Going into Winter Brawl X, fans of Capcom's "Vs." series had two questions:
What does it mean to be a "dead" game? What keeps people coming back to an aging title?
The action within the confines of the various competitions at Winter Brawl X were compelling in their own right, but there might be even more to learn from what happened when tournaments took a back seat to a couple of contests of sheer will and pride.
In the lifespan of competitive titles, a game usually hits a tipping point when new blood suddenly becomes hard to find. Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 has reached that point. There are several big factors in play. The game itself is difficult to track down for many aspiring players. Dedicated players are approaching five years of hardened practice -- and that's not even counting those who played the earlier iteration, Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds.
The game is long past its initial exploration phase, yet these players are still refining what they've been given. There are no patches on the horizon, there are no professional circuits on the rise, and viewership numbers have dwindled a bit.
For those concerned about the direction of the game, Saturday night may have been a hopeful glimpse into its future, courtesy of the game's older sibling. After tournament matches were finished for the day, tournament setups were converted to casual stations and center stage was held captive by a CRT and a Dreamcast. For those familiar with the players involved, as well as the venerated spot of the game, it is nothing but a continuation of the storied history of Marvel vs. Capcom 2, originally released in 2000.
When Desmond "Xcutioner" Pinkney sat down to play against Loren "Fanatiq" Riley, it wasn't the grand finals of any tournament -- it was a Saturday night dedicated to continuing a rivalry that's far from settled. "Well, Desmond and Fanatiq had beef in the game since late 2008. They've played matches before, but nothing of this caliber ... it was supposed to happen back when the game was still relevant to the tournament circuit but they couldn't link up," Michael "IFC Yipes" Mendoza explained.
They finally did outside of Philadelphia, where a crowd got a glimpse of a recent past that many had never been exposed to. West Coast natives sat on the stage in front of an East Coast crowd that wanted to be certain that their house would be defended, the house microphone commandeered by Abraham "GoldenboyNeo" Sotelo. IFC Yipes continued, "In terms of coastal rivalries, it was real deep back then [during the Marvel vs Capcom 2 era]. When we win or they win, it would take a while to see each other again, due to not having a million tournaments a year like how we do now. So every time we saw each other, we always tend to make it count."
They made it count long before character select finished loading. A few prideful words were exchanged on social media, coastal pride swelled up in players that weren't involved or had even played the game. When the set was concluding, Fanatiq behind in games, ten to fourteen, his Magneto and Storm had both been quelled. All that remained was his Psylocke, typically just an assist character, against the full roster from Xecutioner. Xecutioner extended his hand for the handshake, signaling an insurmountable lead, yet Fanatiq chose to keep fighting until Desmond finished Psylocke and the set.
It wasn't enough, but it signaled a mindset that seems to persist among some of Marvel vs. Capcom 2's finest: as long as I have something to prove in this game, I will play it. That mindset has led to the tradition and the history that separates it from many other games, including one trying to follow in its footsteps -- a game that would have its exhibition next, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3.
Chile's Nicolas "KaneBlueRiver" Gonzalez was due to square off against NorCal's Ryan "Filipino Champ" Ramirez, and finally close the book on one of the most-viewed rivalries in not just Marvel, but fighting games at large.
Going into this heated matchup, Hayden "Kinderparty" Griswold, host of Marvel-oriented podcast "Marvel Lives", broke down the gravity of the set. "People have a lot of assumptions about KaneBlueRiver vs Filipino Champ: how the set will play out, what the aftermath might be like, what this set means for the game of Marvel 3. The fact is, while we continue to speculate about this heavyweight match-up, the only thing that can be agreed upon is that this is a huge fight. It's good vs. evil, new vs. old, USA vs The World, and champion vs champion. KBR has taken a beating in the media leading up to this fight, and this is his chance to finally hit back. Will we see that from him? Will Hulk smash? I'm not sure, but I know as soon as I heard the match was announced, I bought my tickets."
KaneBlueRiver, the EVO 2015 champion, shocked the world with his victory in Vegas. Did "big body" teams still have a place in the game? Sure, as long as human error exists. He had been traveling across the United States prior to the event, staying with people who would be his training partners, and KaneBlueRiver's victory at Evolution Championship Series was his first win at a major event --in a game that the United States dominated, no less. He had the run of his life, knocking off many of the scene's favorites on his way to the title.
Many took exception, including Filipino Champ. The EVO 2012 winner questioned whether or not KaneBlueRiver was a true champion. They were truly a study in contrasts. Filipino Champ's tenure as EVO Champion saw him continue to travel and battle against some of the finest in the scene, while KaneBlueRiver already had a trip to Japan planned afterwards and rarely appeared in the public eye. While Champ's stream often featured local players on the rise, KaneBlueRiver wished for a local scene that would help his own growth as a player -- especially as he struggled to string together wins back home.
