EVO 2017’s Street Fighter 5 grand final was like the last 15 minutes of a Rocky movie

Photo by Robert Paul.

When it comes to Street Fighter, I can't do much more than spam hadoukens at friends who are just as bad as I am. I don't follow the pro scene or have the skills to execute complex combos, but every summer I make a point to watch EVO 2017, the year's most concentrated dose of Street Fighter action that culminates in an always riveting top eight grand finals. 

The three day, nine game event is perfectly engineered to generate amazing stories: anyone can enter, providing opportunity for surprises and upsets, and the double elimination format adds extra tension as one player inevitably battles their way through the loser's bracket to return for vengeance in the final match. It's a hyperconcentrated hit of everything that makes fighting games great, and that's why casual fans like me come away from EVO every year buzzing with excitement.

As you watch EVO, you realize there's so much more to Street Fighter than the skill it takes to remember combos and execute special moves. Like any competitive sport, it's about strategy, timing, mind games, momentum, and the narrative we weave between matches. And all of that stuff is perfectly exemplified in this year's Street Fighter 5 grand finals, which came down to a match between veteran Japanese player Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi and up-and-coming American Victor "Punk" Woodley.

You don't have to know the shoryuken button presses to find yourself on the edge of your seat watching this match, and it also provides a perfect gateway to understanding the psychology and pure hype of fighting games.

Tokido does Akuma's Raging Demon pose on stage. Photo by Osu Aki.

This year's grand final was essentially Street Fighter 101, and Tokido was delivering the lesson. A bit of background: Tokido, now 32, attended his first fighting game tournament at the age of 12 and has been competing ever since, though only as a pro since 2011. He won Evo's Capcom vs. SNK 2 tournament in 2002 and the Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo tournament in 2007, but hasn't won big at EVO since. And not for lack of trying: Tokido's been competing at Street Fighter 4 and 5 for years, and he's other won tournaments, but never EVO. Last year he didn't even make it into the top eight despite being a favorite. But this year he was back with a vengeance, playing as recently added Street Fighter 5 character Akuma, who has long been his mainstay. 

Punk, meanwhile, went through the entire weekend with an undefeated record (meaning he lost a round here and there, but didn't give up a single game on his way to the final match. Street Fighter finals match at EVO is a best three out of five games.) That tear included defeating Tokido, knocking him into the loser's bracket. So if you want to see Tokido's full journey through the top eight, I've embedded each match in order. Each one is a nail-biter, showcasing a range of incredibly tough, incredibly diverse opponents.

(Skip all these if you just want to get to the illuminating final match.)

Tokido vs. Filipino Champ

Tokido has to deal with Dhalsim, who outranges Akuma. At one point Tokida's a game down, one round away from an elimination, and twice down to half a health bar. Even after this incredibly tense situation, he completely maintains composure between games. He earned the nickname "MurderFace" for how serious he looks while playing.

Tokido vs. NuckleDu

This one isn't quite as close, but there's one round worth paying attention to. NuckleDu comes back from zero remaining health to rob Tokido of a match. It's the kind of defeat that would utterly destroy the composure of a lesser player (like me), but Tokido again keeps his cool.

Tokido vs. Itabashi Zangief

This one comes down to the final possible round, and Tokido wins it on a ballsy call, stepping into range of a Zangief attack that absolutely could've killed him if he misread the situation.

Tokido vs. Kazunoko

Kazunoko is decisively knocked out of the winner's bracket by Punk, dropping down to losers to face Tokido, who's battled his way through the rest of the bracket. One of the two of them will make it back up to winners for the rematch with Punk. This one is really intense, as Akuma and Cammy are both high damage, low health characters. Things move fast.

As if these matches weren't all crazy enough, Tokido has to fight Itabashi, Kazunoko, and then Punk back-to-back. Here he is psyching himself up.

