Burn to fight: On-site at The King of Fighters XIV World Championships

By on March 24, 2017 at 1:00 pm
KOFXIV World Championships

The World Cup is a truly international event.
– John Motson

Call me a stereotypical American, but I am not a soccer fan. The running, the rules, the construction paper penalty cards? No thanks. The Capri suns and orange slices during halftime? Well, if that’s the case, Wild Cherry please.

The World Cup, however, is a different matter altogether. More than a tournament, the World Cup is a sports experience. Few events can gather the world’s best in one place, and match the drama, passion, and kaleidoscope of emotions of the Soccer World Cup. All those people, robed in uniforms adorned with flags from the nations of the world, all unified through the ball. It perfectly captures the essence of sport. If you can watch the 1990 Cameroon vs. Argentina match without shouting or standing up, there’s a good chance you belong in a morgue.

I have always thought of the King of Fighters scene as the soccer of fighting games. There is a special sense of international rivalry and competition. Perhaps one reason for this is that we have heard Dark Geese’s sermons, read forum posts, watched match tournament videos, and listened to stories about how there were so many strong communities in various regions around the world. For years, the scene has been brewing in areas like Asia, South America, Mexico, Europe and the Middle East. Various entries of KOF were featured titles at events like the SBO Tougeki and the “Nichigetsuseishin” Total Eclipse of SNK tournament series (famous tournaments in Japan), but KOF would have to wait until 2012 for a chance at the big time in the West, when The King of Fighters XIII was finally nominated as an Evolution title. Through KOFXIII at Evolution 2012, the world would be given a chance to see what this franchise could bring to that kind of stage. What ensued in the following three years was pure magic. KOF players from all over the world brought guts, intensity, and drama to the stage, taking the audience for a ride every single time. The faces, the battles, and the international competitive spirit of the KOF community finally got its time in the Western spotlight, and scorched the memories of those top 8 Sundays into the retinas of all who beheld them.

So it makes sense that when SNK announced The King of Fighters XIV World Championships, the scene responded with curiosity and excitement. Aside from SoCal Regionals 2016, when we saw Qanba Douyu|Xiaohai face off against ArcadeShock|Reynald, KOFXIV hasn’t had many events that brought together world-class competition. For many fans and players of KOF, this World Championship was one of the first opportunities for KOFXIV to shine since its console release.

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I wanted to see a KOF “World Cup.” I wanted to see the world’s finest, from countries all over the world, clash on stage in the newest version of their game. So, on February 18, 2017, I went to the KOFXIV World Championship Grand Final.

-The Venue-

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This event was held in UDX Theater, a complex near Akihabara Station that houses several smaller auditoriums inside. The KOFXIV World Championship was held in the kind of auditorium you might see a play or stage performance in. This venue is also where Evo Japan will take place!

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Upon entering the theater, SNK staff were there to greet and check-in attendees.

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I entered just in time to see the opening ceremony begin. I took my seat, and watched as the emcees introduced themselves. The hosts for the show were Maxwell Powers and Ryu Seira, voices for the in-game announcer and Meitenkun, respectively. After some opening remarks, they introduced the Japanese commentary team, Koichi and Kindevu. From there, we heard some opening remarks from producer Yasuyuki Oda, and then the participating players were introduced.

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While the promise of the event was to fill a 16-player bracket with the top competitors, only 15 stood on stage after the introductions were complete. Unfortunately, USA representative and Evolution 2013 champion, ArcadeShock|Reynald was unable to attend (leaving Mexico’s Cipher as the sole North American representative for the event). Nevertheless, all the players settled into their seats and awaited the call to the station to kick off the KOFXIV World Championships.

-The Matches-

Obviously, a major draw to an event like this (in theory) was being able to see the top talent from different regions compete in KOFXIV in a way we have not really seen yet for this iteration of the series. In the early rounds of the tournament, we were treated to some high impact moments.

In the first-round match-ups, we saw Evolution 2012 champion from Korea, MadKoF, face off against one of the strongest competitors from China, Panda|Dakou. The final exchange saw MadKof calling checkmate on Dakou’s desperate attempt to eliminate his Verse.