"The struggles to find competition and tourney results were nothing new to me," said KaneBlueRiver. "It's always like that when I'm going back home. If you can't sharpen a knife, it doesn't remain as it is, it gets duller. The only difference is that there was way more attention into that this time because I had won EVO. It's not that I don't have people to play back home, is that nobody cares about higher aspirations."
The two crossed paths at SoCal Regionals in 2015, but no games were played. Social media barbs continued to be tossed, and things got personal on more than one occasion -- finally culminating on that stage. Filipino Champ may have had an edge heading into the meeting, with the mental warfare seemingly in his favor, but KaneBlueRiver took the exhibition to be a lesson, rather than a pulpit. It was far less of an exhibition and far more of an execution, as Filipino Champ didn't come to win, but rather, came to embarrass his opponent. He took the house mic to lambast his opponent, proclaim that this was his game, and on more than one occasion paused to give a mercy victory to his opponent.
KaneBlueRiver occasionally changed teams, seeing what worked and what didn't, but took the opportunity for training. "The exhibition was an opportunity to play a long set with one of the best players, which is something I never get, so I was aiming to learn as much as I could." Just like the earlier exhibition, it was settled by a score of fifteen to ten -- but could have been far worse.
There might have been a deity out there that enjoys watching fighting games, as we were blessed with a rematch on Sunday in tournament play. After Champ dispatched KBR in the finals of Winners side 3-1, the two met again in the Grand Finals. KBR forced the bracket reset after winning a set of his own 3-2, and it had to come down to a final game. Fate sided with Chile that afternoon, and after the slaughter of the exhibition and all the trash talk that came with it, KaneBlueRiver was able to find redemption and take the tournament. EVO 2014 champion Justin Wong remarked on twitter after KaneBlueRiver's victory, "This is why Marvel is at EVO."
What keeps people competing in Marvel vs. Capcom 2?
"The pride of the game and the unfinished business, in terms of rivalries, is what keeps this game flowing," IFC Yipes explained. "Marvel vs. Capcom 2 had lots of stories for over ten years; Ultimate is stagnant in that area, but it's starting to pick up!"
As players continue training for what some assume will be the last year the game is present at EVO, Winter Brawl only added more questions to the enigma of the future of the game. With the release of Street Fighter V, some veterans are returning to the title. Will theory teams like those from Vineeth "Apologyman" Meka reign supreme? As stock in New York City rises, thanks to players like Raynel "RayRay" Hidalgo and Amir "Cosmos" Adorno, can the former Mecca of Marvel reclaim its spot? Will the south be led by the gauntlet of Derrike "Full Schedule" Nunn or will character specialists like Kevin "DualKevin" Barrios stake their claim? Can arguably the most decorated player in the game's history, Christopher "Chris G" Gonzalez finally capture the one trophy that has been evading him?
Some of the same names from the Marvel vs. Capcom 2 community have carried that fire over to Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3.. Yipes has become the de facto voice of both communities. Goldenboy Neo is looking to finish better than his fifth place showing in 2015 in Vegas. Years ago, some questioned whether Daniel "Clockwork" Maniago was washed up as a player, but he's looking toward something more than ninth place. Justin Wong has high hopes in Street Fighter V, but his name is among the most heralded in Marvel; even as Filipino Champ logged a fifth place finish in SFV, his passion while playing against KBR and Cosmos was unmatched.
After his victory in July, KaneBlueRiver proclaimed that Marvel no longer belonged to America, it was the world's game, and the defending EVO champ certainly knows that the target on his back only grew larger with his victory in Philadelphia. Players from Mexico and Japan made huge strides last year, and American players are hoping to reclaim a series that they've claimed as their own for over a decade.
What does it mean to be champion in the realm of Marvel? Since last July, everyone has had an answer, but the debate still hasn't stopped. Is it the fighting champion who takes on all comers? Is it the one who is nearly unbeatable in long sets? Is it the one that survives the biggest shark tank of the year and hoists the EVO trophy?
Not even KaneBlueRiver has the answer. "The only thing I can say is that I've seen people that are definitely champions in one way or another, and I know I'm very, very far from what they've been able to do."
At the end of the Marvel vs. Capcom 2 exhibition, Xcutioner pointed out GoldenboyNeo, saying that he'd get the same treatment as Fanatiq one day. The pride is heavy in a game that is over a decade and a half. If the fires ignited through the first five years of Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 burn nearly as bright, we won't be surprised to see some of the stars of today square off a decade from now. For now, the journey continues as they continue down the inevitable road to Vegas.
Next stop? Atlanta for Final Round.
ESPN Inc. and Marvel Entertainment Inc. are both subsidiaries of The Walt Disney Company.