Pair of Americans and a Japanese unknown land in Evo’s Street Fighter top 8

The Evolution Championship Series has a reputation for compelling storylines and nail-biting finishes

The Evolution Championship Series has a reputation for compelling storylines and nail-biting finishes. This year, at least in Street Fighter, the prestigious tournament has outdone itself.

The remaining eight players in Evo’s most competitive tournament offer spectators a virtually unprecedented diversity of personal journeys, competitive backgrounds, and character diversity. Among them, two “retirees,” a fallen champion, a determined upstart, and a complete unknown from Japan will take center stage when the tournament reaches its climax on Sunday.

For those with only a casual interest in the fighting games scene, two names in particular will elicit surprise. Bruce “Gamerbee” Hsiang spoke earnestly about retirement in November of last year, falling either well outside the top four or just short of the brass ring at subsequent tournaments.

In similar fashion, Eduardo “PR Balrog” Perez’s inconsistency and fatigue prompted the fan favorite to officially announce his retirement on Twitter just a few months ago. Much like Hsiang, however, cracking the top eight at the world’s largest fighting games tournament is not just validating—it’s proof that his career is far from over.

While grizzled veterans fight for redemption, Du “NuckleDu” Dang’s top eight appearance is a shot in the arm for an aging pantheon of Street Fighter champions. The Team Liquid representative remarkably cut through Japan’s Ai “Fuudo” Keita en route to the most prestigious accomplishment of his career, while simultaneously proving that his Apex 2015 championship was no fluke.

While Dang fights to make his name known, another is fighting to keep his name relevant. Yusuke Momochi took home Street Fighter’s most prestigious title—the Capcom Cup championship—last year before a shocking slump left many questioning his title as world’s best. After finishing 17th at CEO 2015 just three weeks ago, Momochi’s winner’s bracket run is a boost of both public and personal confidence for the fallen star.

Evo 2015 Street Fighter’s biggest story however is arguably its most confounding. Amid a cornucopia of demonstrated talents and community favorites, a Japanese Juri player has left spectators in awe and competitors scratching their heads.

Known only as “AiAi,” the Japanese unknown enters the Evo top eight without a single point in the Capcom Pro Tour circuit, Capcom’s official ranking system for its end-of-season championship. Even clad in a surgical mask to avoid illness, AiAi’s smile has been radiant, besting NuckleDu, China’s “XiaoHai,” and the legendary Japanese champion Daigo Umehara during his unlikely run to the finale.

AiAi and his fellow fighters will finish what they started Sunday night as Evo reaches yet another spectacular conclusion.