We went to BAM9 in Melbourne last weekend and it was the absolute best

The profile of competitive eSports only seems to be growing in Australia with the Intel Extreme Masters drawing a massive crowd in Sydney just a few weeks ago and the ESL continuing to grow by leaps and bounds. These events tend to focus on one of two genres — shooters or strategy — but there is a third genre that has been building a following with the rise of streaming services like Twitch, fighters.

I must confess to being something of a competitive Street Fighter tragic. Some people get hype for the next live UFC bout. I get hype for the next stop on the Capcom Pro Tour. It’s a relatively small scene compared to the behemoths of eSports darlings like Dota 2 or StarCraft 2, and thus competitions where the big names bow out early and underdogs begin a meteoric climb up the ladder happen with astonishing frequency.

They also lead to unbelievable, make-or-break moments like this:

That’s Japanese player Daigo Umehara and the moment that made him a household name among the competitive Street Fighter community. He is playing as Ken in Street Fighter 3 Third Strike, down to his last shred of health in the third round of his winner’s bracket semifinal match at EVO 2004. Up against US player Justin Wong as Chun-Li, the normally very subdued Umehara is left openly frustrated by Wong’s turtle-up tactics throughout the five-match fight and his own inability to get a rhythm going.

Wong moves in for the kill, popping his powerful Hyokousen Super Art, a barrage of extremely powerful kicks. With only a moment to prepare, Umehara unleashes a series of parries thought by much of the community to be impossible, meaning none of Wong’s blows, any one of which could have brought him down, actually land. He makes the most of this stunning play, instantly battering a surprised Wong, taking the game and the fight. The assembled crowd, made up of fans and competitors alike, loses their collective minds at what they’ve just witnessed and a legend of the game is born.

In the years since, Umehara has been a staple of the competitive Street Fighter scene, winning tournament after tournament and making a name for himself as one of the greatest Ryu mains of all time. His fans jokingly refer to him as an emotionless robot, able to analyse his opponent’s form on the fly and counter them with ease. They’ve written books about Daigo. He himself has written books on the game he has mastered.

So to see him casually walking around the show floor at BAM9 at the Melbourne Convention Centre this last weekend was rather surreal.

For his part, Daigo spent the bulk of his Sunday at the show in the casual play Street Fighter area signing autographs, taking pictures and genially shredding anyone who dared square off against him in-game. It’s not something he had to do but it certainly sent a lot fans home happy. “You’re not going to believe this,” I heard one excited twenty-something half-shout into his phone as he walked out of the casual play area, “I just got my arse kicked by Daigo.”

As mentioned earlier, tournaments like these thrive because heavy hitters occasionally bow out early and, in Daigo’s case, that’s exactly what happened at BAM9. While disappointing for those fans certain he would make the Top 8, Daigo’s bowing out against Guilty Gear champ Dogura happened in such an amusing way its worth watching his match back.  The whole fight is extremely fun, but skip straight to 10:55 for the final round where it all comes undone.

Even at the highest levels, even among the best to ever pick up an arcade stick, it’s still possible to play yourself.

But BAM9 wasn’t done shaking up the anticipated Top 8. High-profilers Infiltration and Gamerbee were knocked out in the Top 16 brackets so that the Top 8 rounded out thusly:

8. Mago
7. Yukadon
6. Oil King
5. Xian
4. Tokido
3. Fuudo

The final match, a knock-down, drag-out between  South Korea’s Verloren as Cammy (coached in the video by fellow Korean pro player Sooa) and Japanese tournament dark horse Bonchan as off-meta pick Nash drew one of the largest crowds of all three days.

The reason for all of these high level players descending upon our little homegrown tournament is that, for the first time in its almost decade-long history, Battle Arena Melbourne became an official stop on the Capcom Pro Tour, elevating it officially to the big leagues. This made BAM9 an attractive proposition for professional players, a prime opportunity to snatch up some extra Capcom Points and work their way further up the Pro Tour ladder in a region not known for producing players on their level.

It’s a real feather in the cap of BAM9 organisers CouchWarriors, a local collective of fighting game enthusiasts who have toiled long and hard to build and grow the Melbourne fighting game community to the point where they began to draw the eye the of international players.

Aside from Capcom, the other significant corporate player on the floor during the weekend was Bandai Namco who ran a similarly massive Tekken 7 tournament. With the console version of Tekken 7 set to release in a scant few weeks, this was the first chance for the vast majority of attendees to get hands on the game’s final retail code. While the Street Fighter crowd, particularly on the Sunday, would get quite vocal throughout the Top 8, the assembled throng for the Tekken 7 finals on Sunday afternoon were ready to pop off from the moment they arrived. There were players who flew in from overseas that had lost their voices from celebrating wins throughout the previous two days, that’s how jacked up these guys were. It was incredibly hard for even the most casual observer to not to get swept up in their wild enthusiasm.

At the other end of the hall were the two major Smash Bros. tournaments, one on the new Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, the other for the venerable Super Smash Bros. Melee on Gamecube. Both drew significant, largely local crowds and as a result they both felt like a family affair. When Spud, as Marth, took out Sora’s Fox McCloud in the Melee final, a crowd of friends and other competitors actually rushed onto the stage to embrace and congratulate their friends on their tournament-winning performances.

Even less high-profile titles — Mortal Kombat XL, BlazBlue, Guilty Gear XRD, Dead or Alive 5 and King of Fighters 14 — drew dedicated, no-less vocal crowds. Every major tournament or event was ready to broadcast on Twitch, all surprisingly simple setups requiring little more than laptops, cameras, mics and a box light for the shout casters.

The show’s Convention Centre location could have given some punters the impression that the show itself would be much larger. In reality, BAM9 is a very intimate show that throws the insane scale other, larger shows into stark relief. The entirety of BAM9 comfortably fit within a room a third the size of that which PAX Aus lines up in. The two shows couldn’t more different of course — PAX is a full-blown convention and BAM9 is, at its heart, a series of tournaments that draw a cross-section of the local hardcore.

Photo credits: Jacob Fox

Even at its largest, several thousand people on the Sunday just to eyeball it, the organisers from CouchWarriors were able to fly in extra chairs for the larger tournaments to make sure everyone was able to get a seat or, at the very least, a decent view of the action. If I could offer them a constructive criticism for next year, it would be to arrange larger projection screens for the larger tournaments. While fine for those viewing from the first five or six rows, those further back struggled to clearly see the action being projected. I’m sure I’m not telling them anything they don’t know. These boys and girls really seem to know what they’re doing and ran, in every other respect, an efficient, on-time and very exciting show.

Congratulations to the tournament winners, to the fans for keeping things cruisy and the energy up and the CouchWarriors and their BAM9 staff for a safe, fun show. I can’t wait to see what you have in store for the momentous BAM 10 in 2018.