Saturday, December 5, 2015

Capcom Cup 2015 Preview

Capcom Cup 2015 Preview

Tomorrow is the day—the culmination of not only a season of Capcom Pro Tour battles, but of seven years and five editions of Street Fighter IV competition. Capcom Cup 2015 on Sunday, December 6 in San Francisco will represent the series finale.

The field is deeper now than it has ever been, the level of play at its peak. 32 of the world's most elite players, including six out of six Evo champions, will be vying for an unprecedented life-changing first-place prize of $120,000, as well as the glory of being, in essence, the end-all champion of Street Fighter IV.

Here is a rundown of all 32 competitors in the order that they have been seeded, according to their rankings on the 2015 Capcom Pro Tour:

1. Momochi

The defending Capcom Cup champion and Evo 2015 champion, Momochi was the player to beat at the beginning of the year, and he’ll enter Sunday as still the player to beat.

2. Infiltration

The only player ever to win both Evo and the year-end Capcom world championship in the same calendar year (2012), Infiltration can beat anyone in the world, and he knows it. A matchup nightmare for any opponent, Infiltration used over a dozen characters en route to winning five Capcom Pro Tour events this year.

3. Bonchan

Bonchan won two Premier Tournaments this year and continues to be the most consistent performer in the most stacked region in the world. But his character is definitely weaker than those of other top players, and nobody outside Japan is going to be intimidated by a Sagat.

4. Xian

The Evo 2013 champion was the only player to win three Premier Tournaments in 2015, and he has a history of finishing the year strong. There have been two Capcom Cups to date, and Xian was the runner-up in both.

5. GamerBee

The greatest player to never win Evo, the big trophy still eludes him, though GamerBee came damn close this year. Although famous for putting Adon on the map, having used the character to bully Momochi’s Ken many times over the years, these days it is GamerBee’s uber-cheap Elena that sees the most action.

6. Luffy

The Evo 2014 champion was without rival in his home continent this year; he won five Ranking Tournaments in Europe, while no other European took even one. But the Premier Tournaments were humbling for Luffy, as Asian invaders repeatedly shut him out.

7. Tokido

It took some time for Tokido to adjust to how much Akuma has been defanged in this edition, but he came back strong this year and has been a fixture in Premier Tournament top 8’s. He hasn’t had as much success closing out tournaments, but he’ll still be a major obstacle for anyone whose path he crosses.

8. Fuudo

The Evo 2011 champ still has the best Fei Long in the business, but the proliferation of Elenas has made his character far more vulnerable. To combat the Elena counterpick, Fuudo has added a pocket Seth, which is about as far as you can get from the patient style Fuudo is famous for.

9. Mago

Mago was the hottest player on the tour for about a minute, winning two Premier Tournaments and entering Evo 2015 as the No. 1 seed. His character, the nimble Yang, has proven the perfect counter to Akuma, which isn’t worth as much as it would have been in previous versions, but he also still keeps Fei Long around as a backup.

10. Daigo

The Beast is still the king of long sets, and he also won two Premier Tournaments this year. Momochi has owned him pretty hard through most of their 2015 encounters, but Daigo did win their most recent contest in the 5th Topanga A League.

11. Kazunoko

The irrepressible Yun master was the next-best player behind Momochi through the early part of the season, and he finished the year by taking seven straight games off Daigo in the 5th Topanga A League.

12. Snake Eyez

The most marketable player in the US was recently picked up for a sponsorship by Red Bull. The pressure on Snake Eyez will be huge, as he has been made the subject of an ongoing documentary web series that is set to culminate at Capcom Cup.

13. Nemo

The No. 1-ranked player in Japanese arcades, Nemo plays a relentless Rolento. He just never stops attacking (except when he does and then loses). With a full-time job and no sponsor, he doesn’t make it out to the States that often, but the Japanese players all know to fear him.

14. Xiao Hai

Xiao Hai is China’s top player. Sometimes he looks like the best in the world, as when he beats Daigo in the Evil Ryu mirror match. Other times, he looks like a second-rate mediocrity, as when he went 0-8 in the Topanga World League 2 invitational.

15. Justin Wong

Justin had to grind his way into Capcom Cup this year. Playing Elena in recent tournaments, he showed glimmers of his former self—the supreme turtle, who so frustrated Daigo in Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike. If he falls back on Rufus at Capcom Cup, he will not get far.

16. Poongko

In the past, people have sometimes regarded Poongko as more of a showman than a competitor, just slightly outclassed by the more “serious” pros. But when “The Machine” is on, his Seth can make any opponent look like a helpless training dummy, as happened memorably to Daigo at Evo 2011. And Poongko has really been on in the last few events leading up to Capcom Cup.

17. Itabashi Zangief

There are those who say Itazan is not even the best Zangief player in Japan, let alone the world. He’s definitely the most seasoned and internationally accomplished, however, and he cruised through the True Challengers Costa Rica tournament, even against two of America’s best in PR Balrog and 801 Strider.

18. Tonpy

Tonpy is the top-ranked C. Viper in Japanese arcades (or at least was at some point), which does not mean necessarily that he is the best. He did well at a bunch of smaller Asian events, and he has the right character to potentially pull off some upsets on a good day.

19. NuckleDu

Pretty clearly the best in the US in 2015, yet still a long shot to take Capcom Cup, NuckleDu is a fan favorite, in part because he is the only top player with the chutzpah to taunt (repeatedly) during real matches. Expect the crowd to go nuts if he does this against a top international player.

20. Dashio

Japan’s best Seth player. Some think his Seth is more complete than Poongko’s, although Dashio certainly doesn’t have as much international cred. He is capable of beating anyone in Japan, but his lack of experience at the global level may limit him.

21. Keoma

Keoma of Brazil did what no US or European player was able to do this year: he defended home turf against Asian invaders at a Premier event, earning his way into Capcom Cup by defeating Haitani at the Capcom Pro Tour Brazil qualifier. He followed that up by traveling to Europe, where he steamrolled the best the continent had to offer, including a win over Luffy. The guy is a beast—maybe the best Abel player in the world.

22. 801 Strider

Or maybe 801 Strider is the best Abel player in the world. He was the runner-up at a stacked Premier Tournament earlier this year, when he was playing the best he’d ever played—the best any US player has played all year—yet still he lost decisively to Kazunoko.

23. Dieminion

The “King of New York” and the best pure Guile specialist in the world, Dieminion has scored wins over several Japanese players this year. Weirdly, he probably stands a better chance against top international players than he does against any of the other US players at Capcom Cup.

24. Dark Jiewa

An under-the-radar Ken player from Chengdu, Dark Jiewa is good, but he kind of snuck into Capcom Cup early by winning the sparsely attended Abuget Cup in Indonesia. To his credit, he did win it by defeating the rather better-known player seeded right below him….

25. HumanBomb

At different times the best player in Hong Kong and the best player in Australia (also the only top player either region has ever had), HumanBomb now competes for Canada Cup Gaming for some reason. He is probably the best Sakura player in the world.

26. Shiro

The original Japanese Abel player, Shiro is still around, but I don’t think he had a winning record in 2015 against any of the other players qualified for Capcom Cup.

27. Problem X

Problem X has been one of the two best players in the UK (Ryan Hart being the other) for nearly the life of the game. Unfortunately, his first-round opponent will be Luffy, the undisputed best player in all of Europe. Also, scratch what I said about Shiro not having a good record against the other qualifiers; he was 2-0 against Problem X this year.

28. Gackt

Who says Fei Long isn’t top tier anymore? All three of the great Fei Long players made it into Capcom Cup. Though not as famous as Fuudo or Mago, Gackt has at times outperformed them with his comparatively more aggressive Fei Long.

29. Valmaster

Still the strongest Chun-Li in the world and the strongest white guy player in the world, Valmaster is now also the strongest member of Team YP (YouPorn). He’s a great competitor, but, as with Luffy, he was constantly blocked in his own region’s majors by players swooping in from Asia this year. Also, he couldn’t beat Luffy.

30. Misse

They call him “Wanchan-taro” (literally, “One Chance Boy”) in Japan, because all he needs is one chance with his Makoto to take any round in the blink of an eye. Of course, to win Capcom Cup, he’s going to need a lot of rounds and a lot of chances….

31. Dakou

Dakou used to be known for his ability to play nearly every character to a tournament level. Nowadays, he mostly just uses the same cheap characters as his training partner, Xiao Hai (Evil Ryu and Cammy), though less effectively.

32. RB

The wildcard, RB qualified for the 32-man tournament without actually ranking in the top 32 on the Capcom Pro Tour. He ended the season ranked 42nd, but claimed a direct entry by finishing 3rd at a Premier Tournament behind two already-qualified players. Still, he made sport of Europe’s best, and, with a Rolento, a Guy, and a Hugo in his arsenal, he could be a tricky first-round opponent for Momochi.


Who You Won’t See at Capcom Cup 2015


The Capcom Cup 2013 champion hasn’t been around much the last two years. As the winner in 2013, he probably should have gotten an automatic invite into Capcom Cup 2014 (as Momochi received this year), and who knows how that might have impacted things. As things are, he’s been too busy with real life to try to qualify. Still, his shadow looms over the tournament. He basically pioneered both Evil Ryu and Elena as they are played in today's game.


If Capcom Cup were an invitational produced for maximum entertainment value, Smug would for sure have been included. The only Dudley player of consequence, Smug is an artist with his character, and, more than any other US player, he has the explosive power to knock out the Japanese players. He just doesn’t have the consistency to actually win Capcom Cup, nor indeed to qualify, sadly.

Ryan Hart

The first player to qualify last year for Capcom Cup 2014 struggled all of 2015 and could not scrape together enough points to make the cut. His best shot came at Milan Games Week, where he only needed to finish 3rd and was one win away from doing so. Instead, he lost badly to RB. It’s a shame, because his matches against Momochi last year were the highlight of Capcom Cup 2014.

The Rest of Team EG

Before the game switched to Ultra Street Fighter IV, Team EG’s four US members—Justin Wong, PR Balrog, Ricki Ortiz, and K-Brad—were the four best players in the country. All of them, frankly, fell off somewhat after the version switch, and, this year, they couldn’t stand up to the Asian invaders or even really to NuckleDu and Snake Eyez. Only Justin could still pull out the rare win here and there, which is why he’s the only one at Capcom Cup. The hard truth is that none of the others deserved to make the cut this year, but PR Balrog at least will be missed. He is America’s best big-match player.


