For 20 years, Daigo "The Beast" Umehara has been considered a Street Fighter legend. Defeating champions from around the world, Umehara emerged as one of the greatest fighting game players of all time, defending his top standing for most of Street Fighter IV's lifespan.
But since the early 2016 release of Street Fighter V, Umehara seemingly lost his edge. Unlike previous installments, Street Fighter V didn't receive an early arcade debut, placing the entire community on the same footing with a global console launch. Japan thrived when game centres were flooded with Street Fighter IV cabinets, and daily excursions to the arcade aren't easily replaced with online play. On top of that, Umehara is still stubbornly devoted to his beloved Street Fighter main Ryu despite what some see as diminished viability after the recent Season 2 changes..
"I consider myself a slow learner, someone who doesn't learn fighting games extremely fast," Umehara told Dot Esports through an interpreter last summer. He went on to say that, no matter what game he's playing, it's taken him some time to get to the "Daigo" level.
Street Fighter IV made the scene in 2008, but Umehara didn't start turning heads until a year later. At the game's first international event, GameStop Nationals, the veteran competitor crushed the similarly iconic Justin Wong, then-Japanese champion Iyo and Korean powerhouse Chung-gon "Poongko" Lee. Umehara would go on to win two straight Street Fighter IV titles at the Evolution Championship Series, a feat no other player achieved in the title's eight-year lifespan.
Umehara's journey through Street Fighter V has been a different beast entirely. Apart from Tokido, who switched to Akuma when he joined Street Fighter V's cast, Umehara has been the only Ryu player to make a significant impact on the competitive circuit. After flirting with the character Evil Ryu near the tail-end of the Street Fighter IV era, he returned to franchise protagonist's good side in the newly-released title.
A solid choice in previous releases, Ryu fell behind in Street Fighter V's diverse roster early on, and wasn't capable of exerting his will on a match like characters R. Mika or Necalli. And since much of Umehara's training has been done in the modern spotlight afforded by live streaming rather than the darkened arcade halls of Japan, his struggle to tap Ryu's potential is more visible than ever before.
At Red Bull Kumite, a major tournament scheduled just two months after the game's launch, Umehara was eliminated from competition just before finals. As time continued, the defeat looked less and less like a fluke. In the following months, Umehara failed to win any significant events. He was forced to bow out of Evo 2016 at a disappointing 33rd place, eliminated by the smothering Karin play of rival Justin Wong.
His first major victory came at E-Sports Festival Hong Kong in August 2016, though his path through the brackets was arguably less difficult than his fellow players'. As the Capcom Pro Tour came to a close, Umehara was forced to qualify for Capcom Cup by way of Europe instead of Asia, but spent most of the main event as a spectator after being sent to the lower bracket by American competitor Kenneth "K-Brad" Bradley and then eliminated shortly after by his countryman Keita "Fuudo" Ai.
On the heels of those defeats, Umehara saw his most unfortunate performance at this month's TOPANGA League. Established in 2012 as an extension of the weekly broadcast of the same name, TOPANGA League brings together some of the best Japanese players to compete in a series of round-robin matches. By some estimation, TOPANGA's focus on a small group of competitors playing longer sets provides a better indication of player strength than traditional tournaments. Umehara won four such leagues during Street Fighter IV's tenure.
The organisation maintained strict rankings based on past results, but 2017's TOPANGA League wiped the slate clean to make way for Street Fighter V. Organisers invited 21 players to take part in a series of online matches before the main, offline event.
Umehara was naturally in attendance, and his first test came against a 15-year-old M. Bison player named Haku, a rising star who trained under Street Fighter veterans Yusuke Momochi and Yuko "ChocoBlanka" Kusachi. Unlike the other players who were invited to compete by TOPANGA, Haku's spot was hard-earned at a preliminary tournament.
On the surface, the promising but unseasoned teenager seemed to pose little challenge for Umehara, especially after going up by two games in the best-of-three set. Haku is a skilled competitor, no doubt, but "The Beast" has been playing fighting games longer than the young player has been alive.
Rising to his dark horse potential, Haku made an incredible comeback against the veteran on the back of M. Bison's confusing movement options, ending the set with a score of 3-2. Umehara's second match that day ended more quickly after being swept by fellow Street Fighter god Tatsuya Haitani.
While many considered these two matches a fluke on Umehara's part, the truth was a good deal harsher. His block looked to be the most difficult from the outset, and he had a ridiculously talented group of players remaining on his schedule. The dominating Akuma play of Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi set the tone for the second day by preventing Umehara from winning a single game and a third blowout was handed down by Evo 2016 finalist Naoki Nemoto. Umehara managed to secure two games against Goichi "GO1" Kishida (another Evo 2016 finalist) before succumbing to his comeback, and a final sweep courtesy of Ryota "Kazunoko" Inoue closed out his online play without a single victory.
As his chances of being eliminated became certain, Umehara even tried to recreate his legendary full parry from Evo 2004, only to miss a crucial input and fall behind early.
"It was disappointing to lose at the qualifier, but it doesn't change anything," Umehara told me after TOPANGA's first weekend had finished. "I will just keep working at it, as always. One thing I took away with me was a realisation of the significance of working together with fellow players. Before, it was possible to practice alone and still improve my skills because my character was strong enough. But now, it is more important than ever that I collaborate and share knowledge with other players since there is a limit to what I could do alone to improve."
Some share the opinion that it might be time for Umehara to move on from Ryu, whose Street Fighter V incarnation is doing him no favours. During a recent broadcast, Umehara expressed some interest in switching to the stronger choice, Guile, whom he described as a "perfect character."
"Guile has it all. He possesses no weakness. Whether it's his V-Trigger, V-Skill, ground game, EX gauge, or wake-up game, he is truly almighty right now," Umehara explained. But then, he backtracks. "I'm optimistic Ryu will get better. Even if he doesn't get to a satisfactory level, if he shows even a hint of potential, which I believe he will, I will stay with Ryu."
While concerns for Umehara's success are certainly valid, history indicates that he is capable of earning huge victories after a slow start. Street Fighter V hasn't been particularly kind to "The Beast," but some of the blame certainly lies with his increased exposure. The entire world wasn't watching Umehara train in the early days of Street Fighter IV, and he went on to define the early years of its competition. With the 2017 season of the Capcom Pro Tour starting in just a few months, Umehara's work is definitely cut out for him as the average skill level of the entire community continues to rise.
"I want to challenge myself with Ryu this season," he concluded. "I find it less enticing to play with a character who is obviously strong. That is just not my style. I'd choose a challenge over that any time."