In the second round, Ball HK, one of Hong Kong’s strongest players, challenged Huomao|Gxbridget from Taiwan. Here, Gxbridget shows a sample of the oppressive pressure and patience he would display later in the tournament.

Although the early rounds offered some interesting match-ups, the most fascinating matches took place in the finals. The winners finals set was between SBO Tougeki 2007 (KOF ’98) Champion Qanba Douyu|Xiaohai and the hope of Japan, Sanwa|M’. This set was highly anticipated because M’–who was recently sponsored by arcade parts manufacturer Sanwa–hasn’t had many opportunities to face off against international threats in KOFXIV. Although M’ only has a second-place finish at SBO Tougeki 2010 (KOF 2002 UM) under his belt, he is still considered one of the strongest KOF players in Japan (particularly in 2002 and KOFXIII) due to numerous championships and titles won across several KOF titles. For the Japanese audience, this was a chance for them to see their best pro player go up against an international juggernaut.

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Until this point in the bracket, Xiaohai had only been tested by Gxbridget in his winner’s semi-final match, which he won 2-1. M’ on the other hand, had started to sharpen up in his semi-final match against Huomao|ET from Taiwan, but still had yet to show his anchor character against any opponent. In the first game of this winner’s final set, Xiaohai showed awesome patience and movement with Leona, which ultimately set him up to take the first game. However, for the next game, M’ parted with his trademark point Kula and went to point Robert. This choice didn’t immediately pay off, but M’ sealed the second game with some patient play and strong K’ pressure. The final game saw M’ exercise some great control mid-screen, through his Robert play. In a rare scene, we could see M’ test Xiaohai’s patience, and ultimately M’ came out victorious, closing it out with K’. This set was very intense, and was the kind of top-level play we expected to see from this event.

With this, M’ punched his ticket for the grand finals. For Xiaohai, his opponent in losers finals would be Gxbridget. After losing to Xiaohai in winners semi-finals, Gxbridget beat legendary Japanese player Picnic, and fellow countryman ET to advance to losers finals. Thus, Xiaohai faced off against Gxbridget in a double jeopardy showdown for the right to challenge M’ for the first KOF World Championship title. This player match-up is interesting, because Gxbridget has beaten Xiaohai in tournament before, in the Douyu U League. Although he lost to Xiaohai in winners, Gxbridget’s incredible Leona play sealed Xiaohai’s fate. While many were looking for Xiaohai to rally in the last round anticipating a rematch with M’, Gxbridget played spoiler and advanced to the grand finals.

This led to the grand finals set between Gxbridget and M’. In this Taiwan vs. Japan match-up, the first game went down to the anchors for each player. M’ would seal the first game with his Iori to hit tournament point. In the second game, M’ showed off some strong ground control, movement, and pressure with his K’, opening up Gxbridget with two overhead confirms in the final round to win the tournament, and claim the title of KOFXIV world champion.

These sets in the finals were great, and certainly appeased fans who were looking to see some high-level, international KOFXIV play. M’ ultimately extended his streak of KOFXIV tournament victories (ten consecutive tournament wins) and distinguished himself as the first champion of SNK’s official world KOF tournament series. After KOFXIV producer Oda congratulated the champion and runner-up, the SNK staff then treated the audience to sneak peeks of upcoming DLC offerings for KOFXIV.

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Final Results:

  1. Sanwa|M’
  2. Huomao|GxBridget
  3. Qanba Douyu| Xiaohai

For some more matches from the weekend, check out the KOF Dream Tag Tournament archive here!

-The Aftermath-

SNK has done an incredible job of communicating and working with the community in the past year. From addressing concerns about KOFXIV to patching issues with the game, they have been awesome by having open dialogue and giving the fans what they want. Where other developers have left fans behind, SNK picked them up.

Perhaps, their diligence on the developer side is what makes the shortcomings of this event so hard to understand. The truth is, this event failed to deliver the same level of “world championship” atmosphere that we feel with events like Capcom Cup, the Killer Instinct World Cup, or the Tekken King of Iron Fist Championships. SNK needs to realize that while they don’t need to compete with or outdo other events, they do need to organize, communicate, and present their event in a better fashion. It is very important for SNK to understand the community’s frustration with how this event was organized.

