The fighting game community (or FGC) follows a different set of rules. Not out of some obligation to buck the status quo, but the opposite. The community’s ability to maintain tradition and keep to its core tenet of "competition for all" is stuff of legend, unshaken by the changing times, technology, and trends that have come and gone since its birth in the arcade era. It is the last true stalwart of the kind of open competition that esports and sports alike can only dream of.
History of Kumite – Part 1
Despite its invitational nature, The FGC has embraced Red Bull Kumite as it would any of the other grassroots tournaments that have proven themselves valuable to the ecosystem of fighting games. And that's because, at its core, Kumite is a showcase of the best players in the world, a spectacle of the best the FGC has to offer, made even more complete with high production values that can rival television broadcasts. As it has evolved, however, it has grown to be a proving ground for competitors. The place where the statement can be made - "My time is now."
Where else can you get Tokido giving his classic line, “I'm sorry, your opponent is Tokido?” Where Kichipa and 801 Strider take a moment to recreate the classic Street Fighter III special intro between Alex and Hugo? Or where you can see the infallible Daigo Umehara get pushed to his absolute limit against Problem X in one of the best sets in Street Fighter history? That’s just a small taste of the history that has been made at Kumite. To understand the origins of the tournament requires some familiarity with the game that heralded a new age of competition in the FGC: Street Fighter IV.
In The Twilight of SFIV
The first Red Bull Kumite in 2015 did plenty to separate itself from the tournaments of its day. The high production values were one thing, but the setting and atmosphere that was created was like none other. Held in the 400-year-old prestigious La Salle Wagram theater, the now-famous octagon made its first appearance. While it wasn't the first cage match in FGC history, this one brought a heightened level of gravity not often seen in the space. There’s an air to the scene that brings out the best of the competitors and, at that time in the game’s life cycle, there was a lot at stake.
The remaining tournaments of the calendar year were to be Street Fighter IV's last before its sequel dropped the next year. The fourth iteration of the long-running series saw a new crop of talented stars rise, and begin looking to solidify their legacy among the veterans of the fighting game scene. Red Bull Kumite, a-first-of-its-kind invitational event for the FGC, presented a golden opportunity to enter the history books of the storied fighting game.
For this event to live up to the hype surrounding it, the competition needed to be more than stellar, it needed to give the world some dream matches. The event would need to have Street Fighter IV EVO champions in attendance - and they had all of them. The two-time champion Daigo, Fuudo, Infiltration, Xian and French star Luffy were present at the first Kumite.
Joining them were other legends of the FGC, names like Bonchan, Nemo, Ryan Hart, Tokido, and Mago. Rounding out the invites were Snake Eyez, Dieminion, Valmaster and ChuChu, names that represented well for their respective scenes and were looking to prove themselves on the FGC's grandest stages. The tradition of having players who represent deeper connections with the community would become a hallmark of the invitation process and one that has brought a lot of fanfare to the tournament series.
The Last Chance Qualifier brought an unexpected level of hype before the main attraction of Kumite. A 128-man bracket showcased some of the best in Europe with future stars like Phenom and Problem X, among dozens of other top players, battling it out for a spot in France. The two spots in the main event ultimately went to Cuongster and Gagapa, adding more representation for the hometown crowd.
The main event established the hallmarks of Red Bull Kumite for the future. Walkout out introductions for the players - filled with lights, epic music, the works. The French players, especially Luffy, got a hero’s welcome from the crowd, but overall the introductions gave the players a chance to show their personalities, a practice that would get more elaborate in later iterations of Kumite. The festivities ended with all the players in the cage looking out at the audience, an iconic shot that would last for years. It was time to put on a show.
Right out of the gate, it was Bonchan and Tokido that dominated the competition. At the time, both were considered among the strongest in the world, but they had yet to prove it with consistent results at major tournaments. Nevertheless, at Red Bull Kumite, they were on a collision course to the winners finals, both with more to prove than any of the other players at their level.
Bonchan’s road to that eventual match however would be much harder. It was paved with EVO Champions. He had to face off against Infiltration, Luffy and Daigo, earning himself close 2-1 victories.
