowd going nuts.

In the fourth game, Garireo, facing match point, having dropped the first round and now one hit away from defeat in the second, began to rally! And the 8,000-person ballroom was now behind him all the way!

Garireo pulls out the round. Cue crowd eruption. With momentum on his side, Garireo takes the next round as well, resetting the bracket to send the match to a second, decisive set. And that’s when Garireo lets out a primal roar (14:30) that is to become the single most impressive image of Evo 2014.


Dogura, for his part, unfazed, would answer back with four straight dominating rounds to race to a 2-0 lead in the second set. Garireo, facing the possible end of the road again, looked even more done than he had at any time in the last set. Cheered on by the crowd, he nodded to signify his readiness for the next game, only to find himself again just two combos away from losing it all in the third round. And again Garireo dug deep and somehow found his way back to make it 2-1 Dogura.

The pattern repeated. Dogura, looking at most bemused, took an early lead to within pixels of the championship, only to see Garireo somehow rally back to level the score at 2-2.

At this point, both players had to pause before heading into the final game. Garireo let rip another cry of elation, while Dogura at last succumbed to the tension of the moment, burying his face in his hands, straining to gather himself. Then Garireo also had to bow his head momentarily to the pressure.

These were the moments (27:40), when we knew for certain that these greatest BlazBlue players in the world were not coming from Japan just to brush aside some free Americans and then go through the motions against one another on what would really be, for those in the money, just a paid vacation to Las Vegas. No, the emotions, the passion, the pain were visible for all to see. They recognized Evo for what it truly was: the largest BlazBlue championship ever, here or anywhere. This right now was exactly why they played the game.


When all was said and done, and the top 8 finalists were lined up to receive their awards from BlazBlue creator Toshimichi Mori and voice actress Kana Ueda, the top 3 finishers looked overcome by the moment (even as one was standing there in a ridiculous Strider Hiryu cosplay outfit)—the agony and the ecstasy, and the cheers of an appreciative audience. I’m sure the extra-large pot didn’t hurt, but, for these players who had shed blood, sweat, and now literally tears to get here, clearly the achievement itself was the prize.



But that does raise the question that must eventually be addressed, of how and whether the FGC should grow from such phenomenal but still grassroots community-run events as Evo to something more professional. Community is wonderful. Achievement for its own sake is great. But, at the end of the day, pride doesn’t pay the bills. Even at Evo, the largest fighting game competition in the world, the payouts hardly justify the amount of work—hours a day, every day, approaching a career—that all the top players invest to be able to compete at the highest level. And now that these Twitch.tv and IGN streams have brought all the Evo action to massive audiences and made stars (if only for a weekend) of guys like XiaoHai, CD Jr, and Garireo, does it not seem appropriate that these champions should be compensated with checks truly commensurate to the hours they put in, the number of viewers they draw, the amount of buzz they generate with the shows they put on?

It’s a question that has crossed every top player’s mind, but when the few are outspoken enough to voice it, they get booed, called selfish and mercenary by a community that has always proudly but also fearfully resisted becoming assimilated by the “eSports” world full of flash but without heart, too reliant on corporate interests, and operated by organizations like Major League Gaming, headed by guys who have just never been a part of the FGC and cannot appreciate fighting games as anything other than another market, to go along with their RTS and FPS programming.

In the lead-up to Evo 2014, Japanese publication 4Gamer posted a round-table discussion among top Ultra Street Fighter IV players. It’s a fascinating read for any enthusiast of the game, as they approach a number of points in thoughtful and enlightening ways. Mostly, they talk about the game itself from a critical perspective. But eventually the discussion ventures into each player’s philosophical approach toward competing in fighting games, and this is where none other than Daigo himself broaches the issue of money:
Now prestige and attention definitely have their merits, but in that sense, the past where we only fought for prestige must change. I know we're entering a sensitive topic, but I think everyone here is aware of this issue.

This is the most famous fighting game player on the planet—not quite a household name maybe, but even people who are only casually into competitive gaming have probably watched his amazing “Evo Moment #37” comeback (the top video of it on YouTube currently has over 1.6 million views, and it’s not even the only or original upload of it, as many have disappeared and been replaced over the years, and the clip was even originally distributed pre-YouTube as just a downloadable file). He’s one of the very few “professional” Street Fighter players who probably makes his living entirely off his involvement with the games. He’s one of the lucky ones, in other words. (I mean, I know he obviously worked hard to get here—as hard as anyone who devotes their life to performance in competition, no matter the arena.) Yet even he’s saying that there’s something not quite right about what the players are getting out, compared to what they’re putting in.

Should the prize pots be bigger? If so, where is the money going to come from? Do players need real sponsors that will not just pay their tournament travel expenses but actually go out there and get them lucrative contracts and endorsement deals? Or should “name” players like Daigo, so crucial to generating hype for those tournament streams, get a cut of the advertising dollars? Are there even advertising dollars?

Those are the questions of how to make this more of a realistic profession, which the players, tournament organizers, game publishers, and sponsors are all struggling to find answers to right now. But there’s also the question of whether the game, as we now know it and love it, could even survive transitioning to a more professional model.

Momochi, never the winningest player among the Japanese greats, says that “results are not everything.” In other words, he doesn’t play just to win and to make money. That sounds like an excuse, but he elaborates:
Well if there was a worldwide USF4 tournament for 100 million yen I would probably use Yun. If I say this maybe it will kill the entire discussion, but fighting games have yet to reach that value for pure competition.

If winning were everything, of course he’d use the strongest character, Yun. But Momochi has never been that guy that goes top tier just to win. His signature characters in Street Fighter IV (Ken, Cody) have always been mediocre, and one could say he has paid the price in tournament results for his choices. He believes that there must be something more to get out of playing than just victory. But even he acknowledges that he may only be at liberty to believe this because, as things are now, there is nowhere near enough money at stake to properly motivate a “win at all costs” results-oriented attitude. All the players agree, if the money were there, every serious competitor would pick Yun in Ultra Street Fighter IV (or whichever character might counter Yun).

This is perhaps something that Japan has actually been slower to accept than the rest of the world. As Itazan mentions, they used to give out only trophies, no cash prizes, for winning national tournaments. In Japan, it was considered gambling, and thus illegal, for arcade tournaments to have prize pots made up of money from entry fees, as was always the standard in U.S. tournaments at every level (and even extending to Evo today), so Japanese players were accustomed to competing without money at stake. You’d think that should have been a barrier to them realizing their competitive potential, since they were never monetarily incentivized, as were players in the U.S., to be so cutthroat in training with the specific goal of beating every other person in the arcade. But, of course, we know that the strongest players have always been in Japan, and some have even credited their greatness precisely to their different philosophical approach.

In the early days of U.S. players traveling to Japan to check out the arcade scene there, they would always report back with astonishment, not only how far ahead the Japanese were in Street Fighter, but also how little they cared about tiers while dominating with whichever characters they simply felt like playing. The theory was that, although the Japanese recognized that some characters were more advantageous than others, they never felt the need to rely on the advantage of picking a strong character, because, after all, they didn’t “need” to win either. And so that freed them up to more deeply explore characters that, in the U.S., might have been quickly dismissed as not being viable for use in tournaments.

The “soft ban” on Vega in Super Street Fighter II Turbo is a perfect example. When U.S. player Julien "Zass" Beasley first reported back around the late '90s on what he observed as an unwritten rule in Japan against picking Vega, the immediate reaction among players in the U.S. was something along the lines of "What the hell? 'Soft ban'? That's weak! Do they not have the concept there of 'playing to win'?"

Shunning a player simply because they wanted to win? Okay, that may have been a bit extreme, and maybe a cultural thing. But the Japanese did not soft ban Vega because they were afraid to face him in tournament. Rather, all the serious players chose not to play him, because they found him uninteresting. Keep in mind, the game was already years old at this point. Even in the thriving arcade scene of Japan, the only people still devoting serious time to Super Street Fighter II Turbo would have had to have been doing it for love of the game. Among these veteran enthusiasts, what more was there to be gained or proven from doing wall dive after wall dive? For the Japanese, there was neither money nor pride to be gotten from winning that way. The character’s presence did not add anything interesting to competition, actually rather detracting from it. And so, unlike in the U.S., where Vega has always been a tournament staple, the regulars in Japan agreed to stay away from the character (and also the likewise overly cheap and soft-banned "Old" Sagat, and, of course, Akuma—the one character, to my knowledge, that has always been banned in the U.S., purely on the grounds that he is too powerful), instead devoting their energies to the rest of the cast, subsequently taking even supposedly “low-tier” characters to heights never imagined possible in the U.S.

X-Mania, the largest Super Street Fighter II Turbo event in Japan and in the world, is a format that never could have come out of the U.S. scene, where team tournaments are a foreign concept. In Japan, big U.S.-style multiple-day, double-elimination majors were never the norm. They never served much purpose, for one thing, since, Japan being much smaller geographically, the top players all lived within relatively close proximity and could regularly play one another at the arcade, leaving little mystery as to who was best. (This is another reason that competition among Japanese players tends to be less serious than rivalries in the U.S., and why perhaps the Japanese BlazBlue players at Evo were so emotional—as often as they played one another back home, they had never competed before in such a dramatic format. At least, I hope those guys don’t cry like that just every time they have a close set in the arcade.)

