When Xian placed first in Street Fighter V in the Capcom Pro Tour’s Final Round 20 tournament, his fans were happy but confused. Xian had won the tournament by playing as Ibuki the entire time, a shocking departure from his typical pick, F.A.N.G. Xian’s wins as Ibuki, in contrast to the “low-tier” characters he tends to choose, have sent a shockwave through the Street Fighter community, with fans wondering whether this proves that no one could have won a tournament with F.A.N.G.
Playing as F.A.N.G. has always been a controversial choice for Xian. The character gets consistently ranked as one of the least powerful fighters in SFV tier lists, such as this one from Eventhubs. Tier lists for fighting games are crowd-sourced lists of character rosters that attempt to rank how powerful fighters are. F.A.N.G. isn’t just a low-tier character—he’s usually ranked dead last.
But Xian has served as a beacon for players who want to play characters they like, regardless of what the community thinks. When it comes to which character he chooses, Xian told Compete, “I never think about high or low tier… I like playing characters that look cool and hype.” That doesn’t mean he never looks at tier lists, though: “I pay attention to tier lists just to see what people think are the strong characters. Then from there, I try to judge to see if my own tier list is very different. Then I will think if [there’s] anything I am missing out on why they put those characters as strong.”
Personally, I’ve never heard any serious fighting game player—let alone a pro—say that they chose their main character simply because they “look cool.” That in and of itself makes Xian a very unusual player. It’s a surprising sentiment to hear in a community that understandably focuses on mechanics and match-ups rather than, say, characters’ outfits. It’s easy to forget when you’re reading a big spreadsheet of characters’ cooldown rates that, hey, fighting games are also about which characters look cool. And Xian has taken this approach to the top bracket, and even first place, in many tournaments.
In 2013, Xian started catching eyes by placing highly at several Street Fighter IV tournaments while playing as Gen, a relatively low-tier character that many players overlook. In an interview with Red Bull, he compared Gen to Dan, another low-tier character: “People treated Gen like Dan: ‘This character is too weak. I don’t need to know anything to beat him.’ I spent a lot of time with Gen, even though I lost a lot in the first year. If I managed to find a way to play this character strong, no one will be able to figure him out.”
Sadly for Xian, Gen did not end up getting chosen to appear in SFV’s roster. But F.A.N.G., who is a brand new character to the Street Fighter franchise, ended up appealing to Xian because of his similarities to Gen. Xian told Compete: “I have always liked Gen, just because he looks like a kungfu master and is really cool. That actually draws me to play F.A.N.G. as I think their outlook [is] similar.”
Although the characters don’t actually have similar move-sets, both of them wear visually distinctive long-sleeved robes. Like Gen, F.A.N.G. also has an eye-catching and almost serpentine way of moving around the screen, although F.A.N.G. is even more flamboyant and over-the-top than Gen in terms of his personality. His falsetto voice and goofy hat probably don’t help him seem tough or intimidating.
But in Xian’s hands, F.A.N.G. managed to be more terrifying than anyone could have expected. In April of last year, Xian showed off his early attempts at playing F.A.N.G. on an episode of Excellent Adventures. The show’s hosts, Gootecks and Mike Ross, expressed a comedic level of surprise and alarm when Xian insisted on choosing F.A.N.G. After Xian lost his first match, Gootecks asked him hesitantly, “Are you gonna change characters? Or are you gonna run it back?”
“I’m not going to change characters,” Xian said, shaking his head in demure surprise. “What? WHAT?!” Gootecks exclaimed. And yet, against all expectations, Xian went on to win some killer matches as F.A.N.G. in that episode, and then, on the tournament circuit.
A few weeks later, Xian placed fifth playing as F.A.N.G. at his first big SFV tournament, Stunfest 2016. In EVO the following July, Xian chose F.A.N.G. yet again and ended up in the 9-12th bracket. In a Reddit AMA last September, Xian reiterated his reasons for choosing F.A.N.G., in spite of fans’ confusion: “many people are very unfamiliar with character who are not played a lot. It’s just my style.”
But then, in December, Street Fighter V put out the “Season 2” update, which ended up introducing some new changes to the game. By then, Ibuki had also joined the character roster (Update—10:00 AM, 3/15—This story has been updated to reflect that Ibuki had been added to SFV before the “Season 2" update.) That was around when Xian decided to change things up, telling Compete, “I had some matchups I just couldn’t figure out, so I decide to try out another character.” But, he insisted, he’s not giving up on the strange, robe-wearing fighter: “I will be playing both Ibuki and F.A.N.G., I believe, in the future.”
What drew Xian to Ibuki? To me, she seemed like a wild departure from F.A.N.G., and Xian actually agreed: “I think both characters seem to be the complete opposite.” However, he explained, “playing F.A.N.G. has made me understand the game in a deeper way,” which eased the process of switching characters—even to a very different fighter like Ibuki.
Over on GameFAQs, a lengthy forum debate began right after the Final Round 20 SFV tournament ended. Some fans argued that Xian was only able to place first in the tournament because he had finally switched to a mid-tier character rather than a low-tier one. The whole thread kicks off with this statement: “Consistently get good results in tournaments with the worst character in the game, but never going all the way. The minute [Xian] switches to a good character, he wins a STACKED tournament.” It’s a hard argument to refute, given Xian’s wins this past weekend.
It’s almost a let-down that Xian wasn’t able to place first at Final Round 20 by playing as F.A.N.G., though, simply because it would have felt like a win for everyone who chooses unusual, unlikeable, and oft-misunderstood low-tier characters. But, in spite of that, it’s worth noting that Xian still doesn’t believe that tier lists should be the be-all-end-all for players choosing their characters. What matters is finding a character that makes sense to you, even if that character is low-tier. In Xian’s words: “If you don’t like the character, you should never do it. But if you like the character, please go ahead, because I think it’s really fun!”