The Evolution Championship Series, a.k.a. Evo, is one of the biggest events in fighting games annually. This year that manifested with more than 15,000 participants in the open tournament across games like Tekken 7, Super Smash Bros., Mortal Kombat XL, and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. For many, though, the main event remains Street Fighter — as evidenced by the fact that of those 15,000 entrants, more than a third were here to compete for that one game.
This year also marks the debut of Street Fighter V: a fledgling entry in the series released worldwide just this February. As such, the fighting game community is even now still learning to wrap its collective heads around the new mechanics and redesigned characters. As a result, this year’s top brackets saw some greater shake-ups than usual.
In the hours leading up to Saturday’s semifinals — those matches which determine the top eight participants — it was familiar names people wanted to see: the likes of Justin Wong, Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi, and Seon-woo “Infiltration” Lee. These names led the Capcom Pro Tour series of Street Fighter tournaments going into Evo. Others, like Kun Xian Ho, Olivier “Luffy” Hay, and of course Daigo Umehara simply represented their respective regions with strong performance at tournaments this year, and at past Evo tournaments.
Yet, as the clock ticked towards midnight on Saturday, it became clear the landscape was changing. Perhaps it was owed to the cutthroat war of attrition created by over 5,000 competitors, but many of this year’s top names were dropping out early.
A moment of clarity came around the time Daigo Umehara and Justin Wong — the two men responsible for likely the most famous moment in competitive Street Fighter — were forced to face each other for top 64 placement. The loser wouldn’t even make it to top 32, far less the top eight. He wouldn’t even get a chance to.
Daigo and Wong’s best of three series began with incredible patience. Daigo fielded his long-held signature character Ryu, while Wong put the increasingly impressive Karin on the line. Both were top-tier players, fielding top-tier fighters, but only one could proceed thanks to the single elimination nature of these early matches. While Wong took the first absurdly measured game by carefully storing his resources to land a super finish in the second of two rounds, Daigo rallied in the next bout, managing at one point to tear through half of Wong’s health bar in one combo. As the pace quickened, however, Wong dominated with a shocking super attack that reduced Daigo to a bare pixel of health. Afterwards, a panicked love tap from Karin was all it took to send Ryu falling, and Wong flying into the next series.
Besides the hype surrounding it, what really made this match stick behind viewers’ eyeballs was how early it occurred. Sure, it was late in the day at Las Vegas, where Evolution is held, but the cream of Street Fighter V players had only begun rising to the top. Yet there went Daigo (who admittedly hasn’t hit top eight in a couple of years), and on went Justin Wong.
As we headed into the semifinals, this became a pattern. Former Evo champion Kun Xian Ho was eliminated by last year’s fourth place winner, Naoki “Nemo” Nemoto. Recurring top eight player, Capcom Pro Tour juggernaut, and all-around fighting game fan Tokido was meanwhile eliminated by Hiroyuki “Eita” Nagata — a lesser-known, but apparently rising star who solidified his own first top eight finish at Evo with the win.
It’s a story that repeats itself among the top 16 players this year. A few massive names remain, of course: Infiltration and Fuudo for example. Mostly, though, we saw fresher faces pushing out longstanding fighting game heroes. And I’d guess they’re using Street Fighter V to do it.
Tournament Finals Results
And indeed things did get more heated. The first of eleven eventual matches was an explosive series between Fuudo and one Joe “MOV” Egami. The Japanese players released R. Mika and Chun-Li, respectively, with the former completely destroying his opponent in the first two rounds — to put it politely.
The strength of R. Mika lies in laying up opponents in the corner, and hammering them against the wall until they’re either dead, stunned, or likely both. This is exactly what Fuudo did to MOV until the third and fourth games, at which point MOV snuck in several wins to keep from going 3-0 in the best-of-five finals.
It wasn’t enough, however, when Fuudo came back from slivers of health in game five. That kept Fuudo in the winners bracket, and taught us some important lessons about his favorite fighter that would come in handy later.
In the meantime, the several hundred thousand other people watching got a Nash-on-Nash bash featuring Infiltration and Atsushi “Yukadon” Fujimura. This further set the tone of the night since Nash was the favored tool of not just these two, but also Joe “L.I. Joe” Ciaramelli, the sole American entrant of the top eight who became the favorite of the night.