Rather, many of the most prestigious events in Japan have been 3-on-3 team competitions like X-Mania. The rules typically are that each player on a team must use a different character (no repeats), and players must stick with one character through their entire time in the tournament (no switching). This encouraged Japanese players to master characters outside the top tier in a number of ways. First, since no team could be allowed to have, for example, three Vega players, there was actual motivation to try to make your name as a specialist with a different character. You might never be the absolute best in a 1-on-1 format, but if the absolute best needed a teammate in a 3-on-3 tournament, then suddenly you had something to offer. Second, since you were not allowed to switch to different characters, this meant that, if you ran into an unfavorable matchup (e.g. you’re Zangief and you run into an E. Honda), you would have to just do your best and figure out exactly how Zangief wins that theoretical 1 game out of 10 on the matchup chart. You could not take the easy way out and “counter-pick,” a tactic widely employed by all top U.S. Super Street Fighter II Turbo players. Third (this point following from the previous two), there was special incentive to master characters that may not have been dominant but possessed unique advantages, as a way to provide balance to your team, so that it would not instantly collapse the moment it ran into a player whose character happened to have the advantage against every member of your team. The key concept was, thus, “cooperation” rather than absolute victory.

In playing not just to win, the Japanese actually came to know the game on a deeper level, learning the value of different approaches, and more fully realizing, along the way, the hidden potential of characters and strategies beyond the shortcuts to success. And the way I’ve presented things is actually backward. It is not that the team tournament format was responsible for the Japanese mastering Street Fighter on levels and in directions unheard of in the U.S. Rather, team tournaments like X-Mania only came about in Japan because such uncompromising character specialists were already the norm, in this land where players never felt the need to win with top-tier characters, but were free to use characters simply because they liked them.

(On the flip side, is it possible that ducking Vega made the Japanese more vulnerable to the character than U.S. players, for whom the character’s cheapness was something everybody just had to learn to deal with? Well, considering that Tokido’s day-old Vega basically lit up all the top U.S. veterans in 2005 (and even more so in 2007), it would seem that the U.S. was no better than Japan at combating this character.)

As interactions between different regions have become more frequent over the years, with Evo especially growing into a truly international affair, these philosophical distinctions have lessened. As we saw at X-Mania USA, there are a number of Japanese players now unashamed to win with Vega. Meanwhile, in the current Street Fighter IV generation, nearly all of the top players, even outside of Japan, are nowadays character specialists, who have realized not only 1) the practical benefit of fully mastering a single character, as opposed to picking up only the rudiments of multiple top-tier characters to cover all one’s bases, but also 2) how performing on one’s own terms has value in itself, apart from the pride and prizes that come with winning it all.

But is this something that would all go away, if fighting game players were to become true professionals and not glorified hobbyists, as is the reality right now? What would the value of performing on one’s own terms be, next to that of a lucrative and exclusive contract contingent on your winning against other such professionals in high-stakes championships? If there were a million-dollar tournament for Super Street Fighter II Turbo, would everybody just say, “Screw it,” and go to Vega?

In that case, maybe we should say that the onus is on the game designers to balance their games such that there aren't blatant easy-street characters, like Vega or arguably Ultra Street Fighter IV's Yun, with no real weaknesses. But if you look at major professional sports, which now exist beyond criticisms of design, you'll observe that the highest levels are almost always defined by symmetry in play.

In professional men's tennis, for example, what are the different styles and strategies at the top of the game? Every player is a baseliner. Analysts will distinguish between offensive and defensive baseliners, but successful examples of the latter are rare. Where have all the serve-and-volleyers gone? Dead now, along with the wooden racket. Even Roger Federer, although hailed as a complete all-court player, would, when playing baseliners (i.e. everyone of his generation and the following), spend most of his time trading groundstrokes from the same distance behind the net. What, then, was the practical difference between a Federer and a Davydenko? Only that Federer was a lot better at doing all the same things.

The differences in style in fighting games are precisely what I find makes them interesting to watch. As long as two players are using different characters, their combat will necessarily be asymmetrical, and the tension is in seeing how the clashing personalities interact. On the other hand, mirror matches, like Fei Long vs. Fei Long in Street Fighter IV, for example, are often unbearable to watch. And, man, there are already a lot of Fei Long players in Ultra Street Fighter IV, which is not surprising, since he's a really strong and simple character. I would really hate to see fighting games devolve entirely into that.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Evo 2014 - Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3

Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 Poster

Although Ultra Street Fighter IV was the marquee event at Evo 2014, for many U.S. competitors the more coveted title was the Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 championship. Marvel vs. Capcom has always been “America’s game,” after all, the release of Marvel vs. Capcom 2 in 2000 coinciding with the burgeoning of the FGC (fighting game community), as access to the Internet made it much easier for players across the country and beyond to discuss high-level strategy, share match videos, and organize national tournaments to settle newly formed long-distance rivalries. The greatest U.S. fighting game player of all time, Justin Wong, made his bones in Marvel vs. Capcom 2, winning 6 of 9 Evo titles in the game from 2002 to 2010, not including his breakout 2001 victory at B5 (basically, Evo before it was called “Evo”). The partiality of Evo’s home nation for Marvel action continued on into the next generation of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 tournaments. At Evo 2014, the stream of Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3’s grand final was, by a sizable margin, the most-watched moment of the entire three-day event. Ultra Street Fighter IV attracted only the third-largest audience, behind Super Smash Bros. Melee.

As Friday was Ultra Street Fighter IV’s day, so Saturday was dedicated to Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, as the tournament organizers conducted round after round of battles to whittle an initial pool of over 1,000 competitors (admittedly about 300 entrants fewer than in 2013) down to a final group of the 8 strongest, who would then slug it out for the championship on Sunday. This was a double-elimination tournament, following the same basic rules and format as Ultra Street Fighter IV (and every other official tournament at Evo). Unlike Ultra Street Fighter IV, in which matches are played best-of-3 until the top 8, at which point it becomes best-of-5, matches in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 are best-of-5 throughout, in accordance with tournament standards established by the community.

Compared to Ultra Street Fighter IV, there is both more and less excitement in the current competitive circuit for Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. On the one hand, the field is far less deep. Outside of the U.S., the only player who might possibly contend for a top 3 placing would be Japan’s Naoki “Nemo” Nemoto, who would not be in attendance at Evo 2014. Even within the U.S., there are only a small handful of elites who might have any claim to the title of “world’s best.” Between those few, however, the competition has been far more consistently heated than that in probably any other fighting game.

The clear top 3 players, over the last two years, have been New York’s Christopher “NYChrisG” Gonzalez (recently relocated to SoCal but still, for the moment, representing the East Coast), NorCal’s Ryan “Filipino Champ” Ramirez, and SoCal’s Justin Wong, generally in that order. Evo 2013 champion Job “Flocker” Figueroa, based in Florida, probably belongs in that same category, although his precise ranking is harder to place, because he doesn’t as often travel to meet the others in tournaments. Any match not involving one of these four giants of the game would be basically inconsequential to the final outcome of Evo 2014, and, as they would obviously be seeded apart from one another, the early rounds would offer little in the way of drama. There might still be other very special players, of course—users of rarely seen characters, not in it to win it, but ready to entertain on the grandest stage and before the biggest audience they would ever reach—but, unless you were especially keen to see what a tournament-level Captain America or Phoenix Wright looked like, you could safely skip watching the qualifying pools without missing out on anything.

The quarterfinal and semifinal stages were where upsets might happen, as the “big four,” although still overwhelmingly the favorites, began to be matched up against other known players. Definitely the quarterfinal match of interest was that between Chris G and Martin “Marn” Phan.

Marn was, once upon a time, one of the FGC’s most beastly players and personalities—Evo’s first and only Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars champion back in 2010, and also a great Guilty Gear XX player. He was one of the first Zero players when Marvel vs. Capcom 3 landed. Well before that character became recognized as one of the cheapest and most popular picks in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Marn was the original Zero, having used the morally ambiguous Maverick Hunter to dominate in Tatsunoko vs. Capcom. Then Marn turned his focus instead to League of Legends, before taking an extended break from competitive gaming entirely and even leaving the country for personal reasons. He returned to the FGC just in time for Evo 2014, where his uncertain ranking left him a dangerous floater, landing in Chris G’s quarter of the draw.

Obviously, Chris G remained the safe bet, as indeed he would have been, no matter the opponent, with his masterful Morrigan/Doctor Doom team posing a problem to which the entire rest of the field held no solutions. But Marn was no stranger to the role of spoiler; he once knocked Daigo out of a major in Super Street Fighter IV. Here, at Evo 2014, even under the weather, he showed that he was not intimidated by the no. 1 seed.


(Video uploaded by ChiTownEnuff.)