When Latif was living in the US, he was the best player in the country. Then he moved back to Saudi Arabia, and we never saw him anymore. This year, he made top 16 at Evo, and, in his only other appearance on the Capcom Pro Tour, he was, just like Ryan Hart, one win short of qualifying for Capcom Cup. He might still have the best C. Viper in the world, but we won’t see it at Capcom Cup, or probably ever again in meaningful competition.

Any M. Bison (Dictator)

Bison did a lot of damage this year, with SD Pnoy, Tampa Bison, and Jeron Grayson all notching wins against top international players. Unfortunately, no single Bison player performed well enough to represent at Capcom Cup. Phenom of Norway came the closest; he was another player who was one win away from qualifying.


What to Expect on Sunday

Japan’s current “Big Four”—Momochi, Daigo, Kazunoko, Bonchan—have been, without a doubt, the country’s best, both within Japan and in international competition, and will figure to be major contenders to win Capcom Cup, with Momochi the odds-on favorite. Aside from one another, their fiercest competition will likely come from the other East Asian powerhouses—namely, Singapore’s Xian, Taiwan’s GamerBee, and South Korea’s Infiltration.

The lower half of the draw is notably more shark-filled, as that is where Daigo, Kazunoko, Bonchan, and Infiltration have all been seeded. Momochi, Xian, and GamerBee will have one another to watch out for in the upper bracket. That works out especially well for Xian and GamerBee, since they have struggled somewhat against Daigo and Kazunoko.

Expect to see a lot of Elena and Evil Ryu. These two are now widely recognized as the dominant characters in the game. The former controls the ground game like no one else, while the latter is an offensive powerhouse and also versatile with no obvious counters. To give you an idea of their significance at the top level, Capcom Cup 2014 champion Momochi, who last year won going with Ken all the way, this year needed both Elena and Evil Ryu to close out his matches in the top 3 at Evo. Daigo, with his Evil Ryu, is the only “pure” user of either character, but, among the many players who have picked up secondary characters to cover their weaknesses, these two have been cheap, popular choices.

The other character meriting consideration as the final member of the top 3 is Seth. Three Seth players—Poongko, Dashio, and Problem X—qualified for Capcom Cup, and a few others came frighteningly close. Even Fuudo now has a pocket Seth. Except for maybe Xian, nobody has really had an answer for dealing with this character’s blistering offense. Instead, they mostly depend on Seth players making costly mistakes with this volatile “glass cannon” of a character, but even his infamously low health is actually higher now than in any previous version.


Early Round Matches of Interest

Daigo vs. Dieminion

This is a classic US vs. Japan matchup between two players who have each been the very best in their respective countries. History favors Daigo, but Dieminion is a studious player who will not go into this first-round match without a plan.

Snake Eyez vs. Keoma

This will be a very tense first-round match for Snake Eyez, who will be shouldering much of the burden of the crowd’s hopes for a US champion. Facing the almost freakishly stolid dark horse from Brazil, he will have to draw confidence from his strong record against the other two Abel players at Capcom Cup, 801 Strider and Japan’s Shiro, versus Keoma’s more limited experience playing top-level Zangiefs.

Kazunoko vs. 801 Strider

801 Strider is one of the hardest-working and most scientific players in the US, which he showed in matches where he systematically dismantled Momochi and Daigo this year. He will surely have a game plan for this first-round runback against the player who denied him a Premier Tournament title earlier in the year. On the other hand, Kazunoko has shown time and time again that strategy means little to him, and, unless it’s Momochi, he really doesn’t care who his opponent is.

Momochi vs. Poongko

If Momochi makes it past RB, his likely 2nd-round opponent will be Poongko in potentially a pivotal match. Poongko is legitimately a major threat to Momochi, having beaten him 5-1 at Topanga World League 2 this year. He’s also coming off a huge win at the Capcom Pro Tour Asia Finals in Singapore last month, where he made sport of Nemo and Bonchan, among others. I can’t quite call him a favorite to win it all—his placings this year just haven’t been consistent enough—but if he beats Momochi, he could definitely go far.


This is the toughest Street Fighter IV bracket that has ever been put together, or that ever will be. The results will be impossible to call past the second round, and expect some upsets even in the first round, especially since the format will not be best-of-5 until the top 16. Unlike other big tournaments, such as Evo, there will be no pools for top players to "warm up" against no-names. From the get-go, every competitor will be thrust into a treacherous best-of-3 match against one of the proven strongest players in the world. And, since most of the seedings have been set in stone for over a month now, every player will immediately be facing someone who has game-planned specifically to beat them. Whoever takes home the cup on Sunday, the amazing assemblage of talent should ensure a grand finale and fitting sendoff to Street Fighter IV.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Fandom Awakens

A teenager asked me the other day if I liked Star Wars. She wanted to show me this book of Star Wars sheet music she had just purchased.

“Of course,” I said.

I was more surprised, though also heartened, that this youngster counted herself a fan. Star Wars is one of the biggest properties on the planet, obviously, but I was not certain how truly cross-generational its popularity was today.

I am too young to have experienced the original trilogy in theaters, but I watched those movies dozens of times on home video as a child. Growing up in the ‘80s, I didn’t have as many options as kids these days. There was no Internet (my family didn’t even own a computer), not nearly as much TV (certainly not as much current-run television), and not nearly as many movies (neither in theaters nor in my family’s limited VHS collection). So I would end up watching the same couple of shows and movies over and over again, most of which were older than myself. Regardless, I loved Star Wars—the epic space battles and lightsaber duels, the operatic drama, the heroism and hopefulness, the R2-D2 and, of course, those adorable Ewoks.

Later, I would try to share my love of Star Wars with my younger sister, a child of the ‘90s, but, although she found some of the mascot characters cute, somehow the sci-fi medievalism and dashes of Eastern philosophy never quite captivated her imagination the way they did mine. I resigned myself to supposing that it was a generational thing. Although Star Wars seemed to be growing more lucrative all the time, the average age of its fans was also skewing older. Maybe the fans were really just the ones who had been there all along. They were simply older now and thus had more disposable income through which to exert their influence on the market, as well as a broader forum, the Internet, on which to geek out together. Younger generations, meanwhile, had different interests.

Another twenty years later, the kids and teenagers of today seem far more interested in things like Minecraft, Snapchat, joke memes stolen from Black Twitter, and, the flavor of the month, Minions (that spin-off from Despicable Me). They’ll watch the Marvel movies, but only the very young will have anything to say about them. The prevailing attitude toward Star Wars seems much the same; everyone is going to watch the new movie, but only because everyone is going to watch it. At the individual level, hardly anyone under the age of eighteen seems to feel much one way or the other about it. Or so I thought.

“It’s my favorite movie of all time,” said this teenager.

“Which one?” I asked.

Clone Wars.”

Well, that was a new one on me. I don’t usually even remember that the 2008 Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated film is one of the choices.

“That was the first movie I ever saw in theaters,” she said.

Ah, that explained it, I thought. Doing the math in my head, I calculated that she must have been about four years old at the time Revenge of the Sith came out. Although I, along with most critics, regarded Clone Wars as the "seventh-best" Star Wars film to date, what was that against this child’s nostalgia?

She said that she had seen and enjoyed all the other movies, but she preferred the art style of Clone Wars, as well as its characters. For her, when she thought of Obi-Wan Kenobi, she did not picture Alec Guinness or Ewan McGregor. This was her Obi-Wan:


She said she really loved the Clone Wars TV show too, and it occurred to me then that, indeed, there must have been another entire generation of Star Wars fans that was raised on Clone Wars, a series that I myself mostly skipped. I had considered myself a huge Star Wars fan, and I had thought that the kids today had arrived too late to “get” Star Wars. But maybe I was the one who was born too early, because, actually, this teenager had seen more Star Wars than I had.

Clone Wars was axed so abruptly after the Disney acquisition that it’s easy to forget now that the show was massively popular with kids, even up until the end, its demise having nothing to do with its level of success. I think back and can remember now that, for a good while there, the animated incarnations of Anakin and Obi-Wan were basically the lead versions being pushed by Lucasfilm. I would see that art all the time in the toy aisles, on lunch boxes and backpacks, and in video game tie-ins. And how many years did we have full of short clone troopers going door-to-door at Halloween?

That merchandise is all gone now, but the Clone Wars show did what it was supposed to. It cultivated a generation of new Star Wars fans, who, when they take over this world in about ten or twenty years, may prove as vocal and obnoxiously precious about their Star Wars as today’s thirty- and forty-somethings are about the original trilogy.

“Are you looking forward to Episode VII?” I asked her.

“I guess,” she said. “I just know that Disney bought it, and I hope they don’t ruin everything.”

Yikes. I wasn’t sure if this was her “too cool for Disney” phase, a more specific anti-imperialist sentiment toward the Disneyfication of their acquired brands, or just the cynicism that accompanies young adulthood. For the record, in addition to being a Star Wars fan, I also love Disney’s worlds, and I generally approve of what they’ve done with Marvel. And I’ve never had much use for pessimism, so I remain guardedly optimistic about The Force Awakens.

“Well, have you seen Rebels?” I asked, referring to the current Star Wars animated series, which I enjoy and consider a positive indicator of where Disney is taking Star Wars.

“Yeah, that’s why I’m worried,” she said. “It’s too kiddie and Disney-like for me.”

Christ. I guess the Clone Wars animation style was decidedly not “Disney-like,” but it was still a children’s cartoon. To scorn Rebels for being “too kiddie” compared to Clone Wars is simply not rational. It’s like someone my age accusing The Phantom Menace of being too kiddie compared to the original trilogy, apparently forgetting that these movies were always meant to be kid-friendly, and that we probably loved the old movies largely because we were kids when we watched them. (Don’t even get me started on the old dudes who hate Return of the Jedi because it has Ewoks. Yes, to each generation its own image of Star Wars, but please shut up, old dude.)

“And they got Ahsoka all wrong,” she added.

And so continues the cycle of hating the new version of whatever thing you liked when you were a kid….

