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I dropped my wife off at the airport on Saturday morning and was expecting to spend a rainy day at home, hanging out stoned on the couch watching the UFC with my dog and cat. (We all get pretty sad when she’s not here, and the couch is a good place for us to mope together.) But I’ve got a Twitter habit I’m trying to kick, and in the mentions I saw Hagure, a local old game TO, asking if any of the regulars were planning on making it out to NorCal Crabattle, his monthly game night running out of Myung’s Gamecenter. Normally I have a hard time justifying going out for an 8PM Capcom vs. SNK 2 tournament (this game takes forever) but some folks from SoCal were coming up specifically for CvS2, and I felt like I had a responsibility to welcome them.

You see, CvS2 has always been NorCal’s game.

It was CvS2 that got me deep into competitive fighting games. As a hugely nerdy kid growing up in the Bay Area, I didn’t leave the house much until I got bitten by the CvS2 bug, which got me BARTing, busing, and begging for rides to locals from Berkeley to Sunnyvale. But it wasn’t until I started traveling outside California for fighting games, decades after the Mark of the Millennium, when I realized that NorCal was just better at it than most.

For the most part, the NorCal FGC has moved on to newer and shinier things, but a few folks still keep the old ways alive. Hagure and Warzard run CvS2 once or twice a month out of Gamecenter, and Adina and the WNF Oakland gang run it every now and then across the Bay. And while Ricki and John Choi have left their CvS2 days past, a few of the old die-hards — Señor Payaso, Leezy, Dr. B, David A, myself, and a few others — still play from time to time, keeping our hands’ memories alive for another year of side tournaments. Another year of losing to BAS, if we’re lucky. I like to say that I’m not a good fighting game player, I’ve just got a resume full of losses to good fighting game players.

I turned on my PS2 and started going through my old practice rituals: warm up with Kyo and Sagat links, some super combos, then play around with some of my side characters to explore their toolset a little more. It felt like an old dance. David A texted me telling me he was planning on coming through. We became friends through CvS2. He’s one of my oldest friends, now. Said he was meeting up with another old friend who has a new baby, but he’d come down afterwards.

Recently, David and I were talking about how we had never really approached CvS2 with the same kind of rigor and attention to detail that new fighting games demanded. With that in mind, I explored some guard crush strings with Kyo and found some old stuff that was new to me. Then I warmed up my Nakoruru. I’m a little bit of a weirdo when it comes to CvS2 players because I like to go wide, rather than deep, and I’m still adding characters to my tournament pool. (See me in random select / random groove.)

I tried running Nak against David a bit a while back. “Man, Nak just kinda sucks.”

The rain was still coming down when I left for Gamecenter, and it rained the whole drive up. When I got there, I spotted two unfamiliar faces playing CvS2 and figured they were our guests. I called next and watched the two scrap. One of them had a four game streak over the other, but was barely edged out. The remaining player had picked K-Kyo, Chun-Li, and Ryu.

CvS2 players usually play off-picks when playing casuals before a tournament. This is a handy habit for a few reasons. One is just to sandbag your warmups: CvS2 characters handle similarly enough to each other that you can get good warmups in without having to show your Business Team to new folks. But the other reason is, weirdly enough, out of politeness. If you’re playing the game against someone who doesn’t know how to play as or against the top tier characters, you will be playing a one-sided game that is no fun for either player. Picking anchor Ryu is a pretty good sign that you normally play Sagat in that slot but you want to have more fun.

So I played my casual team as well, mirroring the K-Kyo and Ryu picks and adding Nakoruru in the middle. CvS2 characters are like Pokemon; you want to level up the weaker ones by getting them low-stakes experience. We swung at each other for a couple games before the other player returned to round out the rotation. Very solid players, the two of them, with good-enough combo execution that it was clear they played somewhat regularly and liked to scrap. I won some, I lost some.

I didn’t need to talk to them to guess they were the LA guests. NorCal players don’t play as aggressive as these two did because we were trained to be patient, each of us, by Ricki’s Vega cMP. To play CvS2 in NorCal at its peak was to wade through and endless slog of patient Cammy/Blanka/Sagats, runaway Vega, and turtle A-Sakura/Bison/Blanka. We learned to play slow because we lost if we didn’t. The clock and the meter were our strongest weapons. Anything else was considered irresponsibly scrubby excess.

I see Mr. Warzard. “Thanks for coming,” he says to me, “I didn’t want to have to defend the North myself.”

