Melbourne was the epicenter for sports fans this weekend, with the AFL Grand Final taking place alongside a slightly different kind of sport – one involving arcade fighting sticks instead of footballs. Pro-gamer and tournament event organiser in the fighting game community, Daniel “Berzerk” Chlebowczyk, was there, and he served as the eyes and ears of Kotaku.
For years CouchWarriors has been hosting monthly fighting game tournaments and, like the AFL, CouchWarriors held their own annual finals: Battle Arena Melbourne (BAM). Unlike the AFL, no one was confined to the sidelines – anyone could get their hands on an arcade stick and participate.
Both social glue and a chance to see play by the best, BAM had no shortage of dramatic sporting moments, with equally heartfelt roars of appreciation and dismay. Eight tournaments ran side by side, offering trophies, prizes and bragging rights to the winners. The biggest draws were Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition and Marvel VS Capcom 3, but smaller communities were also warmly welcomed and supported, with Tekken 6, Virtua Fighter 5, BlazBlue CS, Street Fighter 3 3rd Strike, and the unique Smash Bros community playing alongside the more traditional fighting games. New this year was an unreleased game showcase; Street Fighter X Tekken, Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 and Soul Calibur 5, which gave players the opportunity to get their hands on the games before anyone else in the country. The room at BAM was set up for spectating, with an audience pit, feature stage and projected screen, microphone equipped commentators, and beyond the venue thousands of viewers watched from home, cheering and jeering every amazing comeback or dropped combo.
Those who tuned in weren’t disappointed: while there were many incredible moments, each adding to legends in each game, two standouts from the Street Fighter 4 finals will likely be discussed for years to come.
The first was one of those rare, crazy things that no one could believe they’d seen -- when a match appeared to be over even when it most definitely was not. After impressing everyone with an amazing combo video, a dominating personal performance in the 3-on-3 teams tournament, and then an uproarious upset -- putting Melbourne Champion Mike “ToXy” Guida in the losers bracket -- Sol “Sol T” Abdo shocked the crowd with his apparent win, then stunning loss to Akira “AkiraHat” Hattori, in the Winners Final (Both players at this stage were undefeated).
In a gutsy performance with Sakura, Sol pecked away at Akira's Sagat with precise hit-confirmed combos, stealing back the life lead more than once. On match point he muscled his way in for a difficult, crowd pleasing combo that launched Sagat for Sakura's fireball Ultra. Sol nailed the Ultra command and stood up in victory, having booked a pass to the grand final match.
By cruel quirk of timing, the Ultra connected for just one hit and for a moment both players, stunned, watched Sagat fall to the ground – and get back up again.
The crowd erupted with amazement and disbelief. Sol rushed back to his seat as Akira finished him off, resetting their best 2-of-3 bracket. Momentum with him, Akira went on to win through to the grand final.
Another standout was the gauntlet run of defeats Homzi “Shangtsung” Ibrahim dealt Melbourne's best. Playing with unassailable intensity, the Sydneysider showed both patience and precise aggression with his Bison to break the defenses of execution master Naruga, Bison mirror-match Somniac, seasoned champion ToXy and a still dangerous Sol.
This pushed him to a grand final rematch with Akira, who had knocked him into the lower bracket. A dedicated pad player in an arcade stick dominated scene, ShangTsung's performance was all the more impressive given he has been playing for just over a year, and was not a gamer of any stripe before picking up Street Fighter.
At BAM's sister event, Shadowloo Showdown 2011, ShangTsung surprised everyone by pushing Japanese favourite Tokido to his limits, but here, he earned the Melbourne crowd's full respect. In the end, despite defeating Akira once to reset the double elimination bracket, Akira hung on to claim the BAM 2011 Championship with a sharp and methodical Sagat.
Akira said that winning both 3rd Strike and SSF4AE was “equally important for me and I feel equally lucky.” Gracious in defeat, ShangTsung noted that both players changed their gameplans, but against Akira he “just ran out of options… I’m glad Akira won.” Comparing his experience to playing in homeland Japan, Akira noted “Everyone is really friendly; I think it’s a great environment. I actually like this a lot more than simply hanging in the arcade in Japan, without knowing people.” ShangTsung, who dedicated his performance as a farewell to Hong Kong-bound 2010 Champion Johnny “HumanBomb” Cheng, echoed the importance of community.
“Playing at home online is terrible… here you get much better, and you meet people, you talk to people… offline tournaments, they’re brilliant.”
Special mention to those who braved torrential rain on Thursday, for the Pre-BAM party at ManaBar. Much fun was had by all, with Rose Ball, a form of Street Fighter Tennis, proving a crowd pleaser among some amusing game formats.
Wherever you are there is a Fighting Game community ready to welcome new players, both as a challenge and as a great social experience. This is gaming culture in its purest form – people coming together to play – and anyone can participate. BAM was true to that promise; an inclusive event that matched the energy of intense competition with enthusiasm for just having fun.
Daniel “Berzerk” Chlebowczyk Pro-gamer and Tournament Organiser in the Fighting Game Community Twitter: @BerzerkDC