SonicFox and Go1: The Dragon Ball FighterZ rivalry that cemented the hype

Go1, left, and SonicFox, right. Caitlin O'Hara for ESPN

Every game needs a story to start its journey, and on Feb. 24, 2018, Goichi "Go1" Kishida was putting his final touches on another Dragon Ball FighterZ weekly tournament victory. Inarguably the best player in Japan, the grand finals was a stomp. It was becoming routine for the anime fighting game legend. When the stream cut to him for his thoughts after the tournament, it was supposed to be a standard interview about how he enjoyed playing his opponents and that he appreciated the games. Instead, he stared at the camera and lit a fuse that would make him a marked man:

"SonicFox, you're next."

It was a challenge to one of the greatest western fighting game players. These three words not only challenged the image of the polite culture in Japanese fighting games, but it started a regional rivalry that put Dragon Ball FighterZ (DBFZ) firmly on the gaming map as the flagship fighting title. Kishida's resume is remarkable in the fighting game world. He made his name in Melty Blood as an impenetrable defensive fortress, and for more than a decade, Go1 terrorized the Japan region in Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax, Aquapazza: Aquaplus Dream Match, BlazBlue and Under Night In-Birth. His excellence at picking up the mechanics and fundamentals of DBFZ was no surprise.

The recipient of the callout was Dominique "SonicFox" McLean, king of NetherRealm's games and a player that seemingly did well at any title he put in significant effort into. At only 20 years old, he was already a four-time Evolution Fighting Game Championships (EVO) winner and a three-time Mortal Kombat Pro League champion. He was already the all-time money earner for fighting games. His next goal was DBFZ.

"I think that the Japanese community recognize his ability and his brilliance, but I also think that community is very motivated to rise to his level and compete with him because he is the best," Jonathan "Majin Obama" Metoyer, one of the premier commentators in fighting games, said. "He has incredible offensive sense, reactions, focus and is a student of the games he takes seriously.

Metoyer says despite a 10-year age difference, the two fighters are much alike.

"Their pasts were marked with several interesting parallels that made their rivalry particularly fun to enjoy if you were a fighting game enthusiast," Metoyer says. "Both players are fighting game geniuses and have backgrounds that involve them conquering multiple scenes."

The general consensus was that Japanese players kept their thoughts to themselves and let their skill and personality play out on the screen. McLean did not take the callout lightly, and as he put it, "It's the way the Japanese players played. They lab everything and know the most optimal things. I have a higher respect for them, so when they noticed me, I was so happy and hype."

With the table set, the rest of the community waited for their first meeting at Final Round in March 2018. The pair met for a first-to-10 exhibition the day before the actual tournament. Kishida's team was all about synergy while McLean created his lineup to be individual batteries.

It was a wash. Kishida embarrassed McLean in their proposed exhibition 10-4 and proceeded to raise his hands in victory after the set. It was the first shot fired and it was a wakeup call to the rest of the world.

"He can find something effective quickly," Jon "dekillsage" Coello, McLean's close friend and training partner, said. "He's willing to try new strategies, and he's not afraid to lose. Most players are afraid of the immediate result, but he's willing to take multiple teams to big tournaments. He wanted to play the best of the best because he always was the top and needed to prove himself. His only goal before Final Round was to beat Go1 and he trained just to beat him."

Kishida entered Combo Breaker 2018 with an unreal 60-2 record in DBFZ and was riding high from his crushing victory at Final Round. If anyone had questions about whether McLean was on equal ground with the Japanese top gunner, he shut down any opposition. Even with the humbling experience, there were plenty of players that still respected McLean's ability to adjust and come back stronger because he looked like he enjoyed the grind.

"I was surprised by GO1's defense. I always thought Machabo [Masahiro Tominaga] had the best defensive skills, but GO1 is definitely on that level," Ryo "Dogura" Nozaki, one of the best DBFZ competitors, said. "But, Sonicfox is truly a genius. He always enjoys playing and it is so fun to watch him play. That definitely got him lots of fans in Japan."

McLean studied the matchup, learned a new team, and prepared for just Kishida before he entered Combo Breaker. There would be no cocky attitude or Twitter talk before a game was played -- it was signature precision from the North American hope. His debut new team, Gotenks, Kid Buu, and Cell was his version of cohesion. According to him, he needed a team that could provide the 50/50 guesses he loved because his confidence in the neutral game was sky-high. Kishida also used a new character in Bardock, but his vaunted defense was tested with constant unfamiliarity and pressure. If the screen's hostilities were not enough, it was the crowd's outpouring of support for McLean that may have tipped the scales. The pair met twice in winner's finals and the grand finals; McLean took both. The body language spoke for the two of them. McLean's face was unmoving with no emotion until he secured a game victory while Kishida's body shifted in search of comfort. "I find characters through trial and error, but I want to be a bully with them," McLean said. "I want a fast assist and a way to slow the game down. I'm good at looking at which characters fit me -- they need to make an opponent commit to something with moves that will annoy them. I knew he was emotional and did not like to be frustrated and when he started to drop combos, I was in his head. I needed to stop his streak and I was extremely confident."

The latest chapter to the rivalry at Evolution Fighting Game Championships (EVO) proved that even with other storylines that popped up from DBFZ, their narrative continued to deliver.

Kishida's brought his signature defensive style and stymied every offensive attempt from McLean. It looked to be academic and another lopsided chapter to a back-and-forth rivalry after Kishida skipped to a grand finals' reset.

Then, McLean asked for a seat change and played the meta game to ice the heat. Whether it was frustration or the time off, Kishida's form and defense slipped in the reset and McLean took full advantage. His challenges were more obnoxious, his mixups too ambiguous, and his team rode comeback after comeback for the victory.

The EVO win was a definitive bow to a rivalry that lasted the entire year and captivated fans of the players or the game.

"Go1 is an opponent that boasts physical strength and high execution capabilities," Ryo "Dogura" Nozaki, one of the top Japanese fighting game players, said. "It was quite impressive how he was able to pull off difficult techniques that other players can't. His weakness was his mental game and his tendency to choke in tournament. I would say that Sonicfox was also on Go1's level. He garnered the attention of the Japanese Gaming Community, including myself, with his bright and charming personality." Now with the DBFZ World Tour finals at the Red Bull Final Summoning on the horizon, the new top player to watch is Nozaki. Even so, the heated engagements of Kishida and McLean proved that with vested interest, a great game could become the best fighting game of the year. The pair took the community's complete attention and easily paid back the faith with a multitude of grand finals and unbelievable matches.

"I can't get tired of playing Go1. The hunger is still there," McLean said. "I always wanted to win and I passed with flying colors. I know Go1 wants to be the best, but so do I."

While their rivalry no longer holds the same amount of suspense, it gave DBFZ a wonderful start to its competitive identity and culture. It promised the players that storylines could easily exist if there was enough excitement behind it. The gameplay and quality aside, a narrative or a rivalry truly can pitch a title from great to extraordinary.

Now, the final episode airs this weekend in Los Angeles as the DBFZ World Tour finals.

"For a modern fighting game with no arcade based scene, this is as pure as it gets," Metoyer said.

Translation contributions were provided by Alvin To and Ho-Chan.