For one brief weekend every year, we are all fighting game fans, mesmerized by the spectacle that is the Evolution Championship Series. Players new and old come together to compete and watch the world's best prove themselves in an open tournament of thousands of players. For game developers, however, Evo offers a different opportunity -- the chance to see how various fighting games try to create a rich, rewarding, and diverse competitive play space that holds up from the newest player to the most dedicated veteran. If you're looking to make your own competitive game, it's certainly worth your time to devour whatever Evo tournament footage you can find to see how fighting game players try to break the heck out of every game for honor (and profit).
But parsing high-level play is hard. Fighting games are built on decades of iteration, and understanding them takes time and experience. Fortunately for you, I've been actively competing in fighting games for 14 years, so I'm going to walk you through the Evo 2015 Ultra Street Fighter IV Top 8 matches with a special focus on takeaways that are more broadly applicable to designing competitive games. I even wrote a free primer for people interested in learning to play fighting games called From Masher to Master -- check it out here. [And full disclosure: I occasionally help out with stuff for Evo and its affiliated fighting game website Shoryuken.com.]
Note that I'll only be covering the Ultra Street Fighter IV Top 8 in this article, as it's the game I know best. If you want similar breakdowns for the rest of the Evo 2015 lineup (including Super Smash Bros.: Melee, Guilty Gear Xrd, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and Mortal Kombat 10), let the Gamasutra editors know in the comments. (Be sure to make your demands IN ALL CAPS, WITH LOTS OF EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!1! They love that.)
"For game developers, Evo offers the chance to see how various fighting games try to create a rich, rewarding, and diverse competitive play space that holds up from the newest player to the most dedicated veteran."
Let's jump in! You can watch the matches yourself on this YouTube playlist here; if you want the best experience, I'd recommend watching through them once before reading this article, so you don't spoil anything and can focus on dissecting the design afterwards.
Infiltration vs. r/Kappa Ai Ai (Winners Bracket Quarterfinals)
The Matchup: Decapre vs. Juri
Infiltration is not only one of the most consistent Street Fighter IV players, he's also the Evo 2012 champion. He stands out among world-class players due to his attention to detail and relentless work ethic. Where most competitive players concentrate their time on mastering a single character, and many top players have only just added secondary picks to cover their main's hardest matchups, Infiltration has the widest character variety we've seen in competitive Street Fighter yet (he used eight different characters in his Evo 2015 run! That's the whole roster of SF2!).
Ai Ai is far less well-known -- Evo commentator Seth Killian notes in the clip that he's primarily an online-only player who lives outside Tokyo -- but he earned plenty of notoriety by taking out fighting game legend Daigo "The Beast" Umehara earlier in the tournament.
In this set, Infiltration picks USF4 newcomer Decapre into Ai Ai's main character, Juri. Both characters are most dangerous when they're in close against a cornered opponent, but they have different methods of achieving this -- Decapre relies largely on her variety of highly controllable special dashes that let her zoom around the screen and feint if she's running into a counterattack, while Juri's goal is to bully Decapre from a distance with well-placed fireballs to shut down Decapre's mobility options, then gradually push Decapre into the corner where she can deal her damage with hard-to-guard mixups.
The Moments: Decapre's Ultra 2, every single time
Despite the 3-0 win by Infiltration, the match was very competitive when you look at it round-by-round -- neither player had an overwhelming advantage over the other when it came to reactions, execution, timing, defense, etc. However, each player's choice of Ultra Combo had a defining effect on the outcome of the match.
Ultra Combos are high-damaging moves that can only be used once the player has filled their Ultra Meter at least halfway -- and you can only fill that meter by taking damage. This effectively functions as a comeback mechanic of sorts: once you've taken about 45% of your health bar in damage, you can spend that Ultra Meter to perform your Ultra Combo, and if it hits, get yourself back in the game (though, if it hits, you now have a pissed-off opponent that probably has taken enough damage to get access to her own Ultra Combo).
Each character has two different Ultra Combos, and in the character select menu a player can choose which one he'd like to use (or instead opt for Ultra Combo Double, which gives you access to both, but with a significant damage penalty). Ai Ai chose Juri's "Feng Shui Engine", which gives her a short buff period where her moves' combo properties change to allow longer, higher-damaging strings. Infiltration chose Decapre's "DCM", a lightning-fast dash attack that can hit from across the screen for heavy damage and leaves Decapre close to her opponent to continue her mixups up close.
While the damage potential for both Ultras is roughly equal, Infiltration's choice offered more strategic utility than Ai Ai's did. Ai Ai was mostly only able to use Juri's Ultra to get more damage out of situations where he already had the momentum -- typically after he knocked Infiltration down and pushed him into the corner. With DCM, Infiltration gets an opportunity to punish Ai Ai for being predictable and turn the round in his favor -- and he lands it six times in the seven-round set ( the only round where he didn't land it is the round he won before taking enough damage to charge his Ultra Meter enough to get access to the move).