However much respect you had for Marn’s game, you had to admit that this was a stunning upset, as Chris G was sent to the losers bracket early. And, most impressively, even in the games Marn lost, he was still hanging tough with Chris G. This was not just a case of the Zero player getting lucky the right amount of times to steal three games in five, as can happen when you use the most explosive character in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

So, for the second year in a row, Chris G found himself in the losers bracket early at Evo. This certainly made things more interesting. Chris G was still the favorite, and the entire losers bracket instantly became “the Chris G bracket” upon his arrival there, making it even more forbidding than usual. But those still progressing through the winners bracket could cling to the hope that maybe, just maybe, someone in losers would take out Chris G for them, or that the sheer number of opponents he would have to face on his now much longer road to the championship would wear him out.

On to the semifinals, the most anticipated match was that between Filipino Champ and Vineeth “ApologyMan” Meka. ApologyMan was the dark horse of the tournament, the one guy outside of the big four who maybe had a shot at taking Evo 2014. In a game full of cheap characters and teams (“Zero May Cry” (Zero/Dante/Vergil), “MorriDoom” (Morrigan/Doctor Doom), “Team Nemo” (Nova/Spencer/Doctor Strange)), ApologyMan has engineered the most blatantly unfair strategy yet. His point character, Firebrand, is a better-than-average point character, who, like many in the game, can pretty quickly KO a full-health character in just a combo or two, given the right resources. But it’s what happens after Firebrand gets that first KO that makes ApologyMan’s team so unfair.

Firebrand has a special move, Demon Missile, that, when charged up, cannot be blocked; the opponent has to clear out of its way or get hit. After your point character is KO’d, however, you have only limited control over how your on-deck character enters the fray. During that moment of vulnerability is when Firebrand must strike with Demon Missile. The trick is to summon one of Firebrand’s teammates to attack right as the opponent’s next character drops in. The right assist will cover the screen in such a way that the incoming character will have no choice but to block, which, with Firebrand ready to fire off a fully charged Demon Missile, is actually not an option at all! On ApologyMan’s team, with Super Skrull’s assist backing Firebrand up, he can set up the unblockable to be virtually inescapable for the opponent’s incoming character. And, with Doctor Doom and some Hyper Combo Gauge, he has an unblockable setup that is entirely inescapable. Zero is feared for the ease with which he can KO any character of any health off just about any hit anywhere, after which the opponent’s remaining characters are each only one wrong guess away from being taken out as well. But ApologyMan’s team can potentially wipe out your entire team off one hit! And you don’t even get to guess with your back two characters—the hits are guaranteed, doesn’t matter what your name is!

The only thing that has kept ApologyMan from completely breaking the Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 competitive circuit is that Firebrand still has to work to get that first KO. Until then, there are other point characters that outclass him, and if Firebrand falls, the entire game plan is shot, because ApologyMan’s strategy is so dependent on the perfect synergy of his three characters.

Nevertheless, ApologyMan had seemed in dominating form this Evo Saturday, at one point delivering an unheard of triple-perfect against an early-round opponent. Even Filipino Champ might have had reason to be wary. ApologyMan had earlier this year defeated him in the grand final of SoCal Regionals. As it turned out, Filipino Champ, ever the shrewd gamer, had something special ready just for this rematch.

The Evo 2012 champion has two main teams that he is known for: his endgame-dominating classic team, Magneto/Doctor Doom/Phoenix, and his anti-Chris G zoning team, Magneto/Dormammu/Doctor Doom. It’s fair to say that Filipino Champ is the best in the world at using each of the four characters on those teams. But, against ApologyMan, Champ called an audible, pulling out a Morrigan/Magneto/Doctor Doom team. In the Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 tournament scene, Morrigan is, of course, associated with Chris G, in whose hands the Morrigan/Doctor Doom combination is fully realized as absolutely the strongest in the game. In less skilled hands, MorriDoom is merely a good team, not to be unusually feared or respected next to other good teams. With all due respect to Filipino Champ, all other hands are “less skilled hands” when it comes to playing MorriDoom. But maybe Filipino Champ had a read on ApologyMan that nobody else did. Both players hailed from NorCal, after all, so they were no strangers to each other’s games.


Their match more than lived up to the hype, going all the way to a deciding game 5, and with some heart-stopping moments and also amazing comebacks on both sides. The fourth game in particular may have been the most incredible I’ve ever seen. That ending!

The rest of Saturday went according to predictions. Filipino Champ, Justin Wong, and Flocker all qualified into the top 8 through the winners bracket, while Chris G persevered in the losers.

Kicking things off on Sunday was a rematch of last year’s grand final between Justin Wong and Flocker. In fact, it was at this exact round of 8 last year that Justin and Flocker first faced off in the winners bracket. A year ago, Flocker won convincingly, sending Justin to the losers bracket, where Justin then began to crawl his way back with a remarkable run that included an unforgettable victory over Chris G, before Flocker himself brought an end to the “Cinderella story” in the grand finals.

In the year since that disappointing ending, Justin had shown himself to be hungrier than he had been in years, as, tournament after tournament, he barely dropped even a game to anyone other than Chris G or Filipino Champ. His Wolverine proved definitely the best there is—super aggressive and able to shred any foe in seconds. And Justin’s slippery Storm, not the deadliest character in the game, but still as annoying at keep-away as Justin’s was in Marvel vs. Capcom 2, allowed him to hang in there with the zoning play of giants Chris G and Filipino Champ.

Flocker, meanwhile, had made the call to bench Hawkeye, his signature anchor from a year ago. Feared for his Zero, the best in the world, he was now running the popular “Zero May Cry” team against Justin, banking on Dante’s tricky assist to further enhance his Zero mix-ups against an opponent who had gotten the best of him in their most recent encounter at CEO 2014.

To see Flocker so losing confidence in his Evo 2013 championship team was worrying, but, for all who had followed Justin’s miraculous run last year through to its bitter ending, maybe this would be a moment of redemption.


On Filipino Champ’s side of the draw, Jan-Michael del Rio was trying to challenge the Evo 2012 champion with a team of Hulk/Shuma-Gorath/Haggar.

Although this is a game where almost any character can, with the right resources, realistically mount even a 1-on-3 comeback, still Jan’s team of oversized brutes was clearly outclassed against a player of Filipino Champ’s caliber. It was not a beautiful or exciting match. It became amusing, however, when Filipino Champ decided to wantonly antagonize every person watching by playing the match as lamely as possible, even when he already had Jan beat. When Jan’s team was down to just Haggar with a full 40 seconds left (game seconds, at that, which are actually longer than real seconds), Champ decided, rather than put the former pro wrestler-turned-mayor of Metro City out of his misery, to instead spam Magneto’s Repulsion technique to continually push Haggar backward, knowing that there was absolutely nothing the slow-footed, short-ranged brawler could do about it. It was a total dick move, but the fact that one of the three best players in the world would pull this on the Evo finals stage is exactly what makes the competition for Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 more entertaining than for Ultra Street Fighter IV. The top players are not just technical machines, but are out to elicit emotional reactions with their play, even if it be white hot rage from the opponent and all spectators. They are not “having a conversation” as they duel, but they are out to make statements.


The next anticipated match was a knockout bout between Chris G and Marn. Yes, that’s right—after delivering the upset of the day on Saturday by sending Chris G to the losers bracket, now Marn found that it was back to him to try to finish the job he had started. Cruel is destiny, to demand that Marn beat all odds and do the impossible... and then give a repeat performance the next day! But perhaps this is how it should be. Let there be no ambiguity, no excuses.

For Chris G, all he had last year were excuses, after Evo 2013 ended and he didn’t have the trophy. He griped that the Evo organizers had foolishly run the tournament on the laggy PS3 version of Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. And he played down his failure to live up to expectations by saying that Evo wasn’t really that big a deal—he would still win every other tournament and be paid just as well (or poorly, rather). But, whatever his true feelings on the matter, the fact is that Evo is the big one, and once more anything less than total victory would be construed as a failure to live up to everyone’s expectations. Was this now Chris G’s opportunity for redemption? To prove that, though others might get the occasional fluke victory over him, when the dust settled, he was the real deal? Or was Chris G, in fact, cursed to underperform at Evo?


Chris G’s victory over Marn positioned him to take on Flocker in an elimination match between the no.1 seed and the defending champion.

Flocker had managed to avoid running into Chris G on his way to the championship last year, but when he was later invited to take on Chris G at Capcom Cup (which Chris G had just won), it did not go well for the Zero master. As in the match with Justin, Flocker would try for a different result this time by swapping out his Zero/Vergil/Hawkeye team for the more conventional “Zero May Cry” combination of Zero/Dante/Vergil.


The match was a slaughter, and a great showcase for Chris G’s MorriDoom. Like so many of the teams regarded as top tier (Zero/Dante, Team Nemo, ApologyMan’s team), Chris G’s team is designed to turn Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 into a single-player game, controlling the action to such a degree that the opponent is not even allowed a chance to play. In Chris G’s hand, MorriDoom manages this better than any other team, as Morrigan crowds the screen with four projectiles at a time coming from both sides to pin the opponent down, while the Doctor Doom assist rains down missiles to further cut off angles of approach (or escape, for that matter), or else save Morrigan by interrupting opponents’ offenses any time they do manage to catch her through the bullet hell of projectiles. He doesn't even need to land a clean hit on you, as, indeed, you'll die just as quickly blocking against this team.

