The world finals in Las Vegas have come and gone. I spent a lot of time at the event on monitoring the gameplay of the two games I designed: Street Fighter HD Remix and Yomi card game. Both of them are shaping up well, but there was also a Street Fighter tournament to worry about in the middle of it all.
I actually planned to win this year, and it felt within my reach. Winning would have allowed me to write a really great essay, too, explaining my view that more practice does not equal more ability. In fact, I don't really recall playing any matches of ST (Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo) the entire year between Evolution 2007 and 2008 except about 20 minutes before the 2008 event started. You might say that my practice playing SF HD Remix is a good substitute, which is somewhat true, but it's also "anti-practice" because it's a different game with different properties and different matchups. I had to remember not to be thrown off by that.
So if I had zero real practice, why would I think I was more able to win than ever? Because I had a trick up my sleeve. Not winning the whole thing makes for a pretty lame story, but that's what we're stuck with. The trick: perceiving that time has slowed down.
I have always relied on this ability. How is it that my low strongs in SF Alpha 2 seem to beat other people's low strongs? How is it that my dragon punches seemed to hit other dragon punches (doing them 1 or 2 frames later means you can hit theirs...).
I read Josh Waitzkin's book, The Art of Learning, this year. Josh is a US Chess champion (and subject of the film Searching for Bobby Fischer). Josh gave up competitive Chess and took up Tai Chi for relaxation. He then stumbled into Tai Chi Push Hands competitions and has won over a dozen titles in that sport, including world champion titles.
Josh explained that one of the skills needed in Tai Chi Push Hands is to see "more frames" than your opponent. To see time go by in greater detail than your opponent. He mentioned how in a Chess tournament once, there was an earthquake that sent everyone into a panic. This heightened state actually gave him MORE focus though, and helped him win his match. How could he achieve that state without an earthquake though? Later in his life, he broke his arm and the fight-or-flight response gave him an edge to win a Tai Chi match, when most people would have considered him out of the fight. The accident allowed him to see time flow more slowly than usual, and was the edge he needed. But how could he enter this state without breaking his arm?
I have noticed the same things Josh noticed. As a child, I was in a bicycle accident and as I flew forward over the handlebars of my bike, I could see every moment in sharp detail, in slow motion. I have been able to perceive slowed time in fighting game tournmanet matches before, on a smaller scale. This year though, my plan was to focus on achieving this state of mind as much as possible.
Another concept Josh mentions a lot is the ability of the mind to deeply focus, and mental strain it takes to do so. He recounds several tales where he carefully managed his focus, expending it at the right times and pushing himself to have more "focus reserves" than his opponents.
I have said for a long time that fighting games mostly involve double-blind decision making. That means that the moment you decide to jump, you often do not know if your opponent has already thrown a fireball or not. You only know if he threw a fireball a few frames earlier because you cannot instantly perceive the state of the opponent--it takes a moment for the perception to register. The idea I have focused on more lately is that not only is it a double-blind experience, but that the opponent can be more or less blind than you at various points in the match. If he is thrown off, moments of the match can rush by for him without him able to see the details. If you enter deep focus and can perceive time passing more slowly, then you are less blind than usual and can use those nuances to your advantage. But as Josh explains, the kind of deep mental focus required for this is draining. If you push yourself to the limit with it, you might have nothing left for a later match in the tournament. Use it, conversve it, and waste the focus reserves of your opponent, if possible.
The tournament started Saturday. I cared less than ever about which characters I'd play. I wish I could have played HD Remix's T.Hawk or Fei Long or Cammy or Akuma or something, but they aren't quite the same in ST, ha. Anyway, it's more about playing the opponent than the character matchup in this world of slow-time. I was even willing to trade in my usual sloppy style of play for an even sloppier one if it meant I could use my time-ability.
