So I should probably apologize for the lateness of this follow-up. I’ve been distracted for a while with some new ventures, including a less FGC-centric series of articles that I have been trying to get up and running. But I’m back, and I want to continue talking about my experience with MK9 and how it helped contribute to the player I am (or was).
Now where we…
Ah, yes! It’s 2012, and I’ve spent the better part of the last six months hunkering down and learning MK9 to the best of my knowledge. With the help of a great scene, I’m a lot better than I was back at the Devastation tournament in September, and I’ve learned a new character who was helping me make substantial progress in learning how to play the game at a high level. To further help, two of my scene’s players went to the NEC tournament in Philly and cleaned up, winning the tournament and taking a ton of heads with them. I couldn’t have been more pumped to continue my training, and already had my next big tournament in mind: Final Round.
Final Round in Atlanta, GA is a staple of the FGC. Atlanta has always been known for its terrifically strong Tekken scene, which meant that Final Round was the tournament for watching some of the best American players take on foreign competition and do well. I had finally saved up a bit of cash and was able to make it to 2012 event, and it was going to be a big one. Along with some of the already decent Atlanta MK9 players, players from New York and Pennsylvania would be coming, and from Florida and Illinois and every major hub of MK9 in the United States. This was going to be a huge event, and Arizona wasn’t going to miss it. Myself, Mark ‘Mortyseinfield” Camps, his brother Jeremy “Sao87” Camps, Branden “Bwizz” Hildenbrandt, and Alex “DetroitBallin” Rayis were going to go out and prove that AZ was a great scene.
Now at this time, I was getting confident. I would look at TestYourMight, the main forums for MK, and Twitter and other social media sites, and I remember laughing, thinking nobody seemed to have any idea about Kenshi, my character. He was described as flawed and unable to keep people from crossing him up with jump attacks, which I knew to be just be wrong. Not only did he have a move to make him go low under jump attacks, he had armor that hit above his head! How were people getting jumped on? I began to believe that it might just be up to me to show people what was up with Kenshi, starting at Final Round.
My training partners were encouraging, as they too believed in the strength of the character, and more and more I became convinced that we would all do well and really stick it to those New York players, whom I found unbearably cocky, as well as to some of the Atlanta players, whom I also felt were getting a little too big for their britches. We weren’t the only ones confident – the players in the Midwest were in the firm belief that they were the best players around, and they weren’t about to let the NY guys think that their shit didn’t stink. The old saying is that the enemy of my enemy is a friend, and the AZ players soon found kindred spirits in guys like Steve “16 Bit” Brownback and Brad “Slips” Vitale, who also didn’t care for the talk that NY was the best.
I’ve already written before about the legendary 5v5 team event that took place at FR 2012, but I want to go back to a week before that beatdown happened. I’m playing casuals at Morty’s house, and all of us were feeling pretty damn good about our chances. I myself was particularly riled up about some things the Atlanta players had been saying, and it just so happened that 16 Bit thought it might be a good idea to generate some hype going into the event. That night, DetroitBallin and myself huddled around Morty’s computer as 16 Bit and his podcast colleagues, Slips and K7, recorded a little bit of trash talk via Skype that they were going to upload in order to hype up the community. Thinking I had some fun things to say, Morty suggested I hop on and say something. And boy, did I ever!
Now the language in there is pretty harsh, but you have to remember it was all fun and games to us. We were arrogant and knew it, and to hell with anyone who thought we didn’t have a chance at doing well. So I took my shots and I aimed high, especially at LordoftheFly and Brant “Pig of the Hut” McCaskill, whom were pretty well known/loved community figures and guys who I felt had gotten swollen heads. Just like I told Slips, I was fully confident and ready to go and prove myself against the best in the world.
Now if only the damn tournament hadn’t happened.
Suffice it to say, I did not prove myself against the best in the world at Final Round because I didn’t get there. They say the prepared man is the safest man, but I wasn’t prepared, not by a long shot. I lost pretty badly to a player named GGA Jeremiah, who was infamous at the time for using Sheeva, who was often thought to be far and away the worst character in the game. He smashed me down because I had no idea what the hell I was doing, and it showed. I knew how to use and abuse most of Kenshi’s moves, but I had yet to grasp that just because I could act like it didn’t mean I was a good player. Jeremiah wasn’t the best player either, but he knew how to take advantage of someone who didn’t know what to do, and he did it well.