  • Communication: From the initial announcement, to the months of waiting for additional information, to the subsequent invitation announcement, to the inevitable “I am unable to attend” tweets, this event was poorly communicated. Even getting spectator tickets was a hassle. I think the entire community would greatly appreciate a stronger sense of clarity in terms of details from the start.
  • Qualification: While many players had to qualify for the Grand Final by winning offline or online tournaments, several players were simply invited. This was a -very- controversial topic amongst the KOF community. Many players felt politics or favoritism towards certain players factored into their selections. In the future, SNK staff should try to work more closely with international tournament organizers to arrange for more offline qualifiers.
  • Organization: This point must be addressed on two fronts. First, as an attendee, I was completely unable to see losers side matches up until the losers semi-finals matches. This isn’t so strange for live events in Japan, but the nuance is that for many events where this is the case, they usually run multiple titles and are tighter on time. Again, for an event billed as the KOF World Championship Grand Final, I expect to be able to see the entire tournament, especially for just a 16-player bracket. Secondly, it was great that they allowed for multiple language re-streams (eight different languages!), and worked with various broadcasters to do so. However, they streamed losers on a separate stream from backstage, but with no archive enabled. Thus, most of the footage is lost. I couldn’t even talk about those matches in the above section because even now, I haven’t seen them! Careful consideration to matters like this goes a long way as both an attendee and as a viewer from home.
  • Format: Though there are conflicting reports on when players were notified of this, the decision to run winners rounds 1 and 2 as FT1 for the world championship was to put it bluntly, highly questionable. This variety is unique, and can be a good draw to events here. However, the decision to run FT1 in the first 2 rounds of winners side bracket is simply baffling. Why not just run the entire tournament FT1? Why not losers side? Why not 2/3 double elimination the whole way through? This tournament had some of the best KOF talent in the world under one roof, and had promise for meaningful, rare matches. However, the format of the tournament did not allow for a lot of that talent and gameplay to even be displayed.

The good news: the last year has shown us that SNK listens to criticism, communicates with the community, and pays careful attention to feedback. If this event is only the starting point for their vision of competitive SNK title events, the fans can rest assured that the quality of events will improve.

Looking Ahead-

Despite the controversy surrounding this event, we did get some great sets featuring the strong international competition, as well as some intense exchanges in the early rounds of the tournament.

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This event brought together players from all over the world and gave them an opportunity to perform. Although the result fell far short of the “World Cup” type atmosphere we likely imagined, it did give us some awesome high-profile sets between the top dogs in Asia. Specifically, the sets between Xiaohai, Gxbridget, and M’ were the first sets of this caliber in KOFXIV since the most recent patch. Outside of the World Championships, the KOF scene in Japan held team tournaments and exhibitions held over the weekend in casual venues while the foreign players were still present. This gave players like Toshi, a very strong Peruvian player (one of the best players in South America) who hasn’t had very many opportunities to travel, a chance to challenge some of the finest competition from Asia and leave a very strong impression.

Overall, this event did a decent job of building excitement for KOFXIV and left us with some interesting questions going into the tournament season.

Will North American favorites like Reynald, Romance, and El Rosa be able to challenge the rest of the world for the first KOFXIV Evolution title? Can players from Mexico, like Cipher or Bala, make an impact on the big stage? Does M’ (who mentioned he would like to go to Evolution after his win) have what it takes to travel overseas and claim the title for Japan? Will Taiwanese players like Gxbridget and ET travel to represent Taiwan? Will players like Toshi get a chance to show the world the power of the South American community? Will Xiaohai claim his first Evolution title? Will we be able to see the challengers from Europe and the Middle East represent their scenes?

With these questions in mind, KOF fans are surely looking forward to the upcoming tournament season, and Evolution 2017.

A fighting game player from New Orleans, LA, now living in Japan. A sports fan and arcade gaming enthusiast, find him in Mikado on Saturday nights!