Tokido's transformation: How a style change helped him win CEO 2016

Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi (Rose Silvestre)

Tokido! Tokido! Tokido!

After a difficult and often disappointing start to the Capcom Pro Tour, Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi celebrated his victory over Razer’s Seon-woo “Infiltration” Lee in the wrestling ring as the CEO 2016 crowd chanted his name. He could finally breathe a sigh of relief, knowing he had punched his ticket to Capcom Cup with a win months in the making.

Tokido is a fighting game legend, a Street Fighter god, a veteran of numerous battles spanning well over a decade. Despite being one of the clear favorites in any Street Fighter V competition, Tokido went through a change as a player that started roughly a year ago.

Necessary change

Late last year, Tokido expressed his desire to change up his play style in Ultra Street Fighter IV. He needed to improve in a more fundamental, grounded style with Street Fighter V looming. It seemed crazy to attempt a full style change mid-season, especially years after he invented and popularized the Akuma “vortex,” a technique used after a knockdown that gave Tokido a variety of options to get in on his opponent, forcing them to guess at how to defend against it.

His new grounded play style didn’t work out so well at Tokyo Game Show 2015, where he was bounced out in 25th place. But it was evident the new style was much more refined a little over a month later at Canada Cup 2015, a tournament he won (commentators James Chen and David “UltraDavid” Graham even noted the difference in Tokido’s approach to USF4 on the live stream.) The change prepared Tokido for Ryu in Street Fighter V, a much more honest game than USF4, and one lacking Tokido’s trademark Akuma.

If it weren’t for Infiltration, Tokido would be the world’s consensus number one Street Fighter V player. Unfortunately, Infiltration has spent the bulk of the CPT and international events terrorizing the competition with his ridiculously tricky Nash. Seeing Tokido haunted by a demon in Street Fighter is strange — he’s usually the one doing the haunting — but it was clear after he lost to Infiltration at Final Round and NorCal Regionals (both CPT Premier Events), Tokido’s play style needed to evolve even more.

Tokido vs. Infiltration
Tokido vs. Infiltration (Rose Silvestre)

The issue? Tokido lost because he just couldn’t keep up with Infiltration’s movement. Infiltration mesmerizes opponents by dashing in and out of their space. One second he’s triple-dashing away from Tokido to give himself plenty of neutral space to work with, and the next he’s dashing right back in for a throw. This doesn’t even factor in Nash’s ability to escape with V-Reversals and his V-Trigger. Infiltration is a master at mixing up the timing on these escape maneuvers, and Tokido couldn’t get a read on any real pattern. How do you beat someone you can’t catch?

The faced each other yet again in April at Red Bull Kumite, and Tokido showed the gap was starting to close by using different defensive options. Most Ryu players save their meter to activate V-Trigger for its combo extension or faster fireballs that knock players down. Tokido chose to V-Reversal far more than he had in previous events (the biggest advantage of V-Reversal is to relieve the pressure from a player like Infiltration, who is great at keeping a player locked down with well-timed normal attacks.) Tokido also kept Ryu’s parry in his back pocket, but at previous events, he would use them in situations where he couldn’t follow up with a punish. Despite taking the first set in grand finals 3-1, Tokido just couldn’t overcome his demon, losing the next set 3-1 and his third straight major event to Infiltration.

Zen Tokido

When I first saw Tokido during Street Fighter V pools on the Saturday of CEO 2016, he said he felt good about the tournament, that he was going to win…maybe. He laughed it off because the last thing he wants to do is put even more pressure on himself by guaranteeing a win.

I’m not sure I believed that “maybe” part. Having spent a great deal of time around Tokido, I could sense something different about him. He seemed more focused and part of me believed him when he said he felt he could win CEO.

At one point Sunday morning, I caught Tokido sitting against a wall, legs crossed, eyes closed, and hands folded in his lap. I’d never seen him do that before. Later, he told me he was practicing breathing techniques because he felt like he was getting away from that in the middle of matches.

It would prove to be a fruitful exercise.

Slaying demons

As has become the norm in major Street Fighter V tournaments, Tokido ran into Infiltration in top 8 and lost again. He climbed out of the losers bracket by beating a couple other Street Fighter gods in Red Bull’s Daigo “The Beast” Umehara, Majestic Youdeal’s Tatsuya Haitani, and Evil Geniuses’ Yusuke Momochi.

The opponent awaiting him in grand finals? Who else – Infiltration.

Tokido didn’t win the first game of their set, but he set the tone early in the second round when he parried Infiltration’s Critical Art and punished him. It resulted in a dizzy and Tokido won the round convincingly. The crowd went nuts and even Infiltration laughed it off and gave Tokido a thumbs up out of respect. Tokido simply nodded his head, closed his eyes, and collected himself.

Over the course of the first set, Tokido utilized his V-Reversals to again keep pressure off of himself, while also applying more pressure on Infiltration. In the final round of the fourth game, Tokido executed a perfect parry on Nash’s EX Moonsault Slash. He even threw out a crouching jab in between the second and third hits, likely to make sure his timing was right on the third parry.

This was a different Tokido.

The momentum had swung to Tokido’s side and he didn’t let up. Tokido was the demon that night. He chased Infiltration and locked him down. He used all of Ryu’s offensive and defensive options to maximum effect. Between every game, he would close his eyes and take a breath. For all of the impressive things Tokido did throughout the set, nothing could top winning the final round in the final game with a perfect, and that’s exactly what he did.

It’s intimidating for a well-regarded pro player to switch up styles — after all, they became well-regarded for a reason — but Tokido managed to face a hard truth and overcome it. He changed the way he played Street Fighter while still playing an older game in anticipation of a newer game. He changed his approach to competition. He’s laser-focused now, and that makes him dangerous to the competition.

“Finally,” he said told Yahoo Esports. “Finally, I won a Capcom Premier tournament.”

And finally, Tokido is going to Capcom Cup 2016.

Michael Martin played stick caddy for Tokido after his big win at CEO 2016. Follow him on Twitter @Bizarro_Mike.