One against all: The legend of Infiltration

“Infiltration is this generation’s Daigo.” – Ari ‘FLoE’ Weintraub

If you ask anyone with any iota of knowledge about Street Fighter who is the greatest player of all time, odds are the first name out of their mouth will be Daigo Umehara. He has the name, fighting style, championships across multiple titles, longevity, charisma, EVO moment 37. No one can match Daigo’s status as a player or icon in Street Fighter.

But if someone could supersede that legacy, if there was one player who could fight Daigo for that crown, it’d be Lee “Infiltration” Seon-woo. His results and achievements alone would place him as one of the best players of all time. How he got there, the challenges he faced and his legacy in the community make him a legend.

Infiltration doesn’t have the longevity of Daigo — not even close. Daigo has been playing since the inception of Street Fighter and has titles beyond count at this point. Infiltration only got started because there was an online function in Street Fighter 4, so he could play at home after his full-time job.

What he does have are incredible results. Because he started playing competitively in 2010, he quickly went from a scrub to the top of the world. He has won 18 premier tournaments and owns seven second place Premier finishes, three thirds and seven more top eights. In the largest events of the circuit, he took third at EVO 2010, first at EVO 2012 and Street Fighter 25th Anniversary, third at EVO 2013, top four at Capcom Cup 2014, third at EVO 2015, top eight at Capcom Cup 2015 and first at EVO 2016.

In the context of Infiltration in all of esports

infiltration

Photo by Jonathan Tayag

The results alone without any context would place him in the most elite tier of players to have ever touched the game. Examining his results in the broader context of esports, however, it becomes clear there is no one like him.

Korea is often cited as a popular esports country, especially considering the region’s dominance in League of Legends and Starcraft. Those have been the only games where the full brunt of Korea’s strength as a country was felt. Even in games of lesser interest, Korea has found a surprising amount of success. Counter-Strike 1.6 never became popular in Korea as the vast majority played Sudden Attack instead. Despite having no server or community, they still managed to make two top teams in Lunatic-hai and WeMadeFOX (previously project_kr and eSTRO). In Quake 3, Kim “PowerK” Min Woo played in one CPL tournament and placed third before never being heard from again. In Dota 2, the region had no sponsors, teams, or server but managed to get the five best players onto one team and get a good enough team that could upset the best and sometimes even win tournaments.

The feats of those players and teams came in such dire circumstances, it’s incredible, especially in the context of the amount of excuses the North American scene has made over the years in both League of Legends and CS:GO about its lack of international success. The excuses themselves have validity to them, but the difference is that Korean teams and players can still get it done on the world stage.

Infiltration took that one step further. Arcades have slowly died out in Korea to be replaced by the PC Bang. Street Fighter was an incredibly small scene where the only other relevant Korean player on the world stage was Lee “Poongko” Chung Gon. Yet, he has become one of the best players in his game and at different periods of time has been the best player in the entire world. Much noise was made about “Byun” Hyun Woo being a one man army in StarCraft because he won the GSL finals without a team or infrastructure. He lived off the ladder and had practice partners.

Infiltration had even less than that. There was no ladder; there was no community. Infiltration came from a country that didn’t embrace his game and didn’t have players. This is a death knell for the development of skill as the wisdom built up over a decade of fighting games. You need a mentor that teaches the basics, like John Choi did for Justin Wong. You need a strong local scene to test and improve. And then you need national and international tournaments to test your mettle against the best in the world. Even the introduction of an online system isn’t as perfect because fighting games are about reading the opponent. Anyone can surprise someone with a gimmick, but in longer sets that just doesn’t work.

In the entirety of esports the only comparable example I can think of is SK Gaming from CS:GO. They didn’t have sponsors, teams, infrastructure, coaches or leaders. But after one lucky chance at MLG Aspen Games, they grinded their way to the top and are the best CS:GO team of 2016.

But there was one advantage Infiltration had almost no other esports do not: Street Fighter and FGC games tournaments let anyone play. Region lock does not exist. If you can get to the venue and you pay the entry fee, anyone is allowed to play. As long as he could get there, he couldn’t be barred from playing. So at the very least he got the chance.

But chance alone is just an opportunity. Many talented players got the chance but never succeeded on the level Infiltration did. What made him special? He upended the entire standard to become good in Street Fighter and created his road to the top.

The Devil in the Details

Photo by Robert M. Paul/used with permission

Photo by Robert M. Paul/used with permission

 

“Every player is a threat to me, including myself.” – Infiltration

For other Street Fighter players, the game is a very social experience. It is the best and fastest way to pass knowledge from one person to the next, to test out new ideas and matchups.

