Sidestep: Thoughts on the Tekken 7 FR King of Iron Fist 2016 Finals

There used to be a time when, as a fighting game player, you could look at the calendar and know the 3-4 major events that happened between Evolution and the end of the year. As individual titles have developed their own cycles and schedules throughout the year, fall and winter slowly became a very cluttered time of year for fighting games…

With most major outlets focused on the Capcom Cup, one event that was overlooked (at the time) was the Tekken King of Iron Fist Tour grand final event. It took place on December 10, 2016 in Tokyo, Japan, and was the climax of over half a years worth of qualification rounds and competition. While many major outlets covered the Panda/Kuma reveal as well as the grand finals, a lot of them missed some of the finer points for discussion this event gave us.

The event opened with introductions of the players, and then the staff. Like most official Namco Bandai sponsored events, Harada, Hameko, and Nakatsu introduced themselves and gave player introductions. On the English broadcast, Tasty Steve, Aris, Markman, and Michael Murray were there to help the foreign audience keep up, and provide commentary. Given the players and personalities present, this tournament was a big deal for the Tekken community. For the unacquainted, or new fighting game fans who aren’t familiar with Tekken, this event may have served as a decent introduction into the personalities, (most of the) top players, and the energy of the modern Tekken scene.

As someone who lives in Japan and enjoys Tekken casually, I decided to go and spectate live. The show was really entertaining from start to finish, and gave a really strong impression of the scene’s growth going into the console Tekken 7 release. For me, I was able to enjoy and define the significance of this tournament through the lenses of time.

-Memories of the Past-

Initially, players were placed into 8 man groups where they ran round robin, best of 3 sets against the other players in their groups. The top two players from each group would then proceed to a top 16 bracket.

Even casual fighting game fans can recognize names like Knee, Saint, Nobi, Gen, Mr. Naps, & Anakin, all of whom were present at this stage of the King of Iron Fist 2016 Finals. Given the intense competitive nature of the Tekken series, it should come as no surprise that with ramped up efforts by Bandai Namco to drive their tour style championship series forward, champions of past and present would heed the call. From Evolution, to SBO/Tougeki, to Tekken Crash, to the Mastercup series, the King of Iron Fist 2016 tour collected an interesting variety of champions from various events worldwide.

Knee, Nobi, and Saint are particularly noteworthy competitors at this stage because of their legacies as champions of Evolution 2013, 2015, and 2016, respectively. These 3 players represent top talent from Asia in Tekken, with major wins on the world stage (across several versions of the series). Nobi, as the King of Iron Fist 2015 champion, had added pressure to perform and defend his title, after he defeated Knee in dramatic fashion last year. Notably absent was JDCR, the Evolution 2014 champion, who did not qualify for this event.

Speaking of Evolution 2014, one cannot help but recall Gen’s incredible performance, which ended with him taking home 2nd place to JDCR at that tournament. However, we will touch on Gen and his significance later.

For followers of the North American Tekken scene, Mr. Naps and Anakin should be familiar names. Both of these players boast numerous North American tournament wins and high impact performances over the years. As paragons of the Norcal and ATL scenes, respectively, their presence covers 2 major pockets of the North American Tekken community. For classic Tekken fans, it was surely a treat to see storied players like Furumizu, Tissuemon (his 2nd consecutive year qualifying for the Grand Finals), Take, and Chikurin reach this stage of the tour.

With such an incredible collection of players, expectations were set very high for what would be the most important Tekken event of the year.

-Battles of the Present-

Given how players had to qualify for this event by attending and performing at qualifier events, it should come as no surprise that even the pool play was very intense.

Group B got things heated up early on, with Mr. Naps taking on Knee in what was, in my opinion, one of the most intense sets of the year (in any fighting game).

This set has some interesting layers of significance. This was a high profile international match-up featuring the top players of their respective countries. Knee in particular, is famous for his Bryan play. However, for this year’s King of Iron Fist tournament circuit (as well as the 2015), he used Devil Jin.

The pools action at this event progressed quickly, and before we knew it, we had arrived at the top 16 bracket.

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The main tournament kept things heated up, with Knee and RushCash facing off in the first round to get things started.