Count 'em. Infiltration uses it in Match 1, Round 1 to punish a fireball (1:33); Match 2, Round 1 to tack on extra damage to a combo (3:19); Match 2, Round 2 to punish another fireball (4:16); Match 2, Round 3 to punish Juri from jumping backwards (5:20); Match 3, Round 1 to add damage after an anti-air counter to Juri's jump-in mixup attempt (6:30); and closes it out in Match 3, Round 2 to catch Juri as she jumps backward (7:36).
By the end of the set, Infiltration has shown Ai Ai that once Decapre has her Ultra, Ai Ai can't safely throw fireballs or jump without risking the loss of the whole round, which means her main options are simply to walk forward, attack, and hope for the best.
The Takeaway: Great players will make your game look broken even when it's not
After dissecting this set, you might get the impression that Decapre is hugely overpowered due to her high-damage mixups, high mobility, and the incredible utility her U2 gives her, especially in this particular matchup.
It's worth noting here that Decapre's DCM is not a particularly easy move to perform, as the motion requires the player to hold back or down-back on the controller for a short period to "charge" the move -- which inhibits the player's ability to walk freely. Infiltration covers this up by using her dashes to try to mask the "charging", which telegraphed his intent -- something Ai Ai either didn't notice in the moment or couldn't adapt to.
At lower levels of play, I'd expect the matchup to skew slightly in Juri's favor, since her Ultra's power is far easier to access than DCM is. Yes, Infiltration is dominant in this set, but if you ask yourself whether the reason for his dominance is reflective of a healthy competitive state, I'd argue the answer is yes: He wins because he knows how the matchup goes when he can bully Juri with DCM, and Ai Ai was unable to fake out, bait, counter-pick, or otherwise adapt. Infiltration wins because he did the work.
EG|Momochi vs. MCZ|Tokido (Winners Bracket Quarterfinals)
The Matchup: Ken vs. Akuma
Momochi and Tokido are both highly-accomplished SF4 tournament veterans; Tokido placed second in 2013, while Momochi won last year's prestigious Capcom Cup. Momochi is known mostly for his Ken, and Tokido his Akuma; both players stuck with their signature picks for this set.
Both Ken and Akuma belong to the same classic Street Fighter character design family as Ryu: They each have fireballs (Hadoken!), invincible anti-air uppercuts (Shoryuken!), and a spinning kick that moves them forward (Tatsumaki Senpuu Kyaku -- yes, that's what they actually say). Akuma also has several moves that Ken doesn't, including a teleport that helps escape dangerous situations and an air fireball to control screen space at a variety of diagonal vectors, but he can't take as much damage as Ken can. Ken has an additional move as well; it's called the "step kick" because he takes a big step forward before performing a karate-style front push kick. While the step kick isn't nearly as flashy as Akuma's extra moves, it's at the core of Momochi's Ken play: He uses it to punish Tokido for poor spacing, close the distance and create opportunities for big-damage combos, and even quickly cancel it to extend the range of Ken's throw.
In this matchup, both players are mostly trying to fish for an advantage from roughly half-screen range -- Akuma with his quick sweep and his ground/air fireballs, and Ken with his step kick and ground fireball. Once one player lands a hit, they get an opportunity to get close and attack with hard-to-defend setups, but if their attacks are predictable, they risk getting countered by an invincible uppercut and placed on the defensive.
The Moments: Momochi runs hot and cold
[Ken's step kick is a core element of Momochi's game.]
Momochi shows in this match that he's really good at tracking how Tokido responds to his attacks and varying his aggression levels accordingly. He wins the first match "going hot" with lots of risky uppercuts (3:12) early on; calls Tokido's bluff by standing up from a knockdown and immediately attacking with a slow medium punch (4:15) and even goes for several step kicks after Tokido predicts and punishes one with a big combo (5:20). Momochi takes the first match -- and discovers in the process that his uppercuts are working, but Tokido is predicting his throw attempts.
In the second match, Momochi stays hot, with several aggressive uppercuts. This time Tokido sees them coming and punishes Momochi severely (see 6:30 as well as pretty much all of round 2) to take the match. Momochi responds by "going cold" in the next set, attacking much less early on, uppercutting much less, and landing three throws in the first round (7:53), and getting most of his damage from step kicks in the second round.
Rather than let Tokido adapt again, Momochi flips back to hot for the fourth match; lots of early attacks (10:30) and big damage off a risky uppercut in round 1, and another relentless string of wild attacks to come back in round 3 (13:47).
