If there was ever any time that I felt absolutely wrong in my two years of writing these analysis articles, my thoughts on Naoto Sako would be that instance. While I was correct in my belief that he wouldn’t win Capcom Cup last year, my reasoning was way off kilter. Having said that his age was beginning to play a factor, and even mentioning him as just happy to make the cut for the event — I was completely silenced this year by his play.
Now, with his amazing #5 seed at Capcom Cup, I’m forced to highly re-evaluate my views on the execution god himself. Will the elder statesman of Capcom Cup be the victor this year?
Age Is Just a Number
Last year I viewed his lack of major wins as a sign that age was catching up to him. I was dead wrong. While I may not have been far off in that he was not as focused last year as this year, he has proven unequivocally that his age has not become a detriment to his play.
This year saw him play to a tournament victory in Taiwan at TWFighter Major. He not only did this at the age of 39 years old — which many in esports, and even the FGC, have claimed to be too far past your prime to compete — but he did so without dropping a single game. Forget dropping sets and going into Losers Bracket, Sako hunted for goose eggs in every single set and got them…
Few people can accomplish this feat in their 20s, let alone approaching their 40s. Sako proved that when he is truly focused on his craft, he’s every bit as dangerous as these young upstarts who have begun to sweep through tournaments taking prize after prize. He has single-handedly shown that much like in traditional sports — where the best quarterbacks in football, or the best skaters in hockey can play nearing the 40s and still contribute to wins — age doesn’t matter as much as your talent and drive.
The Past is the Future
And the truth is, while much has been said of Street Fighter V’s lowered execution barrier, Sako has found a character that requires the highest amount of execution and has begun to do what he does best. While we can say that the lowered executional requirements in the game has given us a dearth of Sako-trademarked combos that are highly impractical for most people outside of himself to do, he has still managed to show his execution prowess in his play whenever possible.
Not only that, but his situational awareness of which combos are most optimal in any given circumstance is unparalleled. It’s magical just watching his mind work on any hit confirm to find the most optimized route that will lead to the most damage he can dole out. And given his great spacial awareness, using a character such as Menat with great range on any normal she throws just seems to work hand-in-hand with his play style.
So while yes, odds are we’ll never see Sako unleash an insane combo nobody has seen (or that nobody else can do) he has made up for it in his precision of converting combos.
For anyone thinking that TWFighter was a fluke, few scoffers could be left at this point. Following up in a very short time with a top 8 finish at Esports Festival Hong Kong should’ve quelled any doubters. But if there were still detractors to the man’s abilities, he shut them up at SoCal Regionals, dispatching of everyone in his way, including a Xiaohai who was hot off of a top 8 appearance at DreamHack Montréal.
We would be remiss to mention a runner-up at Thaiger Uppercut, an online ranking win, and four more top 8s beyond this to add to the reasons why anyone not worried about Sako right now is a fool.
I feel like right now, Sako’s biggest weakness is akin to Tokido’s: less popular characters in Asia tend to give him trouble. At Canada Cup, Sako fell to Canadian Sin and his M. Bison. Earlier than that, he lost his very first game at Tokyo Game Show to ROF’s Birdie, another player and character that Tokido nearly fell to at SEAM.
This seems to be a dramatic parallel between top Japanese players in that they have the tendency to sleep on the lesser known — only to be awoken too late, or just barely in time to save themselves.
But whereas Tokido will have to be prepared for that in the very first round, Sako may have a few rounds before a potential showdown against the reigning champion MenaRD and his Birdie, provided both remain in Winners Bracket for that long. So while he has more traditional opponents to worry about immediately, it could eventually come down to him stepping out of his comfort zone to face what he struggles with.
This could truly be Sako’s year. He could have the bracket fall perfectly, and he is peaking in Street Fighter V at just the right time to make it happen. Any critics — myself included — have eaten their words. He’s not washed up, and he will make people sweat if need be.
The problem could be if he gets thrown into Losers Bracket and has to sweat, or if the Winners Bracket doesn’t fall his way on the other matches surrounding him. Any upsets could destabilize his odds. But all told, this could be the year that the old guard sends the new kids to school.
- Capcom Cup 2018 Analysis: Will Tokido finally hoist the cup?
- Capcom Cup 2018 Analysis: Will MenaRD claim the throne once again?
- Capcom Cup 2018 Analysis: Is the third time the charm for Problem X?