Just one week off from the insanity that was Final Round, we found ourselves at yet another Capcom Pro Tour final this past weekend. This time around, the stage was set on the complete opposite end of the country at NorCal Regionals in Sacramento, California. After an entertaining main tournament, we were left with some familiar (and, in some cases, unexpected) faces in the top eight lineup.
The first set got things started in a major way with Mad Catz’ Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi, fresh off a second place finish at Final Round, matching up against Northern California native Julio Fuentes. Tokido needs little introduction to viewers; he more or less invented Akuma in Street Fighter IV and was a regular sight in tournament finals. With no demon to play in Street Fighter IV, Tokido has defaulted to Ryu, who many regard as one of the title’s stronger characters. Julio, on the other hand, was a bit more obscure until recent performances. While he had some success in using Yun in the previous installment, he’s found himself in a more threatening position after a finishing second at Winter Brawl X.
Both players’ game plans were made immediately clear. Julio never bothered to hide the fact that he’s willing to hold forward on the joystick until he is directly a threat, and he continually used this aggressive spacing to get a lead in the first round. By capturing the pace, Julio was able to go all out, but Tokido responded by reacting in very specific ways. If you pay attention to replays, you’ll notice his Ryu make some minute spacing adjustments without using many buttons. It’s worth noting how reserved Tokido was, calmly gathering the information Julio gave him while minimizing risk. Once he was equipped with a full super bar, Tokido then decided to take a couple risks, paying off in a massive combo that secured the round.
At this point, Tokido had an advantage with little compromise and a solid grasp of Julio’s gameplan. At the start of round two, Ryu immediately went into solar plexus to catch a run forward, a call out that earned Tokido a huge reward and, eventually, the first game. In game two, Julio again opened aggressively. While he would find a hit, Tokido mashed out of pressure with low forward, blocking the follow-up roundhouse and immediately punishing for an added advantage.
Julio continued to earn hits and opportunities, but adjustments to his overall gameplan just weren’t there. He was punished for throwing out roundhouse on multiple occasions, and his attempts to throw bait with the shimmy maneuver were similarly countered. Over the course of their set, you may have noticed Tokido using a combination of crouching medium punch, jump back, and reversal throw. The first two were more than likely a result option selects (jump back light kick on defense is a tell-tale sign), and these defensive techniques require more specific answers than what Julio was providing. After being completely shut down with few mid-match changes to his strategy, Julio fell to Tokido without managing to take a single game.
In the next game of the winners bracket, Razer’s Seon-woo “Infiltration” Lee sat down to square off against Liquid’s Du “Nuckledu” Dang. These players have a long history in the Street Fighter IV series, with both able to boast strong records of success in those games. Seeing Infiltration here came as no surprise after his dominating win at Final Round, and many pegged him to win NorCal Regionals as well. Nuckledu’s appearance wasn’t a shock either thanks to frequent strong placings throughout previous Capcom Pro Tour seasons. Still, anybody playing against Infiltration at this stage is in for an uphill battle.
The first game of this Nash mirror started off with an explosion of movement before quickly turning into an absolute slugfest. This is a style of play Nuckledu is familiar with, but Infiltration didn’t hesitate to stack damage when his opponent overextended throughout the first game. Overall, it was hard to pin down where exactly these players wanted to be. This quick pace continued into game two, though a bit of restraint and patience on Nuckledu’s part earned him a first round victory. And despite eating a super early in round two, he continued to play a much more solid game. This competent play led to a huge opening where Nuckledu expended all his resources in an attempt to kill, but Infiltration survived, managed to squeeze out the round, and exploded in the tiebreaker to counter Nuckledu’s slower approach.
Recovering from a loss like that can be difficult. Nuckledu stopped for a moment to collect himself, then launched right back in without showing any signs of weakness. Again, the neutral tug-of-war swung back and forth. A strong sequence would give Nuckledu the upper hand early on, and he continued to maintain the overall pace of the match, an incredible feat in the face of Infiltration’s movement. A round-winning opening appeared and the crowd went wild, but the mental cracks began to show as Nuckledu dropped the combo with an unsafe special move. Infiltration easily punished, taking advantage of further mistakes to move on in the bracket.