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Walking Dead (TV) (Season 5, Part 2) (2015)


In recent years, The Walking Dead has primarily used the back halves of its seasons to decompress and transition to the next arc, with the more dramatic movements and climactic showdowns to follow in the subsequent fall season. Thus, after the explosive midseason finale, the remainder of Season 5 sees the group finally leaving miserable Atlanta behind them, making new friends(?), and settling into a new environment, while the new big bad lurks in the background. That said, the second half of Season 5 does contain a few major moments for the series.

Episode 10, “Them,” sees the main characters at a low point, starving and withdrawn from one another, as they trek on foot toward Washington, D.C., recent losses to their party having taken a heavy toll on the group’s morale. There’s a telling shot where we see the survivors trudging onward, listless to the likewise oddly apathetic zombies in the background merely keeping pace with them. This all culminates in a speech where Rick finally name-checks the title of the show: “We do what we need to do, and then we get to live. No matter what we find in D.C., I know we’ll be okay. This is how we survive: We tell ourselves that we are the walking dead.”

Of course, anybody who has really been paying attention surely figured out a long time ago that the title was referring, not to the zombies, but to the hollowed-out survivors. Still, it feels a momentous milestone for the series. One also gets the impression that, with the characters just now figuring out who they are, the show might still only be getting started, with no end in sight nor any clear destination.

This is then followed by one of the strongest moments in the season, as the group, having taken refuge in a barn, has to mass together to brace the barn door against a horde of zombies, all while a storm rages around them. It might even be the most powerful image in the entire series. So far, I’d say it’s between this and that time Rick ate a guy in Season 4—two moments that strike very different notes emotionally, but which both serve to prove just how fearsome is their will to survive.

The rest of the season focuses on the group trying to integrate into the Alexandria Safe Zone, and here we get the tantalizing twist that, after all the times the main characters have been the hunted, they might now be entering this peaceful community as the predators, the danger, maybe even the straight-up bad guys. When Rick suggests to his team that they might have to take the town by force, because it is going to waste in the hands of its weakling citizenry, it’s an unsettling callback to the debates Rick himself had with Shane back on Hershel’s farm in Season 2, only now Rick seems to have come around to Shane’s way of thinking.

The other great moment of this half-season comes when, Rick, the newly appointed sheriff of the Alexandria community, after having to be pulled off the wife-beating scumbag he was pummeling in a public spectacle, responds by drawing his gun on the unarmed civilian leadership, and delivering his most deranged speech yet:
“You still don’t get it. None of you do! We know what needs to be done, and we do it. We’re the ones who live. You!—you just sit and plan and hesitate. You pretend like you know, when you don’t! You wish things weren’t what they are. Well, you wanna live? You want this place to stay standing? Your way of doing things is done! Things don’t get better because you want them to. Starting right now, we have to live in the real world.”

Yep. If they’re not already on CafePress, I hope someone will get to designing some “Shane was right” T-shirts.

In fact, it’s basically a variation on the “we are the walking dead” speech that Rick gave to the group in the barn. But, whereas the barn episode, which rallied the group’s will to survive, was, I think, meant to be inspiring, this incident casts a lot of doubt on the soundness of Rick’s leadership. On that note, I should say, it feels like Rick has been crazy more often than not through these first five seasons, so I don’t know why the Alexandrians were so eager to invite him into their community to begin with.

But things follow a predictable course, when Alexandria quickly begins to unravel internally, just as Rick called it. If Rick (and, by extension, Shane) is not wholly vindicated, nevertheless the demurring Alexandrians are proven to be totally wrong and complete idiots, who, like every other non-predatory survivors on this show, were only surviving by dumb luck. And so it falls to Rick to browbeat them into submission, in order to prepare them for the real threat we know to be coming—the mysterious “Wolves,” who, so far, seem like every other predatory gang the group has crossed paths with.

Will the arrival of the Wolves help to remind Rick and the viewers alike what separates our protagonists from the depraved evils the group has faced, or have our “heroes” merely become another gang?

Rick seems to appreciate the distinction between living and merely surviving—hence how he is able to survive while being “dead.” But Rick and the rest will die someday, as shall we all. As they die, will they, as Tyreese did, contemplate how they lived, and wonder if they went about it the right way? Perhaps such philosophy is a luxury left to the dying. While they survive, such thoughts are quickly set aside.

What else happened in Season 5? Well, even with Tyreese’s death in the midseason opener, the show was apparently still over its self-imposed “black guy quota,” so naturally recent addition Noah had to come to a brutal and senseless death, which also rendered Beth’s death the previous half-season all the more senseless. On the bright side, Morgan is back, and it looks like he will be joining Rick’s group. Personally, I thought this character had run his proper course ending with his reappearance in Season 3, but I guess the show wasn’t done with him. And I know it’s an awful thing to say, but I hope the addition of Morgan as a regular means that the preacher man is next up on the chopping block, because, brother or no, that dude is seriously the worst.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

I'll only watch 99 percent of the comic book movies ever made

The Hollywood Reporter:
Days before Fantastic Four opened, director Josh Trank sent an email to some members of the cast and crew to say he was proud of the film, which, he wrote, was "better than 99 percent of the comic-book movies ever made."

"I don't think so," responded one castmember.

A while back, someone asked me, “Have you seen the latest Fantastic Four trailer yet?”

This was, I believe, the final theatrical trailer for Josh Trank and 20th Century Fox’s Fantastic Four (2015). No, I hadn’t seen it. I hadn’t heard about it. I wasn’t interested in it or in the movie. I had seen the first trailer, and it had looked lame, which was what I had expected. I knew early on that this was never going to be the Fantastic Four movie for me—basically, ever since they cast a Mr. Fantastic that was younger than me (I’m in my early thirties), though that was, as it turns out, the least of the production’s problems. (I mean, what could this man-child director know of heroism—this brat who allegedly defaced the family photos of his landlord, whose house his dogs wrecked? In retrospect, doesn’t it make total sense that the most monstrously powerful character in Chronicle was the loser kid with the camera?)

So, anyway, I watched the new trailer, and the movie still looked lame, which was what I expected. My question was, Why do people keep directing me to these lame Fantastic Four trailers, as if I should have some special interest in this crappy superhero movie? It made me wonder, Am I supposed to watch this movie? Is that what is expected of me? Am I now the guy that goes to see every last superhero movie (based on a Marvel or DC property)?

I actually had to stop and think to recall the last time I had missed a theatrical release based on a Marvel or DC superhero comic. There was 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, but I had passed on that one for reasons unrelated to the content of the movie. The last one before that was 2012’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which was more than three years ago. (And that character exists somewhat outside the mainstream of the Marvel universe anyway.) The last DC superhero movie I skipped was Green Lantern in 2011. Since then, I had watched every MCU release, every Amazing Spider-Man, every Batman and Superman, and even the clearly second-rate The Wolverine. Using Wikipedia as a reference, I can count 19 (of 24) Marvel and DC universe films that I had watched in theaters, dating from 2008, the year of Iron Man and The Dark Knight, through to this year’s Ant-Man, the last major superhero movie before the new Fantastic Four.

So, yeah, I definitely seem to watch a lot of these—a majority, even. It’s all over this blog, too. They’re, like, the only movies I watch, right? I mean, seriously, yeesh! I overwhelm myself looking over the embarrassing quantity of words I’ve spent blogging about what are, at the end of the day, rather simplistic escapist fictions for teenage boys. And, having already dug myself in so deeply, I do feel an almost inescapable sense of an obligation to carry on and have an opinion on every new Marvel or DC superhero movie.

Then again, 12 of those 19 superhero movies I saw were part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is sort of a single series. Is it a given that I’ll see every new movie in that series? Maybe. But all of the MCU movies thus far have consistently looked pretty good, and indeed been pretty good, so I’ve never had to consider not seeing one.

Basically, since Marvel really stepped up to take proprietorship of its own movies, and arguably of the genre and maybe even the whole entire film industry, there have been 1) a lot more superhero movies coming out (hence why I’m watching so many), and 2) much higher expectations for each release, effecting a level of “quality assurance” to protect the investments of studios and moviegoers alike. Up until Fantastic Four, it had been a long time since we’d had an Elektra or a Pitof-directed Catwoman slipping through to a single-digit Rotten Tomatoes score. Well, Green Lantern was lousy, and, sure enough, that was a case where I had enough self-respect not to pay money to see it.

So, no, I don’t go to see every single comic book movie that comes out. Only maybe 99 percent of them.

(Yes, I did go to see Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer in 2007, and, yes, it was the worst superhero movie I ever saw in theaters. But that was a weird summer, after I had just quit my game tester gig and started a new job, which, while providing me with a steady income and work schedule at last, also left me momentarily with an identity crisis and no idea how to spend my suddenly abundant free time, except by going to the movies almost every weekend.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015)


Marvel’s original Ant-Man, Hank Pym, is a character whose most famous story arcs concerned mental illness and domestic violence. These are, now as ever, delicate issues, which any film adaptation would have to handle with extraordinary care in order to pull off without inciting a storm of angry blog posts in this day and age of holier-than-thou finger-pointing and overeager content-policing in the name of social justice. Indeed, for as much as a generation of teenage (or otherwise developmentally arrested) male readers heralded the original stories for tackling these serious topics, the old comics would not likely impress today’s audiences, and might even kind of disgust. At the very least, it’s questionable how well they have aged. It’s not surprising that, for its first cinematic take on Ant-Man, Marvel Studios has chosen to sidestep these most infamous chapters in the character’s history, presenting instead the more straightforward origin story of Scott Lang, the lesser-known second Ant-Man.

For fans of the Hank Pym character, it’s disappointing perhaps that Disney’s Ant-Man isn’t the definitive cinematic adaptation of the character we know from the comics. It also isn’t the Edgar Wright Ant-Man film that was so long dangled before admirers of the Hot Fuzz (2007) director. So geeks could already count two strikes against the movie before filming had even begun. But, whatever it isn’t, what Ant-Man is is a pretty great movie, both taken on its own and as an addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

As a solo superhero origin story, it’s fairly straightforward, yes, but also refreshingly light. Director Peyton Reed, faced with what had seemed an impossible situation, having to step into the shoes of a true auteur, nimbly toes the MCU line, ticking all the boxes (references, cameos, the overall look and feel), while not getting bogged down in shared universe lore or superhero excess. In fact, it’s a movie that almost feels more Disney than Marvel, with obvious similarities in concept and content to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1987). It also reminds me a bit of some of the old Robert Stevenson fantasy-comedy films, including The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and The Love Bug (1968), which featured stories ostensibly set in the real world but each with one core fanciful element, sold partly through special effects, but even more so by appealing to the audience’s innocence and imagination shared by the movies themselves, together with charming characters, gentle sensibilities, and mild family-friendly thrills bordering on the slapstick.

