On the weekend of December 23-24, 2016, the GCC Majors 2016 tournament took place at the Ramee Grand Hotel & Spa in Bahrain. This was the 4th Major tournament organized by the KOFGCC/GCC Majors group. And while it didn't get a huge increase in attendance, the event went about much more smoothly than last year's thanks to splitting the main games into 2 games per day, rather then having all 4 main games happening simultaneously. This helped reduce crowds from having to be there during pools for 4 major games happening at the same time on day1. It also helped give players reason and hope to attend the second day of the tournament since that will have a different set of games, rather than just have day 2 be higher rounds like top 16/8, which won't give people the drive to attend if they've been disqualified already. (on a personal level I had a lot of fun at the event though I was disappointed I couldn't get to host the Sega Saturn tournament due to getting quite bogged down with commentary and such. Though I did set it up and people had a good time playing it)
During day 1, the full Street Fighter V and Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator tournaments were run from pools till grand finals, while Day 2 had The King Of Fighters XIV and Super Smash Bros for Wii U. For Smash Wii U, the top 3 players were: @moom1 in 1st, Kailex in 2nd, and Nabil in 3rd. In Guilty Gear, 1st place went to KMZ, 2nd went to... well, me! and 3rd went to Flame of Nova. But the star of the event, and the subject of our interview, was Waqas Ali, AKA White Ash, who took 3rd in Street Fighter V (with White Tower players NOX and Aziz taking first and second, respectively), and took first place in the heavily contested KOFXIV tournament, with visiting South Korean player Lacid and Moroccan player Freezer taking 2nd and 3rd, respectively. It takes a lot to not only win a tough tournament featuring top international players, but also end up a finalist in another game. And that is why I am proud to have interviewed White Ash for Pretzel Motion.
Pretzel Motion: Lets start with your name, age, nickname, any basic introductory info you'd like to say.
Waqas Ali: My name is Waqas Ali, reaching 31 years now, recently recognized as ‘White-AshX’. I belong to Pakistan but have been living in UAE for last 5 years. Also my profession is Chemical Engineering.
PM: When did you start playing fighting games?
WA: I believe when I was in 5th grade, I used to play those ever green childhood games such as Super Mario, Twin Hawk, Aladdin, Chelnov, Ryger etc. At that time, Art of Fighting 2 (AOF2) was one of the most favorites alongside Mortal Kombat, Samurai Shodown and Street Fighter, until I met The King of Fighters 94. It immediately caught my full attention because AOF2 characters were in it, an exciting fact back then, though I chose Japan team (Kyo, Benimaru, and Goro Daimon) to start with.
PM: Any other video game series you’re a big fan of besides fighting games?
WA: I could not so far try other games because of my busy schedule. But Street Fighter series got my attention last year with Street Fighter V.
PM: When did fighting games become something more “serious” to you? When did you start spending more hours a day on fighting games, whether playing them or watching streamed matches or talking about them with friends or reading up on tech and combos and such? What were those games?
WA: Though I started with KOF94, due to studies and unavailability of next few iterations of KOF in the area, I could not continue. KOF was my love. After a few years, when internet broke through and KOF became more available to download (via emulation), a friend of mine asked me to download for him a movelist of a KOF2001 girl that could change fighting stances. That was first time when I studied a character and started KOF again with May Lee as main character. The interest to get more into KOF, try new characters, study and make combos etc, continues till now.
PM: Besides KOF XIV and SFV, any other fighting game you’re currently playing? Any future fighting game you’re looking forward to play?
WA: At present, I am not playing any other fighting game besides KOFXIV and SFV. These two games really take time and pack the schedule. In the future, I will be more into both of these and might probably give Tekken 7 a try.
PM: How is the fighting game scene in the UAE? What's the split like between games?
WA: Fighting games environment is exciting no doubt in UAE as compared to other GCC countries. When I first came to UAE, I thought my gaming is over but the very next week I met my old fella Naveed (AKA Violence) who introduced me to other KOF players here such as Mohammad Albanna (AKA Zantetsu, who won the KOFXIV tournament at Revolution 2016 in the UK), Tayyab (T Howard), Asim (Dark Fellow) and Ahsan (AC| Ahsan) in particular. The split is mainly between KOF and SF players. Though there is a community for Tekken and Smash Bros as well but have not experienced it.