The Takeaway: Winning one round of Rock-Paper-Scissors is random; winning 20 rounds is skillful
This match highlights the centrality of Rock-Paper-Scissors in Street Fighter's design: Uppercut beats throw beats block beats uppercut. Momochi wins by using the step kick to force Tokido to play Uppercut-Block-Throw, and then adjusts to Tokido's behavior patterns more effectively than Tokido can mix them up. While a single instance is basically luck, Momochi won this match due to his ability to create opportunities to understand Tokido, empathize with him, and read his patterns.
Fighting games reward many different forms of skill -- execution, research, and reactions, for example -- but I personally consider the skills connected to observing, understanding, and predicting your opponents to be the ones most satisfying in any competitive game.
BE|Nemo vs. EG|PR Balrog (Losers Bracket Top 8)
The Matchup: Rolento vs. Balrog
PR Balrog is consistently one of the U.S.'s best Street Fighter players, and his results typically come from marrying excellent execution and highly technical play with just the right amount of wild aggression to throw his opponents off. Nemo is a high-level Japanese player known for innovating in any game he plays; in Ultra SF4, he left his mark by showing just how powerful Rolento can be in the right hands.
PR Balrog chose Balrog against Nemo's Rolento, which is an awesome match to watch from a design perspective because the two characters are polar opposites. Rolento will constantly roll and hop and dance in and out of reach to try to control the screen and create openings; Balrog has a far more simple moveset mostly designed to get him in your face...so he can punch it. Pay particular attention to Nemo's masterful use of Rolento's knives, as he's constantly using them to harass Balrog.
The Moments: Watching PR Balrog adapt
[Much of this matchup comes down to whether Balrog's dash punch can contain Rolento.]
To be honest, this entire set is a straight-up dogfight that's a heck of a lot of fun to watch but tough to analyze. Instead of focusing on the technical perspective, I think it's worth highlighting the mental strength that goes into a scrap like this. Right from the first round, Nemo comes back from a disadvantage to hit some tricky mixups on PR Balrog (1:36), and continues in the second with clever use of Rolento's forward roll (2:22). In both situations, he's not just beating PR Balrog, he's doing so with combos that intentionally leave gaps between them in order to reset Ultra SF4's damage proration system (called "resets"). This is risky -- Nemo's leaving guaranteed damage on the table in exchange for a shot at bigger damage -- but it works not only to win the first match but also to signify to PR Balrog that Nemo is willing to play aggressively. Unfazed, PR Balrog corners Nemo and reads his backwards hop, and reacts with a full Ultra Combo, sending a similar message in return (3:29).
PR Balrog does make a notable adjustment after losing the first two matches; starting in the third (5:56) he is far more comfortable with Rolento's ranges and patient with his blocking -- most likely because Balrog's options for breaking the momentum of an attacking enemy are a bit more limited than other characters'. He also finds a hole in one of Nemo's mixups and jumps back with a heavy punch to stuff it (7:22), which forces Nemo to be a bit more careful. By the time the fourth match starts, PR Balrog is pushing the action the way he normally does (9:20), but this time Nemo has to respect it.
One other notable moment comes in the second round of the fifth match. By now, PR Balrog has tied the score up 2-2, but Nemo took the first round convincingly and uses that lead to slow the pace for quite some time (12:53). After four games of nonstop aggression, the change seems to catch PR Balrog off guard and give Nemo an opening to win it.
The Takeaway: Simple vs. complex should be avenues for different kinds of players to succeed
It can be tempting to design competitive options in a game in a way that rewards a specific kind of mastery. Nemo succeeds with Rolento because he's able to consistently pull out the right tool for the job among a very deep, specialized toolbox; this typically means lots of rigorous matchup study, thoughtful observation, execution practice, and exposure with a wide range of opponent types. With Balrog, PR Balrog has fewer tools to work with, meaning fewer opportunities to win -- and so he has to be more vigilant about reading and reacting to take advantage of the opportunities he gets.
Each character offers their own respective challenges and advantages that stem from their relative complexity; you can design to reward in-depth matchup study, execution consistency, opponent prediction, mental stability under stress, and all kinds of other factors. The important thing that this match stresses is that a rich competitive environment ensures that players can choose the path to mastery that feels right for them -- which means paying attention to a lot of design and balance factors that you won't see on a spreadsheet.
AVM|GamerBee vs. Liquid|Nuckledu (Losers Bracket Top 8)
The Matchup: Adon vs. Guile
Nuckledu has made waves in the US Street Fighter competitive scene for two reasons: First, he has won several major American tournaments with an aggressive, in-your-face Guile, where most Guile players are more defensive; second, he's only 19 years old and has shown incredible growth year over year. GamerBee is another character specialist; he put his Adon on the map during Evo 2010 by beating American favorite Justin Wong in the semifinals.