Tokido would put a halt to Bonchan's run. A thrilling 3-2 victory over Bonchan in the winners finals moved Tokido one step closer to winning the first Red Bull Kumite. Bonchan would bounce back out of losers in a match against Nemo to get another shot at Tokido in the Grand Finals.
Tokido was confident that he’d bring home the trophy. So much so that he saw the chance to take some now famous jabs at Bonchan in the lead up to their match. “He’s always second place,” taunted Tokido.
Unfortunately for Tokido, that streak ended that day. With two 3-1 victorious sets, Bonchan took home the first Red Bull Kumite, the biggest prize in his SFIV career. More importantly though, the win was another notch for the side of the '09ers. It was a message that they would continue to be a force in the new era of Street Fighter.
The SFV French Premier
Street Fighter V had big expectations for esports at its inception. The Capcom Pro Tour became an institution during the SFIV era, and players who found success in the previous title were quick to jump into the arena for the new one. What could the best players in the SFIV era show us about SFV after only two months?
It was a question the players at Red Bull Kumite 2016 had the opportunity to answer.
SF4 EVO champions were once again in attendance. Daigo, Infiltration, Luffy, Xian and Momochi — the last EVO champion for SFIV - were all invited. Bonchan was back to defend his Kumite title and along with the runner up, Tokido, both would be without their characters from the last game.
Bonchan’s Sagat in SFIV was a methodical juggernaut that could whittle down opponents' health with fireballs and bait them into costly mistakes, a perfect match for Bonchan’s style. Tokido’s SFIV Akuma was the opposite. A character that could keep the pressure going and manhandle enemies, breaking their will. That was more Tokido’s style. Both would have to make due with Ryu, the character that represented the middle ground to both their styles.
Snake Eyez returned to round things out for the returning invited players. The newcomers to Kumite were no slouches either. Justin Wong, the iconic Marvel player who sparred with Daigo in some classic matches between SFIII and SFIV, was in attendance to build on his legacy in fighting games with the series' newest iteration. Joining him was reigning Capcom Cup champion Kazunoko, as well as worthy contenders in Gamerbee, Poongko, Alioune and Keoma.
But the big story of this Kumite came from the Last Chance Qualifier. Valmaster and Big Bird were skilled enough to make it out of the 256 man qualifier to make it to the main event and for Big Bird, it was his coronation among the best in the FGC. Big Bird may have fallen to the losers bracket by the hand of Bonchan, but the young player bounced back to beat Gamerbee and past EVO Champion Xian to get a 5th place finish at the event. European players claimed the young UAE player as one of their own and had a rising star that they could rally behind in the new game.
The tournament - and most of the first year of SFV for that matter - would be defined by two players: Infiltration and Tokido. Infiltration was quick to realize just how important movement would become in the new game, and at Red Bull Kumite he looked untouchable, maneuvering around the reigning Kumite Champion Bonchan and booking his ticket to the Winners finals.
For Tokido, the name of the game in SFV was adaptation. He searched for a way to be aggressive with Ryu, a character that had limited tools, especially compared to his Akuma of old. Still he was able to out duel Daigo on the Ryu, along with taking down Justin Wong and the reigning Capcom Cup Champion Kazunoko. Waiting for Tokido would be a new demon: Infiltration.
The last two major events for Street Fighter V leading up to Kumite featured these two players in the grand finals. Tokido lost them both. But this weekend, Tokido was the only player to push Infiltration to the brink. He was able to get ahead 2-1 in the winners final match but ultimately fell 3-2. He got another shot at Infiltration in the Grand Finals and was able to shake his demon’s confidence with a reset. It wasn’t enough, however. For the third time in the year, Tokido would fall to Infiltration and earn second place. The future SFV EVO Champion had his first Red Bull Kumite trophy.
After a successful second invitational, the message was clear. Red Bull Kumite was a major force in the FGC, a tournament to aspire to. It established itself as a place where veterans and new talent could get the type of intensely focused matches reserved for those good enough to make the top 8 at the most prestigious events. More importantly, it did so while putting on an amazing show.
Where the tournament took itself next was entirely on the ability of the players to take things to a new level. Battles between the new generation of players and the established stars would become an important part of pushing the event from the octagon in the historic theater, to the mecca of fighting games in Japan and beyond.