And, finally: 

Tokido vs. Punk

Because he's coming from loser's bracket, Tokido has to win two sets here to clinch the championship. In the first set, Punk looks really strong, and the games are back-and-forth, but Tokido takes two games in a row to reset the match. He actually wins the first one using a taunt (4:10), which is an unnecessary flourish that stuns the commentators and likely unsettles Punk, too. This is where, even if you're not a Street Fighter expert, you can tell that Punk is starting to unravel.

Keep in mind that Punk is 18, sitting on a stage surrounded by an audience of something like 10,000 people, while another 200,000 watch online and god knows how many on EPSN. I get nervous playing a game when two people crowd around my monitor. He's just lost three games, his first three of the weekend, and given up the chance of an easy victory. 

What does Punk do? After about 10 seconds, he gives the thumbs up to start the next game.

Tokido responds by crushing him with a perfect round. Punk tries to battle back and puts up some good damage in the next round, and then Tokido turns it around on him. For the first time, Punk is losing.

"Take some time. Take some time. Do not jump back into this match," pleads veteran commentator James Chen. But no. Punk gives the thumbs up again, and they start the next game. Call it tilt, call it stubbornness, but Punk should've gone back to character select and calmed down, collected himself, and tried to change the momentum of the match. But he doesn't.

If you've watched Tokido's run up until this point, you'll notice some ways in which he's consistent—strong combos, using a special jump kick to reposition, controlling spacing with fireballs and looking utterly unflappable between games. There are also a few things he does differently. At one point he attacks with an air throw he hasn't used in a single top eight match up to this point (at 8:10). It clearly catches Punk by surprise, and Tokido uses it to win two games.

Tokido also plays more aggressively than he did in some of his previous matches, and you can tell from the flow of combat that he's in control of the pace of almost every single round against Punk. This is only amplified as they get deeper into the match. Punk is clearly playing more and more defensively, afraid to lose, blocking Tokido's onslaught instead of reasserting control. Momentum is hard to quantify, but you can feel it in Street Fighter, and I don't think I've seen a more obvious example than in this match. Tokido's asserting dominance on stage, too, by seeming completely calm and in control.

Above: Tokido on the outside vs. how he's probably feeling on the inside

None of this is accidental. In an interview after the match, Tokido lays it all out, explaining he was deliberately blocking Punk's aggressive style. "I feel, in winner's [bracket], he wants to attack me. He wants to finish very quick. So this time, I want to push back and control. It works." He also says: "My bad habit, I am an optimist. If I think 'oh, I have a good chance, [it's easy for me to] lose.' So just keep on playing good. This is a good mentality."

Getting perfected is a brutal blow, and Punk isn't totally out of it yet, but you can see he's shaken. He breaks Tokido's three-round streak to win one back, but in the next round Tokido stuns him and then finishes him off with Akuma's famous super move the Raging Demon (15:20), a completely unnecessary special finish. Tokido could've just won with a light jab. Instead, he shattered whatever spirit Punk had left with his most powerful move.

Punk doesn't quite throw the towel in, but he clearly makes more and more mistakes he shouldn't as the match goes on, walking into basic attacks that Tokido then chains into brutal combos. You can just tell it's over, and sure enough, one more mistake gives Tokido an opening for a combo and the final win.

Tokido's Street Fighter EVO trophy is something he's been chasing for nearly a decade, and in the interview linked above he talks about learning to be a better player and a better person after losing many, many tournaments. If Punk had won, it would've been the amazing story of an 18-year-old prodigy, but instead we got something more illuminating. We got a match that shows how experience and practice can shape a game; a match that shows how, like in any sport, even the best players in the world are human and vulnerable to pressure and nerves. 

Tokido could've bragged or talked about his performance when he was interviewed on-stage right after the match, but he didn't. When asked to give a shout out, he thinks about it for a few long moments, and then: "Just one thing I want to say. Fighting games [are]... something so great." Amen, MurderFace.

Correction: this post originally stated EVO matches were all best three-out-of-five. The matches before the finals are two-out-of-three.