The ST tournament started first. I’m convinced that Myung pays the rent on Gamecenter just because he wants to beat up a bunch of anime kids with Vega walldive. Well, Vega walldive won him the whole dang tournament. I got third, losing to a real solid Zangief player who almost reset the bracket on Myung. I think if he had managed a reset Myung would have picked Akuma. Frankly, if I ran my own arcade I’d probably do the same thing.

CvS2 started just in time for David to text me:

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Today I learned that David vs. Henny is a 10–0 matchup.

It’s up to me to defend NorCal’s honor. To be honest, I’m feeling a little bit stressed about it. I’m the weakest of the gatekeepers for sure. Leezy and Payaso are our most consistently strong active players and will beat up just about anyone short of BAS. Dr. B has an unorthodox playstyle that can easily get the mental guard break in a tournament set. David’s patience and muscle memory lets him chew up pretty much anyone who can’t deal with good roll canceling and footsies. I don’t have anything I’m quite so confident in. If anything, my CvS2 legacy is mostly choking under tournament pressure. We’ll see how this goes.

The early rounds play out; I get a first round bye as the only seeded player, and got a fairly easy win against a local named JDR. Another local player named Danny (C-groove Ken or Blanka/Vega/Sagat) takes on one of the visitors — Windyman (N-Maki/Kyo/Hibiki). I don’t remember seeing Danny around recently, but his is a pretty common type of NorCal CvS2 team, and he’s got some roll cancels in his pocket that Windyman has to adjust to. But Windyman comes out with a clean win, and the next match I see is the second LA player, Poetic Shinobi, taking his K-Kyo/Chun-Li/Sagat (see?) against Mr. Warzard.

Mr. Warzard puts in a strong performance and I can tell that he’s getting stronger, but he’s not used to dealing with classic SoCal rushdown and gets tilted. I get it. He plays K-Cammy/Geese/Sagat. Cammy is short; Geese and Sagat are two of the taller characters in CvS2, and it’s easy for your defensive timing to be thrown off when you go from one to the others. It’s my turn, now. I think I’ve gotten the data I need.

I play against Poetic Shinobi in Winner’s Semis, and I go into this set with the confidence that my sandbagging casual teams beat his sandbagging casual teams, so I pick my business team — K-Kyo/Vega/Sagat — into his K-Kyo/Chun-Li/Sagat. We play a mostly even back-and-forth until we get to the Sagat mirror. His Sagat makes a few mistakes in quick succession and doesn’t even get to land a hit. I’m feeling good, but I know that matchup can be very swingy, so it’s by no means a blowout. Second game, he swaps his Kyo for Cammy, I pull ahead with Vega but lose the lead to a raw Chun-Li level 3, and then it’s my turn for my Sagat to choke. 1–1.

I switch my Kyo out for Athena; I don’t like playing Kyo into Cammy, and Athena is one of those picks that often throw people off. She’s simple but strong, and if you don’t know the matchup it’s a hard one to learn on the fly. The pick pays off and my girl Athena runs through most of his team. Sagat is the one to send Shinobi to losers, but it’s mostly a formality.

Next is Windyman, waiting in Winners Finals. We went even in casuals, but he wasn’t playing sandbag picks; his Maki is the Real Deal. I start out with the Athena pick over Kyo because I’m guessing he’s practiced the Maki/Kyo matchup against Shinobi. (I think I’m like, one of three people who has ever won a match with Athena in tournament.) Athena does okay, but Sagat ends up doing the heavy lifting to get to his anchor Hibiki, and that matchup is a back-and-forth slugfest that comes down to the last hit. My Sagat manages to barely backdash out of range of a running slash, and I land a fireball to kill. Too close.

My Athena does more work in Game 2, but his Kyo comes back to even things up and it’s back to Sagat vs. Hibiki. Hibiki eats an empty jump low level 3 and a jumpin combo, and is almost dizzied when I get caught by her counter and Windyman goes for a level 3 of his own. Unfortunately, he chose the cooler-looking super (blackout), which has a much more finicky hitbox. I end up closing out the round by eating an jumping roundhouse and throwing Hibiki out of landing recovery.

He’s pretty obviously feeling disappointed. Shinobi gives him a consolation shrug. “Man, you hit that all the time in practice,” he says. But Gamecenter is cold, especially in February. I started wearing fingerless gloves (well, mittens, actually) a couple months ago while playing in part to help deal with cold hands in tournament, and I think they just paid off.

Windyman is now in losers, and only one of them can make it back to me. I’m happy I won, but hoping my legacy of choking in tournament doesn’t come through today. It was a 2–0, but it was probably the least confident 2–0 I’ve ever won. But first, they’ll have to make it through Danny.