PM: So how are you liking KOF XIV compared to KOF XIII in terms of graphics and online play, and with how SNK is supporting the game with frequent patches? Do you think SNK finally delivering a KOF with decent playable netcode helped improve your skills?
WA: To me, KOFXIV is very nice addition to the KOF series indeed and that brought new players too, probably because of easier combos compared to KOF XIII. It also sported next gen graphics. The first experience of KOFXIV was with Nakoruru and Meitenkun, that refreshed my spirit to fight. SNK is really supportive in terms of recognizing issue players have with the game and working on remedial actions, and that is clear from the patches they have released so far. There is always a room for improvement. Netcode has been a hot topic for KOFXIV. To me it has dual effect, if the netcode is bad, it could worsen the skills. But if it's good, it can help improve it.
PM: Who would you like to see come back in KOF XIV with DLC (or possibly KOF XV)? I know you're a big fan of Ash Crimson.
WA: I had an expectation of getting some old characters back. Let me take a reference from KOF XIII, I believe Mr. Karate, Claw Iori, Hwa Jai, and Saiki were excellent additions to KOF series and never wanted them to "die" in the next part. I do not mean to demotivate addition of new characters but someone must have put a lot of hard work on those characters. Yes, I am one of the biggest fans of Ash Crimson, hence why I got the nickname ‘White-AshX’ when playing KOFXIII. I'm also a fan of Duolon. For DLC characters, I could name a lot of characters but on top will be Ash and Duolon. Other possibilities or rather I say ‘expectations’ will be to get back Saiki, Yamazaki and New Face Team (who are Yashiro, Shermie, and Chris).
PM: On paper, KOF XIV didn't seem to have introduced any real brand new mechanic and mostly shifted XIII's mechanics around. But that was enough to create a big shift in emphasis. Long difficult %100 combos are not as frequent anymore, but max activation (In XIII it was called HD activation, but for our purposes it's the same) has dramatically increased. And what was once something that was done once a round at best is now a mechanic that players use probably 2 or 3 times or more in a round, especially past round 1. Because of this, KOF XIV encourages players to convert off of what would normally be uncancelable attacks like say Kim's overhead attack (his forward+B) or Iori's far standing D or Robert's far standing B. This was all possible in XIII but because you didn't get the ability to max activate often in XIII most players saved it for confirm-able combos with 2 or 3 hits, enough attacks for them to confirm if they landed or were blocked before they activate, that way they won't waste precious Drive Meter.
Any comment on this change of emphasis in KOF XIV? Does it make neutral situations and pokes more dangerous and exciting? Or do you think this can reduce matches to be decided on random pokes into max activation into huge damage? And if the poke was blocked then they still get to continue pressure and even gain improved mix-up tools thanks to their access to EX moves in Max mode.
WA: If I answer in just one word then it should be ‘YES’. Neutral situations and pokes are way more dangerous, exciting and without much to fear in some situations. KOF XIII gave a lot of flexiblity of doing various ‘engineered’ combos with available resources, so a mistaken poke was way too risky. In KOF XIV, for example, if P2 doesn’t have a meter or not have a high damage combo, I would go for more pokes and an offensive approach to target the guard. And then if the poke was blocked, still there is a little strength of doing ex moves. To me that is a risky situation for attackers too, because a number ex moves can be punished one way or the other, like for example Mai’s ex QCB+P. That makes it even more exciting.
PM: In XIII your team members were Yuri, Athena, Ash, and Doulon. Yuri & Athena, being KOF mainstays since KOF94, made it to XIV and are still in your team. How do you see Yuri & Athena in KOF XIV compared to their XIII version?
WA: Yuri and Athena are clearly not as strong as they were in XIII but different mechanics bring different strategies I believe. I remember when me and Zantetsu tried Yuri in XIV in the earlier days, we were not so confident to put her in our teams specifically because of reduced hitbox and frame advantage on hit of her dive kick. Because I played her in XIII I really wanted to give Yuri a try and with some time spent I realized her real potential as she could be dangerous on attack. For Athena, I will say she is very good for the system of XIV i.e. long stages strengthens her zoning. Her 2 meter combo damage is decent anywhere on screen. And her ex moves are safer and eat guard, especially ex J+HCB+K (AKA ex Pheonix Arrow) and ex fireball. Ex super has a bigger hitbox than before. Overall I find her very good at 2nd position.
