When the world’s best take the stage on Evo Sunday 2018, it will have been just over six months since Dragon Ball FighterZ was released. In such a short period of time, the game has seen titans rise and fall, metas broken open, and a whole boatload of Gokus.
For the Dragon Ball faithful, it’s been one of the most interesting and dramatic scenes to follow this year in competitive gaming. Players have gathered from disparate scenes from anime-style fighting games to Injustice to Super Smash Bros. to compete. Rivalries have risen from callouts and tournament grudges. And it’s one of the most eccentric scenes you’ll see, from trash moms and fursuits to piano-playing masterminds.
But Evo means a lot more eyes watching than your average weekly, and like any long-running anime worth its salt, you might need a recap episode to know who stands where and how they got there. Well, think of this as your recap episode, sans the beach trip.
The Early Days
Dragon Ball FighterZ started like any other good competitive game does, doubly so for fighting games: Players scoured the data and labbed tech to quickly find who was the biggest and baddest fighter on the roster.
In Dragon Ball FighterZ, competitors pick teams of three, made up of a list of Dragon Ball’s finest and, also, Krillin. While only two characters are actively fighting at a time, they can tag out to their other members or call them in for assist moves. Matches have a back-and-forth, my turn-your turn cadence, so players frequently look for opportunities to “open each other up,” or break their defense in order to unleash massive combos and take the wheel of the match. Finding the fighters who could dominate the field, either as a solo powerhouse or part of a larger gameplan, was the first hurdle in FighterZ.
Android 16 was immediately recognized for the devastating grappler he was. Goku Black had a solid assist and could hold his own, dancing in the neutral space between fighters, a ballet called “footsies.” One Saiyan, the adult version of Gohan, was potent in the hands of several players thanks to a super move that elevated his capabilities with every use. These dives into characters’ attributes, strengths, and weaknesses would lay the stage for competition moving forward, as the players who found what works best early on would have an advantage and get the chance to define the metagame of Dragon Ball FighterZ early on.
But it was the Saiyan Prince Vegeta who quickly rose to dominance, and would come to define the game for the next few months. He’s a capable fighter in his own right, with a surprising capability for comebacks in the right player’s hands. But it was his assist that was the real deal: a flurry of beam attacks, either putting on incredible pressure, or delaying an opponent’s offense long enough for the defender to recover.
Dragon Ball FighterZ’s closest competitive relative is the Marvel Vs. Capcom series. Both series, unlike other fighting game series like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, are as much about the team composition and interplay between the three combatants in each player’s corner as they are about the one-on-one playing out on the screen. Vegeta was the epitome of this mindset, a character many picked up solely because of how necessary his assist was. He was a character you could get by with in actual fights, but he made your team inherently better with a simple press of the assist button.
During all of this, Vegeta had one major detractor—one of the central characters in the stage play of Dragon Ball FighterZ: Dominique “SonicFox” McLean.
In early play, McLean feuded with popular names from other scenes like William Peter “Leffen” Hjelte, while also questioning the rampant use of Vegeta. Whether instigating or fanning the flames, McLean had reason to be confident in his ability and analysis. The fighting game fox has dominated multiple scenes, most notably games from NetherRealm Studios. But besides his Injustice and Mortal Kombat fame, McLean is also a Skullgirls player—skills that would come in handy in the team-based combat of FighterZ.
One of the earliest notable FighterZ tournaments, Winter Brawl 2018, vindicated McLean’s anti-Vegeta stance. After a quick 2-0 set dropped him into the loser’s side of the bracket, he battled back to take down Christopher “NYChrisG” Gonzalez in the grand finals using a team that lacked the short-tempered Saiyan Prince. In the midst of his post-match celebration, he donned a Vegeta Sucks cap. But it’s what came after that sparked one of the most significant rivalries in fighting games this year, one that continues today.
“Goichi,” said McLean, taking the mic from commentator IFC Yipes. “ Omae wa mou shindeiru.”
The Oppression Session Saga
Using a famous line from the series Fist Of The North Star, McLean was telling Goichi Kishida, also known by his hande “Go1,” that “you are already dead.” Kishida had called out SonicFox just a few days prior, and now McLean was answering in kind. A summons to the arena, from one of the game’s earliest champions to another.
While McLean was busy dominating North America, Kishida was running the Japanese scene. A name you would have seen pop up in various Street Fighter matches, Kishida was every bit McLean’s perfect opponent. He was another multi-game master, coming from an anime-filled background including the famously punishing Melty Blood. But it was the way their playstyles clashed that set up the theme for Dragon Ball FighterZ’s first major weekend, and a series of bouts to come between the two titans.