Ant-Man does possess some nifty special effects and clever visuals. When characters shrink down, reality itself seems to warp, as they adjust to the unfamiliar and initially overwhelming sense of scale. Unlike other superheroes, Ant-Man is not ideally suited for combat, so the set pieces in this movie also necessitate more creativity. The one thing that a miniature hero might excel at is infiltration, so much of the picture takes the form of a heist film, our tiny protagonist navigating through grates and water mains to bypass security. Naturally, he must also be backed up by a crack support team, including both human misfits and endearing ant companions.

It helps the movie that Marvel had a stellar cast already in place before Peyton Reed was brought in. Although Hank Pym is not the titular Ant-Man of this story, he is nevertheless the central figure in its mythology and still very much involved in the action. And Michael Douglas gives a shockingly great performance, which shouldn’t be a surprise, but it had just felt like a long time since I’d taken the guy seriously, whether in his movies or in the celeb rags. As the self-appointed custodian of the potentially destructive science his genius wrought, he brings more depth and genuine pathos to the role than we’ve yet seen from Robert Downey, Jr. or Mark Ruffalo. Evangeline Lilly, as Pym’s daughter and seemingly the surrogate for Ant-Man’s traditional partner in the comics, the Wasp (who is probably even more significant in Avengers history than Pym himself), also impresses, bringing to the role all the qualities of a winning superhero—strength, charisma, humanity. Paul Rudd, as the Scott Lang Ant-Man, is not the obvious candidate to don a superhero costume, but he’s a nice change of pace from the Avengers we’ve seen—a more ordinary guy, with more ordinary friends. And he wins us over without seemingly having to do very much, because Rudd is so naturally likable. The biggest letdown of the movie is Corey Stoll as the villain, Yellowjacket, who is really kind of an underdeveloped and generic bad guy.

In the comics, Yellowjacket was none other than Hank Pym himself. It was his fourth identity (after Ant-Man, Giant-Man, and Goliath), and the popular interpretation is that all the constant reinventing of himself took a toll on his psyche. Something had to give, and so finally he snapped, yielding the deranged Yellowjacket, who introduced himself by claiming to have killed Hank Pym. The movie offers a slight nod to this with the suggestion that exposure to the size-changing particles have driven Stoll’s character to derangement, but this is not quite convincing, because 1) we never get to know what the character was like before he went nuts, and 2) honestly, he doesn’t seem remarkably insane by superhero movie standards, but rather just run-of-the-mill evil and ambitious, like any number of other bad guys already in the MCU. It’s too bad we won’t get to see Pym as Yellowjacket, because I always thought the personality disorder angle was a clever play on the reality that Marvel’s writers were continually struggling to find ways to keep the character relevant alongside his fellow Stan Lee-created Avengers.

Stoll’s character tries to sell the idea of an ant-sized soldier as though it were the most obvious thing in the world, but truthfully the idea remains unintuitive. The power to turn small seems highly situational in its usefulness, no? Good for espionage, but maybe not so great for evacuating an island falling from the sky. Like the Hulk, Ant-Man was not originally conceived as a superhero. Early Marvel had comics spanning many genres. Ant-Man made his debut in 1962 in the science-fiction anthology Tales to Astonish (which is also where new Hulk stories were published for a while), and somewhat inelegantly transitioned to superhero, once it was determined that that was all the industry had room for.

The movie does do a good job of making Ant-Man’s powers seem totally awesome, as he zips around weightlessly and untouchably and knocks down full-sized grown men, who look as though they’re just flailing about and collapsing for no reason. But his coolest power is his ability to command the ants, which are truly the best thing in the movie. They assist him with transport and combat, and, giant from his perspective, there’s a touch of Harryhausen to them, even if the computer-generated effects in this movie are much more sophisticated. Of course, it raises the question: if Pym’s shrinking technology works, as explained, by reducing the distance between atoms, where in any of that does the ability to telepathically communicate with ants fit? One can only conclude that, in his heyday, Pym was so weirdly, obsessively committed to the whole “ant” theme that he developed multiple otherwise unrelated revolutionary technologies specifically for the purpose of concocting a complete “Ant-Man” persona. And, even with all those abilities, still one wonders, what could Ant-Man add as a member of the Avengers, dealing with cosmic-level threats the likes of Thanos or Korvac?

Well, as mentioned, the original Ant-Man, Hank Pym, in the comics also could become Giant-Man, who might be marginally more useful in a brawl. In the movie, Pym has these red and blue discs used for shrinking and unshrinking objects remotely. At least, I assumed they were for shrinking and unshrinking. But then, toward the end of the movie, Ant-Man uses the blue disc to enlarge a normal ant to giant size. The movie never addresses the implications of this, but it would seem to mean that Pym has already cracked the science behind Giant-Man as well.

I really do hope that Ant-Man gets a sequel, not only to explore this Giant-Man question, but also just because I’d like more fun adventures with these characters. Failing that, I look forward to seeing Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man in a future Avengers movie, and I really hope Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly join him.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Evo 2015 – Ultra Street Fighter IV

The 2015 edition of the Evo Championship Series, the largest gathering of fighting game players from around the world, continued the trend of each year being bigger than the last. The Street Fighter IV tournament, for the seventh and assuredly final time the main event, again set a new record with over 2,200 entrants.

Last year’s event, which saw big names and past champions, including Daigo Umehara and Seonwoo “Infiltration” Lee, knocked out on the first day of competition, proved the futility of trying to pick an odds-on favorite in today’s game. The field is simply too deep, and, in the best-of-three format, almost anything can happen. Even the most decorated player can potentially run into an opponent they just aren’t prepared for and quickly find themselves sent to the losers bracket. Never mind trying to pick a favorite to win it all, I’m not sure any player coming into Evo 2015 had even odds to make top 8. Rather, with almost every name player in attendance, there were probably at least thirty or so competitors with roughly an equal shot at making it to the money rounds.


Evo’s sheer scale is part of what makes it one of the hardest tournaments to win, but, in the early rounds, that size just means that the seeded players have to endure a greater number of pool matches against nobodies before progressing as expected. The quarterfinals are where the action really begins, as big names face off against one another just to crack the top 32.

The most intriguing matches are those pitting top players against competitors from other regions. In one such case, reigning Evo champion Olivier “Luffy” Hay faced off against Guile specialist Kevin “Dieminion” Landon, one of the best players in New York and in the U.S.

When Luffy won Evo 2014, it was a bit of a blow to the U.S. community’s ego. When the Americans were losing to the Japanese, they could always point out that the U.S. was playing with a clear handicap, since the Japanese tended to receive the games earlier and benefitted from both healthier arcades and faster internet to develop their skills. What excuse could the Americans possibly offer for falling behind the Europeans, who arguably had to start from even further back?

Top U.S. players had a lot to prove, not only against the Japanese, but now also against Luffy, who entered Evo 2015 with a target on his back. They had had to wait quite a while for their chance, as Luffy doesn’t generally travel to the U.S. except for Evo, nor do U.S. players very often travel to Europe. But Dieminion was someone who, as it happened, had traveled to France multiple times, so he was well-prepared take on the European players.

(Video uploaded by StreetFighterCentral.)

Luffy would subsequently lose off-stream to Japan’s Hiromiki “Itabashi Zangief” Kumada, who became, for the second year in a row, the man to eliminate the previous year’s Evo champ.

The most exciting quarterfinal match had to be that between SoCal’s Alex Valle and last year’s runner-up, Masato “Bonchan” Takahashi of Japan. Although semi-retired now, Valle was the best U.S. player of his generation back in the days of the Street Fighter Alpha series. Traditionally a Ryu player in every game, Valle had been playing casually a lot of Hugo, ever since the gigantic grappler was added to the roster in Ultra Street Fighter IV. Hugo is a character that still isn’t much represented at the highest levels, but, almost every time a Hugo does make it onto a major tournament stream, something crazy happens.

Grapplers are traditionally mismatched against Sagat, whose projectiles can be hell to navigate for the slow-footed titans. The difference between Hugo and Zangief, however, is that Hugo has some surprisingly quick far-reaching attacks, some of which also advance him forward, allowing him to maintain pressure as he pushes opponents toward the corner.


Both the defending champion and the previous year’s runner-up were knocked out before the top 32, but other favorites remained, including former champions Daigo and Infiltration.

In the round of 16, Infiltration would have to face Taiwan’s Bruce “GamerBee” Xiang, the very player he previously defeated in the Evo 2012 championship match. So much has changed for these two competitors since then.

In 2012, the “Year of Infiltration,” the South Korean was the dominant player using the game’s dominant character, Akuma. In 2015, with Ultra Street Fighter IV’s new Delayed Wake-Up mechanic having severely nerfed Akuma’s offense, Infiltration has become known as the most versatile player in the world, having scored tournament victories with nearly a dozen different characters. Against GamerBee, he would go with Evil Ryu, the character now considered by many to be the strongest in this edition of the game.

GamerBee, long the world’s preeminent Adon specialist, has now also become the top Elena player in Ultra Street Fighter IV. Opinions on the tier placement of this character have varied and shifted considerably in the short time she has been in the game. Without high-damage combos or tricky mix-ups on knockdown, she is not dominating in the ways that Street Fighter IV’s most notoriously powerful characters have been. What she possesses instead is a superior neutral game consisting of quick pokes with those long limbs of hers, angled in ways that make her very hard to approach directly. Her unusually diminutive profile while crouching further stymies opponents’ offenses, since many ordinarily reliable setups specifically will not work on her. This peculiar design, which allows her to effectively control the ground using only basic attacks, has led many frustrated players to declare her a cheap character, albeit not an overpowering one in the conventional Street Fighter IV sense.

(Video uploaded by StreetFighterCentral.)

For the most part, Infiltration doesn’t try to approach with his Evil Ryu. That may have less to do with the particular threat Elena poses than with Infiltration’s personal style. He’s always been a cautious and conservative player. The problem is that, if Infiltration isn’t going in, he isn’t taking advantage of Evil Ryu’s main strength—his explosive burst-damage combos. Sure enough, his Evil Ryu looked maybe not ready for prime time, as GamerBee handily took the first game.