The early rounds of the tournament were a good warmup. I don't really know exactly why they help me, but they do. By the time I was to face Mike Watson (former US champion in ST), I felt ready. Mike will tell you that he simply had trouble dragon punching on console sticks (probably true) but in any case, I was able to use my time-power. During a few critical moments, time passed very slowly, and I was even able to notice a couple times when I simulated what might happen if I did X, decided that I didn't like the simulation's answer, then did something else and was successful.
I have never played Ryu as a counter to Honda in an ST tournament, but this year I did and won that match handily. Then there was ST pro NKI and his Chun Li. NKI is a challenging opponent because he now knows more nuances of ST than I do, so it's difficult to beat him with a knowledge-advantage, as I do for many other opponents. Vega seemed like the obvious choice against him, but Bison just felt right. Also, earlier that day NKI said he would prefer to fight my Bison than my Vega, which he meant as a kind of insult to my Bison. I told him maybe he'd get the chance and as luck would have it, he did get the chance. I chose Bison.
I was winning the first round when the evil-NKI paused the game and quit, because his button configuration was not right. I know he did not do this on purpose, but it felt dirty anyway and I wished him bad luck. The tournament director later told me that I should have been awarded a round win for this because pausing the game to change your buttons is expressly covered in the tournament rules and it is supposed to result in a round-loss. Final note on this: NKI is only evil in the contect of this one round, not generally. He is a nice and helpful guy.
I was able to use my power again vs NKI. It wasn't superior match knowlege, but slow-time that I used at a couple key points. Obvservers might not have noticed those key points because most of the match had me flopping around sloppily, looking for openings. The most interesting part of this match was the very long time (30 seconds???) where I did nothing. NKI was doing Chun Li's lightning legs a few pixels away from me and I have no move at that distance that can beat it. My only real choices are jump in, jump away, or do nothing. I did nothing and NKI kept doing lightning legs. It was an interesting "conversation" in that we each made it clear that we would keep doing our own thing. I chose to do nothing here because he is the one on edge in this situation, not me. Doing nothing is easy and it doesn't even require me to be afraid of a suddenly different move from him (there is ample time to react). Meanwhile he must keep pressing the buttons to do lightning legs (that part isn't that hard, but it's something) and more importantly, he must be on edge about whether I will jump in. If I do, he must stop doing lightning legs immedialy, then do up kicks. It's very draining to be on edge for so long, adrenaline pumping to help you react quickly if needed. When that moment is prolonged too long (say, for 30 seconds), it drains your focus reserves.
Anyway, one of us finally did something and the (fake) stalemate ended. He won that round, but I won the match. Next, I was to play Nuki, former Evolution ST champion. Nuki also plays Chun Li. I was completely ready. I was in the zone, activating slow time every match now, and Nuki was next. I saw that bracket had progressed to our match and I stepped up to play. The tournament director then informed me that my match against Nuki would be the next day, on stage as part of the top 8. Nooooo.
I'm supposed to be happy to make the top 8 and excited play on stage (yeah, both of those are true), but I was READY right that moment to face Nuki. 24 hours later might as well be 24 years. Whatever state of body chemistry I had would be gone, and who knows if I could get it back.
The next day, I did play Nuki on stage. I was not worried at all, and believed that I would beat him for sure. Playing in front of a huge audience does not rattle me, so that would not be a factor. I thought Vega was a more logical choice, but I felt Bison was a better choice for some reason I couldn't explain. Character choice wouldn't matter much anyway, it would be a battle of timing and who could see through the fog of double-blind. So I played Nuki...but...at normal speed. I don't know, I just couldn't get it going. No slow-time, no super power from me. Our rounds were close, but Nuki defeated me pretty handily. [Note to people who don't get it: I use "super power" as joke-phrase. I think everyone has access to this phenomenon.]
A few matches later, I was to play Tokido on stage. Tokido won last year's Evolution ST tournament, and it was quite a travesty that I did not defeat him last year. Last year I quickly took him to match point and just one more hit would have beaten him, but he came back to win the game and the set with repeated Vega wall-dives that I could not block. I should have beaten him then and I was sure as hell going to beat him now. His 1-dimensional style of play should be easy to defeat, and I had no doubt that I would beat him.