I stumbled through the losers bracket for awhile before losing pitifully to a Kung Lao player (KUNG LAOOOOOOO!!!!) whose name I unfortunately can’t remember. And that was it. I was out, and I had nothing to show for all my big talk. Because of the nature of the tournament and the fact that I stayed at a hotel outside of the venue, I didn’t even get to try and get some casual games in with really good players. My teammates didn’t fare too well either, with one big exception: DetroitBallin ended up placing 5th, with his crowning achievement being that he put the then unstoppable Guiseppe “REO” Grosso into losers. Worse still, Pig of the Hut, whom I gave a verbal smackdown to, placed 2nd by beating some very good competition. Clearly it was me who didn’t know what the fuck I was doing with Kenshi, and it shook me good.
So now I was home again, but I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t good enough to make any sort of waves in a tournament that wasn’t local, yet my training partner was clearly one of the best in the United States, if not the world? My brain wouldn’t let me handle it; there must have been some secret ingredient that I was missing, because that didn’t make any sense to me. So I started searching for answers: quick ones, easy ones, complicated ones, it didn’t matter. All I knew was that I had what appeared to be all the tools necessary to be good, and yet I wasn’t doing it. I was a failure, and failure has to lead to success, right?
Over that whole Summer, I struggled with the game. It showed in my play, too; uninspired, lazy. I was playing against Morty and Detroit and they were both playing Kabal, the best character in the game and probably one of the most frustrating I’ve ever had to deal with in my entire FGC life.
Kabal’s strength was that he controlled the whole screen. As you can see in the above gif, he’s able to use a fireball that he shoots across the screen with almost no recovery. If you were to try and jump on him, there was a good chance those blasts would hit you, and he had a dash move that went damn near full screen very fast and would put you in a comboable state. To add to all that, he also had very oppressive offense, which could put you in scenarios where the best thing possible was to try and poke back with a meager standing jab in a game that had no buffer system or any mercy for you making that mistake. It was brutal, and I was smashing my head against the matchup at least once or twice a week trying to figure it out.
I tried everything. New side character here or there, trying different strategies, etc. and outside of a few flukes here or there, I was getting nowhere past 3rd in our local tournaments. If it wasn’t Kabal beating me, it was Kung Lao, who I was almost comically impotent against. And playing and losing was the only way to do it; MK9 lacked anything resembling a proper and decent training mode. You couldn’t set up a small recording for the computer to do something, you could barely get it to block, and forget things like trying to figure out how to punish moves. It was hard trial and error, and I was really getting at my wit’s end, even though I played all the time.
And as usual, Alex just kept getting better and better. In June, Alex made history and won the Major League Gaming Anaheim event, placing first above both the then-dominant REO and previous Evolution champion, Carl “Perfect Legend” White. It was an incredibly strong performance, and going into Evolution 2012, he looked like he was well and truly the best player in the world. I wasn’t able to make Evo 2012, and he ended up getting 9th at the tournament; it was a staunch improvement from the his previous placing, but the rest of AZ went home from Evo 2012 disappointed, as no one else managed to have much success.
By September of 2012, I was pretty burnt out, and I think it showed in my play.
I ended up getting 3rd once again at this tourney, barely beating one Kung Lao and losing badly to another. To go along with it, my attitude was at an all-time low, I think. I can honestly say that during MK9 I wasn’t the best person to be around because I was just stuck in a rut, and I wasn’t exactly keen on listening to the people around me. In my mind, I knew what was best and knew how to fix my problem, and everyone around me was not at my level, so they didn’t understand.
I came to realize, eventually, that my problem mostly stemmed from trying too hard to forge an identity as a player rather than just being myself. Some of my training partners and my closest friends in the FGC were natural shit-talkers whose choice method for instilling confidence was to believe that most players were bad, a few were good, and you belonged in the latter group. Losing was only acceptable in certain circumstances, and, anything less than a top 8 performance was probably pretty shitty.
I don’t have a problem with this mindset – in fact it’s proven to be pretty successful for certain individuals in all walks of competitive sports/gaming – but it was fucking with me badly. Playing the game became an act of masochism, something I did to prove that I was good at it and not really for my own enjoyment, because the truth was I had begun to hate it. My inability to break the 3rd place cycle made all of the game’s flaws apparent to me, and even though I was playing one of the best characters in the game I still hated how the game operated. It wasn’t fair, dammit, and I hated that I wanted to be good at it because I couldn’t stand playing.
