Fighting game player Hotashi on stage raises his arms up and looks down smiling after big play
Fighting game player Hotashi on stage raises his arms up and looks down smiling after big play

CEO 2021: Who to watch in Guilty Gear and Street Fighter V

by Tim Lee

This weekend, the biggest fighting game event in North America this year will return to the spotlight. Community Effort Orlando, or what the fighting game community affectionately calls CEO, will return in all its offline glory.

What started as a replacement tournament for another fighting game event in Orlando blossomed instead into one of the premier events of the gaming year. With its flamboyant presentation where stream matches are played in a wrestling ring, its famous 24-hour arcade space, and top-eight introductions akin to a wrestler’s entrance before a match, everything is larger-than-life. With no offline Evo this year, CEO is arguably the main event of 2021.

The community responded to the return of this event when entries for each of its marquee games were sold out within minutes of its registration window. It naturally became a topic, and for some, an opportunity to sell their spot, because fighting game tournaments typically don’t immediately sell out. This will be a celebration for many, and for those who are new to the scene, a great introduction to the madness and spectacle of CEO.

Pool play for most games starts at 12 p.m. ET Friday and the top 8 for all but two games takes place Sunday. You can watch most of the action on twitch.tv/ceogaming.

All photos are courtesy of Red Bull.

Guilty Gear Strive

Guilty Gear Strive has by far the largest player pool with 748 players and will be easily the hardest tournament of the weekend. There should be no doubts about the game’s popularity or whether the player base is hungry for a major fighting game championship.

Although the field will mostly be from the Western hemisphere, there are plenty of high-caliber players and a good mix of new and veteran Guilty Gear heads vying for CEO’s crown and prestige. Even without international representation, this weekend will be one of the best opportunities to truly identify some of the world’s strongest players outside of net play.

Julian “Hotashi” Harris

Photo credit: Ian Witlen / Red Bull

It needs to be said that Hotashi is the reigning North American Evo Online champion. His other tournament results, be it weekly or large ranking events, are impressive as well, and he’s a consistent threat to take down any competition with his vicious Nagoriyuki play. Hotashi is a smart player who will be prepared to take down any character or overcome any obscure situation because of his meticulous approach toward improvement. He is a favorite not because of tournament results or talent, but because his lab monster attitude will also label him as the most prepared player in the entire field.

Tyler “Diaphone” Kusich

Photo credit: Red Bull

It would be disrespectful to not include the best North American I-No player after his incredible Red Bull Kumite run as one of the players to look out for at CEO. With a burgeoning resume and rising confidence, the title of tournament favorite is well-deserved. The onus is now on his opponents to correctly scout out Diaphone’s innovative offensive approaches and relentless mix-up pressure. All the tools are there, but the road to the top might still be blocked by character matchups.

Kyohei “MarlinPie” Lehr

Photo credit: Eric Stewart / Red Bull

This is purely a respect pick for a legendary name in North American Guilty Gear, and he’s arguably the most successful player against international talent. MarlinPie is widely considered the scariest Zato-ONE in the West, and his immense history and experience in the series deserves recognition. MarlinPie is a favorite regardless of his lack of Guilty Gear Strive tournament results. I look forward to his path to the top eight and potentially further.

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The field is incredibly large, and even with the names to watch, there will be many upsets. It wouldn’t be an open tournament without the dramatics of a Cinderella run. The top eight might just come down to players that lab the most, play an unfamiliar character in an unorthodox way, or just grind out the tournament.

In addition to the three featured players, the potential for players who have had consistent weekly results at large ranking events like Peter “Flash” Susini or Kev “K7 Showoff” Hunt to win is high. Players who originally were monsters in the game’s infancy like Eduardo “HookGangGod” Deno or training partners like Hector “Macho” Cajigas also can take it all down. The intrigue to see which player and what characters make up the top eight is the most interesting thing to watch this weekend.

Street Fighter V

Guilty Gear Strive takes down the prize for most registered players, but Street Fighter V is the main event that usually leads to the most memorable moments for CEO. With 453 players in the pool and some international killers spread throughout the field, Street Fighter might have the most exciting matches over the weekend. Players might not have the pressure of competing in a Capcom Pro Tour event, but CEO will still serve as an important title to win and double as a great opportunity to gauge a player’s standing before the Capcom Cup begins in February 2022.

Victor “Punk” Woodley

Photo credit: Red Bull

CEO will serve as the best backdrop to reintroduce Punk’s status as the best player in the West. His streaming and responsibilities as a content creator remain a priority, but the hope is that a major tournament with multiple international monsters can reignite the passion that audiences witnessed when Punk took down a Capcom Cup qualifier event. If we get the version of Punk who plays with a chip on their shoulder, this might just be his event to lose. That Punk is the best player in the world.

Arman “Phenom” Hanjani

Photo credit: Marv Watson / Red Bull

Despite his static character choices and the plentiful amount of tape available to watch past tournament matches, Phenom remains one of the most unsolvable puzzles in the fighting game community. Five command grabs in a row against Daigo Umehara? Sure. Walking down Punk in a Karin mirror and win by only whiff punishes and throws? Checked that box as well. Phenom is a favorite regardless of the competition because of his clutch play, and he will be one of the best bets of the tournament to take it all down.

Adel “Big Bird” Anouche

Photo credit: Suguru Saito / Red Bull

Big Bird might be a favorite in many people’s eyes, but his status as a top player is understated and his overall reputation is underrated. Big Bird is one of the world’s best players, let alone a tournament favorite. He possesses a neutral game that is second to none, incredible instincts and understanding of Street Fighter V, and some of the most confident play in the entire tournament scene. The number of clips of him walking down an opponent with just the sheer threat of a hit-confirm or creating havoc with one button are numerous, and with his arsenal of characters, a top-eight berth is almost automatic.

There’s a lot of tape and understanding behind Street Fighter V because of the length of the game’s life, but CEO’s return does make things fun again. The biggest narrative is how players prioritize the importance of winning this major tournament or whether they use it as information for the upcoming Capcom Cup.

Lead photo credit: Ian Witlen / Red Bull

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