As mentioned, Infiltration is a man of many characters, however, as well as one of the tour’s savviest minds. His decision to switch to Chun-Li shows just how deeply he has studied this game. For a long time considered among the least potent characters in Street Fighter IV, Chun-Li had not been brought up as a potential answer to Elena (or to any character, for that matter, other than grapplers). The character’s one strong point, her great ground control, had never seemed to matter in previous editions dominated by top tiers that could deal so much more damage than her in so much less time. Against Elena, however, this strength would be key. Elena is tough because she is a foil to so many conventionally powerful characters, but Chun-Li is one character who excels in the same area and can therefore fight her on equal terms.

Interestingly, although this contest of footwork and poking would be considered unconventional by Street Fighter IV standards, it is a more broadly exemplary Street Fighter match for precisely that reason. With no crazy combos or vortex setups to turn to, the participants end up relying on their mastery of the fundamentals that have been at the core of fighting games since Street Fighter II.

GamerBee was still alive in the losers bracket, but, in order to qualify for the top 8, he would have to win an elimination match against the Evil Ryu par excellence, Daigo Umehara himself.

(Video uploaded by fohstick a.)

In this match between the top Evil Ryu and the top Elena, each character’s strengths are clearly on display. Daigo, a much more assertive Evil Ryu than Infiltration, is determined to advance on Elena, and we see just how hard that is to do, as he repeatedly runs into Elena’s kicks. On the other hand, while GamerBee may land far more blows with Elena, Daigo only needs a few openings to more than erase any life deficit with his destructive Evil Ryu combos.

Daigo takes the early lead, but he ultimately falls due to his continued lack of caution (he never stops running into those kicks) and his failure to respect Elena’s Ultra Combo I: Brave Dance, which can blow through Evil Ryu’s fireballs to punish on reaction.


Last year saw some of the most successful competitors in Street Fighter IV history crashing out early in an Evo tournament that was held, some argue prematurely, on an edition of the game that had been available to the public for barely over a month. I would never try to diminish Luffy’s victory a year ago, considering the list of players he had to beat to get there. But this year’s results aligned much more closely with expectations of a mature competitive scene with an established order in its player rankings. Both Infiltration and GamerBee reached the Evo top 8, each for the fourth time in their Street Fighter IV careers, and they were joined in the final 3 by Japan’s Yusuke Momochi, the reigning Capcom Cup 2014 champion, still considered by most the man to beat.

At the beginning of 2015, Momochi carried the momentum from his Capcom Cup victory into a truly dominant run, where it seemed no one else in the world could touch him. Once the 2015 Capcom Pro Tour got fully underway, Momochi was unable to score any major victories at the Premier level (the highest tier of tournament, next to Evo), but the results don’t tell the full story. Anybody who watched him play would surely agree that he was clearly the strongest player. In the matches he won, it would often appear as though his opponents were moving in slow motion. He would swat them out of the sky or otherwise catch them in situations where the data suggested it shouldn’t have been possible for him or for any human to react in time.

Part of it has to do with his devious “throw tech uppercut” option select, whereby he can manipulate the game engine to read three inputs simultaneously (guard, Shoryuken, throw tech (breaking a grab)) and automatically output only the most advantageous of the three options in any given situation. But Momochi’s form and conditioning are also second to none, likely because he puts in more training than almost anybody else. That means he has the experience to recognize a wider range of scenarios more quickly than anybody else, and he has honed his responses to be instinctive. Basically, he can operate at a faster speed because he doesn’t have to think about what to do.

The players who beat him in 2015 did so by showing him things he couldn’t have trained against, whether it was Bryant “Smug” Huggins’s one-of-a-kind Dudley at CEO, Gustavo “801 Strider” Romero’s patented anti-Momochi tech at NorCal Regionals, or Daigo Umehara playing out of his mind at Stunfest. The idea is to get Momochi thinking by confronting him with situations he can’t just process automatically. When top players start thinking, that’s usually when they lose.

In the Evo 2015 winners final, could Infiltration bring to the table something Momochi hadn’t seen before?

Leading off with Evil Ryu was probably not the best decision for Infiltration. This was not a character he had used very much on the Capcom Pro Tour, but, against the strongest player in the world, perhaps he felt he needed the edge of the strongest character. Unfortunately, as powerful as Evil Ryu is, many people believe he actually loses head-to-head against the other Shoto characters (Ryu, Ken, Akuma), the problem being that his longest-range pokes are just slightly slower than their equivalent attacks, meaning that he tends to lose neutral exchanges. Even setting that aside, Momochi was clearly playing more cleanly and confidently.

Infiltration’s switch to Abel was a desperate move but, in classic Infiltration fashion, also an inspired one. Perhaps he remembered how 801 Strider had beaten Momochi with Abel at NorCal Regionals.

It was a great call, but a little too late. Responding to Infiltration’s response, Momochi in turn was allowed to switch characters going into the decisive game, and, of course, with so much on the line, he went cheap with Elena.

Now in the losers bracket, Infiltration would have to face a runback against GamerBee. Their last match showed off Infiltration’s ability to quickly regroup to counter a formidable tactic from GamerBee. Given two days to revise his game plan, how would GamerBee answer back?

It was a match that truly showed the game at its best and its worst. In what was quite probably the longest best-of-five match in Street Fighter history, both players pushed themselves to their own limits and to the breaking point of the game itself.

What GamerBee remembered this time was that Infiltration is, by nature, a low-risk player. Infiltration’s strategy had been to hang back and, instead of dealing with Elena’s stifling defense, waiting for her to come after his Chun-Li, who was capable of turning the tables on Elena with her even better control of the horizontal axis. On review, the problem with that strategy was that it amounted to countering a counterpuncher with a better counterpuncher. What happens if nobody actually threw a punch? That was the question that broke the game.

In a lot of sports, two sides take turns switching between offense and defense. One player strikes first, and then the other player must respond or risk falling behind, and the rest of the contest all proceeds from that. But what if nobody takes that first turn? You actually see this situation a lot in combat sports. Instead of immediately going at one another, the two fighters dance around one another for a bit (or a lot). It’s called respect. Not respect for your opponent’s quality of character, mind you, but for the threat they pose. If you attack them, then you’re not defending yourself, which puts you at risk. If you see that they’re not attacking, it tells you they’re on defense, which means that they’re safe. When the stakes are high, everyone would rather be safe than at risk, so nobody wants to attack first.

There’s always been an element of this to the “footsies” in fighting games, but never to this degree. Maybe the stakes had never been so high. For most of every round between Infiltration’s Chun-Li and GamerBee’s Elena, neither side would assertively engage. In many respects, it was probably the highest-level Street Fighter match ever played. There’s a reason that Floyd Mayweather is the most successful boxer, the richest, and frequently praised as the smartest, even if spectators can’t stand watching him do the opposite of fighting. Now just imagine two Floyd Mayweathers squaring off against one another. Boxing aficionados would wet themselves at all that insufferable brilliance.

It was like a game of chicken in reverse, where each side was daring the other to start, and nobody knew for sure what would happen if neither did, but one side was a little more terrified to find out. In this case, Infiltration was the one cracking. He was the more naturally conservative player, therefore the one in the more unfamiliar position, faced with an opponent who, for once, was at least as risk-averse as himself. He would fire off projectiles, theoretically one of Chun-Li’s key advantages over Elena, in a desperate bid to make GamerBee move. But GamerBee wouldn't budge. He simply absorbed the temporary damage as fuel for Elena’s Ultra Combo II: Healing.

Healing is the other part of Elena’s game that makes her so demoralizing. Even though it heals Elena instead of damaging her opponent, it has the same net effect as other Ultra Combos: it adjusts the health differential in her favor. But, while other Ultra Combos are best used to punish opponents not being careful enough, Healing alone has the ability to punish someone for being too careful. With Infiltration staying in his own corner, GamerBee could perform Healing repeatedly almost with impunity, effectively giving Elena limitless health.

I’ve said that GamerBee’s strategy here was about avoiding risk, but, in another way, I suppose it was a huge gamble. The clock was still a factor, which, with neither player gunning for the KO, would eventually decide the outcome of each round. That meant every round would come down to a last-second scramble to finish with the life lead. GamerBee was betting on himself to win most of those scrambles. He was betting his Evo life on the chaos of a few seconds. But this was the plan he had settled on. Confident or not, he was committed, and that gave him the edge.

In fact, the players traded games, and, had they persisted in this manner, it could have gone either way. But Infiltration didn’t have GamerBee’s faith or his commitment. He needed to try something else. He needed to pull out one of his signature momentum-shifting plays, instead of continuing to play along with the dynamic imposed by his opponent.

Returning to the character select screen, he hovered over Decapre, the closest thing he’s had to a main in 2015, but he must have realized this would be a bad idea. This was another character based around sitting in the corner. Infiltration next considered Rolento, which the crowd strongly urged him against. Maybe it was because they had just one match earlier seen GamerBee dismantle Naoki “Nemo” Nemoto, the top Rolento in the world. I think it’s more likely they didn’t want to see Infiltration’s dry style of Rolento. After the longest timeout ever, the former champion ultimately assented to the crowd pressure. As tense as this match had been, Infiltration went against his own better judgment and selected Juri, proving himself forever the people’s champion.

At a glance, GamerBee was the one ruthlessly working to win by any means, while Infiltration was willing to play to the crowd and entertain. But the Juri pick probably only worked because of the crowd. At first, she certainly looked like a downgrade from Chun-Li, gaining better projectiles that made no difference in this matchup, while losing the ability to go limb-for-limb against Elena. But, whenever he activated Juri’s unpredictable Feng Shui Engine, the crowd’s cheering basically willed the guesses to go in his favor, so that he could land those critical combos that finally put Elena down.

Just as it was against Momochi, however, Infiltration’s opponent would get the final word on character selection. At last, GamerBee brought out his signature Adon. After his Evo 2012 grand final loss to Infiltration, GamerBee would never again play Adon against Infiltration’s Akuma. Despite conventional wisdom that Adon actually had the advantage against all Shoto characters, GamerBee had zero confidence in that matchup and would (usually unsuccessfully) try to counter Akuma with Yun instead. But with Infiltration himself having mostly dropped Akuma, now was Adon’s time to shine once more.