For the majority of Infiltration’s career, it was an anti-social experience. He was an incredibly fast learner, something he attributes to being a video game salesman.

“Of course, back then I was just at a ‘peasant’ level of skill,” he said earlier this year. “I think I was fortunate to have come across a wide variety of genres while working at the game store. I needed to know a certain amount about every game in order to be able to appropriately recommend titles to customers. Since I was used to analyzing and breaking down various different games, I was able to pick up and understand SF4’s mechanics and game system at a very quick pace.”

That is an innocuous statement itself until you zone in on “every game.” Infiltration is meticulous about everything, and from what we know about his later career, when he says every game he might mean every game in the store. This was the player who first introduced note taking and coaching into the fighting game scene. Long after he had stopped using them, both are still popular standards now in the game.

So instead of playing with others, he locked himself in his room to practice and watched VoDs. Poongko confirmed that Infiltration played with no one. He just did a lot of theory crafting and scouting. Infiltration himself says that he watches VoDs all of the opposition, creates a mental image of how they will play and then deconstructs it to find a counter.

By the time he faces the opponent in a real match he will have already shadowboxed his opponent multiples times. This is why so many top-level veteran players who have a decade of experience look so utterly befuddled when they go up against him. Even for players who have played Infiltration in the past, it will only be their tenth or twelfth time playing him. It could be Infiltration’s thousandth playing them.

This is why the only times Infiltration was beaten at his peak level happened against players who did an immense amount of study on him. Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi worked together with other top Japanese players to find a way for Tokido to beat Infiltration’s Nash.

Infiltration’s battle against Daigo and himself

In the past, Daigo himself specifically studied and watched Infiltration back for Tokyo Game Show 2012. In a first to10, Daigo won 10-2. For others, such a loss should be felt like a devastating defeat. For Infiltration, it was another challenge.

“According to interviews and Japanese media, Daigo had put in a lot of preparation for me prior to the event,” Infiltration said earlier this year. “I felt really good seeing that. The fact that a living legend in Street Fighter had put in time to prepare and practice just to beat me. I could therefore accept defeat and feel satisfied that I could play some good games. It felt like ‘Professor’ or ‘teacher’ Umehara had taught me a valuable lesson.”

Going into the 25th Anniversary Cup, he had to face Daigo again. When they played the first time he was nervous, but after losing 3-0 in the upper bracket, Infiltration was certain he would win that tournament.

“In SF arcade edition’s case, I had lost to Daigo Umehara 3-0 and all through that experience I was needlessly anxious by myself,” he said. “Since losing to Daigo in that first to 10, the after effects had affected me. The question of, ‘Will Daigo bring some secret weapon to the tournament?’ was a constant, and this affected my play in that loss to Daigo. But while losing, I realized that nothing significant had changed about Daigo’s play from those (earlier) games. That’s when I was certain that the next time we met, I could win no matter what.”

The trend of losing and adapting is another one of Infiltration’s strengths. After losing to Tokido in Street Fighter X Tekken in the upper bracket, he adapted, came back and won the rematch. Infiltration did the same against Ai “Fuudo” Keita at EVO 2016. Upon defeating Fuudo he said the words “Download complete,” an indication he had finished downloading Fuudo’s mind and that was why he won that title.

Perhaps the strongest part of his game is self reflection. He is just as adamant about studying himself as he is his opponents.

“When I review myself I focus on, ‘When the opportunity presented itself, how did I attack?’” he said. “What kind of mistakes did I make that led to me taking damage?”…If I didn’t reach here, I wouldn’t have been knocked out. If I attacked here like this I would have won…that kind of thing. In fighting games, the difference of a paper’s width in skill between evenly matched players will decide games. Reviewing is crucial to giving yourself that paper’s width of an advantage. If you take the time to improve the weaknesses in your game, it will consistently get better.”

Becoming the Hero

Photo by Robert M. Paul/used with permission

Photo by Robert M. Paul/used with permission

 

Part of the myth of Daigo starts in the very early years of his career when he was playing in arcades. Back then he had a super dominant style that enabled him to defeat everyone, but the games themselves were boring. One of the older players pulled him aside and told him that winning wasn’t enough: he had to win in such a way to inspire and excite the other player to build the community.

In Infiltration’s case, there was no older player to tell him that because Street Fighter wasn’t popular in Korea. This was why when he first came forward with his Akuma play, he was respected, but never loved. Daigo himself felt a heated rivalry against him as the Akuma play seemed to remind him of his past self and broke the rule he had given himself all of those years ago.

