Zhuojun “Xiaohai” Zeng has been rapidly climbing the rankings in every game he is currently playing. He has clearly been working hard this year, and it has shown with his play. Having been on a tear of firsts and seconds in The King of Fighters XIV and Street Fighter V, he looks to be virtually unstoppable.
Over the course of Canada Cup, I had a chance to sit down to some fine dim sum with Team Qanba Douyu’s Xiaohai, and get a rare glimpse into what he views as the greatest attributes a high-level player can possess.
Missing Person: You’ve been having a really good year. This is your best year on the circuit to date. What do you attribute your success to?
Xiaohai: I’ve been utilizing all of Cammy’s advantages and abilities very well. I also have spent some time surveying the best players, such as Daigo, Infiltration, Momochi, regarding their personas and how they project the kind of demeanor. There are times where they are not playing exceptionally well, but when lower level players play them, they are afraid of playing against them.
Missing Person: So you’re using a different attitude when playing than normal?
Xiaohai: It’s not really my demeanor or attitude that changes, but how I play against players that are affected by playing against top players. When lesser players play against us, they get into situations where they are afraid or feel trapped. At that point, you have to maximize your proper spacing, isolate the errors that people make, and capitalize on those. When they play top players, they feel pressure to be aggressive because they feel smothered by those players. When you get into that spot, you leave more room for error and unsafe moves that pros will capitalize on. What I’m trying to do is put people in those positions where they feel smothered and are under pressure to do something, and then jump on those opportunities that they give me.
Missing Person: You’re already showing yourself as amazing in Street Fighter V. King of Fighters XIV just released, and you’re also doing well there. How are you feeling about KOF this iteration?
Xiaohai: It’s just normal to me. I don’t think it’s a better game than The King of Fighters XIII, personally.
Missing Person: So if it were up to you, you would be playing XIII over XIV?
Xiaohai: I love The King of Fighters XIII. The newest iteration feels like you get hit, get put into a combo after that, and someone’s already dead. In XIII, it feels like there’s more room for mix-ups, resets, and combos, so you really have to read your opponents more in that game. Plus the game speed in XIII was faster than XIV, so there’s that that I like as well.
Missing Person: Two weeks ago, you went to SoCal regionals, and won both The King of Fighters XIV and Street Fighter V. I want to go back on both those grand finals sets, which provided a lot of fireworks. First, let’s talk about the one with Reynald in King of Fighters. He put you in losers bracket. What adjustments did you make leading up to grand finals that allowed you to completely shut down Reynald?
Xiaohai: I trained with a friend, who basically taught me how to counter Mian after losing to him on winner’s side. After that, I already knew how to beat the other characters. The main problem was Mian. The dive kick pressure was getting to me, but with practice, I realized that blocking the dive kick pressure didn’t affect as much as I initially thought. The reason for this was that my guard meter was building up faster than Reynald could drain it using dive kicks. He was banking on me getting scared by not knowing that. So once I realized that my guard meter was safe, I could block without being scared, and wait for him to do something unsafe to punish.
Missing Person: Did it affect you at all when Reynald made the switch to Chin as anchor?
Xiaohai: After the first round of that, I was able to download and dissect his Chin very quickly.
Missing Person: In Street Fighter V, Haitani managed to get a reset on you when you so easily beat him in Winners Finals. What caused that to happen?
Xiaohai: Because I was on the winner’s side of grand finals, I felt more relaxed and wasn’t taking it as seriously as I should have been. I didn’t feel as pressured or rushed to attack in the ways I was the first time we faced off. So in the first set, he was changing up the way he was coming in and attacking, and I conditioned him in the end. So after the reset, I had made Haitani remember how to approach, and I flipped a switch, and was countering everything that I had conditioned him to do. He thought what he was doing was safe and it wasn’t. He was always throwing out meaties, and I would just use my reversal.
Missing Person: You are currently ranked second in the world rankings. Does this change your mindset at all knowing that everyone is looking up the hill at you? [Editor’s note: at time of publication, Xiaohai has fallen to the #6 spot.]
