Street Fighter as a game and community is about growth, decay and change. The game dates back nearly three decades, when it was first released into the arcades and the original Nintendo. Since then, there have been new versions, consoles, arcades, and — most important of all — a new generation of players. Yet no matter how many iterations we’ve seen, how many tournaments have been created, and what new opportunities technology has created — whether it be online play, streaming or the ability to play full time — the same attitude has persevered. It is always two guys playing on an arcade box to see who gets to stay. It is a third guy watching, his quarter lined up to play the winner. Anything else is allowed. You can play for whatever reasons you want and say whatever you want, but the only thing that justifies your presence is your skill. Who is the best player right here, right now?
The ELEAGUE Street Fighter V Invitational represented the beginning of a next cycle. It was a slightly tumultuous time for pros, as Street Fighter V itself overhauled the balance of its game with the release of Season 2. The tournament also coincided with a push to introduce the FGC to mainstream audiences, the apex of which being ESPN2 broadcasting last year’s EVO finals.
The change reflected in the tournament itself as an eclectic mix of players gathered in the playoffs. There were old Japanese legends like Daigo Umehara, Yusuke Momochi and Keita “Fuudo” Ai. We had the vengeful spirits who had defeated their most heated rivals, Joshua “Wolfkrone” Philpot defeating Kenneth “K-brad” Bradley and Xiao Hai defeating Du “NuckleDu” Dang. Eduardo “PR Balrog” Perez continued to be a pillar at the top level. Most importantly, two young stars took center stage as the future of the game.
Victor “Punk” Woodley exploded onto the scene with three tournament wins at West Coast Warzone, NCR and DreamHack Austin. By the time ELEAGUE started, he was already heralded as one of the best players in the world. On the opposite side was Arman “Phenom” Hanjani, the Norwegian sensation. He was a constant fixture in the EU scene during Street Fighter IV, yet he could never rise to the heights that Luffy or Ryan Hart enjoyed. SFV proved a new leaf, and by the time Phenom reached the ELEAGUE semifinals, public opinion had turned a swift 180. His Necalli ran roughshod over Punk with an incredible offense that his opponent couldn’t withstand. He dispatched Punk in a 3-1 beatdown to advance to the grand finals.
In the lower bracket, Punk faced Fuudo. Many people expected this to be the grand finals as the two had been among the most dominant players in the scene over the last few months. Like Punk, Fuudo also paid the price for underestimating Phenom when he was trounced 3-0 in the winners quarterfinals. He reached the losers finals only after a grueling series against PR Balrog that came down to the final round of the final game. The losers final symbolized a battle between two legacies. Punk was the young upstart from America, a country that had perpetually played second fiddle to Japan in SF4, while Fuudo was a veteran champion in several different games. In the end, youth prevailed as Punk was able to rally back and defeat Fuudo.
The grand final was a rematch between the two prodigies. This time, Punk would not be deterred by Phenom’s in-your-face style. He dealt with Phenom’s aggression and adapted to quell it before the Norwegian could gain any momentum. This time it was a convincing win by Punk, and though Phenom looked to be making some headway back into the set, it was not enough. In the critical last round of Phenom’s tournament life, he dropped a huge play, showing cracks in his composure. Punk instantly capitalized and won the set to win ELEAGUE.
We are now in the latest iteration of Street Fighter in a completely new patch. ELEAGUE was a new tournament; with it came a new champion. With this win, Punk solidified his spot as the best player in the world. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. In the end, every Street Fighter story must eventually end with one player who defeats the rest. This time, that player is Punk. For now, the world is his. And from his perch as the best in the world, he will await the next challenger.
Cover photo courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE