Combo Breaker is the heart

[This essay was originally published in the CB2020 zine. It looks prettier there.]

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Rick asked me if I was interested in writing something about Combo Breaker a while ago. I said yes and immediately put it off. Months later, he hit me up asking if I was still interested, because he was planning on doing a zine or something since he had to call off CB due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Are you gonna be boned by this?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he replied, “very boned.”

I put off writing it a little bit longer. Truth is, I’ve wanted to write something about Combo Breaker ever since I started going, and I simply haven’t been able to do it. Each time I’ve tried, I end up taking some notes and then walking away. It’s because — and I mean this — I don’t think my words can do Combo Breaker justice. But no one ever won without pressing buttons, so here we go.

I came up in Northern California, which had a strong scene but felt a bit chilly, back when fighting game players were young and mean. My introduction to the Midwest FGC was UFGTX and Frosty Faustings VII; I remember being surprised by the warmth I felt. It really came through while we were outside in January, freezing our butts off during a fire alarm.

So: It wasn’t a hard sell to get me to come back out for Combo Breaker. My first year was 2017, and it was perfect. It started with the SFO security folks seeing my stick show up on the x-ray and asking if we were going to Combo Breaker (thank you, brothers, for recognizing the game). I got into O’Hare when everything was closed and empty, took a quiet cab ride into the deep dark Illinois nighttime sky, and talked shop with some anime players from Florida while picking up some late night pizza and wings at Rosati’s. When it came time for my Guilty Gear pools, I played them, got bodied by Soomin’s Venom, double-perfected on stream by PepperySplash’s Johnny, and walked away expecting the post-pool salty sulk to wash over me in a wave of why-am-I-doing-this-anyway and is-this-really-even-worth-it self-pity.

It didn’t happen. Not for a single moment! I looked up for a second and saw people playing some GG casuals at some open setups, and I joined them. It’s hard to stay mad when Gear is here; it’s even harder when Moondawgie shows up, introduces his backpack full of Rolling Rock, and starts handing ’em out like a bonafide American folk hero. Rick, in all his infinite event planning wisdom, has discovered a single foundational truth that is the key to all fighting game event production:



Evo is a tournament where you see your friends from across the world in the Mandalay Bay hallways and say “Let’s play some games later”, because you’re going somewhere and they’re going somewhere else, but you never play those games. Combo Breaker is a tournament where you see your friends from across the world and say “Let’s play some games” and then you go do that, immediately, because you are never more than fifteen feet away from an open setup at all times. Other tournaments may deliver spectacle, but Combo Breaker is the best event for people who want to play some fighting games.

Truth is, I’ve never had more fun losing at a tournament than I have at Combo Breaker. Gastly’s Venom and Majin Obama’s Bedman in 2018, Geodude’s Dizzy and Morgan’s Elphelt in 2019 (that’s right, not her Haehyun). Get booted out of the bracket and go get some Portillo’s (big beef, dipped, with cheese fries please), wrap up your Mystery Game matches and hop on this Lou Malnati’s. Walk over to the retro room to catch some CvS2 and get entranced by someone running Shrek Super Slam or Rumble Fish 2 by the poolside BYOC lineup. Fighting games all the time, fighting games everywhere.

Perhaps the most magic Combo Breaker memory of mine was bringing my wife for her first year, when she did the key art in 2019, and we got to see her work wrapping every wall and person within view. We lounged by the Guilty Gear casuals setups late into the night, beating on one Venom player, then another and another, until half the dang Venom Discord showed up and turned it into an impromptu kumite. (Gastly and I were planning on organizing a proper Chipp vs. Venom showdown this year, too…)

Combo Breaker is TuboWare’s expert auctioneering routine. It’s Chicago’s Own Mystery Tournament. It’s the Sarvets All Stars exhibition. It’s the crowd chanting “Drink that water” *clap* *clap* *clapclapclap*, it’s washing down The Popcorn Baron’s Garlic Habanero with nine dollar gamer cocktails, it’s late night long sets with strangers, it’s seeing the security guards sneak off for a quick round of Tekken. It’s wandering around desperately looking for food on Sunday night, after it’s all over and everything is closed. It’s getting to O’Hare and finding gateside casuals to tide yourself through withdrawal (and flight delays).

Combo Breaker is the realization that the destination means nothing and the journey means everything. Only the Combo Breaker crew could turn the Mega Center (RIP to our favorite dilapidated resort) into an international destination for a weekend. Instead of going to a tournament feeling like you’re ready to blow everyone up, it feels like you’re going to a party to find people to vibe with. Instead of playing casuals to prepare for a tournament, you’re going to a tournament to play some casuals.

There are three S-tier tournaments in North America. Evo represents our love of competition, and CEO embodies our flair and showmanship. Combo Breaker is the camaraderie we forge through endless runbacks. Combo Breaker is the heart.

But there will be no Combo Breaker this year. Not because of a surprise venue change, which the Combo Breaker team busted their butts to prepare for, but because a global pandemic has left us locked down in our corners. So we must hold the pressure; we will not mash on coronavirus; we will stay safe and enjoy netplay, keeping the spirit of COMBO BREAKER alive in our hearts until 2021, where we can fight, yell, eat, and drink once again and forever.


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