Why no one can stop Sun Woo Lee, the new king of Street Fighter

Why no one can stop Sun Woo Lee, the new king of Street Fighter

For more than 10 years there's been one indomitable name at the top of practically every Street Fighter tournament: The Beast. Daigo Umehara. You might remember him as the brilliant player who pulled off the most famous move in the history of competitive fighting games at Evolution 2004. Recently, however, the legendary Street Fighter champion has lost his throne and a new king of fighters has ascended.

“Japan was dominating for years,” said Ryan 'Gootecks' Gutierrez. “Until 'Infiltration' ended all of that.“

Infiltration's ascendance

Sun Woo “Infiltration” Lee is a South Korean player who has taken the fighting game community by storm, winning tournament after tournament over the past eight months and bringing new ideas to competitive play that are proving incredibly powerful.

“There's a lot of factors that go into what makes Infiltration the best,” said Gutierrez, a veteran of competitive fighting games and CEO of Cross Counter TV. “The biggest factor is Laugh [Ryan Ahn], his training partner. “

Laugh is Infiltration's advisor; Mick to Infiltration's Rocky - or more accurately, Apollo Creed in Rocky 3. He comes along to tournaments and watches matches, advising Infiltration on ways to switch up his style to confuse an opponent. Laugh is also his partner in Street Fighter X Tekken 2v2 matches and a championship-caliber player in his own right.

“These guys brought the idea of a player and a coach. They train together,” Gutierrez said. “They travel together. Having that extra pair of eyes from somebody that you trust really goes a long way.”

For his own part, Infiltration sees the relationship as less like player-coach, and more like friend-friend. “The biggest benefit of having a good friend next to me while playing is the sense of having someone on my side more than anything,” said Infiltration in a comment translated by Laugh.

Beyond his arrangement with Laugh, he's also a studious and analytical competitor.

Studious fighter

“Infiltration has a very large database in his phone,” said Gutierrez. “I was blown away by how long this text file is. It's massively large. Notes on players, notes on characters, all sorts of things.”

He studies his opponent's playstyles to find their weaknesses. Whereas lots of players are focused on figuring out how to beat a character, Infiltration is focused on how to beat the player and the character as a unit.

Last December, Infiltraton showed off the full strength of his cerebral, flexible style at the Capcom 25th Anniversary tournament. After being dominated by Umehara in their first meeting, three sets to zero (a set is a single best of three match), Infiltration came back through the Loser's bracket to face Umehara again in the Grand Finals. After the trouncing Umehara dished out earlier, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Infiltration was outclassed by the resurgent champion.

The results were astounding. A renewed Infiltration destroyed Umehara six to zero. Even the analysts had trouble discerning what exactly had changed about Infiltration's play that turned the tables on this matchup. Umehara couldn't figure it out either.

“What is the adjustment that Infiltration has made to cause this turn around?” said one of the tournament's casters during the match. The question was followed by silence from the other caster. “That's a great question,” he finally replied. More silence.

Even Gutierrez seemed a bit mystified by the rampant success. When I asked him what it was that makes Infiltration so good, I got that familiar reply: “That's a good question.” Followed by silence. “If I knew that, he probably wouldn't be winning so much.”

Behind opponent No. 1, a new car

After winning $25,000 in the SSF4 tournament, Infiltration wasn't done. He went back up on stage and won the Street Fighter X Tekken grand final as well. Ultimately he walked away from the tournament $50,000 richer with a brand new Scion FR-S Sports Coupe worth about $26,000.

Not bad for a day's work.

“Infiltration walking away with $50,000 in one day plus a new car was an eye-opener for a lot of people,” said Gutierrez. “Especially to the guys who had beaten him previously. When you see someone you've beaten previously go home as the big winner to the tune of 50 grand, you're like, 'why is that not me?'”

As a result, he said that some players have begun to change their own styles as well. Players who previously only played with the characters that they were known for (e.g. Justin Wong's Rufus or PR_Balrog's… Balrog) are now starting to get a little bit more cut-throat, opting instead for characters who are considered stronger.

2012 was a great year for Infiltration as he took home high profile wins at Evolution 2012 - the biggest tournament of the year - and the aforementioned Street Fighter 25th Anniversary tourney. Meanwhile, 2013 looks to be even better as he's already taken home wins at two major tournaments, the SoCal Regionals and Final Round 16.

Last weekend, on April 28, he solidified his position as the undisputed king of fighting games at the NorCal Regionals as he took home wins in both SSF4 and SFXT. Once again he went down early in SSF4 to 'Xian' 3:0, but refocused his play and won the next set 3:1 to take home the title.

The ability to rethink your play after a loss and then create an on-the-fly strategy based on your knowledge of the competition is one of the most powerful tools possible in competitive fighting games. With a detailed note-taking system for both players and characters, and an advisor who is just as prepared, Infiltration has found a winning formula.

The main event of the year is still on the horizon though. It's at Evolution 2013 that he'll try to repeat his performance and cement his position as a genuine Street Fighter legend.