First Nation-Wide Guilty Gear: Strive Tournament Sets The Bar High

When we write fighting game history, 2021 is going to go down as the Year of Gear. The bold presentation and fortuitous timing of Guilty Gear: Strive has brought the hard-rocking franchise from the fringe of the FGC into the mainstream. And the willingness of Arc System Works to remodel some aspects of the core system has invited many new Guilty Gear players to make Strive their entry point, mixing it up with anime veterans on more even footing. 

With all that momentum it was inevitable that GG:ST would make it onto the CouchWarriors League circuit as our 6th feature title. Last month’s Battle Arena Nightclub was the first opportunity for players to pick up ranking points on the Strive leaderboard. But even that clash of Melbourne’s finest turned out to just be an appetizer for August’s CWL Online event – the first real chance to see who could stand supreme in this new game at the national level.

CWL ONLINE AUGUST – GUILTY GEAR: STRIVE

  1. gggg|popokilloray (May)
  2. Pudiry (Potemkin)
  3. eveAZN (Nagoriyuki)
  4. GG|bksama (Sol)
  5. CharlieFGC (May/Ramlethal)
  6. Ergon (Millia)
  7. Snare (Giovanna)
  8. Marcus (I-No)

With limited history to draw on, the pre-tournament favourite to take home a premium ASTRO A40 headset could only be eveAZN. Despite downplaying his victory at BANC and questioning if he’d be a regular competitor in Strive, the Nagoriyuki master had remained a deadly presence in the smaller tournaments leading up to CWL Online.

While he may not claim any prior experience in Guilty Gear, eveAZN has had as much time as anyone to learn the ins and outs of the vampiric samurai, and has continued to hone his control of the Blood Gauge since last month. In the meantime, a victory in EVO Online’s NA bracket has forced the community at large to respect Nagoriyuki’s tournament potential. So both eveAZN and his chosen main have proven themselves more than just a flash in the pan.

But the contenders coming for his CWL rankings crown were closing in fast, and from every imaginable direction. This event definitely cemented Strive’s reputation as a meeting grounds for otherwise separate chapters of the FGC; the names rising out of pools to make the top 8 ranged from Street Fighter champion Kevin “GG|bksama” Nguyen, to recent Smash Ultimate convert Mitchell “Ergon” Bell, to experienced anime fighters like Snare and Marcus “gggg|popokilloray” Kennan. With 58 players representating nearly every state, the online warrior who triumphed here could definitely make an early claim to being #1 in Aus! 

POOL A

Of course, quite a few of them already had some idea of who to watch out for in bracket, having gotten eachothers measure in the excellent online weeklies put on by TOs @drkthepineapple and @auraisbad. From those events, Pool A featured top Axls midium and Jared “atticus” Willett, who unfortunately found themselves locked into the mirror after just two rounds of pools. Meanwhile popokilloray, Charlie “CharlieFGC” Dante and dangerous Zato player Damo justified their first-round byes by crushing their early opponents – before Damo’s run was immediately derailed by Snare. 

Falling to Losers, Damo then found himself upset again two rounds later by Ergon’s Millia in a life-or-death duel of assassins. It was a huge win for Ergon after falling quickly to CharlieFGC on Winners side, but he was going to need several more to turn that rough start into a satisfying placement. Next obstacle in his path was Midium, who had triumphed over Atticus in the battle of the Axls before being overwhelmed by popokilloray’s May.

Again, Ergon dug deep to overcome a tough opponent, building up momentum and confidence with every round. After finishing a painful 9th at BANC last month, this time he was able to secure a top 8 finish and his share of CWL ranking points! It was a tough round for Axls in general as the other Losers Final of this pool saw Atticus also go down fighting at the hands of Snare.

POOL B

On the other end of the bracket, decorated FGC old heads like bksama, KANGA|Dailou and Peter “Rupps” Barron squared off against Strive stars Marcus Buchanan, Yunus Tuz and Oscar “5ives” Newell. Results were a mixed bag; Dailou fell immediately to Blazblue vet Runis, and Rupps’ attempt to rep new DLC character Goldlewis soured against 5ives dazzling Anji. 

bksama made it into Winners Quarters, but was toppled in a tight 3-game set by Marcus’s I-No. Unfortunately, his prize for this win was the chance to face the dream-crushing machine Ryan “Pudiry” Pudin, who had just Bustered his way through both 5ives and promising Gio main Aya in brutal 2-0s.

I-No’s slippery nature gave Marcus far more leeway to dissect the immobile Potemkin, and he was able to take Pudiry to a third game for the first time in his run. But even as Marcus looked to continue the momentum with a strong first round in the deciding game, Pudiry absolutely ripped his heart out – authoring the kind of surreal, last-pixel comeback every grappler player lives for. 

Even the commentators could sense it coming, and their groans of sympathy were still echoing in the chat as Pudiry hit another critical Pot Buster on the staggered Marcus to seal his Top 8 berth on Winner’s side. He would eventually be joined there by eveAZN, who after a few clean victories had to sweat a bit to dislodge the multi-game Chipp master, Render.

It seemed like the two defeated finalists had proven themselves good enough to still make Top 8 through Losers side, but that was not entirely the case. Marcus made it through 2-1 over Yunus, after the latter had eliminated 5ives in the rare Anji mirror. But Render had to earn his spot from the Sol of bksama, who was freshly fired up after an intense scramble against fellow legend Dailou.

Again, Render’s ninja skills made it close, but even in his better rounds it looked like a dire struggle to protect Chipp’s pathetic life bar against a barrage of godlike Sol normals. In the end, he couldn’t keep bksama from finding his one way, and he bowed out on another tough 1-2 loss.