Adon's goal is to get in close to land damaging mixups; he usually does this by pressuring with a standing roundhouse kick to establish his comfort zone, then using his quick dash, his arcing Jaguar Kick, or his cross-screen darting Jaguar Tooth to catch his opponent off guard and create an opening. Guile is almost identical to his SF2 incarnation; he can charge back for a projectile attack (Sonic Boom) or down for an anti-air somersault kick (Flash Kick), and he wins by using the the two moves to shut down an attacking opponent or cover his approach for suffocating pressure. Since Guile doesn't mind playing defense and Adon wants to attack, most of this matchup comes down to whether Guile can punish Adon's approach harder than Adon can hurt Guile once he gets in.
The Moments: GamerBee exploiting Nuckledu's weakness Just Enough
[Adon's Jaguar Tooth was critical for keeping the pressure on Nuckledu's Guile.]
There is a lot going on in this set, but the first match should give you a pretty good idea of what each player is trying to do in this set: In round 1, Adon pushes Guile into the corner but gets hit too much (2:35); in round 2, Adon gets in and does his damage before Guile can shake him off (3:49); and so on.
I'm going to focus on one thing in particular: GamerBee figures out early on that Nuckledu is not punishing one of his moves (Jaguar Tooth) and takes advantage of that -- but he's smart enough to use it just often enough to get the lead without forcing Nuckledu to address it directly until it's too late. Jaguar Tooth is a tricky move that briefly exposes Adon to big damage, but if it's not punished, it leaves Adon right next to his opponent and ready to start his in-close shenanigans.
In the first match, GamerBee uses Jaguar Tooth once per round, and he learns that Nuckledu will react with a Flash Kick to beat it cleanly (2:50) -- but that means Nuckledu has to charge down to keep it ready. If GamerBee sees Nuckledu walking backwards, however, it means Nuckledu won't have a Flash Kick charged -- instead, he just blocks it (3:53 and 4:37). It costs GamerBee 1 stock of Super Meter to perform the EX Jaguar Tooth (the yellow-flashing version), which goes through Guile's Sonic Boom, but it's worth it because it gets him close to Guile without losing any health.
GamerBee turns it up a bit in the second match, continuing to use Jaguar Tooth to put pressure on Du's Guile when he sees him backing up (6:49 and 7:00) as well as using it after certain normal attacks to keep up his pressure (7:12 and 7:37). Du actually tries to punish it once but ends up losing (8:04), which just makes the threat of the Tooth that much more credible. Rather than keep milking it, though, GamerBee uses it only once in the third match to shut down Du's Sonic Boom pressure (10:07) and then three times in the fourth match -- only one of which is punished (10:37, 11:10, and 11:51)
By itself, the Jaguar Tooth doesn't actually do that much damage in this match, since Nuckledu blocks most of them. But GamerBee uses it as a low-risk way of getting close to Guile, and it stays low-risk because he quickly identifies the safest times to use it (when Guile is telegraphing a Sonic Boom) -- which also has the perk of making Nuckledu hesitate before throwing Sonic Booms. Whenever GamerBee's Adon gets in close, he has a very good shot at taking the round, and Nuckledu just can't adapt in time.
The Takeaway: In complex systems, players adapt to each other -- and that's the fun part
Much of the thrill of competitive fighting games comes from learning with your opponent as you play them. This is in part due to the fact that competitive fighting games have a huge variety of game factors (dozens of characters, each with dozens of moves), meaning that the play space is so wide that each player has room to play a character with their own personal touch. So while many competitive game devs are opting to produce relatively simple games (TowerFall, for example), keep in mind that oversimplifying does lose something as well.
GamerBee wasn't fighting Guile as he exists in-game as an array of variables, he was fighting Guile as played by fellow human being Nuckledu. GamerBee must have known that Jaguar Tooth would be useful in the matchup because it's fast and hard for charge characters like Guile to punish, but he had to learn in the match that Nuckledu's response was not to improvise a response, like PR Balrog did against Nemo's Rolento mixups, but to block it and hope his defensive skills would hold up. Had Nuckledu managed to bait a Jaguar Tooth and punish it with a big combo even once, GamerBee might have had to use it more sparingly, but he didn't -- which, in turn, makes it harder for Nuckledu to control horizontal space with his Sonic Booms, thereby making GamerBee's other tools more effective as well.
BE|Nemo vs. r/Kappa Ai Ai (Losers Bracket Quarterfinals)
The Matchup: Rolento vs. Juri
Nemo's win over PR Balrog takes him to the next round in the Loser's Bracket, where he goes up against Ai Ai's Juri. Both characters rely on their high mobility and midscreen projectiles (Juri's fireballs and Rolento's knives) to create opportunities to attack. Also, neither of them have very strong anti-air options, so they're both free to jump as often as they like -- which turns the match into a fast-paced slugfest.
The Moments: Nemo's nasty mixups
[Rolento's jumping heavy punch starts many of Nemo's pressure strings -- depending on the range he jumps from, he can land on one side of you or the other, making it hard to block the followup attack.]
