The King of Fighters is the soccer of fighting games. It has a reach that touches every part of the globe. Most fighting games have two or three key countries that make up the vast majority of its players, but KOF is not one of them. Granted, it's mostly known for its massive followings in China and Mexico, but it's a series that sees the most varied country representation every time it shows up at Evo. To prove this point, let's look at the countries represented in this year's top 8 for KOFXIV: China, Taiwan, United States, Japan, Mexico, and United Arab Emirates. Eight players from six different countries. This has only happened three times before: for Super Street Fighter IV in 2012, King of Fighters XIII in 2013, and King of Fighters XIII again in 2014. Three out of the four times this amount of global diversity has occurred, it was thanks to KOF, demonstrating that it is indeed the world's fighting game.
This past weekend, at Evo 2017, The King of Fighters XIV had the lowest turnout of all games in the event's lineup, with only 374 entrants. The game drew some criticism for this, with some bemoaning the number as the reason for the game not “deserving” to be at Evo. However, these cries did not stir any of the people who did sign up for the tournament. Instead, they showed up, played their hearts out, and despite the turnout, put on what many consider the best top 8 of the whole weekend. Aside from the variety of countries represented, there was also a variety of characters and no shortage of upsets, drama, emotion, passion, and unrelenting hype. If anything, the small amount of entrants actually helped guarantee a high density of top players in pools, making the tournament worth watching from morning to night for the entirety of Evo's first day.
While there were many bouts worth talking about, the biggest one was, without question, grand finals. One of the participating players is Xiaohai, a Chinese fighting game legend who also plays Street Fighter professionally but is mostly known as possibly the best KOF player in the entire world, and everyone's undeniable favorite to win the whole tournament. He dominated his way through most of the bracket until top 8, where he was immediately sent to the losers side in a shocking upset caused by Mexico's own LuisCha. They met later in losers finals, where Xiaohai achieved his revenge and eliminated LuisCha. The second participant is Huomao's E.T., a Taiwanese player who isn't as well-known as his opponent but still a force to be reckoned with.
The most recent Evo history between these two players dates back to Evo 2014, where both Xiaohai and E.T. manage to make it to top 8 on the winners side in the tournament for KOFXIII. However, when they battled in winners finals, E.T. was defeated and sent to losers finals, where he was finished off by Tokido (yes, the Tokido who is this year's Street Fighter V champion) who was then sponsored by Mad Catz and active in multiple games at once. Thus, E.T. was roadblocked by his Chinese rival who went on to defeat Tokido in grand finals in a long, suspenseful match, and procure the Evo championship trophy. Now, here they meet again, three years later and on the same stage, but their circumstances reversed: E.T. now stands tall and safe in the winners side, while Xiaohai has to claw his way up from the disadvantageous losers bracket.
The first two games of the match consisted of E.T's team of Leona, Daimon, and Benimaru, (Leona and Benimaru make up part of the game's higher tier while Daimon, a grappler, isn't quite viewed so favorably) and Xiaohai's team of Robert, Kula, and his famous Iori (again, all considered high tier characters). Both games ended in E.T's favor, but not before a few close calls due to some questionable decisions at the end of each game (unoptimized meter spending and unsuccessful wake-up Climax moves) presumably caused by nervousness, and it's easy to guess as much due to the perpetual expression of worry E.T. seemed to have whenever the camera was on him. However, Xiaohai made one small adjustment, switching out Kula for his own Benimaru, and fortune began to swing in his favor, eventually allowing him to tie it up 2-2.
For the fifth game, E.T. decided to make his own team change, opting to switch out Leona for Clark, another grappler that isn't considered particularly strong, but is a spectator favorite. Unfortunately, his Clark didn't last long, as he was dismantled by Xiaohai's Robert. They continued to trade wins until the fifth round of the fifth game, where Xiaohai's devastating Iori went up against E.T's Daimon who had a 20% health deficit due to dealing with Xiaohai's Benimaru in the previous round. Things seem to go south very quickly as Xiaohai unleashes a brutal combo that took a massive chunk of Daimon's health away. But, E.T. used Xiaohai's unrelenting aggression to his advantage by throwing out a wake-up Super climax move, which connected successfully and caused the crowd and commentators Hellpockets and Meta Abe to all erupt in shock and joy.
"The command grab! DON'T WAKE DADDY!"—Hellpockets, reacting to E.T's hail mary wake-up super
With half of Iori's health gone in the blink of an eye, Xiaohai found himself in a tough spot. He played much more cautiously, obviously desperate to achieve the reset. However, E.T's patience soon lead Daimon into a lengthy combo ending with another Climax move, which ended the match and the tournament. The crowd exploded into cheers and E.T. understandably popped out of his seat to celebrate, soon collapsing to the floor in sheer happiness and excitement while being awarded with praise from his peers of varying ethnicities. And so, the Taiwanese warrior finally took home the trophy he had hoped to win since his abrupt elimination three years prior that got him close enough to merely brush his fingertips against the sensation of victory, instead of grasping it completely.
Many believe that a bracket reset always elevates the hype level of a grand finals, and that's usually true. But in this case, perhaps Xiaohai obtaining that reset would have swung the momentum entirely in his favor and landed him the win, thus temporarily prolonging the suspense only for the tournament to end predictably. Granted, it's hard to say that would've happened for certain, as the match is in the past now, but the ending we've received is still brimming with no short measure of intensity, emotion, and satisfaction.
Congratulations to E.T. and a big thank you to the passionate KOF fans and talented commentators at Evo who further elevated the atmosphere of the tournament. And if you wish to watch this amazing top 8 for yourself, you can do so here, at the primary Evo Twitch channel.
Did you watch the KOFXIV top 8? Which matches were your favorites? Do you hope KOFXIV returns next year? Let us know in the comments below!