In an almost tragicomic finish to the most grueling match in Evo history, after Infiltration finally managed to force GamerBee to switch away from “most disgusting character in the game” Elena back to his usually honest and aggressive Adon, still the final round would end in a time over, and with GamerBee’s scummiest play yet at that. He blatantly robbed Infiltration using the “timer scam” technique, whereby a player activates their Ultra Combo during the final seconds of the round, exploiting the canned cut scene animation that momentarily freezes the opponent in place but doesn’t stop the clock from ticking down. Thus did GamerBee book himself a place in the grand final against Momochi.

Grand Final

It’s a credit to the reputation GamerBee has built for himself as a fan favorite that, even after what he just pulled on Infiltration, the crowd was now fully on his side in his match against Momochi. They understood, certainly, that GamerBee was coming from the losers bracket, and they wanted him to reset the bracket just so they could witness more action. But, beyond that, GamerBee is simply that kind of player you can’t help but root for. That was true from the moment he made his Evo debut as an unknown Adon player in 2010.

I spoke before of Momochi’s conditioning. Without question, the Japanese player was the fittest competitor going into Evo 2015. Nine times out of ten, it is the fittest competitor who wins, but he’s not the guy that people cheer for. Though famously hard-working in his own right, GamerBee is a different kind of player. True to his name, he’s a gamer, and I mean that in the sporting sense. Lacking perhaps the analytical mindset or the resources to replicate Momochi’s training regimen, GamerBee has learned to match the geniuses of the game through mettle and sheer determination, along with a touch a shrewdness and guile (no, not that one). He overcame Infiltration by fully committing to a strategy that even the hungriest of competitors would have had a hard time stomaching. No player had ever pushed the game to that brink before. Perhaps nobody had ever wanted it so badly. Nobody had ever cared so much as GamerBee.

I’ve painted GamerBee as the underdog in this match against Momochi, and indeed he was, going by the player’s respective records in 2015. But I should also point out that, historically, GamerBee has always been Momochi’s hardest matchup—his demon, if you will. GamerBee won his first major Street Fighter IV championship, Season’s Beatings: Redemption in 2010, by trouncing Momochi in the grand final. In the Capcom Cup Asia Finals in 2013, GamerBee demolished Momochi in a seven-games-straight shutout. Just a year ago, GamerBee also defeated Momochi at Evo 2014. The Momochi of 2015 is a different animal, but, even so, GamerBee dominated their most recent match at NorCal Regionals in April, doing so through repeated use of basically just one button, Adon’s standing heavy kick, which happens to directly outclass Momochi’s favorite entry tool, Ken’s step kick, at the same range.

At Evo, GamerBee would lean on this one button again. Momochi would manage to win some of the exchanges just by being the cleaner player, but GamerBee stuck to his guns and ultimately came out ahead to reset the bracket, overcoming Momochi’s immaculate Ken through unwavering commitment to a simple but shrewd tactic.

After such a mentally taxing marathon match against Infiltration, you had to wonder if GamerBee would have anything left in the tank. But now, suddenly, he even looked like he had the upper hand in the grand final against the best player in the world.

Momochi, once upon a time known for his skill with multiple characters—a rarity among top Japanese players, who are typically character specialists and loyalists—finally broke through last year to win Capcom Cup 2014 while sticking with Ken the entire way. Here at Evo 2015, against GamerBee’s Adon, it seemed we had reached the limit of Ken. If Momochi was going to cross that finish line, he would have to leave his signature character behind. And if he was at all disappointed about that, victory would surely help him get over it. His opponent clearly had no shame about exploiting character matchups, and Momochi himself had already had to switch to the game’s dirtiest character, Elena, to beat Infiltration. Now he would turn to Evil Ryu, the game’s strongest.

GamerBee, although he too had the option of switching characters for the second set, opted to go the rest of the way with Adon. It was a bit of a surprising decision. After all, GamerBee had beaten Infiltration and Daigo’s Evil Ryus with Elena. Maybe he felt Adon was the better matchup against Momochi the player. Or maybe, on the cusp of his long-awaited Evo victory, he was feeling sentimental and wanted to ride or die with the character that brought him to this same stage his first time at Evo.

Either way, Adon, as stated, is generally considered to have the advantage against Shoto characters. One major factor is his Ultra Combo I: Jaguar Revolver, which can blow through projectiles at long range. It’s not Adon’s preferred Ultra Combo in most other matchups, since it has less reliable damage potential than his Ultra Combo II: Jaguar Avalanche, but the threat of it serves as an effective deterrent against projectile characters, shutting down one of their key options.

Against Momochi’s Ken, GamerBee actually didn’t even bother equipping Jaguar Revolver, probably because Ken’s fireball is slow enough that GamerBee didn’t feel the need to respect it. Evil Ryu’s fireball is much better, however, and that surely informed Momochi’s strategic switch. In a way, there’s a deterrent on both sides. When Momochi has a projectile option that demands GamerBee’s respect, GamerBee must forgo his own biggest weapon in favor of Jaguar Revolver, which he’ll probably never even use. Thus, Momochi doesn’t get to utilize Evil Ryu’s long-range option when Jaguar Revolver is in play, but GamerBee has to give up Adon’s combo into Jaguar Avalanche. One could say that both characters were having to fight at half strength, which was kind of poetically representative of how drained the players too must have been by this point. And this final match would yet ask a lot more of them.

GamerBee could no longer as comfortably spam standing heavy kick. The risk would be too great, because Evil Ryu’s high damage meant the punishment for any misplaced kick would be severe. Without any other cheap tactics left to game the game, GamerBee had to fall back on his oneness with Adon, a character whose every facet he was sole master of. When we analyze in relative terms at these highest of levels, we usually think of GamerBee as more of a grinder than a technician. It’s easy to forget that GamerBee is still more technically skilled than 99 percent of all players. That gave him a fighting chance even against the best player using the best character.

It also helped that Evil Ryu was not Momochi’s main character. When I say Momochi is immaculate, I suppose what I really mean is that he is immaculate when using Ken, the character he has poured most of his training into. His Evil Ryu was a lot rougher, and suddenly he looked more like a really good but still mortal player, who was even maybe succumbing to the pressure of the moment. On match point, in the third round of the fourth game, he would fail to complete a combo that would have sealed it. Then, almost immediately after, he would get another chance, only to drop it AGAIN and have GamerBee steal the round and the game back. That’s the price of Evil Ryu. Those combos are devastating, but they’re also the hardest to perform. Nobody, not even Daigo, can nail them with more than 75 percent reliability.

What’s extra amazing about that sequence is that, when you review the footage, you can see that Momochi thought it was all over. He exhales deeply, looks momentarily lost, then raises two fingers at GamerBee to confirm that the score was only now 2-2. He had thought the score was already 2-2 in the last game and that he had just lost Evo on a twice-flubbed core Evil Ryu combo. But it turned out Evo wasn’t done with him or GamerBee yet.

“Not Like This”

As amazing as all of that preceding action was, including a match I earlier called the “highest-level Street Fighter match ever played,” Evo 2015 will likely be remembered for one unfortunate moment above all else: the pause.

(Video by Hold Back to Block.)

More accurately, it was a stick malfunction triggering an automatic pause (the game's way of letting you know that your controller has turned off), which the tournament rule book treats the same as any pause. Whoever was responsible must forfeit the round. They can’t just unpause and resume, because the round’s natural rhythm has been compromised. Without some penalty, unscrupulous players would just pause every time they felt a need to interrupt the opponent’s momentum.

What makes the ruling so harsh, in the case of a stick malfunction, is that the player really has no control over that. You can argue that a competitor must take responsibility for their own equipment, but, beyond making sure that your controller is officially licensed and hasn’t been dropped on the floor a bunch, what measures can you really take to ensure that it won’t fail on you?

Even worse, Momochi actually didn’t even have full control over what stick he carried into tournaments. His sponsor, the eSports team Evil Geniuses, had been in turn sponsored by Razer. All of their Street Fighter players had been contractually obligated to use the Razer Atrox arcade stick. Now, EG’s partnership with Razer did terminate just a month before Evo 2015. The team’s new peripherals provider is SteelSeries, which doesn’t manufacture arcade sticks (or any console stuff). I suppose, as of a month ago, Momochi has been free to switch to any other stick of his choosing. But why would he have? The Razer Atrox was officially licensed, highly reviewed, and built with literally the same exact joystick and buttons as pretty much every other Japanese-style arcade stick from any other manufacturer. There was no compelling reason whatsoever for him to switch from a stick he’d already been using and winning with in favor of any other basically identical stick.

But, ultimately, it was Momochi’s stick that crapped out, and he was the one responsible for it, even if he kind of wasn’t. (Is there anything in the warranty about Razer being liable for winnings lost as a result of equipment failure?) If you never imagined both sides in a competition could get robbed by the same ruling, well here it was. I don't blame the judges, mind you. It was an impossible situation. No proposal could possibly have turned back or rectified a cosmic unfairness that had been created by a freak occurrence.

The only consolation you could take from it was that at least this didn’t decide the game and match. It handed the round to GamerBee, tying up the game at one round apiece, taking us to the final round of the final game of the final match of the biggest tournament in Street Fighter IV history. Of course, that didn’t happen right away. To scrub the lost round as cleanly as possible, the judges couldn’t allow either player to build extra meter after they unpaused. Once the stick issues were sorted out, they would have to sit there and wait for the round to end in a time over.

As the clock ticked down, the seconds felt both interminable and yet insufficient, the tension building and building to a slow crush. And then, finally, after all the work these players had put in, it would all come down to a single round—a single round that they were going into cold. It felt wrong, and it sucked.

When Momochi won it by wiping out about a third of Adon’s health in one single Evil Ryu combo, the new Evo 2015 champion barely even celebrated. He must have felt pretty good in that moment, but only from a tremendous sense of relief, not triumph. There would be none of the latter for anybody this day, though GamerBee at least got to hear the crowd chant his name. Five years earlier, when a theretofore unknown Adon player defeated Justin Wong to qualify for top 8 at Evo 2010, the crowd chanted GamerBee's name as though he'd won the whole damn thing. Now they were chanting it again after having just seen him lose the big one. It was the definition of bittersweet.