A few more quick matches to dismiss the remaining non-contenders, at last it was down to the final 3, and it was exactly the big names everybody expected, no deviations from script as in Ultra Street Fighter IV. From here on, every match was a classic.

First up was Justin Wong vs. Filipino Champ in the winners final, with Chris G waiting in the wings to take on the loser. Filipino Champ ran his A-team of Magneto/Doctor Doom/Phoenix.

We didn’t really get to see the power of this team when Filipino Champ fought Jan, because he was so dominant with just Magneto and Doctor Doom that he never needed to call upon Dark Phoenix. Dark Phoenix was anchor to the most powerful teams in the original Marvel vs. Capcom 3, but the character is not as en vogue these days. Filipino Champ makes this team work better than anybody else, but even he has had to develop alternate teams for when it can’t get the job done. Against Justin Wong in the winners final, however, Filipino Champ was determined to bet everything on his Phoenix team.

The idea behind the team is that Phoenix, if she is KO’d while stocked with a maxed-out Hyper Combo Gauge, will resurrect as Dark Phoenix, a superlative anchor easily capable of sweeping entire teams by herself. It takes time to build that much meter, however, and the first two characters on the team are basically hamstrung by having to fight without spending any of it themselves. Picking Phoenix means committing the entire team to a strategy of saving all resources just to try to get Dark Phoenix, on the belief that getting her will be worth it, which it usually is, since there are very few answers to her once she’s in play. And, in Filipino Champ’s case, he is actually capable, with his unparalleled movement and patient long-range game, of playing effectively and even winning matches with just meterless Magneto/Doctor Doom, so he’s not entirely reliant on getting Dark Phoenix. The simple threat of Dark Phoenix looming in the back forces the opponent to play differently, which is sometimes edge enough for Filipino Champ.

For the player facing a Phoenix team, the objective is to never let her get to a full five stocks of Hyper Combo Gauge. You can either try to blow out the opponent before they can accumulate the stocks, or if that seems impractical, you perform a “Snapback Attack” on one of the first two members of the opposing team, which will force Phoenix onto the field as point character, so that you can try to take her out while she still has fewer than five stocks. A third strategy is to just take out the first two characters, then try to hold the lead against Phoenix until time runs out, never actually KO’ing her. That approach has been rejected by most players, as even regular Phoenix, although exceedingly fragile, has some of the best tools in the game to punish a passive opponent.

For Justin Wong, clearly victory would depend on him being able to successfully apply the second strategy, as the last thing he would want would be to have to face Dark Phoenix with his own anchor, Akuma—not truly an anchor at all, but a character Justin includes on his team primarily for his usefulness as an assist. Not that Justin hadn’t staged some incredible late-game heroics with his Akuma in the past, including in last year’s match against Chris G. But what about this year against Filipino Champ? Well… you’ll just have to see for yourself.


In the losers final, it was now Filipino Champ against Chris G. Out of all players in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Filipino Champ is the one guy who has shown himself consistently able to fight on a near-even level against Chris G’s MorriDoom. Against Chris G, Filipino Champ typically runs a team of Magneto/Dormammu/Doctor Doom, trading Dark Phoenix’s anchor power for Dormammu’s ability to press Morrigan at range. Truly, this is the only matchup where Chris G’s MorriDoom seems remotely fair, as Filipino Champ routinely goes the distance, trading shot for shot, and even sometimes managing to make it look like a fight in Dormammu’s favor. At Evo 2014, the two titans of Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 would go the distance once more.


So many times Filipino Champ would seem actually in control of a game, with victory well within reach, yet, as has happened to him before against Chris G, it would be input errors, of all things, to cost him critical points. And so our grand finalists, after two all-out wars already in the top 3, were Justin Wong and Chris G.

This was, of course, the way it needed to be. Not only was it fitting that each of the top 3 players in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 would have to face both of the others, but if Filipino Champ had defeated Chris G and then lost to Justin Wong, again we would have to hear about how the Evo champion, like Flocker last year, had been lucky not to have to go through Chris G. No, it just had to be Justin Wong vs. Chris G, both with a lot to prove. For Chris, it was time to prove, once and for all, no excuses about laggy PS3s this year, that he was indisputably the best player on the biggest stage. For Justin, he was only one match away from the trophy that was so cruelly denied him last year, and that everyone watching was so desperately pulling for him to get, only of course it would be meaningless if he didn't earn it.

Despite Justin’s amazing victory over Chris G last year, their rivalry since then had continued to be fairly one-sided in Chris’s favor. This time, however, Justin prepared something special just for Chris G. Switching around the order of his team, he played Storm as his point character instead of Wolverine. This meant forgoing the opening move of blitzing Morrigan with Wolverine before she could get set up with her projectiles, but maybe Storm’s mobility would prove more key. In any case, Justin also had the tremendous advantage, courtesy of Marn, of being able to play from the winners side against Chris G in the losers side, giving Justin another full set to play with, in case this gambit didn't pay off.


In the end, Justin didn’t even need the second set, seeming in nearly full control as he took it 3-1 to thunderous applause. Chris G, Evo trophy or no, is the world's greatest Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 player nearly every other day of the year. Nobody truly doubts that. But this day belonged to Justin Wong. And, rather than his victory redeeming his falling just short last year, one almost feels that this was the perfect ending that was always meant to be, only the story was much longer, and finally more fulfilling, than anybody knew. It was Justin’s heroics in defeat last year that set the stage for this year’s hard-earned and well-deserved victory.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Evo 2014 - Ultra Street Fighter IV

Ultra Street Fighter IV Poster

That time of year again, this past weekend was Evo 2014, the biggest fighting game tournament in the world. The marquee game was still Street Figher IV, though this year it would be Ultra Street Fighter IV, the first new edition since 2012.

After five years of some version of Street Fighter IV already at Evo, I wasn’t sure if there was anything more that competitors could show, even with it being a new edition. And, over the last two years, there had been no clear “player to beat” at the top of the game, which meant no real narrative to fulfill heading into Evo. Maybe the competitors themselves were, by this point, too bored of the game to even feel motivated to play their best.

Whatever my expectations (and I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect), by the time the tournament concluded on Sunday, Evo 2014 had completely defied and, for the most part, exceeded them. Whether revitalized by the release of Ultra Street Fighter IV, or just deepened by the accumulated years, the competition proved, in fact, fiercer than ever before.

Here, I will recap, to the best of my recollection, not only Evo 2014, but the entire Street Fighter IV tournament season leading up to it.

The Largest Fighting Game Tournament in History

The tournament kicked off Friday morning, when a record-breaking approximately 2,000 competitors were divided up into 125 qualifying pools—essentially, 16-man brackets unto themselves—where the top two placers would progress to the quarterfinal round of 256—one through the winners side, one through the losers side.

Like most major fighting game tournaments, Evo runs on a double-elimination format, meaning that each player has two losses to give before they are eliminated from the tournament. Every player begins in the winners bracket. Then, upon suffering their first loss, they move to the losers bracket, where they still have a chance. Eventually, all but potentially one player must end up in the losers bracket, but it is to a player’s advantage to try to remain in the winners bracket as long as they can, because 1) every fight in the losers bracket is a tense elimination match, and 2) the earlier you get sent to the losers bracket, the longer your road to the championship, because now you have to eliminate the other losers as they get sent down from the winners side (meanwhile, there's no way to move from the losers side back to the winners). A player who never loses could win the championship having played only 12 matches, whereas a player who lost their first match in pools would have to win their next 21 in order to take it all.

To ensure the fairest and most accurate results, players are distributed across pools according to rank, reputation, region, and finally randomly. The system is not without a bit of controversy, as there is no unified world tour of Street Fighter, and thus no “official” rankings. For Evo 2014, the top 8 seeds were determined by standings on the Capcom Pro Tour, which were definitely skewed toward players in the U.S., which had been host to the largest number of events on the tour. Other known competitors were also “seeded” (though not given numbers), and the Evo organizers additionally posted the brackets online a few days before the tournament to solicit public feedback. Overall, there was not too much outcry over the draws, and the pools proceeded mostly uneventfully, with the “name” players winning their pools as expected in nearly every case.

The only notable oversight in the bracketing set up surely the featured match of the morning: Kevin “Dieminion” Landon, long regarded as the East Coast’s top player in the Street Fighter IV series, as well as probably the greatest Guile specialist in the world, versus Zhuojun “XiaoHai” Zeng, China’s most famous player, whose Cammy had recently gone undefeated in a Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012 invitational against Japan’s best players. Both players were expected to qualify out of their pool, but it was unfortunate that one of them would have to do so through the losers bracket this early.


(Video uploaded by StreetFighterCentral.)

For spectators, the pools are more typically equivalent to early heats in Olympic track or swimming events. Contenders and players of interest show off their skills and generate hype for themselves by pounding the hell out of hapless no-names. An early such highlight was Koji KOG’s first match on stream.

