Sun-woong “LowHigh” Youn has been riding high since becoming Evo 2018’s Tekken 7 champion over the summer, and he entered last weekend’s tournament at The Mixup in Lyon, France as one of the favorites to win. As the event came to a close, however, he got eliminated handily by a local player.
Mickaïa “Kalak” Rabenja of France is not a household name, at least not in the same way as LowHigh. Where the Korean champion has overwhelmed global Tekken 7 competition for the past year, Kalak has only a few European placings to his name. His last showing at a tournament with a significant Korean presence, July’s VSFighting in the United Kingdom, saw him drop out early with a disappointing 25th place finish. Coming into the densely populated waters of The Mixup, Kalak needed a much better performance if he wanted to secure the ranking points provided by the Tekken World Tour stop.
Kalak did not have a smooth run to the finals bracket. Before top 32, he lost to Korea’s Hyun-ho “Rangchu” Jung, who has endeared himself to the international community by excelling with Panda, a weak and thus underrepresented member of the Tekken 7 cast. That loss dropped Kalak into the losers bracket with much of the tournament still ahead of him. From there, he had to beat Asim Ali, a mid-level player from the United Kingdom, and later, multi-game competitor Yota “pekos” Kachi of Japan. Kalak polished both of them off en route to the finals bracket.
LowHigh was the pinnacle of Kalak’s challenges at The Mixup. Their match would decide who remained in the tournament and who would go home in seventh place. With LowHigh sitting pretty in the Tekken World Tour standings thanks to his victory at Evo 2018, Kalak had barely broken into the European rankings before last weekend. Any additional points he could earn in France were crucial to his chances of a world finals appearance in December.
As the only non-Korean competitor left in the tournament, Kalak was also carrying the weight of not only his country but the entire European continent on his shoulders. Cries of “Allez!” (a French encouragement similar to “Let’s go!” in English) filtered through the crowd before the action started, and each of Kalak’s successful attacks were met with brief rumblings of excitement throughout. By using Katarina, a Tekken 7 newcomer that is capable of inflicting huge damage with relatively simplistic inputs, Kalak was able to punish LowHigh for his mistakes early on. Kalak managed to turn almost every hit he landed into a lengthy combo, and LowHigh kept seeing his own options restricted as he got pushed to the wall.
Even after Kalak pulled off a perfect round against LowHigh, the commentary team continued to give the Korean champ the benefit of the doubt, noting his performance at Evo 2018 and the supposed ability of Korean players to make comebacks on a dime. Kalak, however, proved to be the comeback king. After being reduced to a sliver of life in the fourth round, he combined two surprise low attacks with his character’s Rage—a mechanic that boosts a fighter’s power when they’ve been reduced to 20% health—and closed out the game, three rounds to one. The crowd lost their minds.
In the second game, LowHigh switched from Steve to Shaheen, arguably the closest thing he has to a main character despite playing a good chunk of the cast. The character change made it look like LowHigh was worried. And he should have been. Just as before, Kalak was able to find holes in his opponent’s defense and exploit them to maximum effect. At multiple points in the second game, Kalak simply stood still, waiting out LowHigh’s tricky offense with Shaheen. One huge whiff in particular showed just how deeply Kalak had infiltrated LowHigh’s mind and understood his strategies, and it wasn’t long before he recorded another win and eliminated the Korean champion.
After the victory, Kalak’s friends celebrated like he had just won the entire tournament, waving the flag of Madagascar (which Kalak also represents) on stage in front of a cheering audience.
Kalak’s proverbial Cinderella story came to a close in his very next match against Mu-jung “kkokkoma” Kim, but even in fifth-place, he definitely made his mark on his fellow competitors. When the Tekken 7 finalists were invited back on stage for the award ceremony, Korean players Jae-min “Knee” Bae, Sung-ho “Chanel” Kang, and Rangchu proudly waved the Malagasy flag while Kalak did the same with Korea’s further down the line. It was a heart-warming display of mutual respect that personified the fighting game scene’s expansiveness and diversity.
Just a few years ago, Kalak’s victory might have been passed around by word of mouth, but now, his performance on the official Tekken channel has quickly made him a mini-celebrity. The increased prevalence of live broadcasts has made it possible for fighting game players to make a name for themselves that extends beyond their local scenes, especially if they manage to defend their home turf. By virtue of beating someone from Korea—a powerhouse nation of Tekken talent—and the reigning Evo champ to boot, Kalak has marked himself as a player to keep an eye on, especially if he manages to make the Tekken World Tour finals later this year.
Ian Walker loves fighting games and writing about them. You can find him on Twitter at @iantothemax.