Last week's Combo Breaker in St. Charles, Illinois, set the standard for how a top-flight major fighting game tournament and experience should look like. From the booming commentary throughout the venue to the fact the venue was open 24 hours for people to play games, the atmosphere was electric, and it was felt from the tournament grounds to every viewer's streaming device. There was no better preview for the upcoming Evolution Fighting Game Championships (EVO) than Combo Breaker 2019.
Combo Breaker's successful weekend provided further proof as to why it is one of the premier destinations for fighting game fanatics. Three games had over 600 participants each -- Tekken 7, Street Fighter 5: Arcade Edition and Mortal Kombat 11 -- and Dragon Ball FighterZ pulled in 385 players. Here are some of the most notable takeaways from the festivities.
Cracks in the great South Korean Tekken glass ceiling
Throughout Tekken 7's history, as well as the vast majority of the game's history, the top tournament marks belonged to South Korea's best players. Despite credible threats from powerhouses in Japan and North America, the best end results belonged to players such as Jae "Knee" Min Bae, Hyunjin "JDCR" Kim, Sun-woong "Lowhigh" Yoon or the defending Tekken World Tour champion Hyeong "Rangchu" Jeong. But Combo Breaker provided one of the best examples of a possible changing of the guard, with an incredible showing by North American's Hoa "Anakin" Luu, who finished second. The brass ring might be in reach after three North Americans placed in the top eight and several international talents placed well enough to qualify for the Tekken World Tour's standings, like Japan's Yuta "Chikurin" Takashi and France's Vincent "Super Akouma" Homan.
Knee still defended his Combo Breaker championship, and the gatekeepers of the elite placements did well (defending EVO champion Lowhigh placed fifth and Tekken World Tour champion Rangchu finished third), but the cracks showed. North American's Ricky "rickstah" Uehara took Knee to the last game with his Akuma, and Anakin was one round away from taking the entire tournament and cementing his status as the best player on the tour thus far.
Can Punk be stopped?
This might be the year of the "alpha." Victor "Punk" Woodley owns the first half of the 2019 Capcom Pro Tour. With 2,455 points after his Combo Breaker victory, he is in first place in the global standings by a whopping 1,370 points; Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi is in second place. Punk's only hurdle came in the form of Benjamin "ProblemX" Simon's Abigail -- a character that gave Punk fits and anxiety throughout 2018. Instead of relying on a natural tempo and momentum to overwhelm his opponent, Punk attempted to force the action and space against the Abigail and paid for it with a set loss. Outside of his one-set misstep, he was his usual pristine self, complete with signature one-hit confirms, suffocating throw bait pressure and optimized damaging combos.
Punk's run at Combo Breaker combined everything that made his revival this tour possible -- he was patient when poking out, and he never broke his concentration or panicked in scramble situations. So far it's looking impossible to solve the Punk puzzle because it is not a gimmick that is propelling his success, but rather his consistent playstyle. The greats make you play their game, and while Punk might still be building his reputation, he is the best player in the world by a wide margin. He is quickly making his breakout year of 2017 a distant memory with premier tournament win after win against arguably the toughest competition in Street Fighter 5's history.
Street Fighter 5: The game of parity
Outside of first place, the level of competition and the variety of names (and characters) that appear in the top eight of major Street Fighter 5 tournaments resemble the Wild West. Mainstays like Tokido, ProblemX, Daigo Umehara and Keita "Fuudo" Ai are still in contention for top-10 spots, so not everything is upside down, but there are some new names rising at the halfway mark of the Capcom Pro Tour.
Combo Breaker saw the best results out of Masahiro "Machabo" Tominaga, Derek "iDom" Ruffin and Jonathan "JB" Bautista to put more names on the global standings. The North American representation of iDom and JB continues the trend of emerging talent from the region and the unpredictable nature of the overall tour. JB is already collecting a fair amount of points with 440 (good for 10th overall), and iDom might join him on the list of qualifiers with his immense talent. For Machabo, a Guilty Gear legend, his rise in Street Fighter 5 continues, and his third-place finish at Combo Breaker might be the start of his stay on top of a Capcom game.
Overall, instead of seeing names like Sim "NL" Gun or Fujimura Atsushi with the list of contenders, there are instead veterans like Gustavo "801 Strider" Romero and Machabo and upstarts like JB or Takeuchi "John Takeuchi" Ryota who are taking up valuable real estate. The game's competition is at an all-time healthy level in terms of the top eight at massive tournaments; the only issue is figuring out Punk.
Mortal Kombat 11 lived up to its main-game billing.
The main event of Combo Breaker was the shiny new toy in the fighting game community, Mortal Kombat 11. The newest NetherRealm Studios offering attracted 807 players, making it the highest registered game for the weekend. Its mix of interesting characters and playstyles and crushing blow mechanics led to entertaining matches and made it a great choice to end the tournament. Perhaps the most encouraging note was the inclusion of players from Japan like Goichi "Go1" Kishida or Tachikawa "Tachikawa" Toru in the brackets because NRS games used to be dominated and played by Western region players. If it leads to an international competition, it would help strengthen Mortal Kombat 11 and prevent it from falling to the wayside like many past NRS titles.
Combo Breaker was the game's first major tournament, and it featured every big name in the NRS community, including Dominique "SonicFox" McLean, Andrew "Semiij" Fontanez and Ryan "Dragon" Walker. It was hard to believe the game was just a few months old with the vast array of playstyles on display -- from the zoning antics of Dragon and Denzell "DJT" Terry to the fearless rushdown of SonicFox and Semiij to new tech like utilizing the flawless block reversals. If last weekend was a preview of what to expect in future competitions, the field is wide open.
Mortal Kombat 11's 'Geras' problem
The game is only a month into its competitive cycle, but there seems to be a troubling trend in the form of the character Geras. Whether players were using him or kept him as a pocket character, the amount of screen time this servant of Kronika got this weekend deflated some of the hype the game generated. Out of the top 25 combatants, he was on the roster of seven players, and the trend could continue to rise.
It's no surprise Geras is a popular character. He has access to incredibly damaging crushing blows that can be set up in very practical ways, same-frame mix-ups, a powerful array of forward-moving strings, great buttons in neutral and a plethora of ways to destroy enemies once they're down. He is the perfect kind of character to jail opponents and tilt them to the ends of the Earth, and he comes with a kit that won't lead to too many hours in training mode. The downside is that Geras, and too many Geras on screen, lead to fairly stale matchups and boring play. The old problem of unoriginality and redundancy that plagued Street Fighter 5's early years might be a rising threat to the excitement of the newest game on the competitive fighting game docket.