The main thing you learn after watching this set is just how good PR Balrog is at blocking Nemo's attacks -- because Ai Ai unfortunately isn't quite as good at it. From very early on (1:20) it's clear that Nemo's mixups are far scarier against Ai Ai, which is the main reason why he wins the first two matches relatively easily. Of particular interest is Nemo's use of Rolento's jumping heavy punch, which is hard for Juri to punish and leads to some pretty confusing left/right mixups if timed and spaced correctly (2:36).
Finally, Ai Ai shows us just how dangerous Juri can be with Feng Shui Engine against a cornered Rolento (4:20), taking the first round and then the second by staying airborne and minimizing Nemo's opportunities to go for jumping heavy punch tricks. He also finds that he can crouch under Nemo's jumping heavy punch at certain ranges (5:30 and 5:47), tying it up in the fourth set. At this point, the matchup is pretty clearly defined: Corner your opponent, quickly land a big combo or two to stun him, then finish him off. In the final set, Nemo manages to clutch it out to a narrow win in round 1; Ai Ai wins round 2 decisively, but gets cornered and pressured in round 3 to lose it.
The Takeaway: Not every move needs a "counter", just an "answer"
Competitors are often preoccupied with finding the right option to "counter" an enemy's option; she does A, I know she is going to do A so I do B, which beats A, so I win. But when you're not playing a simultaneous instant game like Rock-Paper-Scissors, not everything needs to be a hard counter; just the fact that you're not getting hit by something can be a sufficiently effective option for the sake of balance.
In the Juri/Rolento matchup, Juri can beat Rolento's jumping heavy punch -- I believe her options are EX Pinwheel, which costs one Super Meter stock and does reduced damage as an anti-air; crouching medium punch, though I believe this has to be spaced immaculately or else she risks eating the jumping heavy punch completely; and jumping straight up with a jump attack before Rolento gets to the attacking part of his heavy punch animation. All of these are "counters" in the sense that, if executed properly, they'll beat Rolento's attack -- the problem is that none of them are worth the risk of messing up. Instead, Ai Ai answers Nemo's jumping fierce punch by simply Not Being There To Get Hit, and that's good enough.
AVM|GamerBee vs. MCZ|Tokido (Losers Bracket Quarterfinals)
The Matchup: Elena vs. Akuma
[This kick is burned into Tokido's nightmares.]
On the other side of the Losers Bracket, Tokido sticks with his signature Akuma pick; GamerBee counters with Elena -- likely because Akuma's air fireballs shut down a lot of Adon's ability to easily close the gap, and Akuma's teleport makes it harder for Adon to convert up-close pressure into damage. Additionally, Elena's Ultra 1 ("Brave Dance") can go through fireballs up close, which is scary.
Akuma's goal in this match is to wear down Elena at a distance with fireballs and quick long-range attacks, then find an opening to land a big combo or two. Elena wins by fishing for a knockdown with her slide attack and then forcing Akuma to block high or low -- either option leads to big damage for Elena if he misses -- and if Akuma tries to get in close for his combo setups, she can use her crouching light attacks to stop him and land her own combos.
The Moments: Elena's slide, crouching light punch, and Mallet Smash
Tokido's Akuma is a fearsome opponent, but GamerBee made a good call in picking Elena, since she pretty much focuses on three things in this matchup: Hitting Akuma with a slide when he tries to throw a ground fireball, hitting Akuma with her crouching light punch whenever he tries to walk up to her (and then using that kick to start a combo), and tagging Akuma with a quick medium-ranged special that must be blocked standing and leads to a combo that knocks down.
Tokido plays the match fairly well -- he spaces his fireballs so as to beat GamerBee's anti-fireball Ultra Combo perfectly (1:47 and 3:20) but he loses to GamerBee's pure and simple focus. I'm not going to timecode every single instance for you this time, but watch the set and pay attention to how many times GamerBee lands Elena's slide to start pressure or starts a combo with crouching light punch or EX Mallet Smash.
The Takeaway: Simple options can have complicated power
Elena is a rather fascinating study of a relatively "simple" character with unexpectedly complicated power that can be tricky to balance. As GamerBee shows in this match, most of Elena's strength comes from the fact that she has three moves which are kind of tricky to block properly on reaction and lead to more damaging followups. She can't fill the screen with fireballs like Akuma can, and her combos generally aren't as damaging, but she gets a moderate amount of damage off of a few simple moves that complement each other nicely, and that's enough to give her a solid shot against just about any other character.
I wouldn't be surprised if Tokido's Akuma ought to win that matchup in theory, but he has to do much more mental work to leverage those advantages than GamerBee does with Elena. And since Elena's moves and matchups are comparatively simple, she's starting to be very popular as a backup character for those tough-to-win matchups you run into with your main character (like GamerBee's Adon vs. Akuma).
