Note: Originally uploaded on Red Bull. Post has been slightly altered from original upload.
This past week much of the fighting game community has been engrossed with talks of one player in the Street Fighter V scene: Panda Global’s Victor “Punk” Woodley. He just took first at the Capcom Pro Tour event Dreamhack Austin, making it the second Capcom Pro Tour event he’s won this month (the first being NCR). After going up against some of the fiercest competition in the scene today — players such as Ricki Ortiz, Haitani, Xian and Justin Wong, among others — his domination seemed clear.
Punk has captured the attention of the community thanks to several factors. Some have been captivated by the player’s jovial attitude or his antics outside of the game, others by the skillful play, and others still by purely the impressive top-player body count he racked up. There are many levels to playing well, and many ways to be impressed with a player or a playstyle. So instead of those things, let’s focus on what the most under-appreciated aspects to pulling off what Punk did.
The nature of the game
Entering a fighting game tournament is unlike any other type of competitive event. Even among other esports competitions, fighting games are truly unique. That is due to the fast-paced nature of the genre, where matches between two competitors are finished within a matter of minutes. This leads to multiple matches happening rapid-fire, one after another with little-to-no period of rest between big matches. There are times when the same competitor needs to play against two or three people in a row without getting out of their seat.
While it’s not immediately apparent to those who’ve never been in that situation, the toll this can take on a player is considerable. Being unable to focus on the match, getting over attached to missing an input or dropping something, getting distracted by thoughts of how others will react to your play, these are just examples of the things that can ruin a player. These thoughts can become more difficult to deal with when forced to play a gauntlet of matches, because being able to come back mentally after being shaken isn’t as easy when the next match is only moments away.
This means, inevitably, the biggest thing that separates top players from everyone else is their ability to stay composed and mindful through the most high-pressure situations. Anyone can throw a Hadouken, learn a combo and study frame data, but being able to utilize that knowledge and skill while the whole world’s watching is another matter. Dealing with hundreds of people getting hype in the crowd, with the expectation, and with your opponent making life as hard for you as possible is a whole different dimension of skill.
This is where Punk’s performance comes into play. You can look at the laundry list of professional players he overcame or simply the fact that he took first place at Dreamhack Austin and be impressed. However, that basic interpretation leaves out probably the most amazing aspect to his success.
The weight of the world
For those who might have only skimmed the tournament and caught the highlights, Punk lost to CJ Truth in pools. The loss wasn’t spectacular in any way — it wasn’t a blowout — but it’s important to set the tone for the rest of the event. As I mentioned before, a tournament isn’t just one solid match; it’s a series of small confrontations, each one building upon the last. That means a loss isn’t isolated, it follows you from match to match, and you become acutely aware that one more mistake means elimination.
For a top player, there are a lot of pressures before even a single match starts. Many are expecting you to win, while there are others hoping you lose. Some people are cheering for you while others are heckling you. Every time you enter a match people expect you to play your best, and if you lose you know you’ll have to deal with being labeled a fraud or be called washed up. For sponsored players these expectations and weights are amplified, because the very fact that they’re sponsored is tied to their performance and those expectations.
So, Punk at this point in the tournament is dealing with the stress of heightened expectation, the pressure of his status as a sponsored top player, and an early loss. It is easy for an early loss to tilt any player, even those thought of as infallible. Thoughts of what’ll happen after a second loss, self-doubt, frustration. These all come easily after any loss and could cost a player their match. The best players are ones who can filter these thoughts, focus only on the fight, and still beat down all comers.
The best in the game today
With all of this laid out, the burden that Punk carried through the event becomes clearer. Through all of those stressors, through the internal composure needed to play a perfect game from there on out, he proceeded to take on one opponent after another with seemingly flawless gameplay. He cleanly swept some of the best U.S., Chinese and Japanese competition in the game, his only signs of trouble coming in Grand Finals where he just barely managed to edge out a win against Haitani.
Now, what Punk did was nothing new. For decades, fighting game players have been doing just that, struggling against both internal and external factors, managing to pull out truly amazing come-from-behind victories. One of the most prevalent mottos in the scene is “Never Give Up”, immortalized with Justin Wong’s play in the video below. Even more well known is Evo Moment No. 37, in which Daigo at the end of his rope managed to overcome all odds and snatch victory from what seemed to be certain death.
This does nothing to take away from Punk’s victory. On the contrary, all of those top players that Punk bested are just as capable of this composure. They’ve been dealing with just as much of this stress as Punk did, must overcome those obstacles just the same, and some of them have been doing it for as long as Punk’s been alive. He confidently tore through such competition after starting in Loser’s Bracket, the most disadvantaged position in a tournament, making his performance all the more impressive.
All part of the cycle
Now, because of his performance and the clean nature of his play, Punk is being hailed as the best player right now. While it may be true, it’s important to understand the context of what it means to be the best in a fighting game.
Let’s take a second to look at the players that Punk beat. Daigo Umehara, for example, was once hailed as the best fighting game player alive. He was just about the first great Japanese player, winning many tournaments for Street Fighter II, Street Fighter Alpha, Street Fighter III and Street Fighter IV. Now? He’s used as a benchmark to prove how amazing another player is for winning.
This is just the nature of fighting games. Being the best is like being the brightest firework: It’s amazing while it lasts, but gets outshined by something else eventually. The same can be said about Justin Wong, Ricki Ortiz and any number of other players. One day Punk will be used in the same way as Daigo, as a benchmark for someone else’s claim to fame. For now, though? It’s hard to argue against Punk’s dominance of the SFV scene.