My plan, probably to everyone's surprise, was to play Blanka. This elicited the following reactions from various people in the crowd: 1) "but you don't even play Blanka," 2) "Blanka is bottom tier," and 3) "Blanka isn't even a counter match for Vega, what are you doing?" Well, I do play Blanka, just not many people know. And I do think Blanka is a counter-match. All I have to do is trade my roll with his pokes. Each trade does about 5x the damage to him than me. That means I can roll randomly and get hit back for it a few times, and still be ok. Throw in some bites and crossup shorts, and it should be easy. Oh and by the way, he can't go off the wall because my up-ball beats it 100%.
I traded my roll with his poke a total of zero times. He knew exactly what to do, never went off the wall, mostly sat there doing nothing, and occasionally poked. The game was close, but he won. When an opponent shows a little too much competence in a matchup, I usually like to switch characters. I asked the crowd if I should play Bison or Honda. They said Honda. Choi (legend of ST) was standing just off stage and he advised Honda as well. I said that I was feeling something with Bison. Choi shrugged as if to say "if you say so..." I should have beaten Tokido last year with Bison, so let's make it happen now.
Unfortunately, I had to play him at normal speed. No slow-time powers. Close rounds, but Tokido won handily. That means that the ability I bet everything on never showed up in the top 8 matches on Sunday, and I was only able to summon it on Saturday. Why is that? I don't really know.
Evolution 2008 ST Results
1st - John Choi (O.Sagat, Ryu, N.Ken)
2nd - Nuki (Chun Li)
3rd - Alex Valle (N.Ken)
4th - Tokido (Vega)
5th - Sirlin (Vega, Bison, Ryu, Blanka and almost Honda)
5th - Kusumondo (Honda)
7th - Justin Wong (O. Sagat)
7th - Shirts (Dhalsim (he usually plays O.Dhalsim but switched to N.Dhalsim)
After the tournament, Tokido told me he expected me to play Vega against him. I said, "Play a mirror match against your Vega, your only character? I don't think so. Blanka is a counter." He then told me that in a recent Japanese tournament, he was defeated by Komodo Blanka and that he was very upset. He practiced relentlessly against Blanka so he would not lose that match again. I frowned, wishing I had known that. Then Tokido said, "but why switch to Bison? It is Vega's advantage." I told him that I have played that match in tournaments for over 10 years. I have only ever lost it to 2 people in all that time, and Tokido is one of them. I am not afraid of the match." Tokido seemed to think I should be though. Maybe he is right.
There's an untold story about Tokido here that you'll have to hear another time. But let's just say that after seeing change in the entire game in SF HD Remix, Tokido approved all-around and agreed with every one of them.
So there you have my story of getting 5th place (aka not winning). For a more important story of Choi winning, read this. Choi's story speaks for itself and there's little I can add to it, but I will say one thing. I saw him playing CvS2 on stage against Ricky and Ricky won the first game. A few moments into game 2, I said to the people next to me that Choi would win this first round (meaning defeat Ricky's first character and come out ahead). He did. As he did, I saw that he was in full force. I am an "expert" at watching Choi play in tournaments. There's something about his choices in gameplay that have always excited me. So I recongized the pattern that was about to come. He was going to beat Ricky. He was going to beat everone. He was going to win CvS2. The people around me said no way in hell is he winning CvS2.
At this point, I left the main hall and went to eat. I had to care about staying on schedule physically and I would rather eat on time than fight the 1,000 spectators in food lines once CvS2 ended (my match with Nuki was coming up later). Besides, it's CvS2, a generally boring game of short, short, into super. So I left. I later found out that Choi won and that everone considered it exciting because it was so surprising. Well I was not surprised at all. From just a few moments of one round, I saw that no one would be able to touch him that day. (Though I didn't expect him to win ST also...). What I didn't know was why, but now we do.