By the middle of October, however, something happened: we had new meat! The September tournament had brought an influx of new players to the scene, many of whom were eager to play and compete. I brother’d up to them quickly; I was desperate for someone new to play, as I had really been playing the same four/five guys for almost a whole year and was going nowhere, fast. Playing with the new guys, who were far more laid back in some ways, felt nice, and even though I was better than them, I never got bored or tired playing them.
I didn’t realize the effect the change in scenery had on me until roughly November, when at a dinky little hookah lounge that we had adopted as a tournament venue, I won a tournament
I. Won. A. Tournament.
I couldn’t believe it! This was not the first tournament I had ever won; I actually won a small Marvel vs. Capcom 3 tournament not too long after the game’s launch. Nevertheless, this was much sweeter, and I was exuberant. I beat Morty, who had long been my nemesis, and I did it twice, in both winner’s finals and grand finals. It was a great victory, but it was somewhat bittersweet: DetroitBallin had stepped away for awhile, real life evidently getting the better of him. It felt great to get one over on Morty, but Detroit was the real goal. Still, I pushed that to the back of my mind as I celebrated the win.
About a month or so later, Detroit re-appeared, and said he needed my help. He was going to go to SoCal Regionals, one of the few premiere tournaments on this side of the US, and he wanted some extra help learning how to fight Kenshi, my character. Evidently he was upset that my ‘ol buddy Pig of the Hut had said some things implying that he could beat him if they were to ever meet. Alex always loved a challenge, and I told him I would gladly help him out. We started training together again, and with both the high of my recent victory and the return of an old, strong training partner and a familiar nemesis, that same competitive fire from back in March at Final Round had returned!
But with that fire came everything else: the self-doubt. The hatred of the game. The self-loathing after any loss, even in casual sets, to players you deemed beneath you. It felt like in the three weeks leading up to the tournament, I somehow managed to unravel all of the positive progress I had done in my small victory, and, as always, it showed when I accompanied Alex and the rest of the newly formed AZ crew to SoCal Regionals.
Embarrassing. Once again, I had psyched myself up into believing that I could try a different character to help in a matchup I was unfamiliar with and struggling against (Yes that’s Freddy Krueger and no, don’t ask me why he’s in MK9. You should know the bit by now). The only thing I associate with this match now is the fact that I was trying to try a new tactic of listening to music while playing, and James Brown’s “Living in America” from Rocky IV was blasting in my ears as I had my ass thoroughly handed to me on a plate. I definitely identified with Apollo Creed more than I ever have before.
I was humiliated in winners, and again I limped along for a little in losers before getting put down. It was Final Round all over again, and the same shitty feeling had set in. Naturally, Alex ended up getting top 8 again, and that stuck in my craw as well. As usual, the new guys were handling their losses well, and I felt bad for beating myself up so much when they weren’t, but the real kicker came during the top 8. Alex got matched up against Pig of the Hut; you couldn’t write better drama! The match was insanely good too, coming down to the very last round of the last match.
In a miraculous round, Alex made two hail mary reads that are still among the most impressive things I’ve ever seen under pressure. For him, this was vindication: he had stepped away from the game but still felt he was bad enough to hang with the best, and even though he ended up taking 4th, he was on cloud nine.
For me, however, there’s one thing that stood out from everything else. As all the AZ crew and the crowd was celebrating Alex’s win, we all exchanged private congratulations. I shook his hand dutifully and told him I was very proud, and he smiled and simply said “Thanks, dog. For everything.” He later elaborated that he felt playing my Kenshi prepared him for Pig’s; the very move he does to take control of the final match is one he did on me all the time.
It was just four words, but it was then that it really hit home: I didn’t need to do well in the tournament to prove that I was good. Sure, it was nice for the thrill of it, as I had obviously felt when I won the local tournament a month earlier, but knowing that your friend, a strong, strong player, benefited from your play to the point that he’s able to defeat some of the very best players in the world? I’d chalk that up to one in the W column.
I don’t mean any of this to imply that I lived vicariously through Alex’s success; he was very much head and shoulders above me and his own skill factored heavily into his victories. What I mean is that I no longer felt that my only worth as a player, as a competitor, was in placing highly in a tournament; if one of the best players acknowledges that you are an able training partner, what else is there to say? Sure I may not be able to pull it together in tournament, but everyone who plays you thinks that you’re not half bad. Isn’t there some comfort in that?