PM: Nakoruru is new for a mainline KOF. Did you ever play Nakoruru in any Samurai Shodown or any of her many crossover appearances? And what do you think of Nakoruru in KOF XIV? She was obviously considered in the top tier by most players before the 1.03 patch in mid-October. But even after some of the nerfs she still seems to be really good.
WA: To me, Nakoruru is also one of the nicest additions to KOF. I have played her in the Samurai Shodown series and she is a ‘fascinating’ character. I appreciate SNK for bringing her to KOF. The changes in patch 1.03 have clearly reduced a couple of her strengths but I believe she still is ‘scary’ when played with full resources. I am still realizing her real strengths. Just to add a little, I was playing her as 2nd but moved her to 3rd position (or anchor) because in the one meter combo that I use (crouch+B x 3, max activate, crouch+C, ex mamahaha, A-slide, ex dp) does not use full max bar after landing from dp. That ‘missed opportunity’ of using bits of max bar post combo made me shift her at position 3. Plus the damage for 5 meter-combo could reach up to 800 (which is equal to %80 of life).
PM: What do you think of the balance in KOF XIV right now? KOF historically have had lopsided balance but KOF XIV is really the first KOF to have continued patch support to rebalance characters, take out infinites (like the recent 1.11 patch which took out Ramon's infinite), and fix bugs and other gameplay issues.
WA: More balancing with patches is pretty good and gives motivation to existing and new players coming to KOF. I believe still the game requires some fixes and balances that could allow numerous new characters to be playable, or be acceptable by the players. SNK have been very supportive in this regard.
PM: Moving on to GCC Majors, Aside from the other top 3 players Lacid and Freezer, who from the KOF XIV top 8 (or just the tourney in general) were you impressed by and wanna highlight?
WA: I would like say, and some readers of this will totally agree with me: I was and I am still extremely impressed to see EvilYoshi making it to top 8. The reasons is, he was actually an Ultra Street Fighter IV player when he shifted his interest to KOF. His skillful execution of combos, great whiff punishes, and generally getting accustomed with the fast pace of KOF got him a position in top 8. We have been practicing together before the tournament and that made me realize he is so far one of the best new-comers in KOF.
PM: You played against Freezer in Top 8 and in Loser's Finals. Freezer played with Luong, Robert, Mai, and K'. What did you think of Freezer's play in the tournament? What were his strength that lead him to reach 3rd place? And his weaknesses that prevented him from taking 2nd or 1st place?
WA: I have huge respect for Freezer as he is one of the nicest players and human beings I met. I believe his international exposure to tournaments in 2016, excellent fighting skills, knowledge of KOF in general and strength in the Moroccan KOF community were his collective strengths in the tournament and everyone knew he is one of the favorites. For the weakness part, it is very hard to find of course in such a competitive player. I wasn’t better than him but had worked on some critical points that usually even strong players fall for. For example, the urge to utilize a raw or mistakenly done max activation has a potential for getting punished. Plus at a critical point, he missed the last hit of a combo.
PM: Finally, the highlight, your matches vs Lacid, first losing to him in Winner's Finals, then coming back in Grand Finals, resetting the bracket, then winning Grand Finals with a One-Character Victory with Yuri. What did you think of Lacid's play? In my opinion I thought his Goro was incredible (arguably the best Goro player right now in KOF XIV anywhere). I just thought he lacked a bit with Kim. And a few of Verse's mix-ups worked at first but then it was clear that you adapted as the mix-ups stopped working on you as the matches passed. I also assume your experience with Zantetsu, who plays Verse and Kim, helped a lot in those 2 match ups.
WA: Lacid - one of the best in Korea and worldwide. I was under some pressure in winners finals against him but had an inner belief that my neutral game will make a difference. I realized that during the few casuals we played together and with watching his matches in tournaments he won in Korea. Plus I had played KOF XIII with him when I visited Korea. It did took a little bit of time to absorb his calm play style and react accordingly and that did cost me the winner's finals set and lead me to meet Freezer in losers. My experience playing practice sessions with Zantetsu’s Verse and Kim was a very strong factor for me, no doubt in that, as is probably Lacid’s lack of exposure to XIV’s Yuri and Athena.