In a huge upset, Knee found himself on the loser’s side, set to face another fellow notable Korean player, LowHigh. In what was an amazing display of talent and play from the Korean Tekken scene, Knee, last year’s King of Iron Fist 2015 tour runner-up, was eliminated from the tournament.

Things were taken a step further when it came time for Nobi to face Saint. Surely, this was one of the most highly anticipated, international match-up between the 2015 and 2016 Evolution champions in the newest version of Tekken 7. With lots of Korean and Japanese fans in the crowd, there was a heightened sense of excitement in the arena.

20161210_142309.jpgIn the end, Nobi would send Saint to the loser’s bracket with a decisive 2-0 win. However, Nobi’s own run through the winner’s bracket would be cut short soon after. Show and Chanel would also face off in an Alisa duel, showcasing some of the best Alisa play from Japan vs the best from Korea. A tight match that came down to the bitter end, which had Chanel clinch it. Chanel then moved on to face Nobi, the result being a a loss for Nobi.20161210_161319.jpg

Eventually, Chanel triumphed over RushCash and emerged on the winner’s bracket side. Thus, on the loser’s side, RushCash, Nobi, Karei, and Saint were left fighting for a chance to challenge Chanel for the title.

In what would be a true gift to the audience, the Evolution 2015 and 2016 champions, Nobi and Saint, would fight again in the loser’s bracket. What unfolded was a high stakes, double jeopardy match-up for survival, this time with some hardware changes for Saint (he used a battop joystick this time around, the standard for Korean arcade play as opposed to the balltop setup used by Japanese arcades). For Nobi, the opportunity to defend his title as King of Iron Fist. For Saint, this was the chance to stamp his name on the year 2016, and take the title home to Korea.

With his win over Nobi in loser’s, Saint then had to face the final remaining Japanese player of the tournament, Karei. After a decisive 2-0, he then moved on to face RushCash in loser’s finals. Another close set that went down to the wire, RushCash fell to Saint, which set the stage for the grand finals: Chanel vs. Saint.

After a brief intermission, Tekken fans were treated to brief performances by voice talents Taketora (Akuma) and Yumi Hara (Kazumi). From here, Chanel and Saint were introduced to the audience by former Pride Fighting Championships announcer, Lenne Hardt. Before their bout, Chanel and Saint were given an opportunity to speak to the audience, where they assured spectators of their resolve to win. With this, viewers from all over the world were treated to (yet, another) amazing set that people will be talking about for a long time.

After being sent to loser’s in round 1, Saint went on a tear through losers, and this momentum carried on into grand finals. After taking the first set 3-0 over Chanel and resetting the bracket, Saint continued to post a dominant performance to go up 2-0. However, when most mortals would have submitted, something stirred within Chanel. He battled back to win 2 games in a row, pushing Saint to the limit. Little by little, the crowd came back to life, as if in response to Chanel’s restored fighting spirit. The tournament went down to the last round of the last game, but in the end, Saint triumphed over Chanel, closing out the final round with a body press. With his win came the title of King of Iron Fist 2016 (the second consecutive year when the Evolution champion also claimed the title), a championship ring, and 3,000,000 yen (about $25,000 USD).

Saint’s matches with Nobi, Chanel, and RushCash were fantastic, but there were other aspects of this event that made it a promising one for Tekken fans.

-Hopes for the Future-

After such a dramatic finish, it is easy to overlook some of the other stories of the tournament. The truth is, this event was proof that the Tekken scene has a lot to look forward to.

This upcoming March will mark the 2 year anniversary of the initial Tekken 7 arcade release. After a full title upgrade and several revisions, the West is still waiting on the console release date of Tekken 7. One of the challenges of being a Tekken fan is dealing with the Bandai Namco release cycle. However, thanks no doubt to the influence of folks like Michael Murray, Markman, and the overseas divisions of Bandai Namco, players in North America, and Europe were given opportunities at various grassroots events to play recent versions of Tekken 7: Fated Retribution.

