ANAHEIM, California -- Over the course of the two-day inaugural Street Fighter V World Championship, the Capcom Cup Pro Tour Finals, upsets were aplenty. The top two seeds, South Korea's Lee "Infiltration" Seon-woo, who was the Evolution 2016 champion, and Japan's Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi, the most consistent player of 2016, both went 0-2 on the first day, eliminated from the tournament without a single match win. While other favorites fell, one stood planted, American Du "NuckleDu" Dang, 20, navigating the tumult in the 32-man bracket and cutting his way to the grand final without a loss.
Team Liquid's NuckleDu never flinched, even with the $230,000 prize looming over him the entire weekend, the biggest first-place purse in fighting game history. In the final against losers bracket winner and fellow American Ricki Ortiz and her resilient Chun-Li, who had won her every series that weekend by a 3-2 scoreline, NuckleDu never let her get into the match, quieting the crowd hoping for a reset in the bracket by taking the championship in a relatively dominant 3-1 win. The Florida native stood in silence following his win, mouth covered by his hands, trying to find the right reaction to the fulfilment of a fantasy he had always dreamed about.
In a game ruled by the Japanese for almost two decades, an American, in the face of those same Japanese legends who have still been ruling the scene into their 30s, won the grandest tournament in Street Fighter history.
ESPN spoke to the newly crowned world champion minutes after his historic win.
"It feels like I'm dreaming," was the first thing he said when asked how to put the moment into words. "I still don't think this is real. The amount of money I just won is really overwhelming. It's not going to hit me for a couple of weeks."
NuckleDu started the year out as a Nash player before eventually incorporating both Guile and R.Mika into his fighter pool. The tandem of the two allowed him to play two types of games: with Guile a more defensive, stretched-out chess match, and with R.Mika an aggressive, mix-up-heavy game that can end opponents in a blink of an eye. Since shaking up his fighter selection, NuckleDu has been the hottest player in the Capcom Pro Tour, winning two premier events before taking the world title on Saturday at the PlayStation Experience conference in Anaheim.
Within a tournament that was colored with chaos, NuckleDu's path to the $230,000 paints a different story entirely. He was never pushed to the fifth game of any best-of-five match, and for the most part, his switching from Guile to R.Mika was never challenged to the extent needed for him to switch up his pregame strategies. Coming into the tournament as the fourth seed, he exits as the undisputed top player in SFV, going from being the player with the most momentum in the world to the one with the most money, as well.
NuckleDu was pragmatic when discussing his how he would spend the purse. "I've been taking Ubers everywhere. I got into a car accident, and my back is screwed up due to an Uber -- because it's an Uber, you never know what you're going to get ... I'm definitely going to get my own car -- my first car, I haven't gotten one yet -- and probably just invest."
When asked how his family would react to his almost-quarter-of-a-million-dollars win, he laughed, saying that he always texts his mother describing ridiculous amounts of money after every time he wins a tournament. This time, however, the text of him winning over $200,000 won't be a joke, even though she'll be skeptical. "Until I get the check, she's not going to believe me."
"I had a really rough beginning of the year, but Team Liquid picked me back up," he reflected. "They're really good to me, and they just pushed me to be my best; and that's what I've become at the end of the year. I'm just super grateful to have them behind me."
Team Liquid's belief in NuckleDu paid off. At the top of the game now, he'll enter 2017 with a bull's-eye on his back as Season 2 of the Street Fighter V circuit begins. New character Akuma will be introduced to the fighter cast, and five other completely new characters will be added along with buffs and nerfs to current cast members. Unlike other fighting games in the past, Street Fighter V is a platform that is being built from the ground up, and each season -- indeed, every few months -- creates a fresh battleground. Adaptation will be the key to NuckleDu's longevity on top of the standings, and if the end of this year is any indication, the young champion will be ready to defend his heavyweight belt.
"To my real fans and supporters, I really do appreciate the support," said NuckleDu, giving his final words before whisked away to take more pictures with onlooking fans. "I'm playing to win for me, myself, all my fans, my dogs at home, and my family. I appreciate you guys sticking with me. This is just the beginning."