TOP 8

Wasting no time, we kicked off our Top 8 on Winners side with Charlie and popo; a matchup that got even more enticing when Charlie elected not to challenge “THE May god” in a dolphin mirror. Instead he whipped out a pocket Ramlethal, bringing us up to a full 8/8 unique characters among our top placers… for precisely one game.

The ideas on how to try and check May were clearly there, but popo’s unreal movement and relentless aggression were too much to handle on a secondary character this early into our time with Strive. The failed experiment left Charlie four more rounds to try and rally in that gruelling May mirror, but in the end it didn’t seem to matter much what character he threw in front of popo’s frenzied totsugeki – the result was a resounding 3-0. 

The second Winners match seemed like it would have to be a closer affair, as both Pudiry and eveAzn had looked in mighty fine form during pools. But when they actually got to blows, it took less than a minute for Pudiry to bring the BANC champion low, and make him humble.

eveAZN was down two full games in the time it takes to say “PRC Pot Buster”. Suddenly on the precipice of Losers, he managed to claw back a round and show off the clean, daring Nago play which had brought him consistent results across the last month of battles. But the ease with which Pudiry had already landed so many grabs was generating the kind of fear aura which can briefly transform Potemkin into an SSS-tier – and after just one more sickening Garuda shuffle, it was over.

Down in our Losers matchups, bksama continued to string together 3-1s with a steady-handed win over the spirited Marcus. That left only the plucky Ergon, still on that long comeback road from Pool A, who now had to face the explosive rushdown of Snare’s Giovanna. The two fast-moving, hard-hitting characters put on the best match of Top 8 so far, showing off not only their optimised combo routes and setplay, but some truly impressive defense in the clutch moments. It never looked one-sided, but Ergon managed to weather the storm and come out the victor in four games, extending that great Losers run by one more match.

But it turns out that road would lead no further. After managing to blitz to a momentary one-round lead to start his match against eveAZN, Millia’s haircar finally, abruptly, definitively ran out of gas.

Smelling victory and with a lot to prove, eveAZN started to bet more and more confidently with specials, relying on Ergon to crack before he’d have to worry about the rising blood gauge. Ergon did manage one more round win to start game 2, but after that he could not find even a whiff of oxygen as eveAZN marked a 3-0 sweep of his own.

CharlieFGC was up next, but seemed to have a much harder time shaking off the drubbing he took on Winners side. Way too often he was caught challenging Sol on the ground, a situation which bksama was, in turn, way too good to ever let slide. His character’s crazy damage allowed the NSW stalwart to convert most of these free hits directly into free rounds, burning straight through the off-balance Charlie like a gunflame through butter.

Even this deep into Top 8 we were still not done with the violent 3-0s! It was bksama’s own turn to face inglorious defeat next, as eveAZN easily shut down Sol’s gameplan with the long reach of Nagoriyuki’s “blood level three” sword normals. He advanced to a rematch against Pudiry in Losers Finals, where he was able to improve on his effort from Winners side by at least taking one game. The rest of the set can be pretty well summed up by one interaction:

Having fallen to the Perth Potemkin for a second time, eveAZN bowed out in third place,  leaving what had definitely looked like our two most accomplished warriors to duke it out in Grand Finals. Of course, the reason Pudiry had been playing Losers Finals is that he’d already tried his huge metal hand at unseating popokilloray… and popo had not made the matchup look much fun.

Pudiry had gotten so far in this event by simply forcing his way forward, playing Potemkin like an infallible, inevitable juggernaut. But popo immediately showed off the cracks in his armour, expertly abusing May’s vertical mobility, dolphin pushback and midscreen projectiles to stick Potemkin in a corner and batter at his defenses from outside Buster range. 

Where Pudiry had feasted on his prior opponents, now he faced famine; smothered without mercy by an opponent too fast and too knowledgable to be caught even when Pudiry rolled the dice on some explosive RC grab attempt. That’s not to say that he ever stopped trying. And to his credit, he managed to fully capitalize on the few real opportunities he got, like this round from their first set where a grazing hit from Mega-Fist left popo unexpectedly cornered:

Those rounds were the exception to the rule, and for the most part popo expertly, consistently disarmed the giant to take Winners Finals 3-0. But even after this demoralising experience, Pudiry returned for the Grand Final runback with killer instinct intact. No matter how bad the bad rounds looked, he simply refused to let his opponent – or even the commentators – write him off.

But popokilloray proved every bit as focused and unshakeable through both sets, grinding out multiple flawless rounds of 100% pressure between each miniscule opening he gave up. Pudiry never stopped trying, but as the rounds slipped away his reads became just a little more desperate, forced to go looking for a mistake where there had never yet been one. It’s difficult to argue for such a thing as a close 6-0, and as great as Pudiry’s Pot had been, today he was very clearly second-best.

With one last anchor to the jaw, popokilloray closed the book on a momentous first CWL Online for Guilty Gear: Strive. It was one of the more dominant wins you’ll see in any CouchWarriors League brackets, and absolutely installs popo as a hot favourite for the next several events. But there were still plenty of other players who showed elite potential, even outside this Top 8. Would one of them have found a more favourable matchup against May if Pudiry or eveAZN hadn’t stopped them first?

There’s only one way to find out – tune in (or sign up) when September’s GG:ST event rolls around for CWL Online. This game’s story has only seen its first chapters, and there will no doubt be many twists and turns to come as these players Strive to improve.

Find more info at couchwarriors.org

Thomas Anderson
A man in love with the stories of esports, Tom "TheWanderingBard" Anderson is a full-time writer and caster who has explored scenes from DOTA2 to CS:GO. He joins Snowball to highlight Australia's fighting game community, showcasing its hugely talented group of players and and expanding tournament calendar.

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