Dieminion’s experience in Japan during SBO 2012

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Our very own Kevin “Dieminion” Landon was privileged to represent the USA at Super Battle Opera 2012, featuring some of the world’s best players battling against each in Street Fighter 4: AE 2012. While the event itself wasn’t much to behold, Dieminion had a chance to sit down and grind it out in the infamous arcade scene and find some of the core differences between American and Japanese gameplay.

A little over a month ago I traveled to Japan to compete in Tougeki 2012. My personal experience with the tournament was not a good one and I’m sure you’ve heard the same from other international contestants. Imagine a constant 95 degree beaming sun with NO shade from 10am until dark. The arcade cabinets had issues due to the intense heat, visible slowing down similar to PS3 consoles and even completely freezing during sanctioned tourneymatches. Add that to the fact that there was no shade to cover the sun from blinding the screen, so playerscouldn’t see what was going on during their matches. I watched Mike Ross’ and Justin Wong’s matches from the side of the cabinet as they were playing in the last chance qualifier and if that were me playing instead of them…

Aside from the tournament, I had a really fun time in Japan. The scenery reminded me of a slight upgrade to New York. The streets and the transit system are kept clean and also fast and efficient too, but unlike New York the trains don’t operate 24 hours. So if you miss the last train home from playing in the arcade or drinking, you can look forward to a well lit, silent night out in the Tokyo streets. Another cool thing about being in Tokyo at the same time as Tougeki was that everyone was there together, whether is was your friends from back home or international familiar faces.

Now, let’s talk arcades! After a well rested night at @forgenjuro Matt’s house, I was super eager to check out the legendary arcade scene  of Japan but I had no idea how to get there since I wasn’t familiar with the transit system yet or read Japanese.@Fubarduck, who also stayed at Matt’s house took me to the arcade. We went to the main arcade that everyone plays at, Taito Station in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo. At first glance, the place was reminiscent to Chinatown Fair in New York, but 3 times bigger! So many players, a lot of head to head connected cabinets combined with a vibrant, luminous atmosphere and the smell of cigarette smoke.

Fubarduck gave me a spare SF4 card, which holds all your stats, win/loss ratio and rank. I sat down and played a Blanka player who I learned later on was Hegi, who I beat twice thanks to my knowledge and experience of the Blanka matchup, but it wasn’t easy. My BP went up and I had started with 2 wins and I’m feeling good, but that was just the beginning of the madness that is Japan.

I played all sorts of players from known ones such as Banbaban, who placed 2nd at Shadowloo Showdown this year, to local players like Bean, who plays an on point Sagat and an Evil Ryu that is quite feared and suprised me. So I’m taking my wins and losses, but I’m noticing something that I don’t see back home in the states. I’m wondering to myself, ”Why am I not witnessing Daigo-like play right now, but the complete opposite?” Everyone was playing like it doesn’t make sense. Just going for stuff, whiffed reversals flying everywhere, bunny hopping like it’s Easter. I was very confused because my perception of Japan from what I had heard in the past is that everyone plays like Daigo. Nothing could be further from the truth as I watched players literally mash out reversals and make uncalculated, risky decisions. The HEARTFUL, BOLD decisions of the players.

You think wake-up ultra came from America? It seemed that the way I was taught to play SF4 was null and void. I was particularly disturbed because in my mind I’m thinking, “I played nothing but Japanese players at EVO after my first pool, so how am I having such trouble with players that aren’t considered the top players of Japan?” All sorts of confusion and disturbia swirled my mind while observing the frustration on the Japanese players faces as they wreaked havoc on each other and played with absolutely no respect. It almost seemed like they were just playing randomly.

I had my fair share of wins and losses in the arcade and by the time I was done I had a 61% win ratio. Something I noticed about the Japanese players is that they have a great understanding on how to apply offense when they get the opportunity. I lost to Gens, Cammys, Seths, and Ibukis noticeably. I learned that Ibuki has an unblockable vortex on Guile because of  his twitchy wakeup glitch, so when I got swept or neckbreakered I may as well get up and leave. Those same side crossups not only work in the corner when you’re Gen, they even work midscreen as well! They have ALL perfected the Cammy vortex. I was pringles when I got knocked down. And Seth is well, Seth. I felt a sense of accomplishment when I was able to go back and forth with the number 1 Adon in Japan who had nearly 200k BP while I still had about 5K BP.

The most memorable aspect that hit me was when I observed the characters that can take half of your life in one combo and then put you in a guessing situation. Characters like Makoto or Evil Ryu and/or characters that can knock you down into an ambiguous crossup until you die such as Ibuki, Cammy, Seth and Viper. The people that played those erratic characters looked better off in the arcades than people that played more solid characters like Balrog, Honda or Guile. Those high damaging vortex characters naturally had higher win ratio and win/loss record than everyone else. In comparison, Latif had close to a 30 win streak against well known players at Taito Station, whereas I struggled to get 5 straight wins without getting randomed out. My highest win streak was 8 wins. It just seemed to be too difficult grinding a win streak with sonic boom after sonic boom before my opponent had already devised a way to get in and score that one knockdown that changed the game. The other few Japanese Guile players in the arcade couldn’t show me any tricks to  ’stay solid and win consistently’, because they were getting beat a lot worse than me.