On paper, Elena doesn't look so tough. When you consider the sheer amount of time and practice it takes to play a Street Fighter character at the highest level of competition, though, Elena starts to look like a pretty good secondary pick.
Infiltration vs. EG|Momochi (Winners Bracket Finals)
The Matchup: Evil Ryu/Abel vs. Ken/Elena
Aha! Once we hit Winners Finals, we start to see multiple counter-characters come out. Infiltration leads with Evil Ryu vs. Momochi's Ken. Both of them are fireball/uppercut characters; Evil Ryu's advantage lies in raw damage output through extended combos, while Ken is stronger in ranged pokes (remember the step kick?) and can sustain more damage than Evil Ryu. However, Infiltration counterpicks Ken with Abel -- a very different brawler-type character who can shut down Ken's ranged games with the right reads -- and Momochi counters the counter with Elena.
The Moments: Counter-counterpicks
[This is the face of someone trying to decide if it's worth trying a counterpick on opponent's match point.]
The most educational (and fun!) parts of this set are the back-and-forth counterpicks, so we'll focus on those. They stick with Evil Ryu and Ken for the first three sets, and it mostly looks like this: They poke at each other from roughly mid-screen, with Evil Ryu more comfortable in close and Ken preferring to be slightly further. Ken can lure Evil Ryu into going for an attack, dodge backwards out of range, and use his step kick to catch Evil Ryu at the end of the attack (called "whiff punishing" - 1:00), which puts Ken in close range and ready to start his sequence of attacks; Evil Ryu can anticipate the step kick and beat it with a faster attack which can lead to combos that do upwards of 40% damage (3:46).
Momochi pulls ahead over the first three sets; Infiltration makes some critical mistakes while performing his Evil Ryu combos (2:26, for example), which drastically undercuts his effectiveness, while Momochi largely wins the poking wars with Ken's step kick. So Infiltration decides to pick Abel instead, and immediately shows Momochi why -- Abel's standing light kick beats Ken's step kick cleanly, taking away a critical tool. You can see him start to mash standing light kick at the beginning of the first round with Abel (9:26), as it's so quick he can throw it out willy-nilly without fear of getting caught.
Momochi's Ken is still competitive without the step kick, but it's clear that Infiltration's Abel has the edge in this matchup, so Momochi counterpicks in the final match with Elena. This is the danger of Infiltration counterpicking when he's already down two games -- in Street Fighter tournament rules, you can only change your character if you lost the previous match, so Infiltration has to pick Abel for the final game. By picking Elena, Momochi is essentially betting that Infiltration's Abel is mostly meant to counter Ken (and possibly a few other matchups), and therefore he's not quite as accustomed to the Abel/Elena matchup. And he's right. Infiltration puts up a good fight but basically doesn't know how to deal with Elena's crouching light punch and gets sent to the Losers Bracket to play the winner of GamerBee vs. Nemo. (Shoutouts to crouching light punch.)
The Takeaway: Balancing the meta-game is a whole different (and fun) can of worms
So far, I've mostly been sticking to talking about Ultra SF4's design and balance at the level of how individual moves or attributes inform character matchups, and how those character matchups then inform player matchups. Momochi vs. Infiltration was a fascinating set because it took place at a higher level, mostly dependent on how each player used their training time to prepare themselves for Evo 2015. If Infiltration had spent more time on Evil Ryu, he might not have dropped those combos, meaning he could have won the first or third match and eventually won the set with the Abel counterpick. Perhaps if he had spent more time studying Abel's matchups, he could have predicted and practiced the Elena counterpick more.
Also, if it weren't for the way character changes work in American tournaments, this might not have been a factor at all -- some Japanese tournaments use a "character lock" format, where you register with a character and can play only that character for the whole tournament! Different formats and community conventions change the way players practice and prepare just as much, if not more, as the design of the game itself. Who knows? Maybe your game is just waiting for the right format to flourish, like the pick/ban system in MOBAs or draft tournaments in Magic: the Gathering.
BE|Nemo vs. AVM|Gamerbee (Losers Bracket Semifinals)
The Matchup: Rolento vs. Adon
Now that you've seen both players in action quite a bit, you might already have an idea of how this matchup goes. Rolento's mobility options and knife-throwing space control are still very useful against Adon, but he runs into problems because 1) like Juri, Adon can take advantage of Rolento's relatively weak anti-air options to get close and hurt him, and 2) unlike Juri, Adon has a really good anti-air option himself (Rising Jaguar), so Rolento risks getting knocked down and pressured if he's too aggressive.
It's worth noting that Nemo actually listed his opinions of Rolento's overall matchups earlier in the year, and Adon came in as his third worst matchup, so Nemo knows he has some work to do there.
The Moments: Rising Jaguar > Rolento
[GamerBee uses Adon's Rising Jaguar to stop a lot of Nemo's mixup attempts and turn the momentum in his favor.]
