Xian went top tier in Street Fighter V and he's better off for it

Kun Xian Ho
Kun Xian Ho (Ahmad Iskandar Photography)

Kun Xian Ho pumped his fist in the air a couple of times before looking skyward and sighing with relief. Xian had just closed out Ai “Fuudo” Keita at Final Round 20. It had been a long time since he won a Premier Event on the Capcom Pro Tour.

Two years ago, Xian won Final Round 18 — the first CPT 2015 Premier Event — to qualify for Capcom Cup 2015. Getting that first Premier Event win is a big deal. In previous years, it was an automatic ticket to Capcom Cup. While Capcom did away with automatic qualifications for Premier Events in CPT 2017, Xian earned 400 points on the Global Leaderboard with his win over Fuudo, all but assuring him a spot in what would be his fifth Capcom Cup.

“There isn’t as much pressure as last year because I finally won something,” Xian told Yahoo Esports in an interview. “When the pressure is off, it’s a lot better for me and I can try my best. I won’t feel bad, even if I lose.”

Xian is an all-time great in Street Fighter competition. He’s endured the highest highs and the lowest lows, winning Evo 2013 with Gen in Street Fighter IV, but losing at the Capcom Cup Grand Final for three straight years. In 2015, he went on a tear by winning three Premier Events and making top 8 in four others, but was beaten by Daigo Umehara in Capcom Cup Losers Finals.

It was a devastating loss. Xian tried to surprise Daigo with a Dhalsim pick, which worked at Capcom Cup 2014, but he couldn’t catch lightning in a bottle for a second time. He told me right after the loss that Daigo was in his head, and he regretted picking Dhalsim two games in a row.

Then Street Fighter V launched in 2016. It was a sobering year for Xian.

“I failed. I gave myself a year. I tried. I wasn’t ready for that,” Xian said.

Compared to the rest of the competitive world, 2016 was actually a decent year for Xian. He won a couple of Ranking Events, made top 8 in four Premier Events (his highest finish was second at G-League in China) and was one game away from top 8 at both Evo 2016 and Capcom Cup 2016. But for a player like Xian, those results are disappointing.

Xian wants to be the guy who wins his own way. He’d prefer not to play top tier characters. He wants a character with high execution, and FANG seemed to fit that bill prior to the launch of Street Fighter V. FANG had excellent normal attacks and could pressure opponents incessantly under the guidance of a pro like Xian. But his damage output was ridiculously low, and that spells trouble in a game so focused on offense.

The Season 2 balance update rolled out, and Capcom shocked FANG players by nerfing many of his normal attacks, making him even worse than he was in Season 1. This put Xian in a tough spot. Should he stick with FANG or finally make the change to a better character?

“I tried FANG after the balance patch. I realized there are even more bad match-ups than ever,” Xian said. “Some match-ups got a little easier, like R. Mika or Chun-Li, but there are more bad match-ups with popular characters. It wouldn’t work out and I already had problems getting past pools with FANG. I tried Ibuki as a sub, and as I played her more and more, it was really fun.”

Xian understands his responsibility as a pro. He acknowledged his team, Razer, doesn’t pressure him to win, but he knows fans want to see him succeed. Playing FANG in CPT 2017 would mean struggling for another year.

“I don’t think it’s impossible to win with low tier in this version but it would have been easier for me to win last year and I couldn’t do it,” Xian said. “I can’t keep trying like that because I am a pro player. I can’t mess around. I have to try harder by picking another character.”

Kun Xian Ho at Capcom Cup 2016
Kun Xian Ho at Capcom Cup 2016 (Michael Martin)

He decided to go with Ibuki, a character he flirted playing with in 2016. His play was exceptionally clean at Final Round 20 as he made his way through the winners side of the tournament. He beat Capcom Cup 2016 champion Du “NuckleDu” Dang in a highly contested match, moving on to play his former Razer teammate Fuudo in Winners Finals. Fuudo took a 2-0 lead, putting Xian on the brink of elimination. By game three, he had cracked Fuudo’s armor, and the momentum shifted, something Xian pointed out was critical to his tournament victory.

“The first two matches when I had the mix-ups down, he kept activating V-Trigger,” Xian said. “I hadn’t seen anyone use that as a defensive tactic. The mind games were very heavily on his side. He guessed correctly and I was flustered because I felt like I still knew how to win.

“I thought about switching because I beat him with FANG in Japan last month. The FANG versus Mika match-up is a lot better now. NuckleDu thought I should have played FANG against him too. I felt comfortable trying FANG but I played Ibuki through the whole tournament, and I didn’t want to switch.”

Xian stuck to his gameplan and it worked out, giving him his first win in a Premier Event since DreamHack Winter in November 2015. But with another balance update looming, he’s got plenty of work to do.

Kun Xian Ho shakes hands with Arman
Kun Xian Ho shakes hands with Arman “Phenom” Hanjani after winning DreamHack Winter 2015 (Stephanie Lindgren)

Xian has a history of playing characters that eventually got nerfed: Gen in Ultra Street Fighter IV and FANG in Season 2 of Street Fighter V. While he had some concerns Capcom might nerf Ibuki, he felt he was safe with his character choices of FANG and Ibuki because the odds of both characters falling to low tier status due to nerfs seemed unlikely.

It appears FANG will indeed get some buffs with the new patch coming in late April, but that isn’t enough to make Xian switch back, especially since Ibuki will remain virtually unchanged. Even with those buffs, FANG has become difficult to master, even for a player of Xian’s caliber. Strangely, FANG’s difficulty seems to go against Capcom’s philosophy of making Street Fighter V more accessible, which is why so few players excelled with him even before the Season 2 nerfs.

“FANG has the hardest execution in the game now. He has some micro one-step combos, where you have to walk a step to do one-frame links. It’s unnecessary because this isn’t what FANG players choose him for. I specialize in mix-ups and offense. Ibuki brings out my style of gameplay,” Xian said.

No top player is more dangerous than the one who is having fun. Pros like Daigo want to make their characters work, but Xian went through a year of that and it wasn’t worth it. Shedding the stress from playing FANG in favor of playing a much more manageable top tier character like Ibuki is exactly what Xian needed as he continues to chase another Evo championship and his first Capcom Cup.

Michael Martin is happy to see FANG benched in favor of Ibuki. Follow him on Twitter @Bizarro_Mike.