The other thing that I expected and saw from the Japanese players, is that they have total mastery of their characters, something that American players lack greatly. They know all of their setups on knockdown, have sharp execution and immaculate reaction time. So they are actually great players, but why did it seem like they just play “balls out”? This is something that I thought about and broke down since I left Japan. It was like being taught something your whole life only to find out first hand that it was all a lie. I thought about the differences in our scenes and I ‘think’ I figured it out.

When you compare our scenes, Japan being the arcade casual scene and America being the console competitive scene, you can see differences in our styles of gameplay and why we play the way we do. Japan’s arcade scene doesn’t allow for long term thinking and figuring things out because you have to play with everything on the line. You’re spending money to play and if you lose, that’s it, similar to the past arcade culture of America. The only difference now is that they have learned the game to the point where only winning counts now. They have to put everything on the line and play with their HEART and less with their brain. A lot less thinking is involved in Japanese play it seems, it’s mostly bold moves one after the other which makes it look as if they are just going in or playing random. Maybe they feel like they have to play with no regrets. Constant courageous play make for a higher chance of ‘miracles’ to happen in matches, which is what we see often when we watch Japanese matches.

Just take a look at the EVO2011 match between Shiro (Makoto) and Xian (Yun) that was on the big screen for all to see. Whether it was just an amazing read or a bold move, Shiro dashed THREE times and then did ultra an in instant and he won the match. It seemed like another one of those miracles happened, but in Japanese arcades those ‘miracles’ are just another ordinary match. Also, Japan’s tourney scene in the past has mostly been ‘one game, single elimination’ format. This could be a reflection of how we see a transition from Japanese players playing at an American tourney. Since the decline of the arcade scene in America, we’ve had to depend solely on console. Console is our only option to play, learn, and practice. It is also what we use for any competitive environment such as tournaments.

Playing console allows you to play slow and figure out your opponent or just experiment with things simply because there is nothing to lose. We can play as many games as we want and try as many things as we like, it’s free. It’s only in tournaments when Americans play for something on the line. Our tournament format, which have almost always been ‘two out of 3 games, double elimination’ doesn’t allow for reckless play in most instances. It favors calculative, careful, solid and precise moves  to be able to win 2 games. While not as important in a one game, single elimination tournament, Adaptation is a MAJOR factor in a two out of three setting.  Also, being able to condition your opponent is something that can rarely be done in a one game setting. Not showing your hand and then saving a surprise clutch attack is yet another factor that favors a longer set. It is highly improbable that these factors can be done in just one game. Do these factors affect the transition of Japanese players from one game, single elimination to two out of three double elimination?

It’s important to realize that the Japanese players that traveled to America in the past have produced great results in tourneys. Players such as Daigo, Kindevu, Tokido and others have done very well in recent American events. All of the 9th placers in this year’s EVO including Haitani and Dogura were Japanese players, so there were potentially 5 Japanese finalists at EVO2012. And don’t forget that Fuudo came to America for his first time and became the EVO2011 champion.

When we look at the players who did very well in American tourneys, we also realize that these players are considered top players in Japan. I think that the top Japanese players such as Mago, Momochi, Sako and Uryo have a better sense of adjusting formats when they need to since these players are used to playing long sets against each other in events like Topanga League. They understand what is needed to be able to compete in a test of endurance and nutty, outlandish play will only get one but so far. This is the reason why the well known players are in the Topanga League and not just any player. They have established their mark as a top player among Japanese players. In fact, the players mentioned above are the players that didn’t play totally insane like everyone else in the arcades. They looked as stable as ever even though they were getting randomed out just as much as the others.

So in my opinion, I think that Japanese players are still on top by a landslide because they have the quantity of players that can compete with the quality of few high level players that America has to offer. The local Japanese scene that only plays in the arcades have almost maximum skill of the characters that they play and are really good players overall. As far as the mindset they choose to go about playing, I think I can understand why they choose to play what seems to be carefree, reckless and at most times random by American standards. Also, because the arcade is a one and done scenario, it’s almost impossible to get a read on these players, and you might not see a lot of solid players like Akimo and Hanamaruki at a foreign tourney such as EVO or Canada Cup because of their working life. I’ve said to others, “you do not fully understand what the whole meaning of Street Fighter is until you’ve played at a Japanese arcade before,” but I hope I’ve helped to shed some light, speaking from my experience playing in the Japanese arcade scene.