Nemo takes an early match from GamerBee's Adon, but he quickly shows that he has a much harder time dealing with Adon than he did Juri or Balrog, mostly because Adon is quick enough to deal with Rolento's movement options, can deal more damage off a jumping attack than Rolento can get from hitting him with an anti-air, and has a fast invincibile anti-air to deal with Rolento if he gets too aggressive. Early on, GamerBee beats Nemo's jumping fierce punch with a Rising Jaguar (5:15), which is way easier a solution than any of Nemo's other Top 8 matchups had.
The story of this matchup is told best in GamerBee's first perfect round against Nemo (5:47): Adon's Jaguar Tooth goes unpunished, getting Adon up close at no cost, he pressures Nemo, beats his jump-in with a Rising Jaguar, catches him with a jumping kick, punishes Nemo for trying to roll away, beats another jump-in with Rising Jaguar, punishes more escape attempts, then hits a standing heavy kick to finish. While the character matchup isn't necessarily quite so lopsided (Nemo took the first match fairly convincingly), it certainly seems like Nemo simply wasn't ready for the Adon matchup and didn't have a counterpick ready to go.
The Takeaway: Bad matchups are often worse at high levels
I've heard some people in competitive fighting games say that a 6-4 matchup (that is, a character matchup where one character wins 60% of the time) is just as bad as a 10-0 matchup -- the idea being that at the highest level of play, any significant character-based advantage will be mercilessly exploited, and an advantage that seems small for most players will be leveraged far more effectively by the best of the best. I wouldn't say this is absolutely true -- some games and bad matchups allow for upsets better than others -- but it's certainly worth thinking about how advantages can scale up or down along the experience spectrum, and more importantly, how the perception of those imbalances can affect the player's experience.
If I were a Rolento player watching this matchup, I'd probably be pretty frustrated. After all, the best Rolento in the world got perfected twice by an Adon. They're both good enough to make the final rounds at Evo, so it stands to reason that the only reason Nemo got beaten so badly is because the game is imbalanced garbage created by hack game designers.
Of course, that's obviously not true -- just look at how many different characters are represented in top 8 alone. But it's not easy to manage that perception, especially in fighting games, where the cost in time and focus of getting good with a secondary character for a counterpick is so high.
Infiltration vs. AVM|GamerBee (Losers Finals)
The Matchup: Chun-Li/Juri vs. Elena/Adon
Another great counterpick match, this time combined with some of the smartest and most hilarious play I've ever seen in competitive fighting games. Infiltration starts by picking Chun-Li into GamerBee's Elena. This was generally considered a bad matchup for Elena, as most of the stuff Elena wins with (slide, crouching light punch, and EX Mallet Smash) loses to Chun-Li's fireball pressure, and Chun-Li's fireball recovers quickly enough that Elena has a hard time using her Brave Dance Ultra Combo to cover that option. In fact, it was Infiltration that sent GamerBee to the Losers Bracket earlier in the tournament with this very matchup.
It was considered a bad matchup for Elena until everyone saw this set, which took about twice as long as the other sets -- all thanks to Elena's other Ultra, "Healing". As expected, Infiltration brought heavy fireball pressure, but GamerBee took advantage of the Focus Attack system to absorb those fireballs as temporary damage, which had the side perk of charging his Ultra Combo meter so he could heal a chunk of his damage right back. Infiltration ends up successfully counterpicking Elena with Juri, who plays the matchup similarly to Chun-Li but wins thanks to her higher damage output from Feng Shui Engine, but as with his match against Momochi, that leaves GamerBee free to counter-counterpick with Adon, who ekes out the most stressful win in Evo 2015 thus far.
The Moments: HEALING
The nightmare begins not 20 seconds into the first round (2:40), as GamerBee soaks up enough fireballs to perform his first Healing. He gets two more in that round alone. You see, Healing is part of this weird feedback loop with the Ultra Meter; as Elena takes damage, she builds Ultra Meter, which she can use to heal her health back, and when she loses that health, she builds Ultra Meter. It's not lossless (her opponents can punish her Healing for more damage than she recovers) but it sure is annoying.
The real danger comes in when you factor the endless Healing with GamerBee's relatively patient, low-risk Elena. GamerBee doesn't have to take big risks to gradually whittle at Infiltration's health, and Elena's constantly-regenerating health enables GamerBee to take advantage of an alternate win condition: Whoever has the most health when the timer expires wins the round.
This pushes Infiltration well outside of his comfort zone: Elena suddenly becomes Raid Boss Elena, and if he can't hit her hard, she'll end up gradually stalling out, but as long as the onus is on Infiltration to keep attacking, GamerBee can play a smart defensive game to wear him down. Even if Infiltration has a lead, he can't be assured he'll win; see the first round of the second match, where GamerBee actually comes from a significant life deficit (8:49) to land a few hits and then quickly activate Healing right before the timer expires to take the round. It's smart stuff.