“Hidden Masters”

It has long been accepted that the best Street Fighter players in the world are in Japan, with the cream of the crop competing in the Topanga League and receiving sponsorships to pay for them to travel and dominate in international tournaments. For a few years now, stream viewers have been treated to seeing Japanese greats, such as the Mad Catz trio of Daigo, Tokido, and Mago, exhibit their prowess against the rest of the world’s best on Twitch.tv broadcasts. But, of course, there are numerous lesser-known Japanese players, who aren’t able to secure sponsors to cover their expenses for trips outside their home country.

In a very cool move, Twitch, provider of the main platform for video game streams but not generally a content-producer itself, decided to spice things up for fighting game spectators by paying to fly out to U.S. tournaments several of these Japanese players that fans had maybe heard of but never seen in action.

It began with SoCal Regionals in March, when Twitch brought over Wao and Michael-tan, the two major Topanga League players who had never competed in the U.S. The move was a great success, as viewers were able to witness Wao’s fabled Oni squaring off against Evo 2012 champion Infiltration (South Korean, but a player who had made his bones primarily in U.S. tournaments, and whose legitimacy was consequently joined to that of the U.S. competitive scene).

Infiltration vs. Wao in SCR 2014 Losers Final


(Video uploaded by TokidoBlog.)

From there, Twitch would have to dig a little deeper, however, in its hunt for Japanese players that viewers hadn’t seen before. For the annual Community Effort Orlando (CEO) tournament in June, Twitch scouted outside the Topanga League and found three somewhat more obscure players who had had some success in Japanese arcades. This time, the results were embarrassing, as all three Japanese guests were handily defeated by U.S. players, thus seemingly bringing an end to the “hidden masters” idea—the belief that Japan was so densely populated with killer Street Fighter players that even a complete unknown from over there could materialize out of the mists and wordlessly dispatch our most famous national champions. But, even before that result, Twitch had already committed to flying over another three lesser-known Japanese players to compete under its banner at Evo 2014.

Among them was Koji Kazuyoki (AKA “Koji KOG”). Koji KOG is not a Topanga League player. What notoriety he has owes to his being a specialist with T. Hawk, traditionally regarded as the most hopeless character in any Street Fighter game to include him. It is a notion that perseveres more by custom than by actual reasoned analysis (years after Super Street Fighter II Turbo was retired from the Evo lineup, new T. Hawk tricks were discovered that catapulted the character to near the top of the tiers in that game), but the flying grappler had indeed been miserable throughout the Street Fighter IV series, to the extent that, any time Capcom would poll the public on how to improve the game’s balance, some Twitter troll or another would immediately respond with the meme “Just give T. Hawk a gun.”

At last, with Ultra Street Fighter IV, Capcom did not give T. Hawk the gun, but it improved his speed and mobility, and word out of Japan was that this was a character now to be feared, albeit tournament results had yet to bear out such speculation. On the most-hyped fighting game stream of the year, would Koji KOG be the player to finally show all the Twitch watchers at home what T. Hawk was really capable of? Or would a quick exit at Evo be the final nail in the coffin, both for the “hidden masters” idea, and for any fancy that T. Hawk might ever be viable in serious Street Fighter IV competition?


(Video uploaded by ProudSausage.)

Quarterfinals, Hereafter to be Remembered as “The Bloodiest Stage in Evo History”

After hours of bouts to whittle down 2,000 entrants to an exclusive 256 (that includes a few byes, if you’re trying to work out the math), the real tournament was set to begin. Somewhat unusually, especially for a tournament of its size, Evo traditionally runs through pools, quarterfinals, and semifinals all in a single day, afterward granting the top 8 competitors a full day off from Street Fighter IV, before rounding them up again for the finals on Sunday. For the 256 players still in it at this quarterfinal stage, however, the end to the longest Friday in their competitive experience was still a long way off.

The quarterfinals at Evo are when the grandmasters are expected to pull away from the merely excellent. Or, alternatively, this is when a back-home favorite needs to make a name for himself and prove that he is not merely a big fish in a small pond, but someone who can hang with the true world warriors. If an upset is going to happen, this is the time.

This being the first Evo held on Ultra Street Fighter IV, and taking place only a month after the game’s release, the playing field was perhaps more level than it had been in a long time, as even former champions were having to adjust to new mechanics and balance changes. It was hard to declare a favorite going into Evo, but 2012 champion Infiltration was looking very strong indeed, having won CEO, the last pre-Evo major, where he trounced Japan’s Yusuke Momochi, who himself had just a week prior won a stacked tournament attended by nearly every top player in Asia except Infiltration.

Momochi vs. Infiltration in CEO 2014 Grand Finals


Another competitor to watch was Ryota “Kazunoko” Inoue, a Japanese Topanga League player. A great many players took up Yun in Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition, when that character was absolutely dominant, but Kazunoko was the only one who stuck with Yun even after the character was nerfed in Arcade Edition Ver. 2012. He subsequently became known as THE Yun player, and his loyalty was seemingly rewarded when Yun quickly emerged as once again the strongest in Ultra Street Fighter IV. Thus, as the preeminent user of the game’s most powerful character, Kazunoko had to be regarded as one of the heavy favorites in any tournament he entered.

Daigo Umehara, the most legendary fighting game player of all time, must always be weighed as a favorite simply because he’s Daigo. But he had cut back on his tournament schedule over the past two years, making very few appearances outside Japan, leading some to question his conditioning. He did prevail with his Ryu in the Topanga World League invitational in Ver. 2012. Then, after switching to Evil Ryu in Ultra Street Fighter IV, he quickly established himself as the no. 1-ranked player in Japanese arcades. But, with only his regular arcade routine as practice, how would he hold up in a high-pressure double-elimination tournament as big as Evo?

On the U.S. side, a player not truly expected to win, but one to keep an eye on nevertheless, was Bryant “Smug” Huggins. Smug was the most exciting up-and-comer to emerge since last year’s Evo. Although he had had relatively few battles so far against California’s top players, let alone international powerhouses, Smug had made a name for himself as one of the best in New York, as he regularly thrilled viewers with his performances on the weekly stream of Next Level Battle Circuit, one of only two nationally recognized weekly arcade tournaments still running for Street Fighter IV in the U.S. (the other being Wednesday Night Fights in Southern California). He is a specialist with Dudley, a rarely seen character that was widely considered among the weakest, until Smug started winning with him. Smug’s strong performances against two Japanese players at CEO this year were surely the highlight of that tournament, and gave the impression that, even in Japan, there are no Dudleys of Smug’s level.

Smug vs. Nishikin in CEO 2014 Top 32


Momochi vs. Smug in CEO 2014 Top 16


The Evo 2014 quarterfinals stage began happily enough, as Koji KOG and American Putthivath “XsK Samurai” Chea kicked off the broadcast with an entertaining match that, even if none of Twitch’s Japanese guests achieved anything else on stream, would alone have justified bringing them to Evo.


Alas, things quickly unraveled from there, and none of the favorites quite lived up to expectations, as the bloodiest day at Evo 2014 saw all fantasy brackets torn to shreds, with one giant falling after another. For spectators, the worst part was that so many of these top players were eliminated off-stream. With so many rounds to get through, obviously the Evo organizers had to run multiple matches simultaneously, only directing a portion of them to the main stage (and the Twitch stream).

Thus, viewers would be watching one match—maybe not even a very exciting one—only to have the commentators relay mid-match the shocking result of a different match happening off-stream. And this kept happening all day. The commentary became almost a "stream" of notifications about stunning upsets or titanic clashes that would have been headline bouts at any other event. For example:
Veloc1raptor has defeated Infiltration.
Shinba has defeated Alioune.
Insaynne has eliminated Alioune!
Infiltration has eliminated Veloc1raptor!
Snake Eyez has defeated Tokido.
Xian has defeated Luffy.
Luffy has eliminated Tokido!
Chaotix has defeated Ryan Hart.
Kazunoko has defeated Nuki.
Pugera has defeated Kazunoko.
Ryan Hart has eliminated Nuki!
FilipinoMan has defeated PR Balrog.
XiaoHai has eliminated PR Balrog!
Yossan has eliminated XiaoHai!
Dakou has defeated Smug.
Latif has eliminated Smug!
Filipino Champ has sent Daigo to the losers bracket!

Those were all real results, by the way, none of them streamed.

In fairness to the Evo staff, they obviously had no way of knowing when a matchup was an upset in the making. That’s what makes an upset an upset—that it goes against expectations. They had to keep things running and make calls on the fly as to what sounded like potentially a good match for the stream. And they also had to be fair and feature a variety of players; they couldn’t just put every Daigo match on the main stage. On the other hand, while it was fair to overlook the first match between Infiltration and Veloc1raptor, when the two met again later, shouldn’t that have been deemed a match of note to feature on the stream—the top seed facing elimination against a guy who had already beaten him once that day?

But I’m probably naive in thinking that things are even half that organized. 2,000 players to manage just in Ultra Street Fighter IV alone, the Evo staff did the best anyone could, and I can have nothing but respect for the job they did. And, actually, one of the charming things about these community-run tournaments, Evo included, is how characteristically analog they are, that the commentators often do not have ready access to real-time brackets or official word on who’s even playing the match they’re calling. Most of the updates being relayed on off-stream matches were merely the commentators reading aloud tweets they had received from random people presumably in the building.

