Two young Street Fighter 5 competitors got into a pretty good three-match rivalry across two events over the last couple of weeks, showing flashes of personal and regional pride.
Things began on the weekend of March 11, when reigning Capcom Cup champion Du "NuckleDu" Dang and Bryant "Smug" Huggins faced off at Final Round XX in Atlanta.
In a semifinals match, NuckleDu proved himself the better player and, feeling himself a bit, talked smack to both Smug and the defeated player's local community.
After the match, the commentary mics picked up NuckleDu talking some trash. "I just wanna say, NLBC is free," he said, using common fighting game community slang to disrespect New York City's weekly Next Level Battle Circuit tournament series, of which Smug is a regular participant. It was an emphatic statement of his dominance in Street Fighter 5 and, even jokingly, showed where his head was at when it came to this year's competition.
NuckleDu went on to place third at Final Round, while Smug finished outside top 16.
Hosted by the streaming platform Twitch at South by Southwest (SXSW) this past weekend, Fighters Underground was a different kind of Street Fighter 5 competition. Instead of providing open registration, the organisers invited 16 of the world's strongest players to compete for a prize pool of $US20,000 ($26,049). Play started off in round-robin groups and then moved to a traditional bracket to decide the winner.
Among the invitees were NuckleDu and Smug.
Fighters Underground allowed for a much greater margin of error among all players. By starting out with round-robin pools, players were provided the opportunity to test their skills against everyone else in the same group and qualify to the finals by their cumulative performance instead of one or two games. In this format, Smug shone, losing to just one player and finishing the day with a 77 per cent win rate in individual games. NuckleDu's record was weaker but still good enough to survive the preliminary stage. Heading into traditional competition, they were placed on opposite ends of the bracket.
Although both players faced stiff competition, Smug's journey was a good deal harder. His matches against Ryan "Filipino Champ" Ramirez and Justin Wong went down to the wire, but he was able to squeeze by thanks in part to the tremendous offensive power of classic boxer Balrog. NuckleDu, on the other hand, breezed past Taiwanese visitors Bruce "GamerBee" Hsiang and Fu-pin "RB" Kao, using a mixture of R. Mika and Guile. It soon became clear that Smug would again come face to face with the player who disrespected his region.
As part of the pre-match interview, Smug was asked about his previous bout with NuckleDu in Atlanta. "I don't feel like I got outplayed when I lost to him at Final Round," Smug said, a statement he stood behind even when confronted with that match's 2-0 outcome.
When asked for a reply, NuckleDu began to list the reasons why he would be beating Smug again. He was able to outplay him in footsies (the intricate dance between competitors that comprises tactics like poking, baiting and punishing) with R. Mika, thereby preventing Smug's Balrog from invading his space and unleashing his deadly offence. When asked for clarification about how he countered Balrog's pokes, NuckleDu's response was simple: "I out-footsied Smug, not Balrog." In essence, he was saying Smug wasn't capable of utilising one of his chosen character's most viable tools. The crowd went wild.
This time, however, their match played out much differently. Smug established his game early on, forcing NuckleDu to play more defensively. In this way, R. Mika wasn't able to set up some of her more potent offence, giving Balrog a better chance of using his exceptional damage output. After the match ended 3-1 in Smug' favour, NuckleDu was asked by event host Michael "IFC Yipes" Mendoza (who, by the way, also calls Next Level Battle Circuit home) about the loss he just suffered.
"I'm not going to take anything away from Smug, he got me," NuckleDu stated humbly. But when it came time to discuss the east coast, he refused to back down, reiterating that the region was still "100 per cent free".
Still at Fighters Underground, NuckleDu took a short trip through losers bracket, sneaking by French competitor Olivier "Luffy" Hay on his way to grand finals. Smug was there, waiting for their rubber match.
Smug took the stage confidently. As the winners side participant in the grand finals, the advantage was his. All he had to do was win one more best-of-five set, and he would be champion. NuckleDu, naturally, wasn't ready to go down without a fight, quickly asserting the dominance he wasn't able to showcase in their previous match. In the span of just a few minutes, Smug was staring down a 2-0 deficit in his most important fight against the Capcom Cup champion yet.
Much of Smug's problems can be attributed to just a few things. From dropping simple combos to missing punishes, the rushdown-heavy Balrog floundered in his hands. It was as if he was unwilling to commit to one course of action, and his hesitation resulted in a string of commanding wins for NuckleDu. As things came down to the wire, NuckleDu was just one round away from resetting the bracket and placing himself on equal footing with Smug.
But much like his main character, Smug wouldn't go down without a fight. Taking advantage of Balrog's overwhelming pressure, he tightened up his execution and started hitting the combos he was missing before. While it almost slipped from his grasp, Smug was able to effectively snatch victory from the jaws of defeat on multiple occasions, eventually ending his run at Fighters Underground with a 3-2 win over his rival and walking away $US7000 ($9117) richer.
As two relatively young players, Smug and NuckleDu represent the next generation of fighting game competition. Both found their place in the community through Street Fighter 4, and are now tearing up Street Fighter 5 tournaments across the US. Their lighthearted rivalry is an echo of the legends that came before them and provides an engaging storyline for the second season of Street Fighter 5 competition.
Does this mean Smug is better? That remains to be seen. NuckleDu will stay firmly seated on the throne until someone else picks up a Capcom Cup trophy, but the race to see who else can knock him off that perch should make up a large portion of Street Fighter 5 play for the next year. It's going to be a wild ride.