Masato "Bonchan" Takahashi is on a tear in the Street Fighter 5 community, earning three straight victories at the most recent Capcom Pro Tour events. While an impressive feat on its own, the Japanese competitor did so over just three weeks at events in Europe, Australia and Asia, utilising a character many of his contemporaries have given up on.
"Bonchan" (right) against Xiaobao of Taiwan, who he defeated in the grand finals of Saigon Cup. Photo via the Saigon FGC Facebook page.
Bonchan's string of wins began the weekend of May 6 at The Colosseum, an Italian fighting game event featuring some of the best players from Europe as well as notable visitors from across the globe. Following a disappointing 25th place finish at DreamHack Austin just a week beforehand, Bonchan tore through The Colosseum's Street Fighter 5 bracket, demolishing everyone who stood in his way with Charlie Nash. His warpath included near-perfect victories over players such as Algerian-born Emirati competitor Adel "Big Bird" Anouche and Li-wei "Oil King" Lin of Taiwan, both of whom are known for overwhelming displays of their own.
A week later, Bonchan travelled to Battle Arena Melbourne (the site of Daigo Umehara's embarrassing self-own), an arguably fiercer event thanks to Australia's proximity to the dominant Asian nations. The finals bracket saw Bonchan face off against Seon-woo "Infiltration" Lee and Atsushi "yukadon" Fujimura early on, notable for the fact they had previously placed first and third respectively at Evo 2016 with Nash but have since left him behind in search of new characters. Bonchan again persevered, fending off South Korean upstart Hyung-suk "Verloren" Kong to earn his second straight victory in as many weeks.
Bonchan played in Vietnam on May 20. Unlike The Colosseum and Battle Arena Melbourne, Saigon Cup featured a significant Chinese presence. Many of those players rarely leave their home country to compete. Although he had a much tougher time, Bonchan was again able to defeat Oil King's potent Rashid, squeak past countryman Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi, and finally sweep Taiwanese sleeper Sian-he "Xiaobao" Jung, ending the tournament with a perfect sweep.
"Honestly it feels unreal even to me," Bonchan told me of his victory tour. "I still have not yet been able to fully grasp the fact that I won three tournaments in a row. I think I got super lucky, to be honest."
Humble as he may be, Bonchan has long been considered one of the best fighting game players in the world, stretching back to the early days of Street Fighter 4. But even the best competitors can be shaken by a frenetic travel schedule. This makes grabbing sleep whenever you can and (for better or worse) keeping energy drinks handy a must, Bonchan said.
"I think maintaining your physical condition is the most important thing in travelling every week," he continued. "No matter how much you've trained, if you are tired or jetlagged in the tournament you cannot perform well."
As a sponsored player, Bonchan's opportunities to travel have increased immensely. He's sponsored by Red Bull, which, full disclosure, runs an esports site that I sometimes write for. Bonchan says the sponsorship helped him travel the world and that, prior to getting it, he was only able to travel outside his native Japan maybe four times a year. His new, busier travel schedule has helped him, because getting around to tournaments has become more important thanks to the Capcom Pro Tour. The worldwide circuit incentivises players to visit as many events as possible to qualify for the end-of-year Capcom Cup and its $US250,000 ($335,256) prize pool.
Bonchan failed to qualify for the Capcom Cup in 2016. "Last year, I struggled a lot and I felt that I disappointed a lot of people that support me," he said. "Despite my poor results, more than 200 people replied to my tweet saying that they would keep supporting me nonetheless. This year, I decided that no matter what, I will make it to Capcom Cup, and I have made quite a busy schedule travelling literally everywhere."
Many attribute Bonchan's struggles to his devotion to Nash, the returning character that inundated the first year of Street Fighter 5 competition. In an effort to make the majority of the character's moveset viable for competitive play, Capcom's season two balance changes weakened Nash overall by kneecapping his hit-and-run offence and adjusting his normal attack hitboxes, making them more easily counterable. Subsequent patches have yet to fix the character, as far as the competitive community is concerned.
Bonchan doesn't care. He is sticking with Nash. "Even though Nash got nerfed badly, it would be against my policy to change characters so easily," he said. "I don't think Nash is unviable, but I did not think it was possible for me to win a major with him. It definitely takes a lot of work and effort to main him, though. I want to have my own style of play as a professional player. And I think because Street Fighter 5 is a simple game, it takes a lot of time to develop your own playstyle and be able to show it in tournaments."
Bonchan plans to make the switch to Sagat (his Street Fighter 4 main) should he ever join the Street Fighter V cast. "He is special to me," he added.
The points Bonchan has earned towards qualifying for Capcom Cup will afford him a couple weeks off -- after completing Red Bull Kumite in Paris, France this coming weekend. The invitational will feature competition in the form of his Red Bull teammates Olivier "Luffy" Hay and Darryl "Snake Eyez" Lewis, as well as international competition such as China's Zhuo-jun "Xiaohai" Zeng, Arman "Phenom" Hanjani of Norway and Eduardo "PR Balrog" Perez.
Bonchan somehow plans to squeeze some much-needed rest between Red Bull Kumite and his ongoing series of road trips through Japan, making appearances in the country's many prefectures in hopes that he can stimulate local Street Fighter 5 communities that may be dwindling due to the game's lack of an arcade release.
"This is my way of saying 'thank you' to those who've supported me," Bonchan concluded, "even when I was not performing well."