Thus, early on, the broadcast got trolled by the misreport that Daigo had been eliminated by an unknown player with the handle “shinakuma666.” That turned out to be a complete lie, as thankfully there was no such player. But the end really did come for Daigo not that much later. And, yes, it happened off stream.

Daigo’s first loss came at the hands of Ryan “Filipino Champ” Ramirez, one of the world’s greatest Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 players, but a guy who, although one of the better Dhalsim players in the U.S., clearly treats Street Fighter IV as a side game. But this is also a guy who actually has a history of beating Daigo with his Dhalsim zoning game, so, again, maybe this should have been recognized as a match of note and featured on stream. Oh well.

Two matches later, when Daigo was set to face Alex Valle, they made sure to put it on the main stage. These are two players whose rivalry has spanned more than fifteen years. Their 1998 match for the Street Fighter Alpha 3 world championship was essentially the beginning of international fighting game competition. Valle had stepped back from active pursuit of titles even before the first edition of Street Fighter IV, but has perhaps made the fighting game community an even bigger part of his life since. A janitor back during his prime years of competition, Valle is now the president of Level Up, his own production company for video game broadcasts, as well as the founder of Wednesday Night Fights, a weekly arcade tournament, which has produced just about every one of SoCal’s current generation of top Street Fighter IV players.

Although it’s probably generous to Valle to call him Daigo’s rival today, still anybody who knows their FGC history cannot help but get giddy any time these two meet in Evo’s marquee tournament. At Evo 2011, they faced off in the round of 32 and had a surprisingly close match in Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition. Commentator Seth Killian at the time jokingly credited Daigo’s victory partly to his “turning to the dark side,” dropping his signature Ryu in favor of Yun. At Evo 2014, the line would have been even more literally apt, as Daigo turned to Evil Ryu, while Valle stuck with normal Ryu.


(Video uploaded by TokidoBlog.)

This time, their encounter did not produce a classic. The best part of it was probably the reverent applause as the two competitors took to the stage.

So Valle was done, sent out early by the guy who, sixteen years ago, first showed him that the U.S. was not the world, and there were fighters out there stronger than he could have imagined. Little did anybody suspect that Daigo himself was living on borrowed time, with only two more matches to play, both of them off stream. And when the Beast fell, it would be to, of all people, Valle’s American rival from even further back, John Choi.

Choi is one of the very few players still in the scene who was a Street Fighter II champion in Street Fighter II’s own time. When Valle rose up as SoCal’s top player in the Street Fighter Alpha 2 days, John Choi was his NorCal rival and fiercest opponent. Ultimately, Choi’s competitive prime would actually outlast the younger Valle’s, as, in 2008, he became one of the very few players ever to win in two games at the same Evo, as well as one of the only U.S. players ever to win an Evo tournament attended by top Japanese competitors, doing so in both Capcom vs. SNK 2 and Super Street Fighter II Turbo. But most people probably didn’t even know that he played Street Fighter IV at all.

Daigo and Choi’s match, fortunately captured on handheld camera by someone in attendance, was not a classic, either. If nobody told you their names and histories, you would never guess that either of these guys were contenders. But Choi’s spacing, at least, is immaculate, in this old-school Ryu vs. Ryu matchup (even if Daigo’s is Evil Ryu). He keeps Daigo always at the optimal range, so that he can keep firing well-timed Hadoukens that Evil Ryu must block. These are the fundamentals that haven’t really changed since the Street Fighter II days, and they continue to serve Choi well, even if he doesn’t have nearly as much experience with Street Fighter IV specifically. Daigo, for his part, should also be a master of those Ryu fundamentals, but he seems frustrated and at a loss here. He comes across tentative and uncertain whether to go in and try for some of Evil Ryu’s unique tricks, or to mirror and contest Choi in a more traditional shoto vs. shoto game.


(Video uploaded by Arturo Sanchez.)

In the end, Daigo couldn’t even take a single round. In six years of competing in Street Fighter IV at Evo, it was by far Daigo’s earliest exit ever, the first time he’d ever failed to make the final 8. And, with likely no year-end Capcom Cup for him to look forward to (unless he decides to start traveling to other tournaments again to try to earn a spot), he’ll have another long year to think about this one.

It was a stunning result, though hardly the only one of the day. Nobody really knew what to make of it. Maybe Daigo’s Evil Ryu wasn’t quite ready for prime time, and he should have just stuck with Ryu. Maybe the game was just too new, and people hadn’t had enough time to adjust to the changes. (But would that really explain Daigo losing to two part-time players, one of whom even played as though this were a much older game, rather than a new one?) Some even suggested that maybe the Evo staff had screwed up somehow and set up the off-stream station with a laggy monitor. I have no explanations, but I’m also not going to make excuses, as that would discredit the many great players who did make it through to the semifinals and prove themselves worthy of their placings with magnificent performances.

Semifinals - Every Match a Main Event

The 256 players in the quarterfinals having been further cut down to an elite 32, the carnage only continued, and with still only the one stream to capture the main stage action, many big names continued to be sent home off-camera. But, at this stage in an Evo, every player is so good that no result can rightly be considered an upset. Even making it to the round of 32 is at least equivalent to winning any other major tournament.

Infiltration was immediately eliminated off-stream, in a mirror match against another Akuma, no less. In fact, it was Japan’s Hiroyuki Nagata (AKA “Eita”), one of the first great Akuma players, but someone who had lately become regarded as an overrated joke, as he kept crashing out early in every big tournament he entered. This year, at the biggest tournament of all, he would outlast both of the “major” Akuma players, Infiltration and Tokido, and all the minor ones as well.

Looking at the overall makeup of the top 32, we see also the apparent demise of Cammy as a threatening character in this edition. We already saw how the advent of Delayed Wake-up put a leash on XiaoHai’s Cammy, when he played Dieminion’s Guile in pools. XiaoHai lost that one, and then was sent home along with all the other noted Cammy players during the quarterfinals. Seth has taken the transition to Ultra Street Fighter IV even harder, going seemingly extinct at the championship level, as even great Seth players from years past, such as Benjamin “Problem X” Simon from the UK, have dropped the character in this edition.

Fei Long, on the other hand, seemed as overpowered as ever, as all three top Fei Long players—Fuudo, Mago, and Gackt—made the cut. One C. Viper player, 2011 runner-up Abdulatif Alhmili (AKA “Latif”) from Saudi Arabia, made it through. Intriguingly, one player, Hooman “HooDaMan” Ghahremani from the U.S., took Decapre all the way to the top 32. Alas, none of his matches were caught on stream, so there’s not much that can be said on that. And maybe T. Hawk really was a strong character now! There were TWO T. Hawk specialists in the top 32, as Koji KOG was joined by Hung “Hungbee” Han, a Wednesday Night Fights regular. Hiromiki Kumada (AKA “Itabashi Zangief”), Japan’s most famous Zangief player, also kept T. Hawk as an alternate.

As for Yun, the supposedly peerless new no.1 in Ultra Street Fighter IV? Sure enough, there were multiple (well, two) Yun players in the top 32—Kazunoko on the losers side, and a lesser-known Japanese player, Kenichi “Taiga” Miyamoto, on the winners side. More amazingly, however, both Japanese Yun players would fall to an Ibuki player, Yu Tobinaga (AKA “Pugera”), who had also beaten Sweden’s Simon “Popi” Gutierrez, another Yun player and one of Europe’s best, who always picks the cheapest character. So maybe the “unbeatable” power of Yun was a tad overblown, as was the transformative effect of EX Red Focus, barely employed by any other character at Evo 2014. The fact that all three Yuns were defeated by Pugera, an even more obscure Japanese player than any of the three that Twitch flew in, and who ended up going further than all of them, perhaps also lent some credence to the “hidden masters” idea.

But the most exciting semifinal match (at least, among those on stream) was surely that between defending 2013 champion Ho Kun Xian from Singapore and Darryl “Snake Eyez” Lewis from the U.S. Xian is basically the only Gen player of consequence on the competitive circuit, while Snake Eyez, himself an Evo champion (in Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix in 2010), is arguably the greatest Zangief specialist in the world (it’s between him and Itabashi Zangief), maybe the most skilled Street Fighter IV player in all of North America, only his character of choice fares so poorly in certain matchups that it's nearly impossible for him to go all the way in a big tournament without the lucky aid of a favorable bracket. These are two of the most mentally tough, most strong-willed, and most gutsy players in the world—two guys who have made an art of snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat against opponents who should have had the character matchup advantage. Sure enough, their match was a back-and-forth classic that went down to the wire and ended in unbelievable fashion.


The Final 8 - New Day, New Gods

After a long day of competition, Evo 2014 at last had its top 8 Ultra Street Fighter IV players. Nobody could have predicted this final lineup, though none of the names was individually a surprise. The ones who survived the Friday bloodbath to fight again on Sunday included four Japanese Topanga League players, two Americans who came to Evo only for Ultra Street Fighter IV, a fearsome European champion from France, and the Singaporean training partner of the guy who won it all a year ago.

