A legend will be born Sunday night at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. At 10 p.m. ET, the Street Fighter V finals at the Evolution Championship Series will go live on ESPN2 and Twitch.tv simultaneously, and the top eight players will fight before a worldwide audience to crown the first Evo champion of the newest edition of Capcom's classic fighting game.
Among the eight players, three countries are represented. Six of the contenders come from Japan, where Street Fighter has been a mainstay for over two decades in arcades. From South Korea, we have the favorite to win it all: Team Razer's Lee "Infiltration" Seon-woo, the Shoryuken.com top-ranked player in the world. In the four premier events he has competed in this year, Infiltration won three times and came in second once to Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi, Shoryuken's second-ranked player. Tokido, nicknamed "Murderface" for his intimidating expression, will not be on the main stage Sunday, as he suffered one of two shocking upsets in Saturday's run-up to the final bracket.
Finally, representing the home crowd, there is one American left standing: Joe "L.I. Joe" Ciaramelli, who defied all odds to reach the final day by defeating reigning Capcom Tour champion Ryota "Kazunoko" Inoue in his advancement match to the top eight. The biggest underdog of the competitors remaining, the "Pride of Long Island" hopes to pull off a Cinderella-like run that won't be forgotten anytime soon.
Winners' bracket semifinals
Lee "Infiltration" Seon-woo vs. Atsushi "Yukadon" Fujimura
The player that might have the best chance of taking out Infiltration might come in the unlikely form of Yukadon, another Nash player. Before losing to Tokido at CEO, it seemed near impossible to beat the South Korean pro, and now, with his biggest rival gone, who can stop him? Yukadon, a relative unknown from Japan before the tournament began, has been possibly the most impressive player among the top eight, as his smooth and clinical Nash play has rivaled even Infiltration's.
A former Evolution champion back in Street Fighter IV, a second trophy for Infiltration would add to his legend and would establish him as far and away the best SFV player on the planet. Yukadon, however, is playing with house money; no one expected him to be standing here on the largest stage Street Fighter has ever seen, and his stylish, impressive play doesn't seem like a fluke. The robotic precision of the world's No. 1 still makes Infiltration the heavy favorite to win this match and the tournament overall, but don't be surprised if the dark horse from Japan turns a lot of heads.
Keita "Fuudo" Ai vs. Jo "MOV" Egami
Our second winners' semifinal match shares the same storyline as our first. Fuudo is a former Street Fighter Evolution champion like Infiltration, and so the best R.Mika player in the world will be entering his semifinal match as the heavy favorite. He recently fell just short of winning the Dreamhack Summer crown against Europe's top player, Arman "Phenom" Hanjani, in the finals, and his competitive history up to this point makes it no surprise he's gotten this far.
MOV, on the other hand, is in the same shoes as Yukadon. MOV is a talented Chun-Li player who hasn't had any promising tournament results up until this point. He was in the same Dreamhack tournament as Fuudo only a month ago and finished in a disappointing 25th place. MOV has reinvented himself over the past month, it appears, as his crisp and clean style has led him to an undefeated run through the tournament thus far.
As with Infiltration vs. Yukadon, Fuudo is a heavy favorite here, but don't let past results in a new game fool you. MOV already beat former Evolution Street Fighter champion Kun "Xian" Xian Ho to make it to the Mandalay Bay Events Center, and Fuudo might just be next on his hit list.
Losers' bracket Round 5
Goichi "GO1" Kishida vs. Hiroyuki "Eita" Nagata
In between the Evolution champions and the out-of-nowhere underdog stories, we have GO1 and Eita, two players who are where we thought they might end up in this competition. Eita, the last remaining Ken player in the tournament, didn't fare well at CEO, but he has been doing well in his homeland of Japan in local tournaments. His run so far has been impressive to say the least, defeating Darryl "Snake Eyez" Lewis, Lee "Poongko" Chung-gon, and Naoki "Nemo" Nemoto before ultimately falling to the surprising Yukadon.
GO1 actually fell to Nemo earlier in the tournament, so his run to Sunday's final was even more strenuous. He eliminated Snake Eyez, former Evolution champion Oliver "Luffy" Hay, and last year's finalist, Bruce "GamerBee" Hsiang, to get his shot at Eita in the fifth round of the losers' bracket. A fellow Chun-Li player like MOV, GO1 hopes to use the grand stage of the finals to make a name for himself in the world of esports.
Naoki "Nemo" Nemoto vs. Joseph "L.I. Joe" Ciaramelli
L.I. Joe's Saturday night ended with his victory over the Capcom Tour champion as his friends stormed the main stage to tackle him in celebratory fashion. Sunday night, with the biggest audience the Twitch streamer will possibly ever see, what can he do next to top his performance from the day before? Another Nash player, making it three overall in the final eight, L.I. Joe is playing on behalf of the Western world against the titans from Asia. He appeared to be down and out against Kazunoko before turning the tables in the final set to make his way to the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
His opponent, Nemo, will play the role of spoiler, and somewhat of a villain to the foreign crowd. A veteran of the Street Fighter franchise, Nemo made the top eight in last year's tournament with his ludicrously speedy Rolento, and he's back in this version with a similar character in Vega. Nemo also enters the action on Sunday with the honor of being the player who eliminated Tokido from the competition before he could go for a run through the losers' bracket.
With thousands cheering his name, L.I. Joe will feel as if all of Las Vegas is behind him. But is that really enough to keep the American dream alive at Evolution against the more seasoned Nemo?