As I thought more about it, there were a few other things that happened that, maybe, I should have been happier about. Before I was eliminated in the tournament, I beat Chris Gonzalez’ Reptile in losers. Chris G was an Evo Finalist for MK9 in 2011, and was having pretty decent placements even then in MK9, despite the fact that it was not his main game. The match was incredibly close, but I didn’t lose my nerve as I eliminated him. While I was reporting the score, I saw Armando “Angelic” Mejia, a very good MvC3 player from AZ, approach me and smile: “Dude that was awesome, you just beat Chris G! He can hold that shit!” When the match was first over, I was almost embarrassed; how could I lose to a guy who didn’t play the game as his main game, regardless of who it was? But when I relaxed, I realized that, in fact, Chris was (and still is) a great fighting game player who doesn’t frequently drop games in pools. I allowed myself to take pride in it, and it felt great.
The other thing: In casuals later that night, I played my friend 16 Bit for the first (but not the last) time. He throunced me, but it wasn’t a horrendous beating, more like won at a 7-3, 6-4 clip. I gave him a fist bump and said “Yeah, I know I need a lot of work,” and he just looked down at me confused and said, “You did fine, what are you so emo about?” What was I so emo about, I asked myself; Steve was one of the best players to ever play the game, and he didn’t annihilate you. Shouldn’t you be kinda stoked? And he subtly said you were okay, too?
Moments like those, and Alex’s earlier statement, made me realize that perhaps I needed to grow up. I should have been happier with the smaller accomplishments that happened along the way, like being consistently 3rd place instead of going 1-2, instead of seeing that as the height of stagnation. Had I tapered my goals a little, I may have realized just how far I’d come in the two years I spent playing it, and I could have ticked that problem solving box in my brain because I had been solving the problem all along: I had gone from not understanding the game at a competitive level at all, and now I was good enough that some of the best players in the world complimented my skill. How could I not be proud?
When Injustice: Gods Among Us was finally on the eve of release, all the AZ players knew that MK9 was probably going to be gone for good. There was, however, one last tournament series to play, and we all wanted to make sure we went out with a bang. It was on Sunday mornings, so Alex unfortunately could not show, but everyone else did, and we gave it our all, one last time.
With my renewed viewpoint, I’m proud to say that over that whole series, I won every single tournament, and without ever losing a set. Sure, I never was able to see if I could beat Alex in tournament, but all my old demons were finally exorcised, including that bastard Kung Lao!
Four straight tournament wins later, and I was the champion of the series. Injustice was around the corner, but I still think about that final MK9 run. It was the end of an era, and the play probably wasn’t as good as it could have been, but it felt great to just let go and have the fun that I used to have back when I started. That loose outlook is probably what lead me to rarely lose my composure, even when I was down in life and rounds. I was playing at what I felt was close to my (then) peak potential, and I wasn’t having those crippling feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing from before. Progress! I was by no means fully cured; every now and again, my ego could swell and I would say or post or think some stupid bullshit. But I was getting better at controlling it, at not letting it get in the way of me just plain ‘ol having fun.
And fun is, ultimately, what I associate MK9 with. The game is a buggy mess, and the fact that it was playable at a high level was probably more of an accident than anything, but it did so much for me: I met some great people, went to my first out of state tournament, won a few tournaments, and fell head over heels in love with all aspects of FGC life. It’s hard to hate a game for being flawed when you can remember being out ’til 3 AM playing it, arguing about it over shitty Denny’s meals after casuals, being in hotels in different states and watching drunken money matches in it, and posting matchup numbers for it on TYM that were deathly serious.
One last note: Even though I was mainly playing Injustice at the time, Alex once again asked me, a little before Evo 2013, to play the game again so he could train for the last big hurrah of MK9. I wasn’t there for it, but Alex finally got his long awaited (and deserved) Evo finalist medal that year. I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that.
Well, that finally about does her, wraps her all up. I didn’t mean to go on for so long, but what can I say? The game is very crucial to my development as a fighting game player, and I had a blast revisiting past me and laughing at all the mistakes I made but even better, I’m very content with the progress I’ve made since then.
As always, thanks so much for reading, and if you want more long, rambly, and sometimes insightful content, you can follow me on Twitter at @KingHippo42, where I do things like rant about wrestling and other pop culture but also, more importantly, will post whenever I have an update to this site. Until we meet again!