McLean’s team at the time was defined by his impressively oppressive onslaught. He was, and arguably still is, the king of offense, and his use of unusual fighters like Dragon Ball Super's Hit, combined with the powerful piledrivers of Android 16 and Goku Black’s massive uppercut, wrought havoc on his opponents. Kishida, on the other hand, was the defensive master. His expertise in Melty Blood had taught him to deal with massive combos, and how to search for the perfect opening to slide in and steal his turn on offense back. It was the unstoppable force versus the immovable object.
The feud escalated over the time leading up to Final Round 2018, where the two would open the action in Atlanta, Georgia with a first-to-10 win exhibition. By the time each took the stage, the crowd—both online and off—was hanging in suspense. Who would emerge as the first major player, the man to beat in the global Dragon Ball FighterZ scene? As controllers were picked up and characters locked in, McLean took off his signature fox ears, a symbolic acknowledgement of the seriousness of the bout. Like Piccolo removing his weighted training clothes, McLean was going full power.
It started out a fairly even set, going three games apiece over the course of six. But the breaking point came in game seven of the grueling gauntlet. Fighting game players will sometimes refer to learning an opponent’s playstyle, especially their weaknesses, as “downloading” someone. You’ve internalized everything they do, every variation they can throw at you, and now like Neo in The Matrix, you can see through it all. By game seven, Kishida had downloaded McLean, and the tone had drastically changed. The exhibition went from 3-3 to 10-4.
Humbled by the set, McLean would get two more shots at Kishida in the coming days: once in the tournament’s grand finals, where he fell 3-5 overall, and again in another first-to-10 exhibition at Esports Arena Las Vegas, a much closer 10-7 victory for Kishida. Despite his growth in such a short amount of time, McLean had met his match in Kishida, and the pecking order was established.
During Final Round, commentators like Yipes kept referring to Final Round as the start of the Oppression Session Saga. It was a “saga”—part of the anime taxonomy for overarching stories or plots—defined by the back-and-forth tempo of Dragon Ball FighterZ. The cadence of the game was in turns: Players would sink or swim depending on whether they could hold back the onslaught and steal back their turn on offense, or sit still trying to guard until they got opened up and destroyed.
In the coming months, players would lab out new offenses, defensive methodology, and keep trying to pry open this game. Meanwhile, the competitive hierarchy was established. Kishida had proven three times in a row that he was the top player in the game, and McLean was left the runner-up, training for his next shot at the king.
Back To The Lab
Over the next few weeks, the Dragon Ball FighterZ scene calmed down a little. The dust had settled, and everyone returned to their respective corners to adjust and prepare for the next big event.
As the scene grew along with players' confidence, the metagame shifted. Techniques like reflect, which allows a player to bat away an attack if timed correctly (but leaving them wide open if not) helped higher-level fighters find new ways to expose gaps in strings of attacks. On the other side of the ball, offenses were getting trickier. Players like Dawn “Yohosie” Hosie championed Gotenks, the fused tween that would soon find his way onto McLean’s revamped roster, while Eduard “HookGangGod” Deno and Vineeth “Apologyman” Meka were running the green man Piccolo. Character specialists were emerging, while soon-to-be powerhouse picks like Kid Buu and Cell were coming into focus.
Meanwhile, McLean was forming his new team, a squad centered around Gotenks that would soon find him a satisfying win at NLBC. Kishida was travelling the world, debuting new tech and replacing his recently tuned-down Adult Gohan with the father of Goku, Bardock. Vegeta even saw some nerfs, which didn’t destroy him completely, but brought him more into line with other competitors. He wasn’t a mandatory tool for 99 percent of players anymore, and teams started to flex and adapt to this newfound freedom.
All the while the next major on the schedule, Combo Breaker 2018, loomed overhead.
The Comeback Kid
From the outset it was a slugfest. The scene was much more expansive, and the gap between different tiers of the competitive hierarchies had significantly shrunk. Though the SonicFox vs. Goichi rivalry had defined Dragon Ball FighterZ’s earliest days, the scene was getting more robust by the minute. Sharks were in the pools of Combo Breaker, and by the time the field was whittled down to the top 8, several major players like Leffen, ApologyMan, and Reynald had exited the stage.
All the while, momentum was building for McLean. His new squad wasn’t just good; it was the answer to any question he might have been asking after Final Round. Gotenks gave McLean all the tools he could ever want or need to throw surprising mix-ups at his opponent, enhanced further by the crushing power of Cell and Kid Buu’s floor-stomping offense. He even sent Kishida to the loser’s bracket in a 3-1 victory. But that was not enough. McLean needed the complete, total victory.
It was obvious on grand finals day that McLean was feeling himself. He looked confident, an aura solidified by him donning a full-on fox head and arms during tournaments. Both had reformed their team, trained and recuperated, and now it was time to settle the score.
