Over 800 fighting game players competed in San Jose, California last weekend at NorCal Regionals, an annual event first established in 2003. One of these competitors was the recent winner of the Dragon Ball FighterZ world championships. Another was a totally unknown player attending his very first tournament. These two competitors couldn’t have been more different, and their eventual meeting served as the perfect example of what sets the fighting game community apart.
Ryota “Kazunoko” Inoue has long been considered one of the greatest fighting game players of all time thanks to his ability to pick up almost any game and excel. Over the last decade, Kazunoko has found success in everything from Street Fighter to Guilty Gear, but his champion-level skill in Dragon Ball FighterZ might be his most impressive feat to date due to the game’s sheer depth of talent. Everyone and their mom seems to have started competing in the anime-inspired three-on-three fighter, including community legend Goichi “GO1” Kishida and genre wunderkind Dominique “SonicFox” McLean. That makes Kazunoko’s accomplishments that much more extraordinary.
Since winning the world championship this past January, Kazunoko has been the man to beat when it comes to Dragon Ball FighterZ competition. He entered NorCal Regionals fresh off a runner-up finish to GO1 at the Atlanta-based Final Round in March, on track to continue his streak of strong first- and second-place performances that stretches back to August of last year. Looking at his early bracket, it was hard to imagine him having a difficult time qualifying out of pools. Sure, players like Gabriel “Jibrill” Lam and Kyle “KyleP” Palsson bring a measure of finesse to the table thanks to their time as high-level Marvel vs. Capcom players in Seattle, but the smart money was on Kazunoko quickly moving onto later stages of the tournament without much trouble. As he entered winners finals of his pool, Kazunoko had just one obstacle to deal with in order to qualify for top 16: Bryan “bryanhakai” Trinh.
To say Trinh was Kazunoko’s polar opposite would be an understatement. Playing Dragon Ball FighterZ as his very first fighting game and attending his very first tournament in NorCal Regionals, the 20-year-old competitor was like a baby fish who’d been dropped into the world’s largest ocean. Even with almost 2000 hours of play time online, Trinh’s training paled in comparison to the Japanese powerhouse’s decades of veteran experience. As such, Trinh’s expectations were low before he even reached the qualifying match against Kazunoko.
“Going into NorCal Regionals, I was the lowest seed in my pool, projected to get double eliminated round one,” Trinh told Kotaku via email. “My first match was against the second highest seed in my pool besides Kazunoko, who was projected to play him in winners finals pool and end up making it out in the losers side. I have always been a big fan of Kazunoko, and when I saw that he was in my pool, I was very scared while being excited to have the chance to face the world champion. Before my match with Kazunoko, I honestly did not have any high expectations and thought I’d get bodied hard to be honest. I just wanted to have fun playing him on stream.”
As the two players sat down to play their broadcasted match, commentators Chris “Hellpockets” Fields and Sami “Samifish” Nash called attention to the disparity, referring to Trinh as a “secret killer” in comparison to Kazunoko’s obvious status as a Dragon Ball FighterZ god. But the fighting game community (and also, human beings in general) loves an underdog. After Trinh’s surprisingly close loss to Kazunoko in the first game, the commentators adjusted accordingly, factoring in their newfound esteem for Trinh’s clear skills.
At the beginning of the second game, Trinh caught two of Kazunoko’s characters in one combo (otherwise known as a “happy birthday”), giving him an almost immediate advantage. Unlike the initial match, Trinh managed to stave off Kazunoko’s comeback and tie the game count at one apiece, letting out a sigh of relief when the stream switched to the player camera. In the third and final game, Trinh would again take an early lead, only to see the health and character differential negated by Kazunoko’s ability to play in the clutch. But with one final air-to-air attack, the newcomer would seal his win against the world champion with a 2-1 finish, eliciting celebration from the gathered audience members who, one by one, approached the stage to congratulate him. In the end, Trinh ended his NorCal Regionals run in seventh place.
“I somehow managed to take the early lead every game and didn’t allow Kazunoko to open up with superdash and assist,” Trinh explained to Kotaku. “I dropped a lot of my combos and missed my touch-of-deaths due to the unfamiliarity with PlayStation 4, and I was very nervous throughout the match, which lead to some bad decisions. I was very scared of Kazunoko and his comeback potential after he made the one-on-three comeback with Yamcha in the first game. I treated the match like I’d treat any match I’ve played online and just kept up my general gameplan and playstyle.”
Going from an online background to an offline tournament can be difficult. After years of poor netcode, many fighting game players believe that getting a majority of your practice online can breed bad habits in otherwise smart players. Trinh agrees with this and noted that netplay is “notorious for scrubby play and mashing.” But the other side of the coin is that he can immediately find matches with a wide array of players, training against teams that might not be popular in high-level play and executing his strategies in a low-stress environment. As for what he thought of his first tournament experience, Trinh is excited to attend additional events and get more involved with the in-person competitive scene in the future. He even plans to begin training with fellow NorCal competitor Vineeth “Apologyman” Meka, an incredible Dragon Ball FighterZ player in his own right.
The fighting game community is different from most traditional esports in that scenarios like Trinh’s play out all the time. Unlike games like League of Legends and Overwatch, which are team-based games with stratified leagues that don’t have open pools for “anyone” to enter, fighting game competition tends to be all about giving everyone a chance to compete on an even playing field. To paraphrase community veteran James Chen, any player can enter any grassroots tournament and potentially get matched up against the fighting game equivalent of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. This in turn gives us stories like the one that played out at NorCal Regionals, where someone with zero past showings like Trinh can attend an event and send the reigning world champion to the losers bracket. As history has shown, it’s futile to deem anyone “the best in the world” with our limited scope of the competitive landscape, and it’s also exciting to think that someone out there, practicing online and unknown, is just one small tournament entry fee away from greatness.
“Everyone has a chance to win if you give yourself the opportunity to compete,” Trinh concluded. “Everyone should try to get themselves out there, because they never really know their potential unless they try it out themselves. No matter how I perform from now on, I will always remember NorCal Regionals and be proud I took off a set off the Dragon Ball FighterZ champ and made it to top 8 in my first tournament.”
Ian Walker loves fighting games and loves writing about them even more. You can find him on Twitter at @iantothemax.