Xiaohai: I’m more focused on this point on what I can do better, and the psychological games that go along with playing at a high level.
Missing Person: Who are you looking forward to playing at Canada Cup, and who are you wanting to avoid in the brackets?
Xiaohai: I’m up to play anyone at this point.
Missing Person: Not even worried about Infiltration, who sits above you on the leaderboard? [And is still #1! – Editor]
Xiaohai: For me, it’s just practice. I’m not afraid. A lot of people think that Infiltration is dropping in the ranks, and I agree that he is. They know how to play against him at this juncture. The thing is, at Evolution and most events, they’re sitting side-by-side, and he can see what other people are doing by watching their sticks. When I was watching him play in the team tournament at the head-to-head setup, Infiltration cannot rely on that sort of information because it isn’t there. When it’s like that, Infiltration simply struggles.
Missing Person: That’s true, because he also struggled at Street Fighter V Crash, but did well at Evolution. Does this format affect you at all? Do you find yourself looking at sticks, or do you treat matches like they’re always head-to-head?
Xiaohai: I’m at a bigger advantage with head-to-head, because I can stick out attacks that other people can’t anticipate because they cannot see my inputs. If I’m playing side-by-side, I can still do those moves, but because they can see my joystick and know what I’m doing, it gives them time to react.
Missing Person: So obviously you prefer head-to-head play.
Xiaohai: Definitely. On top of that, this is how I grew up playing in arcades in China, so I’m already used to it compared to other players that didn’t have that luxury. Also, the larger tournaments in China run the games head-to-head, so it is exactly what I’m used to.
Missing Person: How do you like your chances going into Capcom Cup this year?
Xiaohai: I’m feeling fifty-fifty at this point.
Missing Person: I personally have you pretty even on the odds going into this.
Xiaohai: Yes, someone had shown me your article before. It’s very long, and my English is not good enough to understand everything, but I saw that you were optimistic.
Missing Person: You got your start in The King of Fighters ’98, and won Super Battle Opera for the game in 2007. What was the feeling knowing that you were one of, if not the first foreigner to win an event there?
Xiaohai: It was nerve-wracking, and it made it hard for me to do my best. In most events, it’s double elimination with multiple game sets. That gives me time to adjust my play. But with it being one game for single elimination, I had to win against players I haven’t played before or go home. So with that pressure, it was very difficult to compete at my best, so it was nerve-wracking trying to take home the title.
Missing Person: How do you feel about the new Chinese players coming up in the scene? You have Abao, Weili, and Jiewa showing up and doing well. Do you think China is the future of fighting games?
Xiaohai: If they are able to go to more events, and play as many players as they can, it’ll be better for them competitively. Even for me, even though I went back to China right after SCR, I haven’t practiced since SCR. Even though I don’t get a chance to practice often, I cherish and utilize the time that I do get to practice wisely.
Missing Person: Do you think playing the top players keeps you fresh, knowing that you always have to be able to play on the highest level?
Xiaohai: It’s not necessarily keeping up my skills, because that stays sharp no matter what after you learn it. It’s more keeping up the mentality that it takes to out-think my opponents. One of the most important things I’ve learned about Street Fighter V, is that it’s not so much how much aggression you can put on your opponent, but also being defensive-minded and knowing when to block and when to counter. Not only that, but trying to get maximum damage whenever you can. I cannot stress enough that most players feel the need to attack because they feel like if they don’t attack, they will get hit. But ultimately, that mentality leads to most players’ downfall.
Missing Person: Do you feel like that mentality stems from trying to prove themselves against top players by playing totally aggressive?
Xiaohai: Not at all, I merely think that they feel like if they don’t attack, they will get hit, and that leads to them being aggressive in stupid situations. It’s like Sunzi says in The Art of War. He doesn’t retreat and then the opponent attacks. He attacks, and puts the opponent in the corner to where they feel like they have to attack. Then he takes advantage of their desperation.
Special thanks to Hulk-Jen for Cantonese-to-English interpretation for this interview.