Photo c/o Echo Fox
In the modern era of fighting game competition, few players are as accomplished as Dominique "SonicFox" McLean. Despite his young age, the 19-year-old competitor has three Evolution Championship Series victories under his belt and almost half a million dollars in total tournament winnings.
And now, he's looking to translate his oppressive style to one of the most storied franchises in the genre's history while taking part in the scene's best new rivalry.
Although best known for his dominance of Mortal Kombat and Injustice competitions, McLean has found success in just about every series he's touched.
After first breaking into the fighting game community as a competent Dead or Alive player, he's gone on to make a name for himself in everything from Skullgirls to Under Night In-Birth, but it's the latter that has provided him the necessary basis for a foray into Marvel vs. Capcom.
Developed with the help of veteran competitor Mike Zaimont, Skullgirls is often regarded as a spiritual successor to Marvel vs. Capcom 2. The most direct comparison is that both franchises focus on team combat rather than one-on-one fights like Mortal Kombat and Injustice, but the similarities also extend to gameplay.
Like the Marvel vs. Capcom games old, Skullgirls focuses heavily on resets — the strategy of preemptively ending combos in such a way that one can immediately catch the opponent in another to bypass a game's damage scaling — making it one of the most frenetic fighting games on the market today. McLean has done well enough in Skullgirls to top the unofficial rankings, winning tournaments like Combo Breaker and Winter Brawl since 2014.
Even with his pedigree, respect wasn't immediate as McLean dipped his toes into the water with September's Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite. He entered the game at the CEOtaku at the tail end of September, easily taking first place.
But his performance wasn't given much attention due to the absence of other notable players. That changed with his attendance at New York City local Next Level Battle Circuit over the past couple of weeks. When matched up against some of the best players the east coast has to offer, McLean barely flinched, walking away with first-place finishes two weeks in a row.
As McLean took the east coast by storm, a similar player was doing the same in the west. Ryan "Filipino Champ" Ramirez, a fellow Evo champion regarded as one of the gods of Marvel vs. Capcom 3, showed that he was a step above everyone else with a win last month at SoCal Regionals, the game's first major event.
As such, Ramirez was crowned the best Infinite player just a few days after its release. He seemed excited by the prospect of McLean's performances on the east coast, congratulating the younger competitor on Twitter after one of his Next Level Battle Circuit victories.
"The only reason I'm going in hard for this game is to beat you," McLean responded. "What you did to me on stream will not be forgotten."
A week beforehand, the two paired up for a short set in Infinite's online mode during a live broadcast, a match Ramirez easily took by a score of 3-0. Ever the shit-talker, he addressed McLean afterwards, telling him to get better because he'd rather sit in training mode than play him again.
"You don't just go straight the top, you know what I mean?" Ramirez continued. "I gave you three games, but you didn't even kill a character."
Nothing lights a spark under someone's arse better than telling them they can't do something. McLean quickly set about proving Ramirez wrong. In just a week and a half, McLean had overtaken Ramirez' spot on the Infinite leaderboards, a fact he took great satisfaction in crowing about on social media.
Ramirez offered to play for it and, they decided to throw down in a pair of first-to-10 sets at a regular Marvel vs. Capcom training spot in the Bronx known as the House of Chaos.
They finally faced off Thursday night.
"I was confident that I was the best," McLean told Compete about his headspace leading up to the matches. "I believed I had everything in my arsenal to take Filipino Champ to the limit, but I didn't expect the set to be free. I didn't study any of his matches because I was that confident in my play."
That confidence showed as McLean played last night. It quickly became apparent that his time spent playing Skullgirls was going to do wonders in Infinite. Utilising a team of Darkstalkers' antagonist Jedah and Guardians of the Galaxy's Rocket Raccoon, he's able to completely lock down the opponent with a mixture of the former's "fidget spinner" specials, the latter's copious projectiles and traps, and the favourable movement options available to both.
At some points in the match, Ramirez was forced to block for five or six seconds, and while his defence is usually on point, guarding the variety of attacks McLean sent his way seemed almost impossible.
"I play this game exactly like Skullgirls," McLean explained. "People sleep on me because of it, but they are all just idiots. Trust me when I say Skullgirls is a really good game and can help translate over to other Versus games."
Ramirez has found success in Infinite thanks in part to Doctor Strange villain Dormammu and his "rose garden," a floor-covering special that can extend combos and trap opponents, but he found it difficult to establish his typical gameplan in the face of McLean's onslaught.
After winning three straight games to open their first exhibition, the young competitor seemed calm, noting that he would have already won had they been playing in a tournament. He scored a perfect further into the set, and then another to close it out. Ramirez' usual cocky demeanour fell away, and it was clear he was lost as the first exhibition ended 10-4 in his opponent's favour.
The local crowd reacted with stunned silence, only clapping once SonicFox turned to rally them.
"I once lost a fight to a raccoon for hot dogs when I was broke, I don't want to lose to raccoons in Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite," Evo champion Jay "Viscant" Snyder tweeted. "Someone stop SonicFox dammit."
After a short break, the two players readied up and jumped back in. Discarding his usual team, Ramirez pulled out a secondary duo of Ghost Rider and Captain Marvel, but this did little to stop the bleeding that began in the first exhibition.
He would switch back to Dormammu and Ultron as McLean racked up wins, and slowly began to claw his way back from a 6-1 deficit. As things came to a close, Ramirez was eventually forced to walk away from another losing effort, but the final 10-7 score represented the growth that had occurred over the last hour.
Surrounded by spectators in a small room, Ramirez and McLean were absolutely locked into their matches. This dedication harkened back to the fighting game community of old, before big money became a factor and respect was its own reward.
Competition has moved from arcade cabinets to home consoles, but the passion for simply beating an opponent that's been talking shit lives on through exhibitions like these. And while he would eventually lose, Ramirez smiled in defeat. Coming to the realisation that he wasn't the best gave him another goal to strive towards.
McLean, on the other hand, played the part of the new conqueror, taking to social media to celebrate his victory.
"Good games Filipino Champ but, uh, right now you're my bitch and this is my game, so go back to Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Love, Skullgirls player SonicFox," he tweeted.
"That's the only reason I went hard in this game. I don't care to be labelled a Marvel player. I'm just out for blood. If you want to stand in the way along the path, you'll just be another body."
McLean reiterated this sentiment in our short conversation, saying "victory is sweet, but it's not over yet" and that he'll "be satisfied when I take him out in tournament."
Ramirez, however, is treating these losses as a learning experience. "I gained so much losing now; it's better than losing later," he told Compete. "This is just one of many times I'll play SonicFox. Overall, I can only blame myself. I'm here doing what I love, so no excuses! I'll get [him] next time."
Rivalries drive competition forward. With a choppy weekend in Infinite's rearview, players like McLean and Ramirez are doing all they can to help the game live up to the Marvel vs. Capcom name.
It will be their backs that carry Infinite through its current rough patch, especially if a furry named SonicFox continues to give everyone a villain to chase with his unique brand of complete domination.