When you woke up this morning you heard the birds sing a song. To most, it sounded like mere tweeting, but to you it sounded like rejoicing. The prophecy has been fulfilled, for our lord and savior Daigo Umehara has returned to us. Daigo Umehara has won a tournament, and we are all better humans because of it.
Also, Du "NuckleDu" Dang ended the West Coast's iron grip on the North American circuit, but we'll get to that in a bit. For now, let's discuss the rise, death, rebirth and return of The Beast.
The Beast Returns
To be perfectly fair to Daigo, he didn't really go anywhere this season. He ended 2015 on a high note, taking second at the Capcom Cup Finals, and kicked off his 2016 season with a Top 8 finish at Stunfest.
But Daigo has looked a little shaky for a guy who absolutely dominated Ultra Street Figther IV. The game is different, certainly, but fundamentals are what matter early on in a game's life, and Daigo is the master of fundamentals.
While Daigo has placed in the Top 8 of most tournaments he's attended in the past few months, he's dropped out in Top 16 or lower three times. Once at Red Bull Kumite, where a loss to Bruce "GamerBee" Hsiang revealed Daigo's Necalli problem for the first time, and then at TWFighter Major and EVO, both of which ended with losses to Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi. Daigo's problem has been a combination of an unfortunate set of bad matchups (he struggled against Chun-Li as well as Necalli) and a handful of really bad brackets — no one wants to face off against Tokido before Top 8.
Still, you can make a pretty compelling argument that Daigo was off his game. Sure, he was making Top 8, but he was consistently stalling out before Grand Finals. And he wasn't really losing to bad players either, he was just losing to the same handful of players and characters. That's not the Daigo we know. It's not the Daigo who can handle bad matchups and turn things around with clutch comebacks. It's not the Daigo that the prophet Jiyuna saw in a dream. No, the prophecy told of a Daigo who could conquer his bad matchups, who could shimmy any poke, who could Umeshoryu his way to victory.
That's the Daigo we saw at E-Sports Festival Hong Kong.
ESFHK was a fairly stacked tournament. Daigo out-placed Zhuojun "Xiao Hai" Zeng and Kun "Xian" Xian-Ho, and beat Hiroyuki "Eita" Nagata and Ryo "Dogura" Nozaki. He beat some of the best, particulary Eita, who he took down 3-0 in the Winner's Finals then 3-1 in the Grand Finals. Eita took 7th-8th at EVO — so he's no slouch — but Daigo shredded him. The Ken player could barely approach through Daigo's fireball war, then tilted hard enough to get hit by an unblockable Critical Art setup.
Daigo's win propels him to second on the CPT Asia-Oceania Leaderboards and puts GamerBee in the Regional Qualifier (as both Daigo and Eita have already qualified). But Daigo managed to dodge Necalli all throughout his bracket. He beat Ryus, Kens, Chun-Lis and a Cammy, but no Necallis. Daigo definitely beat good players at ESFHK, but without beating a Necalli the victory feels a little hollow.
The tournament also marked the beginning of Daigo's 13-week CPT tour, which will see him hit up tournaments in every region, including two Premier events. Time will tell if Daigo has really conquered his demons and returned to his rightful place at the top, but for now, the wandering warrior is seeking his next challenge.
The East Coast didn't go anywhere either
Yes, NuckleDu is the first East Coast player to win a North American ranking tournament. But that's largely because New York's best players have left for the far sunnier state of California — remember that Justin Wong and Ricki Ortiz are both from New York, and even Chris "NYChrisG" Gonzalez is now in Los Angeles. With NYC's former talent mostly concentrated in NorCal these days, it's not hard to see why the West Coast has dominated the NA circuit so far.
Despite the old New York vs. California rivalry, one city is not the entire right side of America. Du, who hails from Florida, has already qualified for the NA regional finals, and is 13th on the global CPT leaderboards. Given that fact, it's hard to say that the East is suddenly experiencing some revival of talent with this win. Du happens to be one of the only really strong East Coasters left, and New York needs to step its game up if it wants to keep its end of the rivalry alive.
All that said, Du had a pretty amazing run at Summer Jam X. He was sent to the Loser's Bracket by Julio "Julio" Fuentes despite almost pulling off a reverse sweep, then ran through Peter "Flash" Susini, Chris Tatarian and pulled off a 3-1 win over Julio in a Loser's Finals runback in order to get a rematch against Ricki Ortiz.
Last time they faced off, Du went down 3-1, but this time? Simply put, Du cleaned Ortiz out. R.Mika into Chun-Li shouldn't work; Mika needs to be up close, Mika likes to jump and Mika likes to run in, and Chun-Li shuts all of those approach options down. But Du overcame the matchup and broke through Ortiz with two 3-1 wins. There were a few flubs here and there, but overall his mixups were impeccable and he never gave up an opportunity to land a command grab.
Du's Nash is patient and explosive, but his Mika is evolving into a terrifying rushdown monster. Nothing he does is random — it's all about applying pressure and scaring his opponents into expecting a grab at any moment. Like he did with his USFIV Guile and Decapre, Du is developing two distinct playstyles that make him very hard to prepare for. Will you be playing the patient, unflappable Du Nash? Or the freight train that is his R.Mika? Matchups won't matter anymore once he masters them both. You'll just have to beat Du.
The Halfway Point
We're just past the halfway point of the 2016 season now, so it's a good chance to check in and see who we know will be headed to the finals later this year. Obviously there's Lee "Infiltration" Seonwoo, Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi, Arman "Phenom" Hanjani, Yusuke "Momochi" Momochi and Zhuojun "Xiao Hai" Zeng, who all earned their spots through winning premier events.
From the global leaderboards, Justin Wong and Ai "Fuudo" Keita have way too many points to unseat. Even with Premier Tournament jackpots, both players have enough points that they can essentially rest easy knowing they'll qualify off of the leaderboards.
Kun "Xian" Xian Ho and Julio Fuentes are a little shakier, but they're essentially locked in as well, though a few more solid tournament placements will guarantee them their spots. Everyone below that is a little bit shakier.
Daigo's aforementioned 13-tournament tour is a pretty good sign that even top players are hovering just out range of qualification. Daigo, Ortiz, Kenneth "K-Brad" Bradley and Ryota "Kazunoko" Inoue are all qualified for at least one regional qualifier, but that's not a guarantee they'll make finals, in particular via the absolutely stacked Asian Regional. Expect a lot of top players to start grinding points over the next few weeks, which means we're likely see a few of the lesser-known players like Nathan "Mister Crimson" Massol and Younes "CCL" Lazaar drop from their cushy places high on the European and global ladders.
Notably, Olivier "Luffy" Hay and Naoto "Nemo" Nemoto are not qualified for any regional qualifiers, nor are they even close to the points-qualification zone on any leaderboard. There are only six ranking tournaments each left in Europe and Asia, so the opportunities are dwindling fast for these two. Unless they make a real push over the next few weeks, or somehow manage to win a Premier Event, it's beginning to look like these two pros will be missing out on the finals.
Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.