If you want to look for a silver lining, I suppose it was in the small ways that even rivals pulled together to deal with that difficult moment. When they realized Momochi’s stick was faulty and needed to be replaced, Infiltration’s was available. It was also a Razer Atrox, but, as it turned out, a personally customized one, because Infiltration famously prefers the bat-shaped Crown joystick (“eggplant,” the Japanese call it) over the more typical Japanese Sanwa lollipop. On to plan B (or was it C?), Momochi had to instruct his nearby girlfriend and EG teammate, Yuko “ChocoBlanka” Kusachi, to run and seek out his friend Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi (whom he had beaten just a few matches earlier in the top 8), who would provide (courtesy of his own sponsor) the MadCatz stick that ended up winning the day. Most interestingly, with oddly no designated Japanese translator on hand from either the Evo staff or Momochi’s own people during that crisis, it fell to the apparently trilingual GamerBee to interpret the judge’s directions, given in English, and translate them into Japanese to let Momochi know what was going on. Perhaps the true beauty of the game is how shared passion unites competitors into community.

At the end of the day, as disappointing a finish as that was, it was also definitely a one-of-a-kind Evo moment—an unforgettable way to close the book on seven years of Street Fighter IV at Evo, which I suppose is all we could have asked for.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Taylor Hicks Called It

When Bill Trinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager for Nintendo of America, made known he would be entering the Super Smash Bros. for Wii U tournament at Evo 2015, the question on everybody's mind was "Will he place higher than Taylor Hicks did?"

Hicks himself answered on Twitter, "Doubt it."

Shots fired!

For reference, the former American Idol allegedly competed in Super Smash Bros. Melee two years ago at Evo 2013, where he placed... well, it doesn't matter, because Trinen never showed and won't even get a last-place "participant" badge. Turns out, he canceled in light of the passing of Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata.

A fair enough reason, I grant. Anyway, looks like Taylor Hicks was right. Somehow he knew.... (Not to start any conspiracy theories.)

But what vastly more famous person did make it out to Evo 2015? None other than silver screen scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis!

The star of Halloween and True Lies alluded in an interview way back in January that she would be taking her total gamer son to a "fighting game convention" for his high school graduation present. She didn't mention Evo by name, but she did assure that she played Street Fighter "more than you will ever know," even going so far as to name Cammy as her character of choice.

For Street Fighter fans, it was a cute story at the time, but I don't think anybody truly believed she would show (not at a grassroots, nerd-filled event that might even have furries in attendance!), especially considering she mentioned in that very same interview how hard it was for her to go anywhere in public because of how recognizable she is.

But she was clearly three moves ahead of all of us, as she figured it out and followed through, arriving with husband Christopher Guest and the rest of the family, all in costume as various fighting game characters (not obvious ones, either!). She may not have competed, but clearly she deserves the award for "coolest mom on the planet."

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Top 5 Street Fighter IV Moments in Evo History


This weekend, July 17-19, is Evo, the biggest fighting game competition in the world. The event only gets larger every year, but Evo 2015 may well end up being the biggest Street Fighter IV tournament there will ever be. Next time this year, we can expect the upcoming Street Fighter V to take over as the new marquee game. Given that we will have had seven years of Street Fighter IV at Evo, I can imagine quite a few players and spectators alike will be glad to finally send it off into retirement. Of course, Capcom Cup 2015 is still coming at the end of this year to provide a more final capstone to the years of grueling Street Fighter IV battles. But Evo has always been the grandest open-entry tournament, drawing hundreds and even thousands of competitors—world warriors from far and wide, some for whom Evo might be the only trip they take outside their home country all year, flying out on their own dime to “quarter up,” as it were, against the best of the best, not for cash prizes but because this is what they are passionate about—and where theoretically an unknown could inscribe their name into legend by taking a game off Daigo “The Beast” Umehara himself. In honor of what Evo means to the fighting game community (FGC), and of the game that has headlined its years of most significant growth (so far!), let us reflect on some of the greatest Street Fighter IV moments in Evo history.

#5 - Poongko Tames The Beast

Evo 2011 was kind of an odd year for Street Fighter IV. Fools that we were, some of us actually thought the competitive scene for the game was winding down. Street Fighter X Tekken was looming on the horizon, and, although Capcom had reneged on its promise not to milk Street Fighter IV with any more revisions after 2010’s Super upgrade, the eventual Arcade Edition seemed a hastily assembled, mischievously conceived, even deliberately broken release designed just to shake things up, not to meaningfully extend the game’s life.

Two-time Evo Street Fighter IV champion Daigo Umehara of Japan seemed to be thinking the same thing. Having won back-to-back championships with his Ryu, perhaps he felt he had little left to prove in the game. It was time for him to just have some fun, ditch Ryu and go straight top tier with new addition Yun, a character that producer Yoshinori Ono basically admitted was purposely designed to be overpowering. What would happen when the strongest player in the world used the most juiced character in the game—the best playing the best? In other words, what would total domination look like in Street Fighter IV?

As it turned, a lot of things didn’t go according to plan. Street Fighter X Tekken never caught on. Street Fighter IV, not even halfway through its competitive life, would see several more major and minor revisions. And Daigo? Well, he ran into “The Machine.”

(Video uploaded by FightersMixHD.)

The ending to this match is a clip that the Evo organizers subsequently tried to manufacture into an “Official Evo Moment,” dubbing it “Evo Moment #13,” as if to suggest that it was as amazing as the famous “Evo Moment #37” Daigo parry.

In fact, there isn’t much to analyze in this match. Daigo’s opponent, Chung Gon “Poongko” Lee (AKA “The Machine”), was a Street Fighter IV Korean national champion. The two had faced off previously in one of the earliest Street Fighter IV international meets in 2009, and it had not gone well for Poongko. Of course, back then they were both Ryu players. Poongko, the consummate showman of the FGC—who readied himself for this Evo 2011 match by flinging his jacket into the crowd and chugging a can of Red Bull right there on the main stage (and who has also been known to take his shirt off, when on the ropes, as a way to “power up”)—had since switched to Seth, a character whose volatility perfectly reflected Poongko’s own personality. Street Fighter IV’s ultimate “glass cannon,” Seth was the game’s most fragile character, but also one that could have the opponent seeing stars (or birdies or skulls) in short order, blitzing them in a few nutso sequences of attacks from all angles. Win or lose, it would happen quickly with this character, and in one-sided fashion. That’s what happened to Daigo. Poongko was all over him, and the result was a perfect round, where Daigo never got a chance to play. In other words, it played out like a typical Seth win.

Still, it’s true that this moment has persisted in people’s memories. Although it was not the highest-level, most substantial match, it was one of the hypest, in large part thanks to Poongko’s theatrics. And hype and theatricality have always been essential to the FGC and to Evo. Meanwhile, hardly anyone remembers now that Daigo was still alive in the losers bracket after this loss, and it was actually Saudi Arabia’s Abdullatif “Latif” Alhmili, a C. Viper player, who finally eliminated him, thus ending his Evo reign.

#4 - East Meets West (Not the Coasts)

Grinding his way through the losers bracket with his patented Rose play, and doing so with his signature original PlayStation digital controller, France's Olivier "Luffy" Hay became, in 2014, the first European ever to make it into Evo’s top 8 in Street Fighter IV, but he wasn’t going to stop there.

Like GamerBee's Adon and Xian's Gen, Luffy's Rose was a character that most had never seen played to such a high level before. Nobody seemed to have figured out yet how to deal with his use of Rose's alarmingly quick dashes or his mastery of the Soul Satellite technique. Always, the orbs were a momentum-killer that threw opponents off their game and set them on the defensive. Against Luffy's nerves of steel, any such instance of hesitation or passivity would prove costly, and the Rose specialist slowly but surely carved a swath toward the Evo 2014 grand final.

After two years straight of Evo grand finals contested between players from different eastern parts of Asia (South Korea vs. Taiwan in 2012, Singapore vs. Japan in 2013), it was a breath of fresh air for the Evo crowd to see a finalist representing "the West," even if it was an Asian Frenchman. Indeed, as Luffy faced off against Japan's Masato "Bonchan" Takahashi, the world's strongest Sagat, it was the "East vs. West" dimension that made this the most electric Street Fighter IV grand final since the early days of U.S. vs. Japan bouts, before the Americans fell so hopelessly behind the Japanese and even players from other parts of Asia. A partisan U.S. crowd didn't seem to much care that Luffy proudly hailed from a different country and continent; in that moment, they were behind him all the way.

On review, the match was maybe not the prettiest. We can see that Bonchan really was quite lost on how to approach Rose, and, even if he had had more experience playing against the character, that matchup is terrible for Sagat (as Luffy has shown by beating Bonchan even more badly in multiple encounters since). So maybe Luffy had his opponent at a bit of a disadvantage in that grand final.

Of course, it wasn’t as if Bonchan was the only player Luffy beat on his way to victory. In all, Luffy would have to go through no fewer than eight Japanese players (as well as top talents from the U.S. and Singapore), including such stars as Tokido and Mago, who had had experience facing Luffy’s Rose in prior events. Truthfully, the gauntlet that Luffy had to run through was probably the toughest path any competitor had ever taken en route to the Evo championship. And it was definitely the longest, since he spent more than half of it in the losers bracket. So let there be no doubt that he earned it the hard way.

Once the dust had settled, one more point became clear. Luffy had not "won one for the West." Rather, the U.S. had been put on notice, as another continent claimed an Evo Street Fighter IV trophy before they had theirs.

#3 - Infiltration Wins the Crowd

The winner of Evo 2012 was one Seonwoo “Infiltration” Lee of South Korea. This may have been the least exciting Evo for Street Fighter IV, but that is only because Infiltration was so untouchable throughout the tournament, not dropping even a single game during the entire top 32 at least (I don’t have the data for the earlier rounds, but I’d be shocked to learn that any of his early-round opponents took a game off him). It was the most impressive tournament performance, and part of the most successful season, by any player in the history of Street Fighter IV. Words almost do not suffice to convey how amazing Infiltration was during that period. And yet the response was not always one of appreciation for the quality of his play. Rather, his sheer dominance, even against the likes of Daigo Umehara, sapped Evo 2012 of much drama, and an almost resentful crowd (mostly, spectators not actually involved in the “community” part of the FGC) found it easy to cast him as the heavy.