Danny’s hands and head are looking a bit better than they did at first. He takes Poetic Shinobi down to a super close game, ending it with a blocked Sagat super into blocked DP to kill. Had Shinobi crouch-blocked the DP, I think he would have survived it, punished, and won, but that extra hit of block damage caused by standing tall did him in. I asked him why he was standing and he said he was trying to Just Defend it. K-Groove: it be like that sometimes.

Windyman plays against Danny in Losers Finals; it’s a runback from their round 1 match, but this time Danny is the warmer player, and he’s no longer playing blind into Windyman’s team. It’s another fairly close one, but Danny takes the win. He’s playing a more-optimal team with more-optimal execution, and Windyman just can’t help but eat every single roll super Danny throws out.

So now it’s Danny and I in Grand Finals. This isn’t about NorCal and SoCal any more, it’s just about me. There is a voice in my head telling me it’s fine, it’s over, you can just play the game now, you did what you came here to do. It’s telling me not to bother because you’ll never be as good as the players above you, telling me this doesn’t matter because it’s not like anyone good showed up, telling me it just knows you’re going to choke here, just like you’re choked in every CvS2 tournament worth a damn in the last eighteen years. That you’re going to lose, that you deserve to lose, because you never had the discipline or the confidence to master the advanced techniques.

It’s telling me my kung-fu is weak.

And so we sit down to play.

I know from having watched him that he’s got some of the standard scary stuff. Enough roll cancel to be scary, some decent Ken combos, a solid runaway Vega. But he also wasn’t clean enough on the combos to make the C-Groove worth it — one of the main strengths of C-Groove is that your meter access is a consistent threat, unlike the SNK grooves — and his main use for meter was just roll super with Sagat, which was easy enough to see coming.

I start with Athena/Vega/Sagat, expecting the Athena/Vega to trade roughly equally with his Vega/Blanka. These characters are mostly about doing damage on pokes and footsies, and nothing I saw of Danny thus far made me feel like I was at a disadvantage in that game.

And then his Vega and Blanka ran me over. Both of those characters tend to win in neutral a lot more than they lose, and once they have momentum going — the clock, the meter, the character lead — it’s easy for them to put the opponent on tilt. I swung and I swung and I didn’t shit. I couldn’t even see his anchor. The voices got louder. I felt a very familiar sinking feeling in my stomach. Here we go again.

Back to character select. CvS2 comes from before they invented instant rematches in the Vs. mode play flow, so you have to re-pick your stage, handicap, groove, team, order, and ratio allocation in-between every match.

I need to deal with his Vega.

I could try and run it back with Athena. He just wrecked your Athena.

I could pick Kyo and hope that I could catch a steamroll — he’s not great against Vega and Blanka in neutral, but he’s got a puncher’s chance at big damage if he gets going. He just beat two other Kyos who were at least as good as you.

I could pick Cammy? Blanka? You haven’t played those characters for years and you dropped them because you were trash with them. Hibiki? Yamazaki? Haohmaru? You’ve never played any of them in tournament before.

I could pick Nakoruru. Nakoruru? She just kinda sucks.

Fuck it. Danny hasn’t seen my Nakoruru yet because he wasn’t playing casuals earlier. Most people probably haven’t ever played against a Nakoruru. And I’m still in winners, so I can afford to lose another game to see if he’s ready for the matchup.

I pick Nakoruru. He can’t deal with Nakoruru. He can’t deal with her annoying ass jumping light kick that gets over most of Vega’s buttons, he can’t deal with her walkup jab pressure, he can’t deal with her Elena-style healing super. Nak and Vega do the work and Sagat cleans up. And game 3 is basically a repeat with Ken in Blanka’s place.

I shake Danny’s hand. “That Vega is nasty, man.”

He responds. “Only character I know how to play.”

The rain is still coming down. It’s almost midnight and I need to head home. I say my goodbyes. I tell Warzard if he ever plays anyone from SoCal, just let them run into your big ass buttons.

This wasn’t a tournament with the real good players. This doesn’t change the rankings. I’m still the weakest gatekeeper, and I win by picking dumb gimmick characters that the real good players know how to beat. And I’m eating instant ramen and frozen dumplings for dinner at midnight because I’m too tired to even get fast food.

But today, I defended our honor. I won. And the next time I hear that voice I’m going to tell it to shut the fuck up.

The next day, the rain clears up.

You can watch the tournament stream archives at NorCal Crabattle on Twitch. Thanks to Hagure, Myung, and everyone at Gamecenter keeping the old games alive. Support your locals and play our history.

Thanks for reading!

💪😎👍❤

-patrick miller

follow on twitter / support on patreon / watch on twitch

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