When Daigo and Infiltration went out early, admittedly a lot of drama and hype went out with them. There were no storied rivalries to settle, no year-long narratives poised to culminate in these Evo 2014 finals. Smug, “Prince of New York,” was, by this point, long buried; I don't think he even had a single match on the main stage. The heavy favorites were now Japan’s Masato “Bonchan” Takahashi and Evo 2011 champion Keita “Fuudo” Ai. But the fan favorites had to be Snake Eyez and France’s Olivier “Luffy” Hay.

The only player to repeat from last year’s top 8 was Naoto Sako, one of Japan’s legendary “Five Gods of Capcom Fighting Games.” One of the big stories heading into Evo this year was that, this time, all five gods would be in attendance to compete in Ultra Street Fighter IV. Last year, four of them entered Evo, and all four made the final 8, so expectations were high to see them do even better and form the veritable Mount Olympus of Evo 2014. It was not to be, as four of them went out in the semifinals or earlier, leaving Sako the lone god still living on Sunday. Maybe Sako would be enough. He was, after all, the winner of the 2013 Capcom Cup, a prize second only to Evo, if that.

Sako became a father shortly after that Capcom Cup victory, however, and that naturally took him away from Street Fighter for a while. He was barely seen in competition between Capcom Cup and Evo 2014, and there was no indication that, like Daigo, he had been training hard at home. Vaunted for his execution—the finest in the world, he has combos named after him, not only because he discovered them, but because he may be the only guy who has performed them in live competition—he showed up at Evo 2014 looking rusty. He used an assortment of characters on Friday, playing not especially sharply with any of them, but he somehow kept coming up with wins. Having made it into the final 8 on the losers side, his first opponent would be Ricky Ortiz from the U.S.

If there were a “Five Gods of U.S. Street Fighter,” Ricky Ortiz would unquestionably be among them. The Evo 2010 runner-up, he is, along with Snake Eyez, one of the few top U.S. players who does not also compete in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Street Fighter IV is his main game and his only game. One of the top two Rufus players in the world, together with his fellow American Justin Wong, he is also maybe the most consistently high-placing U.S. player in tournaments, although his character always seems to run out of tricks and out of steam right before the finish line. Having been sent to the losers bracket by Bonchan, Ricky was a long shot to win it all. First, he would have to get past Sako.

Neither Ricky nor Sako performed at a level to intimidate the other remaining players, but the match offered a few highlights. For those rooting for a U.S. player to win, it was encouraging to see Ricky playing with such confidence and aggression, as though Sako was the one that needed to earn his respect and not the other way around, as tends to be the case in these U.S. vs. Japan bouts. At one point, Ricky even inserted a bit of showmanship that called back to 2009 (when Rufus was winning A LOT on the grand stage), thrusting his palms skyward to mimic the pose on Rufus’s round-taking “Space Opera Symphony” Ultra Combo. And the entire arena raised the roof right along with Ricky!

For Sako fans, it was nice to see him bring back Evil Ryu—the one true Evil Ryu, before the character became everybody’s new favorite in Ultra Street Fighter IV. This was the character Sako won Capcom Cup with, and he had made up his mind to bet this entire match on his Evil Ryu skills. His rust continued to show, however, and it was not until the third round of the third game that Sako was able to finally complete one of his patented high-execution extended combos. But when he finally pulled it off (check out 7:43 in the video below), it was that much sweeter, as the crowd’s oohs and aahs grew exponentially in intensity with each successive hit.


Ricky’s next opponent was Snake Eyez, who had just lost badly to Fuudo’s Fei Long. Traditionally, the Zangief vs. Rufus match had been considered to be in the Russian wrestler’s favor, but Ricky had already eliminated Japan’s legendary Itabashi Zangief on Friday to qualify for the top 8. In fact, the match had gone so poorly for Itabashi that the Japanese Zangief master even tried switching to T. Hawk, but to no avail.

There has long been this unresolved question over who the best Zangief player is—Snake Eyez or Itabashi Zangief? At the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary Tournament back in 2012, Snake Eyez survived longer than any other player not from Asia, only losing (twice) to Fuudo back then as well. Ever since, his inspiring play with a character that has, on paper, among the greatest number of unfavorably lopsided matchups against the rest of the cast has made Snake Eyez one of the most admired and respected members of the U.S. fighting game community. Anybody who saw him play a match like the one in the semifinals against Xian would quickly declare him certainly the greatest Zangief they had ever seen… only to then have to qualify it by adding that they hadn’t seen enough of Itabashi Zangief in action to compare. Both players did not tend to travel outside their home countries, so it had been an impractical question to try to settle. At Evo 2014 as well, the two would not run into each other in the brackets (not that a mirror match necessarily proves who is the greatest user of the character), but Snake Eyez had at least progressed further than Itabashi Zangief. Now, he also had a chance to outperform his Japanese counterpart by besting Ricky Ortiz, the player who had annihilated Itabashi Zangief.

Against Fuudo’s fortress-like Fei Long, Snake Eyez’s Zangief had been completely shut down, with seemingly no way to mount an offense. But, actually, if you watch a lot of high-level play involving Zangief, you’ll probably think almost every matchup looks nigh unwinnable for the grappler! The fact is, even Zangief’s favorable matchups are not easy wins. His attacks deal a ton of damage, and his Spinning Piledriver, at 2 frames, is the fastest meterless move in the game. But he’s so big and slow that it’s extraordinarily difficult for him to safely get in close to use his powerful throws. At range, Zangief simply doesn’t have moves quick enough to punish many opponents’ attacks on reaction, so a Zangief player must rely not on reactions but almost purely on reads. In my honest opinion, to attain mastery of Zangief is the highest pursuit in Street Fighter—a level beyond technique and execution, almost a state of being spiritually attuned to your opponent. Snake Eyez comes as close as any player I’ve seen to consistently achieving that zone. Always it seems impossible for Zangief to get in, but Snake Eyez holds steady and finds the moment.


Now, I didn’t see Itabashi Zangief play any matches other than his loss to Ricky, so I really can’t fairly compare him to Snake Eyez. The guy did eliminate Xian off-stream (as well as Bryan “Yeb” Wayne, the original Gen player from 2009!), so he’s unquestionably a world-class heavyweight. Still, I’ll call it anyway: Snake Eyez is the best.

On the other side of the draw, Luffy was making his run through the losers bracket. Having already won several European tournaments, Luffy first came to many stream viewers’ attention with his memorable Evo 2013 semifinals match against Xian. As commentator James Chen described, it was a meeting of “two supreme character specialists.” Like Xian, Luffy is not only the foremost but just about the sole practitioner of his character competing at the international level. A Rose specialist, he is not a mere novelty act but a serious contender with his mid-tier character, arguably the strongest player in all of Europe. There are a few other guys—Ryan Hart and Problem X from the UK, Alioune Camara and possibly Valentin “Valmaster” Petit from France—who can fight on a level with him, but, among European players—indeed, probably out of any player not from Asia—Luffy has the best record against the Asian masters, having convincingly beaten Kenryo “Mago” Hayashi’s Fei Long on multiple occasions.

And Luffy would have to do it again at Evo 2014. After an off-stream rematch with Xian that ended with Luffy being sent to the losers bracket in the quarterfinals, the French player commenced a remarkable run into and through the semifinals that included no fewer than five straight elimination matches against Japanese players—not only Mago, but also Tokido, Misse, Eita, and Pugera.

None of Luffy’s victories could truly be called upsets. Although he rarely competes outside his home continent, his Rose play has made him a favorite among viewers of the European streams, who will attest that Luffy is one of the toughest, most confident competitors anywhere in the world, who enters every match, no matter the opponent, with at least even odds. Only a disappointing 13th-place finish at Dreamhack Summer in June—Luffy’s first major in Ultra Street Fighter IV, and his last before Evo 2014—where he lost to Problem X and Sweden’s Simon “Ixion” Bellmyr, the premiere Dan(!) specialist in the world, left some questions as to Luffy’s readiness to contend in the new game. A top 8 finish at Evo quickly dispelled any doubts, but, to go even further, he would have to begin by taking out one more Japanese master.

Luffy’s first opponent in the top 8 would be Momochi, a Topanga League player, who had just recently won South East Asia Major 2014, the most stacked of the pre-Evo tournaments. Momochi is not the most decorated of the Japanese players—somewhat like Ricky Ortiz, his cross-Pacific teammate with whom he shares a sponsor, he had had a reputation for always petering out toward the end of a tournament—but he has been a consistent presence at international majors for years. He is the cleanest player out there, whose immaculate Ken almost never sticks out an attack that fails to make contact with his opponent’s character. If there were any way to track this statistic, I’m willing to bet that Momochi, when playing Ken, would average the fewest button presses per round of any top player. And he may be the only other player alive, besides Sako, to be recognized as the best in the world with each of TWO signature characters in Street Fighter IV. He was both THE Ken and THE Cody in Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012. In addition to those two, Momochi also dabbled with Juri and Decapre in recent Ultra Street Fighter IV tournaments. Knowing that his primary character, Ken, never a great power in Street Fighter IV, would be at a disadvantage against Luffy’s Rose, Momochi went to Juri right off.