Part of it may have been because he never had much to say, seeming to let his coldly efficient play style do the talking for him. (The reality, of course, is that, at the time, he knew barely any English, and was shy besides.) People were also maybe sore that he slew their hero, Daigo, and crashed the longstanding U.S. vs. Japan rivalry. And there were those who genuinely just didn’t like the way he played the game. First of all, he used Akuma, who, besides being a gross-looking villain in the actual in-game story of Street Fighter, was also regarded as the best character in that edition of the game (Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012). Going top tier may get you wins, but it doesn’t always earn you respect. Infiltration’s style was, as stated, efficient, but arguably uninspiring, built around repetitive and hard-to-escape vortex setups that sometimes looked downright unfair. And, beyond the action on the screen, Infiltration employed tools theretofore unheard of. He would consult his phone between games, presumably looking up notes on his opponent or their character. He would have his friend/coach, Ryan “Laugh” Ahn, sitting right next to him during matches, advising him and strategizing with him between rounds, such that, for opponents, it was almost like having to play against both of them at the same time. Nowadays, these techniques are commonplace in tournament settings, but, back in 2012, they suggested, together with Infiltration’s fierce brow, an excessively serious, even ruthless, approach to the game.

Thus, in 2013, when Infiltration entered Evo as again the favorite (though not quite so prohibitively this time, as Singapore’s Ho Kun Xian was also having a banner year), spectators were inclined to root against him. And when NorCal-based Puerto Rican Balrog (boxer) player Eduardo “PR Balrog” Perez stunningly sent Infiltration to the losers bracket in the top 16, the chants of “U-S-A” and the roars of approval were the loudest heard all night that Friday. When Infiltration and PR Balrog ran into each other in the brackets again in the top 8 on Sunday, the crowd was ready for their boy to do it one more time.

(Video uploaded by PS3GamingHD.)

An at-times streaky player, PR Balrog was still feeling it two days after his first upset win over Infiltration, and sped ahead to a 2-1 lead with momentum on his side. This was it. The defending champion was on the ropes, facing match game and elimination, and the crowd couldn’t be happier to see him taken down. How would Infiltration respond?

By switching from top-tier Akuma to Hakan, the game’s most bizarre character, as well as one of its least represented, most poorly understood, and arguably weakest!

Infiltration was one of the few players in the world known to have a Hakan in his pocket, but, certainly, he had never tried his Hakan before in such a high-pressure situation, with so much on the line as at Evo. On its face, this seemed like a crazy move. And that is precisely what the crowd appreciated. Infiltration, a reputedly ruthlessly efficient player, now with his tournament life on the line, just bet it all on what was perceived as the most insane gamble short of picking Dan. And, with that one brilliant stroke, not yet having performed a single move with Hakan, the South Korean instantly transitioned from “dark lord” to “people’s champ,” and completely won over the crowd to his side, even against their American favorite. So stoked to see a Hakan on the Evo main stage, they were going to cheer for every blow Infiltration landed.

As impressive as his Evo 2012 victory was, I honestly feel it was this moment, a year later, that made Infiltration as we know him today—a crowd favorite, who plays for the joy of the game. His English and Japanese have progressed rapidly, to the point that he can now even commentate in those languages. He is as much a performer as he is a competitor, often picking unexpected characters for fun and for hype. And, beloved by fans, he has even had people offer to crowdfund his travel expenses, in lieu of an official sponsor.

#2 - That Adon Player

In 2010, Bruce “GamerBee” Hsiang of Taiwan was a 30-year-old multiple-times Virtua Fighter national champion, who was no slouch at Street Fighter IV either, having as recently as a year prior qualified for Japan’s prestigious Super Battle Opera tournament. From Taiwan, he was able to train online against top Japanese players, and replays of some of his matches against Daigo had even caught the attention of hardcore enthusiasts trawling YouTube for any and all Japanese Street Fighter IV footage. But, as far as most anyone at Evo 2010 in the U.S. knew, GamerBee was just “that Adon player,” an unknown entrant using a rarely seen character that conventional wisdom assured was among the least threatening in the game.

It was probably a cute sight at first, seeing this no-name foreigner frustrate opponents with his novelty character and his jump-happy style. By the time he got called up to the stage for his top 16 match against Justin Wong, however, everybody knew who “that Adon player” was (even if they still had no idea who he was), and there was nothing quaint whatsoever about his play. He had already gone on a tear through some known contenders, including J.R. Rodriguez and Japan’s Hiroyuki “Eita” Nagata. Though little was known about him, clearly this GamerBee guy was a master Adon specialist, who had honed his execution to a razor-sharp level to elevate his character far beyond what anyone had considered realistic.

The key was his mastery of the “instant Air Jaguar Kick,” a technique that allowed him to perform the aerial version of Adon’s signature slashing kick just barely off the ground to increase its speed and recovery. It required incredibly deft hands, but, once harnessed, it allowed GamerBee to spam the move to harass unsuspecting opponents almost with impunity. Adon with the instant Air Jaguar Kick was simply a different character from Adon without. Nevertheless, his next match was against Justin Wong, America’s top player, whom many had expected to make it all the way to the grand final at least.

For Justin, this must have been a nightmare made real—this deep into the tournament having to face a strong player he hadn’t had a chance to properly scout, and who was using an unfamiliar character to a level Justin had never encountered before. He had massive expectations to live up to—basically the hopes of the entire American scene riding on him—whereas his opponent had upset all predictions in making it even this far, and was now basically playing with house money. It was the final match of the night, meaning all eyes in the room were now on them. And it was an elimination match, meaning whoever lost would be done for the tournament. The pressure on the American was enormous. And this wasn’t even top 8 yet!

In the end, GamerBee prevailed in what was then considered a stunning upset. Justin Wong, America’s greatest hope for an Evo champion in Street Fighter IV, was eliminated before the top 8. Nobody was even mad about it, though! No, instead the entire room was chanting “GamerBee!” (they sure knew his name now!), the applause the loudest any non-finals performance at Evo had ever received. Other players were raising GamerBee up on the main stage to soak in this spontaneous mini victory ceremony, as though the tournament weren’t just pausing to resume two days later. That was how momentous this was. Back in Taiwan, it was such a big deal that it was reported on national TV news, and Gamerbee was met at the airport with a veritable hero’s welcome.

Five years on, of course, GamerBee is rightly recognized as having long been one of the best Street Fighter IV players ever, and any time Justin Wong (or, frankly, any U.S. player) beats him, that is considered an upset.

#1 - ‘09

The very first Evo grand final for Street Fighter IV still ranks as the most exciting match in the game’s history. It was not the highest level of play necessarily, as strategies and tactics were far from fully evolved, the game having only been out in arcades for a year at that point (and the console version, which added eight characters, having only been out a few months). International representation was also still low at Evo, with the only notable entrants being special invitee Daigo Umehara and his plus-one, another Japanese Ryu player named Takashi “Dan” Hukushi.

But that first year or so is also, in a way, the true prime of any popular fighting game. That’s when a game’s mainstream profile, as a new release, is at its peak. It’s when the competitors’ enthusiasm tends to be highest, since the game is fresh, wide open with things to discover, and top players can level up at a rapid pace, the dreaded wall still far off. And it’s when the tournament hype is greatest, as talents from different areas are not yet certain where they stand in relation to one another, but are eager to find out.

At the inaugural Evo championship for Street Fighter IV, the grand final came down to Daigo Umehara vs. Justin Wong of New York. These are two players who should require no introduction, but, anyway, to give some context, Daigo and Justin were, in 2009, the most famous players from Japan and the U.S. respectively, and also legitimately the best.

Their rivalry began way back in Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, and they looked ready to take it to the next level in Street Fighter IV. At an international round-robin exhibition three months prior to Evo, Justin had proven his world-class prowess at the game, with victories over the Japanese and Korean national champions, Iyo and Poongko, only to ultimately lose in four straight rounds to Daigo. With a few more months to train, Justin was determined to learn and rebound from that defeat. A climactic rematch at Evo was what everybody was anticipating, and neither player disappointed.

Curiously, Justin and Daigo ended up in the same half of the draw at Evo 2009, and so they actually had to play one another at the start of the top 8. Justin, who had used Rufus in his previous match against Daigo’s Ryu, and also throughout this tournament thus far, had decided he was none too fond of that matchup, and so he had prepared a secret weapon just for Daigo: a surprise character switch to Abel.

Usually, these sorts of “secret weapons,” not uncommon among U.S. players back then (“Save that @#$% for nationals” was the maxim of the day) were held back until the last possible moment, because you didn’t want to reveal your whole hand to the rest of your competition, and also, since the surprise factor was such a large part of it, you didn’t want to leave the opponent time to process the gambit and adapt (or “download,” as per FGC parlance).

Unfortunately for Justin, his Abel pick didn’t work as well as he had hoped. An unperturbed Daigo brushed Justin’s Abel aside and then progressed easily to the grand final. Justin was able to fight his way back from the losers bracket to meet him in the grand final, but how would he approach the rematch? Plan Abel had proven a dud, and he still wasn’t confident in his Rufus against Daigo’s Ryu. Was there a Plan B (or was it C now)?

(Videos uploaded by ShaolinSoccerV2.)

In a surprise even to the commentators, Justin dug deep into his arsenal to bring out Balrog (boxer), a character he was known to have some experience with, but not one he regularly brought into serious competition.

Amazingly, Daigo didn’t seem ready for it. Justin’s Balrog was basic but consistent. He didn’t go for max-damage setups, but his grasp of spacing and timing in the Balrog-Ryu matchup actually appeared superior to the Japanese player’s, and he seemed to be the one that had successfully downloaded Daigo’s fireball game, as he just kept catching Ryu with simple but effective combos. Instead of playing to his revered opponent, and instead of playing "theory fighter" with unproven secret weapons, Justin was playing simply Street Fighter. And it was working!

It was everything a world championship of Street Fighter IV should have been. Far from rolling over for the Japanese guest, Justin actually edged him out to 3-2, thereby sending Daigo to losers and leveling the bracket to force a second set. With momentum suddenly on his side, it looked like Justin might actually pull this off.

It went back and forth and nearly the distance, with Daigo ultimately knuckling down to take it in straight rounds in the final game, although he surely had to admit that the American had pushed him hard. It still stands as the closest-fought and best Street Fighter IV final in Evo history, certainly the nearest a U.S. player ever came to winning it.

Capcom Cup and Topanga League may be where the pros can make their living. But Evo is where unknowns can make their names, champions make their legends. What will this year, most likely the last year of Street Fighter IV at Evo, bring?