The Beast is Unleashed: Capcom’s Seth Killian explains the most famous minute in competitive gaming
People can take the playing of games and elevate it into an art form. These instances of mastery make it into the highlight reels endlessly played on television, or they go viral on the Internet.
An example of this phenomenon took place during the EVO fighting game tournament in 2004, in a match between Justin Wong and Daigo Umehara. The clip has been uploaded to many video sharing services in many forms, and has been watched an estimated 25 million times. I don’t want to describe the video. You need to see for yourself. Justin Wong is playing as Chun-Li, and Daigo Umehara is playing as Ken.That minute of game play has fascinated me for years.
“Only around one percent of people who watch that video really know what’s going on,” Capcom's Seth Killian told me during a recent chat about fighting games. Killian is Capcom’s community manager and fighting game enthusiast, and it’s his voice on that tape, breaking with excitement. In many ways this was like watching the Super Bowl with John Madden there in the room, giving you color commentary.
So I had to ask him: what the hell happened in that clip? The first thing to note is that this wasn’t the finals at EVO, nor was it the last match of the set. Justin Wong was one of the last strong American players left in the competition, and Umehara is certainly a well-known player, so the match was notable even if the stakes were relatively low. It’s the play itself that elevated this round to legendary status.
“Justin had developed this style with Chun-Li where he played very conservatively,” Killian explained. “He’s trying to do nothing and say look, Chun-Li’s options in this game are so safe that I don’t actually need to do anything to attack. I can just whittle you down until I win.” Not only was this a sound, if slightly lame, strategy, it was working against one of the best players in the world. Umehara tends to be a much more aggressive player, and the strain of playing against Wong’s ultra-conservative Chun-Li was beginning to show.
“Daigo, in rare form, actually seemed to be upset. He was playing recklessly,” Killian said. “This is one of the joys of fighting game play, you can actually put someone off their game, and get into their head until they start making mistakes.” Soon Umehara had been taken down to his “last few pixels” of health, but Wong continued to play it safe. Umehara had a little room to breathe.
“Daigo goes back to his corner to recalculate and think about what he’s going to do here,” Killian told the Penny Arcade Report. “Does he have a way across this expanse of screen to get in and trip Justin up? He knew that he didn’t.” Killian also pointed out that immense pressure that Wong was under in this situation. He’s one of the last Americans left standing in the tournament, and they’re on American soil.
He’s also enjoying a huge advantage against one of the best players in the world. Killian put it bluntly. “[Wong] had [Umehara] on his knees, so to speak. Although Justin is at a very strong advantage, ironically that’s creating a huge amount of pressure from the crowd and the situation.”
Wong needed only to land a single hit to secure the win. The next attack would deal enough damage to end the match, even if Umehara were able to block. Both players understood that Wong had to attack to win, and it was at this moment that Umehara found his strategy. “If you watch the moments preceding Justin doing the super, Daigo is moving at pace with him across the screen as Justin dances back and forth,” Killian said. “Daigo is mirroring his actions.
That’s not an accident. Daigo has made his play.” The bet was that Justin would “mentally break,” as Killian puts it, and go for the most obvious, flashiest way to end the match. Wong doesn’t need to land a solid hit to end the match, even the small amount of damage dealt by a blocked attack would be enough to gain the win.
Chun-Li’s super would allow Wong to attack with a kind of safety net: as long as one of those kicks landed, even if it was blocked, Wong has won the match. It’s a safe, obvious play, and it lost Wong the match.
“Any time you have knowledge of what your opponent is going to do in a fighting game, that’s something you can leverage against them,” Killian said. “Daigo knows that Justin wants to close this out, and of course the most dramatic way to do so is to use the super. Daigo won’t have any life left to block it, and it’s quite difficult to parry.” So what happens next? “Justin cracks,” Killian explained. Wong attacked with the super, but Umehara not only knew it was coming, he had been keeping the correct distance between the two characters to parry each of the kicks.
A parry is different from a block in that you deflect the attack and take no damage, although the move requires precise timing. In this case, Umehara had to successfully parry each of the kicks to survive.
“The thing with parrying that super is that it’s so fast you have to be parrying at the time the super flashes, you can’t react to it,” Killian said. “You can’t see the flash and start tapping the parry out. You have to be parrying by the time the super is initiated, which takes a lot of prediction. That’s why Daigo is mirroring, he’s holding the distance he needs to be away from Chun-Li’s super in order to parry.”
Onlookers and fans leapt to their feet during this move and began to cheer, but Killian explained that the physical act of parrying was only part of the story. The real genius at work was the mental acuity needed to set up the play. “There was no luck involved,” Killian told the Penny Arcade Report.
“The skill in parrying the super is difficult, but it’s something anyone can learn with muscle memory. You can go into practice and tap it out. The real genius of the move was the fact [Umehara] was able to be parrying before the move started, he had the correct anticipation of Justin’s move. The real strength of the play was mental, it was the read of the situation.” Killian continues to talk about the match, and it’s clear that he’s fascinated by it to this day.
“It was such an incredible read and such an incredible move of Jiu Jitsu to take someone’s advantage and use it against them in such a brilliant way, on top of it being an impressive technical feat, on top of the pressure of the room,” he said, counting off the many ways the match was notable.
“One of Daigo’s great abilities is to ignore the pressure of those situations, at least outwardly. He has a lot of inner calm.” There’s a lesson to be learned here. Once a strategy has proven successful against an opponent, players find themselves tempted by safer attacks in an attempt to end the match by inflicting block damage.
“People are still doing it!” Killian said, exasperated. “It’s a common strategy in tournament play, and it makes you vastly more predictable!”
The amount of strategy, training, and thought went into that one moment of tournament-level play is inspiring. It took Seth Killian almost 15 minutes to describe and explain all the intricacies of the players' actions and reactions. It took me around 1,200 words to write it out. All for a single minute of a single match of a fighting game.
The parry was impressive, but it was icing on a cake that Daigo Umehara baked before Wong had a chance to attack. This is what happens when a player transcends normal play and creates art.