Juri was, along with Hakan, one of the last truly “new” characters (i.e. not a clone, not a transplant) added to Street Fighter IV, and the community still has only a limited grasp of how she operates at high levels. So it was nice to see this character shown off in the top 8 at Evo. But Momochi’s decision to go with Juri, his secondary (some would even say, tertiary) character at this stage, also perhaps illustrates a lesson about the difference between a pure character specialist and a multi-character versatilist. Momochi didn’t have confidence in his main, Ken, to take on Luffy’s Rose, and so he pulled Juri out of his pocket to get a more favorable matchup. But, even if Juri is better against Rose, Momochi is only playing maybe a “75 percent” Juri. At the highest level of competition, it simply isn’t feasible for a player to dedicate enough training to develop a backup character to mastery. Against Luffy, who is at all times a complete 100 percent Rose, a 75 percent anything isn’t going to cut it.

After quickly falling two games behind, Momochi gave up on that strategy, and fans were able to see that polished Ken on the Evo main stage. He kept it close for a few rounds, but then we also saw how Rose can control that match. Of note was Luffy’s application of the Soul Satellite, which generates two spheres that orbit Rose for a short period of time. Unlike other Ultra Combos, this move is not principally employed to deal damage, but it completely halts the opponent’s offensive momentum. There is no safe approach while Rose has the spheres around her; you just have to retreat or try to block. And so we see, when Luffy has his back to the wall, he simply activates Ultra and can walk Momochi all the way to the opposite end of the stage.

Luffy’s next opponent was Ghim Kee “Gackt” Eng, a Fei Long player from Singapore. Gackt was perhaps the least known of the players in the final 8. He doesn’t attend many events outside of Asia, and he mains the same character as two of Japan’s biggest names, Fuudo and Mago. Being the third most-famous user of a character that is already among the most common and easiest to use, Gackt maybe hasn’t always gotten the credit he deserves. But he also qualified for the Capcom Cup last year, beating out such heavyweights as Infiltration and GamerBee to earn that spot. A top 8 finish at Evo to follow that up, with a run that included victories over Capcom Cup champion Sako and rival Fei Long Mago, proved that he was someone to be taken seriously as among the world’s best. And he also just so happened to be the training partner of Evo 2013 champion Xian. Singapore may be a small country, but one does not become as good as Xian by playing in a vacuum. If Gackt was Xian’s crucible, and Xian Gackt’s, then Luffy was in for a fight.

Luffy brought his incredible win record against Mago into this match, as well as years of experience against French Fei Long players, but Gackt does play a bit of an unorthodox Fei Long—less lame, more aggressive. This was perhaps highlighted in the craziest play of the match, when Luffy activated Rose’s Soul Satellite in the third game (5:26 in the video below). As discussed before, there’s not a lot that Rose’s opponent can do once she activates the orbs, except to assume a defensive posture and wait it out. After seeing how that had worked out in Luffy’s favor a few times already, Gackt decided instead to challenge it with a flying Rekkukyaku kick (AKA “the chicken wing”)—a miserable failure, as he launched himself right into the orbs, but still you had to respect the mad abandon of it on some level.


With only four competitors now left, it was time for Luffy to face off against Snake Eyez in the losers bracket. This was a battle between two of the most respected and fan-favorite players in the world, as well as arguably the two underdogs, with Bonchan and Fuudo still waiting in the winners bracket. Luffy and Snake Eyez are also, coincidentally(?), two players who do not play on joysticks. Snake Eyez uses a Mad Catz FightPad, while Luffy favors a pre-DualShock PS1(!) controller.

Unlike Snake Eyez’s previous opponents, Luffy was not quite as content to play the defensive turtle game and use the clock to his advantage against the sometimes too patient American. Instead, Luffy would often take the fight right to the world’s greatest Zangief, making effective use of Rose’s Super Combo—one of the few that sees regular use in Street Fighter IV, as most characters do better spending their Super Combo meter on less-costly EX techniques—and even switching out Rose’s Ultra II, Soul Satellite, in favor of her Ultra I, Illusion Spark, as a high-damage punish to close out a round. Luffy’s aggressive play loosened Snake Eyez up to play more in kind, however, delighting the crowd with offensive flourishes that showed exactly why previous opponents had approached the Zangief matchup with such caution. It still looked like a very difficult fight for Zangief, but Snake Eyez and Luffy exchanged rounds and games, finally taking it to a decisive third round of the fifth game—the most tightly contested match in the final 8.


Back to the winners bracket, out of an initial pool of 2,000, the only two players yet to give up a loss, and now set to square off for a spot in the grand finals of Evo 2014, were both Topanga League players from Japan.

Bonchan, the only unsponsored player in the top 8, is the greatest Sagat player in Japan and in the world. He started to peak right as Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012 was winding down, becoming champion of the elite Topanga A League. Many who had faced him agreed that he was the best player in the world, although even he had to admit that it was going to be a challenge for him to win in Ultra Street Fighter IV, with its nerfs to Sagat’s fireball game.

His opponent, Fuudo, was the Evo 2011 champion. Out of all the many Fei Longs in the world, Fuudo’s is considered the strongest—the most perfect realization of the character’s on-paper supremacy. Backed by Fuudo’s reflexes, considered to be the fastest in all of Japan, this character is the ultimate spirit-sapping brick wall.

Here at Evo, in the winners final at the biggest tournament of the year, it was like just another day at the office for these two.


Once Luffy defeated Snake Eyez, I imagine everyone watching (except for maybe the Japanese) had to be backing the Frenchman the rest of the way, as he now needed to beat both Fuudo and Bonchan in order to win it all. As much as the Japanese greats deserve our admiration, the least hype outcome possible would have been to have an all-Japanese grand final, with the same two guys again going to work like it was another day at the office. In the losers final, everyone had to be rooting for Luffy to beat Fuudo, if only in order to prevent that dull rematch. Luckily for spectators, beating yet another Fei Long master at Evo was no sweat for Luffy.


That victory set up a grand final between Luffy, coming from the losers side, and Bonchan, still undefeated on the winners side. In this double-elimination tournament, that meant that Luffy would actually have to win two sets against Bonchan—the first to “reset the bracket” by sending Bonchan down to the losers side, the second to take the crown. As regular viewers of fighting game tournaments will attest, it is exceedingly difficult to win coming from the losers side, because the player on the winners side at this point has an entire extra set just to play around with. They can play more loose, maybe even hold back and experiment a bit, and then adjust their tactics in the second set, if need be, having already had several games to develop a read on their opponent.

But if anybody was up to the task of climbing that mountain, Luffy was that guy. He had already spent all of Sunday and much of Friday facing elimination in the losers bracket. He had beaten seven Japanese players just to make it this far—maybe the hardest path a player had ever taken through Evo—and he had done so convincingly. What was one more to him at this stage?


For all his experience playing in the strongest region in the world for Street Fighter competition, it was clear that Bonchan had never faced a Rose player of Luffy’s caliber. He opened inadvisably by trying to play the fireball game—which is Sagat’s game, after all—but Rose is one character who actually holds the advantage over Sagat at full-screen. She can return fire with her own projectiles, reflect Sagat’s back at him, absorb them to fill her Super Combo Gauge, or Focus Attack through them and build her Revenge Gauge to gain access to her Ultra Combo. Thus, rounds would begin with Luffy taking only minimal damage while almost immediately filling up both his Super Combo Gauge and his Revenge Gauge, whereupon he could simply activate Soul Satellite to shield his Rose as he advanced on Sagat with the intention of landing the Super Combo. Maybe Bonchan was reluctant to try to take on Rose at mid-range, recognizing that her newly buffed EX Soul Spiral posed a particular threat, as it could now go through projectiles. But Luffy didn’t even need the EX Soul Spiral; he was content to save his meter to spend on Rose’s Super Combo instead. Bonchan was in serious trouble. Most tellingly, one round ended with him throwing up an errant desperation uppercut—the surest sign that a player is mentally cracking. In the second set, Bonchan was able to adjust but not quite adapt. He played more aggressively at mid-range and had some success, but still found himself outmaneuvered by Luffy, who took advantage of Rose’s tremendous grab range to toss the towering “Emperor of Muay Thai.”

And so, coming from the losers bracket, Luffy took out Bonchan in straight sets, becoming the first Evo champion not from Asia. The battle took place on the new “Half Pipe” stage—not the most dramatic of settings, yet the fresh groove of the background music nicely underscored the dawning of a new day for the competitive Street Fighter IV landscape.

In the end, it was a result that probably nobody would have predicted, that perhaps no fan, if you’d asked them before Evo, would have said they were hoping for. But it was a better result than we’d had probably any right to expect—the most exciting final since the first time Street Fighter IV was featured at Evo back in 2009.

I will neither disparage nor make excuses for the big names that ended up falling short of expectations. I think all it really says is that there are just so many strong players now, from so many different regions, and with so many different characters, that nobody can be expected to just waltz in and dominate a tournament of this scale and magnitude. Which makes it all the more impressive that Luffy was able to emerge triumphant out of that ocean, the lone shark left as the curtain closed on Evo 2014.