For players who do not yet have access to the game to stand toe-to-toe with some of the strongest players from Korea and Japan is nothing short of remarkable. Their performances at this event should give overseas players a large confidence boost in the strength of their own respective top players as we approach the console release of Tekken 7.

Another highlight of this event was the high impact performances from the female players. A noteworthy performance came from Canis, a Korean player using Claudio. In what was a significant upset, she beat Take, a Bryan veteran (with strong tournament history in the Mastercup Series, back to back top 8 finishes at EVO 2015 and 2016, as well as a runner-up finish at this year’s Toushinsai event where he teamed with Nobi and Yuu). She then moved on to face Princess Ling in the first round of loser’s bracket, where she won. However, her next opponent, I’m so hot, would end her run in the final bracket. Yamato was given a special award at the end of the tournament, no doubt because of her performances against Knee, Mr. Naps, and Goraebob. Tanukana, who was recently sponsored by Cyclops Osaka, also made an impression during group play against Anakin, Chikurin and Chanel. Yuuyuu (who qualified for the second straight year), Kobore and Hengbok all played well in pools, but were also unable to make it to the final bracket. Although the female players qualified for this event through female only competitions, it was refreshing to see women on stage playing against the best not because of their looks or costumes, but on the merits of their gameplay.

This tournament’s most enduring message, however, is one that might elude casual forum goer’s or reddit heads in the West. Consider the memes and tired rhetoric of Tekken being an “old man’s game” or “no one cares about dead games like Tekken.” The point these people miss is that Tekken, along with Gundam Vs. and Blazblue, are consistently the three most active titles in arcades in Japan. Tekken’s following, competitively and casually, is huge in Asia, and is a titanic cash cow for Bandai Namco in arcades. This success is the very reason why Bandai Namco has to be so careful with timing and how they release the game on consoles.

The most enduring message this event and tour sent Tekken fans was that Tekken has a future. The success of young players like Gen, Princess Ling, and AK, in a difficult series like Tekken (even considering lowered barriers introduced in Tekken 7) is inspiring. One of the greatest concerns for competitive fighting game scenes that have higher difficulty ceilings like Tekken or Guilty Gear, is how often young people are able to transition from casual fans into new competitive faces. Fresh blood and having new talent at the top is important for driving competition forward and community growth.

Consider Gen, Princess Ling, and AK. All three of these players, from 3 different countries, are 20 years old or under. Gen, the Evolution 2014 runner-up and Mastercup veteran, qualified for last year’s event and lost to Knee in pools. This year, in the group stage, the young Japanese phenom beat Tissuemon, a storied tournament veteran nearly two times his age. He faltered against LowHigh and Nobi, narrowly missing qualifying for the top 2016 bracket. Princess Ling, a 20 year old Xiaoyu player from California, won one of the last qualifying spots from North America to secure his spot in the grand final event in Japan. In the group stage, he lost a close set against Karei, but won his other matches to become the only player from North America or Europe to make it to the top 16 bracket. He lost to Canis first round, but his performance was remarkable given the time North Americans have had with the game thus far.

When it came to young players showing the world what kind of future awaits Tekken, PBE AK had the entire arena talking– again. The Japanese and Korean audience is already familiar with AK through Tag 2 events over the years, and his performance in the 2015 King of Iron Fist grand final when fell during pools to the famous Japanese Tekken streamer, Shudy.

AK started the day off facing Saint in his group. After losing a close set, he then went on to defeat the other players in his group to secure his losers bracket position in the final bracket. Starting out on the loser’s side, he got wins over Tsubumi and Show. These sets got the audience into it, but the subsequent double jeopardy set with Saint left them breathless. His performance in the top 16 bracket would net him a consolation prize in the closing ceremony of the event.

-Looking Forward-

Looking towards the imminent console release of Tekken 7, there is a lot for the Tekken scene to be excited about. The King of Iron Fist 2016 tour was a stronger, more improved, developer sponsored tour. With Bandai Namco (seemingly) committed to driving this new competitive tour based model forward, we eagerly await the King of Iron Fist 2017 experience.

 

What do you think? Did something else stand out to you about the event? Who was your favorite competitor? Feel free to leave your thoughts and feedback in the comments!

Thanks,

Jazz

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