Screenshot: Dragon Ball FighterZ

Four months ago, Eduardo “HookGangGod” Hook had never entered a tournament in person. He had been shooting up the leaderboards in Persona 4 Arena and Guilty Gear for years while preferring to risk frame delays and shaky network connections. But Dragon Ball FighterZ got the self-described “online monster” to see if tournament play was worth it.

“People shit on freakin’ online play all the time, so I was always like damn, what if I’m actually not good, I’m just good because it’s online?” Hook told me at DreamHack Austin last weekend. “But then I played offline and cooked everybody anyways, so I was like, okay, cool I guess I’m good.”

He didn’t get there right away. At Winter Brawl 2018, he made the final 32 and was quickly eliminated from the tournament by Chris G. and Wolfkrone. But the Piccolo specialist rapidly improved, and by Texas Showdown, he was already sponsored by NRG. In Houston, he made his breakout, making the grand final through the losers bracket and ultimately finishing second.

Today, he’s one of the top competitors in North America, and at every event he’s inching closer to a major trophy. What makes him so fun to watch, though, is his choice of character. Hook is a Piccolo main; he’s crafted his team around the green Namekian, as he tells me, and his skill with the stretchy fighter is unlike anything else.

Piccolo is not considered a high-tier character, even by Hook. The green guy is only found on two rosters at the top of the competitive scene, Hook’s and Vineeth “ApologyMan” Meka’s. But he’s “too much fun,” as Hook puts it, to not play. His setups and projectile pressure can be oppressive in the right hands, and his Hellzone Grenade super lets him force an opponent into guessing where the next hit might come from while blocking a barrage of ki blasts.

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Other fighters have quick beam attacks or a flurry of ki blasts, but Piccolo’s ki attack is a slow-moving ball. Combine this with stretchy arms that can catch opponents unaware and his devastating Demon Slicer chop that can put foes on the ground, and Piccolo can convert a strong zone game into devastating combos. It plays very well into Hook’s style of play, which relies on capitalizing on good reads and keeping the opponent guessing. He’s doled out several “happy birthdays” where you catch both the opponent’s main fighter and an assist they’ve called in for one combo, sometimes resulting in the death of the assist character. Happy birthday, you got a two-for-one!

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As commentators repeat in the clips over and over, Hook’s tag as “HookGangGod” became its own thing. The Hook Gang God was a force fans and players quickly became familiar with, and it was all because Hook latched onto Piccolo. Hook did briefly abandon the Namekian, but he had to come back.

“That’s why I don’t wanna drop him, even now that he’s like mid-tier, I feel like he’s too much fun for me to even consider dropping,” said Hook. “Even though I did consider like… It just wouldn’t be the same. I played without Piccolo and it’s just not the same, it doesn’t feel the same. I’m a Piccolo player.”

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His struggle now is making Piccolo work against the current fad of characters like Kid Buu and Cell. He has to run a Cell in his lineup, he says, just because of how good the fighter is against most of the cast. His main green guy even got nerfed in one patch, affecting Hook’s Hellzone Grenade setups. All around the scene, players are adjusting their setups, fine-tuning their teams for the coming majors. The Summit of Power is this weekend, CEO isn’t long after, and then everyone is eyeing the game’s first Evo championship. For Hook, it’s a fight against temptation to just play the known, effective quantities of a Cell and Kid Buu team, who Hook says are “just way too good compared to Piccolo.”

But what Cell and Kid Buu provide in a fight, Piccolo delivers in mid-tier pride. “Of course, I can still win if I’m the better player, but it makes my life hard, using Piccolo, when I could just pick Cell and Kid Buu and do the same thing that Piccolo works so hard for easily.”

While Cell is included just for his raw power, the Vegeta assist that players have been shying away from still makes an appearance on Hook’s team. The combination of Vegeta and Piccolo is too good to drop, even while others do so. Despite nerfs to his team members and even his core, underplayed main, Hook sticks it out; as he puts it, if developers “aren’t gonna make him good, I’ll make him good myself. Fuck it.”

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The ultimate validation for Hook and Piccolo would be a major win, something he’s clearly capable of. Hook tells me staying dominant is also important in a scene this new, and in FighterZ, there are only so many seats at the table: “In my opinion, there’s only like 40 good people in this game in the world, that are on our level. So as long as I stay doing really well and win majors and stuff like that, still top 8, make a living out of this, that’s my goal. Because I’m doing what I love.”

Compete is Deadspin and Kotaku’s joint site dedicated to competitive gaming.