Gotenks proved to be the silver bullet to break through Kishida’s stonewall defense, and despite a bracket reset, McLean got the three wins he needed to close it all out. McLean erupted from his seat to chants of U-S-A, owning the moment where he finally came out victorious—captured in one instant by photographer Stephanie Lindgren was the triumphant vengeance of SonicFox.
The Scene Is Wide Open
There was another storyline creeping up at Combo Breaker. The top 3 was pretty standard fare: SonicFox, Go1, Dogura wouldn’t have surprised anyone who had just watched a few tournaments prior. But the talent bubbling under the surface, training and preparing, was looking for their shot at the top. The Dragon Ball FighterZ scene is, after all, young. And the playing field was wide open for someone to reset expectations and overthrow the power structure, scattering the remains of forum-fueled player tier lists across the ground.
That person would be Eduardo “HookGangGod” Deno.
As mentioned above, Deno is a Piccolo specialist. Unlike McLean, Kishida, or many other players on the scene, Deno was not coming into Dragon Ball FighterZ from major success in other games. He was from network play, a self-described “online monster” who decided to try his hand at some tournaments. His placing got higher and higher over time, and more people took notice. It wasn’t long until the Shaq-fueled organization NRG picked him up, and he found himself at the Summit of Power.
The Summit is a little like Terrace House meets LAN party. Players hang out and play a normal tournament, as well as doing a few for-fun brackets and competing in other, more corporeal games like Jenga or Mafia. Despite the entertaining frivolity, it was also one of the biggest assemblies of Dragon Ball talent, and for several days they would be locked in together, competing and learning while determining a victor. It was the perfect shot for Deno to take at the top, and he took it with style.
Over the course of the tournament, Deno tore through a who’s who of Dragon Ball FighterZ on his way to the top. From fellow Piccolo main Vineeth “ApologyMan” Meka to McLean and the fearsome CAG gaming crew of Go1, Dogura, and Fenritti, Deno left few question marks at the end of the tournament. His win was a statement: Dragon Ball FighterZ is not a solved game, and the scene is still wide open for any and all challengers.
A few weeks later, Ryota “Kazunoko” Inoue would make a similar point at Community Effort Orlando 2018 (which was held in Daytona this year). After a sobering loss to Kishida, Inoue made a run up through the loser’s bracket all the way to the end, taking out McLean, Deno, Meka, Dogura, and Fenritti on his way back to a rematch with Kishida, where he beat him twice for the tournament victory. Inoue not only made an incredible run, but he did it with a particularly odd team, using Yamcha and Adult Gohan alongside the now-regular pick Kid Buu to great effect. His use of the Yamcha assist to completely own the neutral space between fighters was a shake-up that’s still being felt today.
In the course of two tournaments, the hierarchy of Dragon Ball FighterZ had been sufficiently shattered. It wasn’t just that the titans of Kishida and McLean had been revealed to be fallible; it was that there was a flood of new talent populating tournament top 8’s, tangible proof that there was exciting new blood and new possibilities around every corner, doing things no one had seen before.
Smash-Cut: Present Day
So here we are on the cusp of Evo 2018, the worldwide fighting game event of the year, and it’s hard not to feel like everything is back to where it started. Which isn’t a bad thing; in the course of six months and change, a myriad of players from different backgrounds and schools of thought have made their mark on Dragon Ball FighterZ. Innovation and evolution are signs of a healthy scene.
Among all the fighting games at Evo, FighterZ seems the biggest melting pot. Not only is there huge crossover between games and a massive pool of entrants, but the many different evolutions the scene has gone through has left it in a state of electric uncertainty.
If you asked me for a favorite for the top, it would take me a long time to pick one name. The strongest of the pack all have their own quirks and talents, but delve deeper into the fold and you’ll still find players who can hold their own against the best, and Evo brings its own challenge. Many players don’t travel for events, so there’s always a chance for a killer local fighter to show up and wipe the floor with expected victors.
The story of the last six months in Dragon Ball FighterZ has been watching talented players continuously rethink their approach to a game that seems to adapt around them. A few patches have brought egregious errors back into line, but innovation has always stemmed from the competitors. McLean was preaching the overhype of Vegeta well before the nerf, and longtime Piccolo stans were using him to devastating efficacy before anyone cared to take a second glance.
Dragon Ball FighterZ stands on the precipice of its Evo debut, to entrant numbers higher than any other game on the stage, and it’s still wide open. Tune in for anime action, for drama and rivalries and pop-offs. But be prepared for some surprises. The best part about Dragon Ball FighterZ is that it’s still anyone’s game to win.