The night then moved down to the losers bracket. Marn, against all odds, had found his way out of the death pool, and then into top eight, earlier that evening. His next opponent was an old teammate: Evil Geniuses’ Ricki Ortiz. Her appearance in the finals bracket was expected thanks to her long history with the Street Fighter series and the many tournament accolades she’s earned along the way. It’s a real treat to see her going back Chun-Li, the character that helped put her on the map during the days of Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, but the R. Mika powerhouse seated beside her was still a huge question mark.
The style in which Ricki approaches most matchups–controlling neutral and keeping the opponent from gaining momentum–seemed like the way to go against Mika. Despite early openings, Ricki was able to mash out successfully. She clearly had no desire to see Mika start rolling, and did whatever she could to stop it by staying in control. In round two, Ricki’s strategy looked solid, but a few critical missteps allowed Mika to get a win. Marn followed that victory with a dominating sequence in the third round, built off huge risks in the footsie game. Although Mika doesn’t have the strongest footsie tools, Marn was happy to throw out unsafe special moves in search of hits. But just as fast as Marn gained momentum, Ricki would swing that energy in her direction with a massive punish.
Heading into the second game, it looked as if Ricki had the answers to deal with Marn’s wakeup, but then R. Mika happened. Marn’s approach–looking for single hits into death–paid off as he pushed Ricki to the corner with another explosive opening. Still, Ricki looked in control; she was getting more openings, she played well, and took rounds. The damage, however, wasn’t there. Despite notching up another round, a single failed punish put Marn back into the game.
Ricki continued to look in complete control, but slipped up, again falling into the Mika blender and allowing Marn to mount another comeback. She continued to jab defensively with some success, but at that point it looked like Marn simply didn’t care. The damage from the light punches didn’t matter when he could continue forcing Ricki into oppressive situations. Game three opened with Marn finding multiple counterhits against Ricki and launching into a devastating series of mixups. Ricki looked rattled; she couldn’t find large enough openings while Marn was destroying her with every stray hit. She ultimately ended up back in the vortex, failing to stop Marn from continuing his tear into the bracket with another unexpected win.
If Nuckledu looked shook fighting Infiltration, he didn’t immediately show it when he sat down to fight Marn. As is the story with many of Marn’s matches, Mika was shutdown almost entirely in game one, leading to a decisive early lead for Nuckledu, only for Marn to open up the next game with a perfect. As he secured the game on a hard read, the camera panned to show Marn laughing like a cartoon super villain, which is never a good sign for his opponents. Marn entered the next round with no regards to personal safety, using Mika’s armored specials to fish hits. Nuckledu’s life bar melted under the pressure, and Marn ended the game playing with his food.
In Street Fighter, most players will give you a list of don’ts. You don’t jump at players recklessly. You don’t want to whiff buttons directly in the face of your opponent. You don’t throw out unsafe specials in neutral. Marn took that list and threw it in the trash. And why wouldn’t he? Nuckledu was reacting poorly to every mixup situation, giving Marn huge rewards for landing them. By throwing in reckless “don’ts” after showing situations that could be more easily answered, Marn created a minefield. Going from Infiltration’s meticulous play to Marn’s mindgames made for a nightmare bracket that Nuckledu was unfortunately forced to live out. The cracks deepened and, in a sign of complete defeat, he threw out a random super. While it went unpunished, it was all we needed to understand the young player’s headspace. Marn continued in the bracket, and Nuckledu went home.
Elsewhere in losers bracket, Evil Geniuses’ Justin Wong was squaring off Majestic’s Tatsuya Haitani. Justin needs no further introduction, but Haitani was an interesting name to see in contention. He’s been around the Japanese scene for as long as anybody can remember, having earned his god title during the glory days of Vampire Savior. Street Fighter IV was not as kind to him, but Street Fighter V might be right up his alley. Haitani’s early results show that he’s one of the strongest Japanese players at the moment, and he recently placed fourth at Final Round. That weekend, these two players faced off during top 16 with Haitani coming out the victor, and Justin now had his shot at the runback. While naysayers want to paint him as washed up after falling off during the tail end of the Street Fighter IV era, this match gave him an opportunity to prove he has what it takes to be a dominant force again.
