Xiao Hai conquers the field at the SoCal Regionals

Xiaohai battles Reynald (not pictured) during the King of Fighters XIV final at Esports Arena. Provided by Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY Sports

Qanba's Zhuojun "Xiao Hai" Zeng emerged from California as the winner of the SoCal Regionals after a victory over YOUDEAL's Tatsuya "Haitaini" Haitani in the grand finals. The Chinese superstar Cammy player moved to sixth overall on the Capcom Pro Tour global standings with 676 points and established himself as one of the best bets for a tournament victory regardless of the competition.

Overall, the SoCal Regionals fielded a diverse pool of characters and playstyles. It featured a Birdie, Guile, and a Balrog, as well as a strong mix of different representatives in the top-8. There were three players from the USA, one from China and South Korea and two from Japan. The tournament was stacked enough that upsets against Evil Geniuses' Yusuke "Momochi" Momochi and Zowie's Bruce "Gamerbee" Hsiang hardly moved the dial.

In addition to Xiao Hai's emergence as a top threat in Street Fighter V, there was another player that could potentially be a fixture in the top-8 of major tournaments: South Korea's Park "Xyzzy" Han-Byul and his Birdie. He was one of the most entertaining players during the weekend and amazed audience members and competitors alike with his ridiculous hit-confirms and well-placed pressure.

Grand finals: Xiao Hai against Haitani

It was China against Japan in the grand finals, with China's best representative playing against a Japanese fighting game god. Xiao Hai entered from the winner's bracket after a convincing 3-0 victory over Haitani; on the other hand, Haitani was fresh off a close win over Evil Geniuses' Kenneth "KBrad" Bradley. Haitani, needing a reset, was sharp in his mix-ups and pressure game against Xiao Hai's Cammy. Despite the loss in winner's finals, Haitani's comfort level only grew after he played nearly an hour's worth of games against Cammy. He baited out the correct reversals, played the throw or frame-trap game, and outpaced his Chinese counterpart until the grand finals were ultimately reset.

"When I first won, it was too easy," Xiao Hai told ESPN. "But, when I lost, I fixed the habits that were originally punished. He beat me a few times on my wakeup, but after I adjusted, he never got me again."

Xiao Hai used the first set as a way to gauge his opponent's adjustments and then planned accordingly after. His ability to cope with pressure, once a defining weakness, was now altered to data-collection. Xiao Hai explained that he completely shifted his neutral game to lessen the use of medium kick and punch to feature more of Cammy's three-frame moves to both whiff-punish and bait Haitani. He would use Haitani's eagerness to dash against him.

"The people I was most afraid to play were already eliminated," Xiao Hai said.

USA temporarily shortened the gap

KBrad had himself a weekend. The Cammy professional finished an immaculate third place and showcased the kind of clean play the USA was capable of. His teammate, Eduardo "PRRog" Perez-Frangie looked every bit like the top player he was in Street Fighter IV and could be on the verge of a career resurgence. His Balrog and -- to a lesser degree -- Necalli were sharp and aggressive, the perfect signatures for a player that fed on offense.

At the same time, the international killer, Team Liquid's Du "NuckleDu" Dang once again shined on the main stage and padded his already impressive resume.

While the USA put down three combatants for a Premier Event top-8, the elusive "W" was not claimed. There's still work to be done if the gap between the West and East is finally shortened.