Last weekend was a fighting game tournament twofer in Street Fighter V. Both Summer Jam X in Philadelphia and E-Sports Festival Hong Kong 2016 were Capcom Pro Tour Ranking events, which meant they contributed points towards winners' standings in the 2016 Pro Tour. Both victors were well-known players: Team Liquid's Du "NuckleDu" Dang won Summer Jam X and Red Bull athlete and Twitch-sponsored player Daigo "The Beast" Umehara took down the tournament in Hong Kong. More importantly, last weekend provided a great overview of the contrasting styles and overall differences between the Western and Eastern hemispheres in a game played around the world.
A common generalization in the fighting game community with character selection is that Western players pick characters to win while Asian players stick it out with their main choice. This pattern does not necessarily hold up all the time, but it was one of the largest differences between both tournaments' top eight matches.
None of the players that participated on the final day in Hong Kong switched characters in a set after their initial choice. On the other side, Summer Jam X was littered with character changes. Most notably, the grand final of the tournament was won by NuckleDu's secondary character, Rainbow Mika, instead of his main squeeze Nash. In addition, two other players in the top eight, namely Circa eSports' Long "LPN" Nguyen and Flipsid3 Tactics' Antwan "Alucard" Ortiz, switched off between grapplers and all-out aggressive characters depending on the opponent. Alucard switched to Balrog to fight against Vega instead of his usual Necalli, and LPN alternated between playing Alex and Birdie depending on whether the character's game plan succeeded.
As for the Asian players, it was less about character selection and more about dramatic adaptation in their play. No match fit this description best than the set between HuomaoTV's Johnny "HumanBomb" Cheng and Zowie Bruce "Gamerbee" Hsiang. Gamerbee took a controlling 2-0 lead in the set with beautiful spacing and unpredictable jump timings. The commentators highlighted HumanBomb's offensive struggles against Gamerbee's great defense, noting that he was not abusing Chun-Li's instant air kicks or applying the necessary pressure typical of the character. Then, HumanBomb adjusted his anti-airs and controlled the space by moving forward instead of attacking the neutral with buttons. The 2-0 lead disappeared into a tie before Gamerbee adjusted once more and played in a reactionary way to win the set. There were no character changes to manipulate the pace of the match; this could be called old-fashioned Street Fighter.
Parity in the scene
Another major difference between the Eastern and Western tournaments was the parity of competition. In one region, a consistent set of competitors took the top slots as usual, and in the other there was a sense of unpredictability for the top eight because of the larger field of skilled competitors.
Summer Jam X was a standard North American tournament in terms of results; the same top players continued to dominate the field. Although this was NuckleDu's first Capcom Pro Tour victory, he had already been placing near the top of past major tournaments. On one hand, seeing the rewards of hard work and consistency is a great thing for the community. However, it's also discouraging to see a lack of new blood at the top, despite plenty of competitors. If the same names litter the top eight of every major tournament, it will create player narratives because of the constant exposure, but it will also shave off much of the suspense and excitement of an underdog story. The idea that Street Fighter V caters to a new generation of players and anyone can break into the elite may not hold up well if the results of Western events start to look like carbon copies of each other.
On the other hand, Umehara won his first Street Fighter V tournament ever at E-Sports Festival Hong Kong 2016. For all the legend that surrounds Umehara himself, he has not been as dominant in the larger competitive field as his moniker might imply. Although he was the favorite for this event, coming off of an unusually high second-place finish at Well Played Cup in Japan, he had to fight through fierce competition from all over the standings to earn his crown.
In Asia, even the likes of giants Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi and Team Razer's Lee "Infiltration" Seon-woo are not guaranteed wins amid so many highly skilled players. Umehara's fellow top eight competitors included not only Hiroyuki "HM|Eita" Nagata (17th overall in the Capcom Pro Tour standings) and Team Razer's Kun "Xian" Ho (sixth overall in the standings), but also Gamerbee (48th) and Humanbomb (68th). The fact that the 48th-ranked player can take third at a Capcom Pro Tour Ranking event is not evidence of a low caliber of competition but rather a skilled competitor pool of great depth and parity. As a result, in Asia there's no telling who might take the next tournament, and the top eight tends to vary greatly from competition to competition. The takeaway from Hong Kong is that Umehara pulled off an outstanding performance and Gamerbee and Humanbomb can be considered serious contenders in the scene once again.