Birth of a Demon
Every high level fighting game competitor has a demon. These aren’t inner struggles or hardships that exist outside of the game, but specific opponents whom a player just cannot seem to overcome. Time after time, a players demon will tear them down and leave even the most legendary of names looking mortal.
For Zhuojun “Xiao Hai” Zeng, one such demon is this young man, Team Liquid’s Du “NuckleDu” Dang.
Du’s accolades include first place finishes at Canada Cup 2016, Final Round 16, and, of course, last year’s Capcom Cup . Until last night his trophy case also included Xao Hai’s very soul.
Xiao Hai, a veteran of the fighting game scene – primarily King of Fighters – found himself on a hot streak towards the end of 2016 culminating at Southern California Regionals where he placed first in both King of Fighters 14 and Street Fighter V on the same night. His win at SCR cemented him as one of the top players and made him the favorite going into Canada Cup just weeks later.
The young Chinese Cammy player looked to live up to expectations. He dominated Canada Cup for most of the weekend. He looked every bit the favorite that he was billed as. Xiao Hai coasted to top 8 and eventually found himself in the winners finals of the tournament where he ran into NuckleDu for the first time. He put up a close fight, but ultimately fell to the lower bracket with a 3-2 loss.
Undeterred, Xiao Hai overcame Phenom to make it to the Canada Cup grand finals where he would get the chance to run it back against the young man who had just beaten him. Their set in grand finals, unlike the first, was not close.
After soundly trouncing Xiao Hai 3-1 in the first and only set of grand finals, Du hoisted a glistening gold trophy above his head. It was not his first major tournament victory of the year, but it was an emphatic statement: He would be a force to be reckoned with during the upcoming Capcom Cup.
And sure enough these two top-level competitors met again deep into the bracket for finals of the 2016 Capcom Pro Tour. The gulf between Du and Xiao Hai was greater than ever as Du demonstrated by claiming a dominant 3-0 victory. While Xiao Hai exited the tournament in 9th place, Du went on to become America’s first Capcom Cup champion.
Following the conclusion to the 2016 Capcom Pro Tour, a number of balance changes were implemented to coincide with Street Fighter V’s second season. A slew of nerfs hit one of NuckleDu’s main characters, R. Mika, while Cammy found herself on the receiving end of some changes that left her slightly more vulnerable, but more capable of applying pressure and rushing opponents down.
With balance changes on his side, the bitterness of multiple defeats fresh on Xiao Hai’s mind, and a number of hard lessons to learn from, he resolved to finally beat NuckleDu at the U-League finals in Xiao Hai’s home nation of China. Only the territory changed during that tournament. The results stayed the same. NuckleDu would again eliminate Xiao Hai from the tournament.
Throughout these matches with Du, Xiao Hai not only experienced total defeat, but humiliating mid-match teabags from Du. What became apparent over the months was this: Team Liquid’s NuckleDu was Xiao Hai’s greatest demon; an opponent who haunted him with imminent defeat whenever they met.
Such was the case again earlier this March when the two met in group D of E-League and Du emerged victorious once more. Xao Hai managed to hang on to his tournament life by putting up respectable enough results in his group to finish in the middle of the pack and make it into last night’s playoffs, which took place on NuckleDu’s 21st birthday. Du meanwhile comfortably secured 2nd place in the group.
With a litany of strong results, the title of ‘best in the world’, and the surging confidence of facing a person he humiliated previously, the stars seemed to be in alignment. Most people assumed Du was going to blow out the candles and wish for yet another dominant victory over Xiao Hai
Conquering The Demon
Du played a defensive neutral-heavy game with his guile and, in his signature style, flipped a switch mid-match to lay the pressure on Xao Hai’s Cammy. Round 1 would end with a stun and a familiar teabag from Du. Xao Hai answered back with a stun and a follow-up teabag of his own to secure round 2. Seconds into the third round Du lands a hit confirm into critical art. Seconds later he had secured a 50% life lead. In response to some mistimed meaty pressure by Du, Xao Hai lands a wakeup critical art, but Du would eventually take game 1 by trading a jab against a normal from Xao Hai.
Du’s anti-airs are on point and he takes a 20 second round with another stun and more teabagging. He varies up his fireball timings, baits errant drills, and is looking impenetrable in round 2, but eventually loses it to an anti-air critical art. Round 3 of game 2 mirrors round 3 of game 1: Du spends bar immediately on CA and secures a half life lead. Xao Hai activates V-Trigger and claws his way back and eventually clutches game 2 out. The set is now tied 1-1.
Round 1 of game 3 is once again looking dominant for Du as he works on a stun. V-reversal gets Xao Hai out of stun range, but he’s still at a life deficit until he reverses the corner positioning and stuns Du. Things are looking close, but Du back throws Xao Hai for the win. In round 2 Xao Hai starts pushing Du to the corner with a rock solid neutral game. Du reverses the positioning with a back throw and lands two more throws in a row. There is no fourth throw coming and Xao anticipates the meaty pressure. He blocks the incoming meaty and V-reversals once again to reverse the corner positioning. He spends his time expertly controlling space until Du jumps at him, and Xao Hai is ready with an anti-air critical art which secures him the 2nd round once more. Round 3 quickly turns into a slug fest. Hits are traded rapidly. Du gets antsy after activating V-Trigger and Xao Hai is able to eventually punish him in a scramble situation to take a 2-1 lead in the series.
Du locks in R. Mika on the character select screen going in to game 4.
@LiquidNuckleDu happy birthday ☕️
— 曾卓君 (@Xiaohai_) May 13, 2017
Xao Hai would go on to lose to Phenom in the upper half of the bracket, while Du eliminated Chris Tatarian to set up an immediate rematch between Xao Hai and his seemingly now-vanquished demon, NuckleDu in a winner-takes-all lower bracket finals match to secure the final spot in TBS’ televised E-League Finals.
This time Du locks in R. Mika from the start. His character choice does not work out for him as Xao Hai stuns him almost immediately. Du eventually puts Xao Hai in the corner, but Xao Hai answers back by letting an ex uppercut rip to win the round. Round 2 sees another fast stun going Xao Hai’s way and the teabags are flying relentlessly. Xao Hai would go on to take round 2 with a perfect and go up 1-0 in this best of 5 set.
Back to Guile for Du. Smart plays from Xao Hai culminate with a wakeup ex cannon drill to make it thorough Guile’s sonic boom pressure. He tries another raw cannon drill in anticipation of more sonic boom pressure and gets baited and punished to give Du his first round of the set. A fast round ending with a climactic rolling sobat sees Du answering back and tying the series 1-1.
Round 1 of the next game plays out in a familiar way. Du is cornered, stunned, and taunted with teabags. Xao Hai takes the round comfortably. Round 2 is jarring. Du spends large chunks of the match looking uncharacteristically helpless which leads to Xao swiftly shoring up game 3.
The next round of the set is explosive. Du adjusts and throws out a crazy series of booms which Xao Hai manages to navigate. Xao Hai goes up to set point off of a back throw. In the next round, Du nearly has Xao Hai stunned and approaches him with a train of sonic booms. He tries to land an overhead to finish off the stun, but it gets stuffed with an ex uppercut. That gutsy play is ultimately not enough to steal the round from Du who ties it up 1-1 once more. Going into round 3 Du has full CA stocked and Xao Hai has 1 bar. Despite the meter differential, Xao finds himself in an advantageous position with Du in the corner. Xao stuns Du, lets rip one final emphatic teabag, and vanquishes his demon for the second time in one night to secure his spot in the E-League finals.