NuckleDu, Xiao Hai Quietly Renew Rivalry in China

The quickest way to get viewers interested in any given game is with compelling storylines. From surprising underdogs to ongoing dominance, giving fans a way to connect with competition outside of pure tournament results is a vital part of a release’s longevity. Due to its youth, Street Fighter V has yet to craft truly interesting narratives across the board, but a burgeoning rivalry has quickly become the most fascinating part of that evolving community.

On the surface, Du “NuckleDu” Dang and Zhuojun “Xiao Hai” Zeng couldn’t be more different. At just 20 years old, NuckleDu is a relatively new arrival to the fighting game community who got his start playing Street Fighter IV in Tampa, Florida. China’s Xiao Hai, on the other hand, is a veteran competitor who acted as a driving force in the international King of Fighters scene for years before transitioning those skills to Capcom’s flagship franchise.

Where their histories intersect, however, is Street Fighter V, and recent months have seen these powerhouses collide on numerous occasions. But to truly understand NuckleDu and Xiao Hai’s combined legacy, you have to first track their separate trajectories through the year-old title.

With general player strength arguably stymied near the tail-end of Ultra Street Fighter IV’s lifespan, Street Fighter V represented an important shakeup for the competitive community. A new game with updated tactics and characters to explore meant that competitors had a clear avenue to success by adapting to the release faster than their peers.

Xiao Hai hit the ground running. As one of the few high-level Cammy players, he was able to set the pace early on with his incredible usage of the Killer Bee’s typical rushdown mechanics. The first few months of Street Fighter V competition saw Xiao Hai absolutely dominate tournaments in his native China, with victories over players like Seon-woo “Infiltration” Lee, Daigo Umehara, and Kun Xian Ho. A visit to SoCal Regionals in October further cemented his strength in the community thanks to grand finals victories in both Street Fighter V and King of Fighters XIV.

NuckleDu, on the other hand, didn’t find his footing quite as quickly. After relying so heavily on Guile during his Street Fighter IV career, the young competitor was left wanting when the series mainstay failed to make an immediate appearance in Street Fighter V. NuckleDu would make two important breakthroughs in the following months, first by complementing his playstyle with R. Mika’s tricky maneuvers in April and then hitting his stride with Guile in September. Near the end of 2016, a string of first-place finishes completely shifted discussion about NuckleDu’s relative strength in the community, with many arguing his place as the best player in the United States, if not the world.

These conversations only heated up after Canada Cup, which saw NuckleDu soar over Xiao Hai in grand finals. Even so, the pair looked nearly unstoppable leading up to Capcom Cup, and the community waited with bated breath for their eventual matchup at the high-profile event.

Unfortunately for Xiao Hai, things didn’t go quite as smoothly at the most important Street Fighter V event of the year. Where NuckleDu only continued on his warpath, defeating Xian, Joe “MOV” Egami, and Ricki Ortiz en route to his eventual championship, Xiao Hai’s trip to Anaheim was less than impressive. His ninth-place finish, though admirable when taking the talent-dense Capcom Cup bracket into account, left much to be desired after his whirlwind performance throughout the past year. After showing no signs of stopping in matches against Benjamin “Problem X” Simon and Yusuke Momochi, Xiao Hai’s momentum again came to a grinding halt against NuckleDu’s R. Mika, a matchup issue that only became more apparent with his subsequent elimination by Keita “Fuudo” Ai.

As Capcom Cup came to a close, Xiao Hai’s story was obviously overshadowed by NuckleDu’s, but the question still remained: What could the Chinese player possibly do to overcome the issues he had with the R. Mika matchup? While the wrestler didn’t have any tremendous advantages over Cammy, her ability to put just about any player on tilt certainly contributed to NuckleDu’s numerous victories over Xiao Hai. No matter what changes were about to be made in the long-awaited season two patch, it was clear that Xiao Hai had a lot of studying to do if he wanted to take his revenge.

The perfect opportunity for Xiao Hai to finally defeat his demon came at U-League, an international round-robin competition held in his home country. Cammy’s recent changes, which generally dealt with expanding her combo options at the cost of defense, paled in comparison to the nerfs slapped on R. Mika, who lost the variety of mix-up opportunities that made her such a dominant force in the previous version.

As the first major Street Fighter V event after the season two update, U-League served as a great preview of what players could expect from the coming year of competition. When NuckleDu and Xiao Hai swept their respective groups and coasted against their fellow finalists, the stage was set for another monumental meeting. Would Xiao Hai finally triumph in the long, first-to-five set, or would NuckleDu’s dominance continue even after his character was significantly altered?

What followed was perhaps one of the most exciting Street Fighter V sets since launch. With the entire competition on the line, both players gave the match their all. As wins were traded back and forth, Xiao Hai looked more confident in the R. Mika matchup, so much so that NuckleDu at one point switched to Guile before giving up a game after an unfortunate controller error. Xiao Hai had only one game to win before he could walk away champion, but NuckleDu wasn’t going to go down without a fight.

In game 8, Xiao Hai found himself at a clear advantage against NuckleDu twice, only to watch his lead slip away at the hands of R. Mika’s unrelenting onslaught. Still, his play remained calm and collected, forcing NuckleDu into unfamiliar scenarios and capitalizing off clutch counter hits. But any momentum Xiao Hai was able to build throughout the first round completely dissolved in the next two as NuckleDu, intelligent as ever, baited his opponent into making a number of miscalculated reads. As R. Mika spun Cammy for the last time, Xiao Hai waited with bated breath, only to reel back in his chair as her life bar diminished and NuckleDu once again earned a hard-fought victory.

Though gracious in defeat, the emotions of enduring yet another loss were painted all over Xiao Hai’s face. While NuckleDu was congratulated by the U-League hosts, Xiao Hai sank back down into his chair with his head in his hands, exhausted after his grueling ordeal. Even moreso than previous losses, failing to win one of China’s most prolific events was clearly just another nail in the coffin when it came to Xiao Hai’s career against NuckleDu, and answers to the question, “What now?” seemed few and far between.

Xiao Hai is a competitor, that much is certain. From his history dominating global King of Fighters events to his recent invasion of the Street Fighter community, this Chinese powerhouse is still a force to be reckoned with. But sometimes, even the most accomplished competitors have their demons, and it’s clear that NuckleDu is an obstacle that Xiao Hai will struggle to overcome. As the community heads into the second season of Street Fighter V play, it’s my belief that this burgeoning rivalry will be one to watch all the way to Capcom Cup.

Photo c/o Kakuge-Checker