After losing two and winning one, Infiltration agonizes over a counterpick before eventually picking Juri, who works out well thanks to higher-damage Healing punishes (21:18) and high-damaging Feng Shui Engine combos (22:59 and 24:14) to tie the set 2-2 -- but give GamerBee the chance to counterpick with Adon. Infiltration wins the first round by playing defensively and making GamerBee pay for his pressure (26:22); GamerBee ties it up by adapting to Infiltration's defensive movement patterns and landing a few clutch Rising Jaguars.
Finally, the last round comes down to a special technique called the "Timer Scam" (29:49): with three seconds left in the round, GamerBee performs his Ultra Combo even though it has no chance of hitting, because the timer continues to count down during the initial cutscene segment of the Ultra Combo. Infiltration tries to punish it but is unable to do enough damage to win before the timer expires.
The Takeaway: Playing to win can be hype in completely unexpected ways
Honestly, I'd be surprised if anyone at Capcom ever expected that one of the craziest sets of Street Fighter would be connected to Elena's Healing, the time-out win mechanic, and the fact that Ultra Combo cutscenes don't stop the timer, but there you have it. People who love your game will take advantage of every single thing they possibly can in order to win -- engine features, unorthodox stick modifications, whatever it is, they'll use it. Take it as a compliment. (Also, be very, very careful of potentially abusable quirks you might be inclined to dismiss as 'edge cases', lest that 'edge' be 'the top 1% of players in the world, playing for tens of thousands of dollars'.)
EG|Momochi vs. AVM|GamerBee (Grand Finals)
The Matchup: Ken/Evil Ryu vs. Adon
From a field of over 2200 competitors, we have only two left, and they're fighting for the championship title. As Momochi made it through the bracket thus far without dropping a set, GamerBee has to beat him in two first-to-three sets in order to win the title, while Momochi only needs to win one.
Momochi starts with Ken against GamerBee's Adon; the two will clash over mid-screen control with Ken's fireball and step kick against Adon's standing heavy kick and airborne arcing Jaguar Kick. More than anything, this matchup emphasizes the back-and-forth midrange dancing and poking game fighting game enthusiasts call "footsies".
The Moments: "No. Not like this."
There's no gimmick to this set; they're playing Real Honest Street Fighter. GamerBee's Adon is great at controlling space with the standing heavy kick (3:33), neatly evading Momochi's pressure strings (3:45) and beating predictable fireballs with EX Jaguar Kick (8:49). Momochi has the luxury of an extra win, which lets him play patiently and safely with step kicks and fireballs (even when at a disadvantage -- see 4:00) and buys him time to dissect GamerBee's playstyle. But GamerBee outplays Momochi solidly in the fifth match to take the set, meaning they have one more set to play for keeps -- and Momochi picks Evil Ryu (18:14).
Evil Ryu isn't quite as good as Ken when it comes to playing footsies, but he's able to convert each poke into more damage than Ken thanks to his higher combo potential. In practice, this means that GamerBee's Adon is more dominant in the footsies game, but Momochi only needs to make one or two openings per round to win, while Adon needs to open Momochi up 4-5 times on average. They trade matches back and forth, taking it to a final set to decide it all. No counterpicks, no Ultra swaps, just a culmination to an epic duel. Momochi wins the first round fairly handily, bullying GamerBee with fireballs and a key combo.
And then the unthinkable happens at the beginning of the second round (33:27).
[No one wants to win Evo by accidental pause forfeit.]
Evo tournament rules (which are generally standardized across all major tournaments) state that in the event of a pause, the player committing the pause must forfeit the round. (This is to prevent people from 'accidentally' pausing while their opponent is in the middle of performing a complex combo to interfere with their timing, and other similar shenanigans.) In this case, the pause was due to Momochi's arcade stick failing. Momochi replaced the stick, but was still forced to take the loss of the round, tying it up and taking it to the last round (38:41). (If you haven't watched the ending yet, I won't spoil it for you.)
The Takeaway: You know a game is good when the best players are having fun
Competing isn't easy. Even in video games. Getting good at a fighting game often means paring your gaming time down to just practice; driving all over the place looking for new competition whenever you have a spare moment; alienating friends who want to move onto something else; spending hours studying match footage; constantly worrying about your execution or your practice habits or am I getting enough practice against X matchup or maybe I should switch characters. Competitors replace the fun of casual discovery with the thrill and validation of winning. Personally, I've competed in grappling and boxing matches before, and competitive Street Fighter can be every bit as soul-crushing as actual fighting.
So you know you did really well when even the people who treat your game as a job still have fun playing it. And when you catch those shots from the videos of the players' faces, it's hard to look at them without seeing that despite the seriousness and the high stakes, they're still having fun.
Patrick Miller spends too much time thinking about fighting games. Follow him on Twitter @pattheflip.