Fighting game veteran Daigo Umehara hosted a series of high-level exhibitions earlier this week as part of his new Kemonomichi event series, and one matchup became the perfect opportunity for two stars with personal grudges to settle their differences in Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2.
While trash talk is a regular part of the fighting game community, it's rare these days for such verbal spats to be immediately followed by actual competition. But a pair of Japanese players, Kenichi Ogawa and Masahiro "Machabo" Tominaga, were given a chance to both air and resolve their grievances during an intense Guilty Gear exhibition.
Machabo was willing to play the heel against the painfully earnest Ogawa, to the benefit of both. After having won Guilty Gear at the Evolution Championship Series in 2015 and 2016 respectively, Ogawa and Machabo's results fell off a bit in 2017. Apart from the former's victory at the prestigious Toushinsai team tournament October, the duo spent much of the year away from the limelight.
In the weeks before Kemonomichi, the organisers released a handful of videos to build up the personal tensions between the two competitors. When Ogawa asked what his life would be like without Guilty Gear, his answer was simple: "It's possible I'd be dead."
Machabo's story, on the other hand, focused on the aloof nature he displayed so brazenly in a 2017 interview, during which he stated becoming the Guilty Gear world champion in 2016 wasn't enough to make him happy. "Why has he even been playing this game?" Ogawa asked. "I'd like to ask him, 'If it didn't bring you happiness, why are you still playing?'"
What he said in that article"was horrendous," fellow Guilty Gear competitor Koichi Nakajima told the Kemonomichi crew, going on to say that Machabo is generally disliked throughout the community.
Where Ogawa's dedication to Zato-1, his main since 2002's Guilty Gear XX, is so strong that his demeanour matches the character's strengths and weaknesses, Machabo openly mocks that sort of passion, and has been dividing his time between both Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2 and Street Fighter V.
"It's not about Guilty Gear for Oga-chan, it's about Zato," Koichi added. "Talk all you want about Guilty Gear, but it's Zato that gives Oga-chan's life purpose. When Zato gets weaker, Oga-chan gets weaker."
"When they make Zato a fun character, Oga-chan becomes a fun guy. When people talk trash about Zato, Oga-chan gets made as though it's him they have insulted. They're synchronised."
Ogawa channels Zato-1, even in his victory poses (via Daigo the BeasTV)
Despite his apparent blessings from the Guilty Gear community, many expressed little hope Ogawa could defeat Machabo, an assessment Machabo himself supported. In a video message recorded before the main event, Machabo detailed his thoughts on Ogawa, from disliking him as a person to disrespecting him as a player.
"I wouldn't say I particularly respect him," Machabo explained as Ogawa watched. "If anything, I dislike the guy. He may have been good a long time ago, but now he's nothing special. I'd give myself about a 95% chance [of beating Ogawa]."
The rift between the two competitors grew after Machabo described Zato as "pretty strong" and a character that can win "without even having a strategy." As a lifelong Zato player, Ogawa took Machabo's statements personally, and it's clear they still hit hard even after Machabo was pushed into apologizing.
On the afternoon of January 3, the two competitors met for the final time before their first-to-10 competition. When asked if they had any final words by the Kemonomichi host, Machabo declined, saying he would let his play do the talking. Ogawa agreed before adding a congratulatory note on Machabo recently signing to a Japanese talent agency that manages professional athletes. The time for talking was clearly over.
The high-level competitors sat down at their respective arcade cabinets and chose their usual characters: Zato-1 for Ogawa, Ky Kiske for Machabo. These fighters are staples of the Guilty Gear franchise. Zato is a tricky assassin that utilises a 'forbidden beast' named Eddie to conjure shadow creatures and Ky is a cold, calculated swordsman capable of utilising lightning for his most powerful attacks.
But where Ogawa has mained Zato for over a decade, Ky is just one of a handful of characters with which Machabo competes -- he used Ky's son Sin Kiske to win Evo 2016, for instance.
The two players traded games early on as they felt each other out; Ogawa was content to simply fly around the screen waiting for his opponent to act. To his credit, Machabo appeared ready to counter this erratic movement, anticipating and pinning down Ogawa's wily character on more than one occasion.
But when the overall score reached 2-2, Ogawa turned on the jets.
No longer resting on his laurels, Ogawa burst from the gate, utilising Zato's shadowy attacks to force Machabo into unwinnable situations. The sheer amount of crap his character is able to put on the screen makes matches a living hell for the opponent, and it seemed as if Machabo was unprepared to deal with the onslaught. At one point, Ogawa was even able to clutch out a perfect round, taking zero damage from Machabo.
Ogawa was on a roll, eventually putting up a 6-2 lead. Unlike Machabo, who chose to remain stoic in his seat win or lose, Ogawa was full of emotion. In early victories, he threw his fists into the air as if each game was a small championship. At times, he seemed to rock with the rhythm of the game, feeling out his space in the virtual world as he challenged an opponent many thought unbeatable.
Machabo slowly found his way back into the exhibition by adapting to Ogawa's relentless offence, putting up win after win until the score swung back in his favour to at 7-6. Where Ogawa ran away with many of his games, however, Machabo was scratching and clawing for every success.
Ogawa was not the pushover Machabo had envisioned, and a pained look began to appear on his face despite taking his first lead in half a dozen games. Was this even possible anymore?
By this time, the matches were fast and frenetic, still mired in strategy and tactics but somehow more visceral as both players tried to reach the magical number of wins. Ogawa eventually reached nine wins to Machabo's eight, and needed just one more bit of good fortune to send his opponent packing. He made his final push against Machabo, recovering from a life deficit to seal his victory.
As the Kemonomichi crowd cheered, Ogawa shot up from his seated position, flexing and screaming his thanks to the assembled audience. Machabo was left to hold his head in his hands, defeated.
Similar to his comments before the match, Machabo had little to say in his post-match interview. According to American transplant Jonathan "Majinobama" Metoyer's rough translations, Machabo said he was "completely defeated" and described the match as "tough, painful, and regretful." Upon receiving the microphone, Ogawa immediately gave shoutouts to Ain and Hisatoshi "Rion" Usui, expert-level Ky players in their own right, for helping him prepare to face Machabo.
As fighting games and esports generally become more professionalized, tournaments like Kemonomichi, where players are gunning more for respect than money, are increasingly rare. Ogawa may not have won a huge cash prize, but he was able to beat back a rival after being on the receiving side of massive amounts of shit-talking.
And Machabo, who had previously seemed detached from Guilty Gear competition altogether? The first thing he did after returning home was jump into training mode.