Visibly emotional, Joe seemed happy and humbled to be present on the same stage as the other players. Over the course of the evening we also learned Joe’s father was in attendance, having flown all the way from Long Island in New York to surprise his son with support from the crowd. The touching display was enough to get the crowd chanting “Daddy Joe,” between the usual bellows of “U.S.A.” for the lone American contender.
What followed were a series of incredibly close rounds between Joe’s Nash and Eita’s Ken. As energetic as ever, Joe literally took victory in stride — doing laps around the stage, playing to the crowd, and hugging Daddy Joe. He even gave the more intensely focused Eita a bit of a shock by shaking his arm between rounds in excitement.
The next match-up saw Nemo fighting yet another relatively up-and-coming, but still impressive player — Goichi Kishida (styled as GO1). Despite playing Vega, a character who brings claws to a fistfight, Nemo just couldn’t cut it and was sent home. L.I. Joe, unfortunately, followed shortly after, finishing fifth after an elimination at the hands of Yukadon.
Following Joe’s elimination, Goichi faced off against MOV and was knocked further down into the losers’ bracket, where either through fatigue or a pure difference in skill he fell quickly against Yukadon, and thus dropped out of the tournament.
We then switched gears to the second winners’ bracket bout against two former Evo champions, Infiltration and Fuudo. It was touch, go, butt bump, and sonic boom for a while, but Fuudo quickly found a rhythm that involved beating the ever-loving crap out of Infiltration in the corners. This dropped Infiltration down to the losers’ bracket, where he would face Yukadon.
But Infiltration was developing a pattern over the course of his matches against Fuudo. He’d wait to win a match without burning his Critical Art — a decimating, but not entirely lethal super move. Then at the first opportunity in the next round, usually when Yukadon fired a Sonic Boom, he’d fire the devastator to give himself nearly half a health bar’s lead. With this strategy, Infiltration knocked Yukadon out of the tournament to claw his way back up to a final confrontation with Fuudo.
Infiltration’s process worked wonders against Yukadon, but it would have to succeed against Fuudo as well, because coming up from the losers bracket meant that Infiltration needed to beat his grand finals opponent not once, but twice in successive best-of-five matches (Evo is weird that way).
The match was about more than that, however. Sometime between their first and last bouts, Infiltration decided he’d had enough of Fuudo’s shenanigans in the corner. The former Evo champion started taking his peer to task. In the first of their grand finals games Infiltration beat Fuudo with a “perfect” — that is, without getting hit — not once, not twice, but three times total. You might even argue for four perfects, since in one round Fuudo didn’t actually deal any permanent damage. The fight was simply over before Infiltration could let his temporary booboos heal.
That seemed to be the end of it for Fuudo. The player that brought a ray of rainbows and wrestling to Nash-ville eked out one more victory in the follow-up game — just enough to keep another 3-0 out of the top eight, but not much more.
The barbarity of the battle wasn’t lost on Infiltration. Nor did he show any mercy, even after the match was over. When asked if he had anything to add about his actions, he responded with his catchphrase: “Download Complete.”
Despite the fierce, new blood entering Street Fighter V, the finals came down to a pair of the old guard, with Infiltration nabbing his second Evo championship title. It doesn’t seem as though these two have missed a beat, regardless of the new game washing out many of their peers in the early brackets.
With less than half a year under its black belt, Street Fighter V has a lot of room to grow. Street Fighter IV‘s release sparked a renewed interest in the series for six years of competitive matches, while Street Fighter V hasn’t had the easiest time critically or commercially. SFIV also had a very rigid set of rules (as all games eventually do) that Street Fighter V has dropped in favor of a high-damage, momentum-based match flow. Nevertheless, with a record breaking 5,000 entrants to this year’s tournament, it’s clearly attracted some attention and has plenty of potential. There’s a new cast of players with a new jumping-on point, allowing them to go toe-to-toe with big names on even terms. Yet those devotees haven’t gone anywhere, either, making competition fiercer by virtue of raw numbers.
While 2016 marks Infiltration’s second Evo win and the anointing of a new crowd favorite in L.I. Joe, all of this serves as a preamble for next year’s competition. Let’s see what 2017 has to offer!
Top image source: Chris Li.