For Infiltration, he was enjoying himself for the first time, traveling abroad, meeting people and playing a game that he loved. None of this was a concern to him until the fateful game against Eduardo “PR Balrog” Perez at EVO.

In that match. PR Balrog was the American hero — the last standing American player with one of the most exciting characters in the game. He was the clear fan favorite, especially against someone like Infiltration, who played a strong but more boring approach.

Infiltration then did something no one expected. He picked Hakan, a low-tier character that had never been used in top level competitive player. It was unprecedented, and in Seth Killian’s words, “The crowd is swooning from this pick.”

“During the 2013 EVO period I was playing online at Justin Wong’s house. That’s when I got matched against PR Balrog online,” Infiltration said. “Now, most players tend to hide their main picks in the time before an event, but PR Balrog just didn’t (care) and picked Bison. Since it’s just an online match, I thought, ‘Should I just pick Hakan for (fun)?’ And it worked surprisingly well. PR Balrog didn’t know Hakan at all.

“We ended up facing each other at EVO and PR Balrog had studied Gouki a lot. He would pull off saving attacks at very particular positions so I had a hard time as Gouki. I won one game but the score was 2-1 On top of that, since EVO is a U.S. tourney, the crowd was fervently cheering for PR Balrog. He was the home team and I was the away team. His momentum throughout the game was pretty fearsome. I think he knew that I had my back to the ropes and wanted to go to the next game ASAP. I think if I had rushed into that game I would have lost. That’s when I decided to take it slow and think carefully. It was at that point I remembered that online match we had right before EVO. I am no Hakan specialist and Bison actually has a favorable match up going up against Hakan. But I thought that considering PR Balrog didn’t know Hakan very well, it was worth a shot. It was kind of a gamble but after taking one match from PR as Hakan, the crowd started cheering for me instead. PR Balrog himself was a bit shaken up from losing to an unexpected character. I thought, ‘The turn of the tide.’ We were both pretty nervous so there were small mistakes from both ends, but I managed to just barely take the win.”

The gambit had paid off. It was a genius pick and one of the most memorable moments of EVO 2013. Infiltration carried that amazing feeling with him, and with it he changed his entire way of being a personality within the game and also expanded his own game. As a personality, he started to stream a lot more and became a fan favorite. As for his game, it planted an idea in his head, one that had never been done before by any other top level player in the game: What if he could play every character in the game?

By the end of Street Fighter 4, Infiltration had used 20 different characters in top-level competition against the top players. Many think that with such a wide selection of characters, he’d do the obvious thing: Pick the favorable matchup each time. But instead he combined the vast variety of characters he could play with the insane amount of analysis and scouting he did to find the exact character that gave him the tools to exploit specific weaknesses in his opponent’s play. There was an emphasis on mobility and controlling space with all of his counter-picks and even though he went back to one character in early SFV, the style was essentially the same. After winning EVO 2016, he has since integrated more characters into his pool including Rashid, Vega and Balrog.

Even with all of those accomplishments, it wasn’t enough. Infiltration was one of the best players in the world, he was now one of the most beloved, but in his mind he had failed. He could not create a strong scene in Korea.

“For about 7 years, I’ve lived and played SF4 and worked to make the game known,” he said. “But just looking at results, I think I’ve failed. As far as Korea goes, I wasn’t able to spread it widely. But with SFV I’ve been given a new chance. With Street Fighter V, it’s a new game, and a new community is forming around it. There’s a lot of new players who are trying to get stronger, and I want to be able to help them because I have the ability to teach them faster than they could learn on their own.”

After his EVO 2016 victory, Infiltration realized he was the one who must lead and build the region. With the initial hype from the release of Street Fighter V, a tournament was made in Korea called Street Fighter V Clash. It was a team league and Infiltration did his best to try to teach as many Korean players as possible the ways of Street Fighter. It ended up being successful, as two new Korean players have found international success under his tutelage. They are Hanbyeol “Xyzzy” Lee and Sim “NL’ Geon.

Infiltration has done it all. He is now one of the greatest players in Street Fighter history. He did it from a country with no support or success in Street Fighter and against almost all historical precedent. He became one of the most beloved players in the community and has started to build the Korean scene. For Infiltration, the only thing left to do is cap off the year with a victory at Capcom Cup 2016. And even if he loses, he is still a legend.

Cover photo by Robert M. Paul/used with permission

Slingshot senior columnist. StarCraft and CS:GO expert who pushes narratives over numbers.

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