With Justin’s Karin pairing up against Haitani’s Necalli, many likely would have pegged this matchup as a highly offensive affair with the high damage available to both characters. Interestingly enough, Justin didn’t seem to want to go that route, opting instead to get all of his damage out of poking. He chose ranges and walked in such a way that made it difficult for Necalli to use his normal closers, and it worked. Necalli couldn’t find enough openings to keep momentum going. In game two, Justin fished for something riskier and ate a perfect for his trouble, Haitani proving Necalli was still a threat. Justin defaulted back to the methodical approach, establishing that he didn’t need to over commit to remain aggressive. Justin’s manipulation of space here was top notch, using neutral jumps and varied button presses to mitigate Haitani’s guessing and punish ability.
Unfortunately, all it took for Haitaini to demolish Justin’s hard work was a single Necalli super, but the American competitor didn’t seem phased going into the next game, returning to his spacing plan and implementing it to near perfection. Justin’s defense here really needs to be commended. Despite finding himself on the wrong side of Necalli, he used a wide range of defensive options to bail himself out. The sign of a strong player will always be how much they can balance their various options as needed, and Justin did just that as he secured a lead in game count. In game four, Justin sought to put himself in a match point situation again before tragedy struck. The timer was ticking as both players found themselves close in health. Justin had a slight lead with 10 seconds left and attempted to timer scam, only to backdash into Necalli’s V-Skill at the last second to lose. Any player would have struggled to maintain after a loss like that, and Haitani took advantage of a slight fold in Justin’s gameplay to earn another game.
Even after this heartbreaking loss, Justin kept his eyes on his original gameplan. Slight adjustments on offense forced Haitani into different positions, which ultimately paid off in victory. Apart from staying alive in the bracket, this win also had important implications on the entire Capcom Pro Tour, as it was the first time an American had defeated a foreign player in top eight. Overcoming the strongest Asian players has looked impossible in the later stages of recent events; nevertheless, Justin pulled it off. He moved on to face a fellow American, Julio, in order to advance. Julio showed some flashy Ken combos and demonstrated monstrous damage, but fell into a pattern similar to the one during his match against Tokido. Justin had the defense and the spacing to not have to engage in those critical guesses too often, resulting in another win.
Now, Justin had to face the demon of the bracket, and he knew this demon well. Marn and Justin go back a long ways, with intertwining careers that have seen both as part of the same organizations and teams on more than one occasion. They shared a very friendly exchange before getting into the match. Marn immediately tried his Mika tactics, only to run into a brick wall. Justin’s play spoke of how long and how often he had put up with these shenanigans in the past.
Simply put, Marn got bodied so hard that, if you went for a bathroom break between matches, you probably missed it. But to be fair, if Marn was going to get blown up anywhere in the bracket, it would have been here. Forgetting their familiarity from years and years of competition, Justin’s play is built from the ground up to beat players like Marn, mitigating their randomness with the sheer solidity of his strategy. One merciless beating later, and Marn is eliminated. We can postpone the end of the world…for now.
After a lengthy visit to the losers bracket, the time had come for the winners finals match. Tokido versus Infiltration was an often predicted runback from last weekend’s Final Round event as both players are absolute powerhouses who have looked unstoppable in the early days of Street Fighter V competition. That being said, Infiltration won the previous weekend without dropping a single set. Either Tokido would beat him here or Infiltration would become the undisputed king of the young game.
What ended up being immediately apparent was Tokido had changed his approach to a slower, reactive game focused on footsies. Infiltration took some early hits to give Tokido a slight lead, but the following barrage of Bazooka Knees showed that Infiltration already had a backup plan that wasn’t on display at Final Round. And remember all those defensive options Tokido had up his belt in previous matches? A lot of them were being thrown out with delayed timing, which, despite their strength, leads to a critical weakness against slower, higher reward moves. In an effort to sniff them out, Infiltration stuck to throwing out delayed crouching fierces as throw bait, and was ultimately rewarded with a massive counterhit into huge damage. More important than the damage, Infiltration might as well have looked at Tokido and said, “I know what you are doing and you will stop doing it.”
Tokido’s gameplan had to be reworked. The defensive options he relied on earlier, option selects or not, had to change. In the neutral game, he couldn’t find solid spacing to commit to a gameplan as Infiltration adjusted it constantly. Late in a round, Infiltration again had success with a delayed button press as his throw bait. The next time Tokido found himself in a throw or strike guess, he attempted reversal grab, prompting Infiltration to walk back and check what the options were coming out, rewarding him with more damage and information.
This entire time, Tokido’s Ryu looked like he was doing a lot of things right; he landed good combos and had his fair share of successful moments. The thing is, whenever Infiltration was at an advantage, he was able to throw something new at Tokido and win the round. It was far from impossible as Tokido managed to squeeze out a game by simply not being put in those bad situations, and game four came down to the final round before Infiltration found what he was looking for the entire set. Nash was in position to throw, took a step back, and then connected with a stand fierce confirm into super. Infiltration’s conditioning of Tokido up to this point was an unbelievable blow that cemented the fact that he is simply too far ahead of the competition right now. As if to point out what he just did, he proceeded to throw Tokido three times in a row to win the set.
Through a combination of using every neutral tool possible to keep players off their footing and an understanding of how players want to react on defense, Infiltration sat in grand finals. Tokido now had to face Justin Wong in losers finals for his chance at redemption. Justin’s plan to play a more poke heavy and aggravating game with Karin got him this far, so there was no reason to doubt he wouldn’t stick to it.
There was one factor at play here worth noting right off the bat. All of the top eight matches were on a big stage for everybody to watch, including the competitors. Both Justin and Tokido had a lot of footage to pick over that day, but somebody was always going to get better information out of this. Infiltration’s method of picking apart Tokido was something Justin had to have noticed, as he carried those techniques into his own matchup. In the first game, he baited Tokido to check for mashing in a similar way to Infiltration. Game one went to Justin off a walk back throw bait, well into the round after offense had been established. A lot of Justin’s damage also came from the harassment based poke game he used against Haitani. Tokido stuck to his stronger Ryu tactics against Justin without seeing the consistent reward needed to win.
Tokido started to adjust in game two, using light buttons to keep checking Justin’s pokes. When Justin started walking for throw baits, Tokido simply blocked for extended periods of time, but it still wasn’t enough to deal with Justin’s impeccable footsies. Poke damage continued to add up, and Tokido was forced to put himself into bad situations. In the meantime, Justin used V-Skill often in order to have V-Trigger ready, and although his V-Trigger use was rather subdued, he received the information that Tokido wanted to act between the first and second rekka. To close out game two, Justin went into the neutral punch follow-up for the small gap, leading to a game-ending hit and a 2-0 lead.
With copious amounts of information at his disposal, Justin went in hard to start the third game and quickly took the first round. But Tokido wasn’t giving up, and continued to make small adjustments and look for ways out. Both players ended up just a hit away from death, and Justin found a way in, landing a delayed button against Tokido’s mashing in a confident call out. This turned into a combo that should have secured the win, but Justin dropped it. Tokido lived and woke up to kill Justin with an uppercut into super. In one heartbreaking moment, Justin went from being in grand finals to crashing into his own nerves. The next round, Justin landed another huge combo into super to further his lead, but the super whiffed and Tokido fell out of the combo, responding with a full punish. Justin ended up losing an entire game to these huge drops, opening the door for a massive Tokido comeback. Even though he played incredibly smart with a huge lead, Justin managed to fall short of playing against Infiltration.
The question heading into grand finals was whether or not Tokido could figure out a way to break through the multitude of techniques Infiltration had waiting for him.
The answer to that question wound up being an emphatic, “Nope.” After the rollercoaster that was losers finals, Infiltration unceremoniously cut Tokido down with a decisive 3-0 victory in matches that looked similar to winners finals. The level of play was high and the matches were good, but there was no standing up to Infiltration. The strategies he prepared and the options he had loaded before even showing up to a match were so far ahead of everybody else it was unreal. He wasn’t even overusing a lot of the advanced techniques players were worried about, instead opting to show up with a huge book of answers. Whatever method he has come up with to piece together these strategies is going to be questioned and sought after even after somebody manages to defeat him.
With first-place finishes at the first two Capcom Pro Tour premier events, Infiltration walks away looking like an unstoppable monster. With only one player qualifying so far, competition to dethrone the current champion is going to be fierce, especially with a huge number of ranking points still up for grabs. The competition at qualifiers this year is already incredibly fierce, and we can’t wait to see what happens at the next one.