PM: Moving on to Street Fighter V, How are you liking 5 in general compared to Street Fighter 4 and previous Street Fighters?
WA: First, I have not played earlier street fighter games except for very little about 20 years back. Before SFV, I just had watched USFIV once in the 2015 KOFGCC Tournament in Dubai, and Daigo Umihara's Evo Moment #37 parry in Street Fighter III 3rd Strike. I really like SFV in terms of graphics, technicalities, and overall system. It was hard for me to accept playing the game after leaving the best of KOF series (KOF XIII) but the Street Fighter community in Abu Dhabi helped me a lot in understanding Street Fighter V and ultimately liking it.
PM: You play Karin. What made you pick her as your main in Street Fighter V?
WA: As I mentioned above Street Fighter V is my first competitive SF series game. I initially did not have much of an idea of which characters were good or bad and who to play for the long run. To be honest, I loved Karin when I watched some online videos and made up my mind to play her. Plus, Karin was a strong recommendation from Omani player Saif Al Wahaibi (aka Wubster), that she would match my style of play.
PM: GCC Majors 2016 took place mere days after Street Fighter V Season 2 (and with that, Akuma) dropped. And after the organizers polled tournament attenders, they concluded that the majority were in favor of playing with Season 2 changes and with Akuma being considered a legal character, and set that as rule. What did you think of that decision? Were you fine with it, or would you have preferred the tournament to have been on Season 1? Or do you think it ultimately didn’t matter much?
WA: I was in total favor of the decision to have the tournament be played with season 2 changes because of a number of factors. There had been numerous tournaments worldwide for season 1 so season 2 would bring some hype as GCC Majors 2016 would be one of the first tournaments to play in season 2 so that would help grow GCC Majors and the scene in general. It did matter a lot by the way because of tons of changes in season 2 but I believe the factors I mentioned before prevailed.
PM: You fought White Tower players Aziz and Nox in Winner's and Loser's Finals, respectively. Aziz is known for his Ryu, and despite the nerfs Ryu got in Season 2, Aziz still managed to perform very well with him. And Nox played as Rashid, who most would agree have improved in Season 2. The White Tower group represent some of the strongest in the region in Street Fighter so no surprise that Aziz and Nox ended up taking second and first place, respectively, despite the very fresh update the tournament was played on. What did you think of your opponents?
WA: I was very well aware of the fact that SF players and the community in Kuwait is one of the strongest in the GCC. NOX visited UAE before the tournament and I had played with him in season 1 so I knew that he is the strongest. Plus I knew about Aziz as well when I explored with the SF community in UAE. Both NOX and Aziz had far more experience in SF series compared to my fresh exposure, plus they have been, as I heard, competing with world’s top players too in the past such as from Japan. No doubt both of them were favorites and deserved the positions they achieved.
PM: Now that it’s been 2 months since the patch dropped, generally speaking, what do you think of Season 2 and the path Capcom is taking with Street Fighter V in terms of balance and feature updates like new DLC characters, costumes, and stages?
WA: To be honest, I am liking this approach of introducing patches and changes, stages, costumes, and most importantly the DLC characters. The way Capcom has taken throughout in 2016 up to Capcom Cup had been extremely impressive. I am already excited for DLC characters and have strong determination to play one of them on a competitive level in 2017.
PM: Specifically, what do you think of Karin in Season 2 compared to Season 1?
WA: I believe Karin is slighly better in Season 2 as compared Season 1. One factor is obvioulsy the changes in the system itself, removing wakeup dp’s in particular because that makes her be more aggressive. 2nd factor is the change in her frames on hit/ block. Of course, some normals and specials are not as good as they were in Season 1 but others have improved, like the increased damage of ex-Orochi.
PM: Any future plans? Any future tournaments you'd like to attend?
WA: In 2017, I will be more active in the competitive level of gaming so I will be travelling whenever & wherever possible. I am preparing for Cannes Winter Clash (editor update: Shorty after this interview, White Ash mentioned on twitter that sadly he won’t be able to attend due to Visa problems) and will attend EVO 2017 too for sure plus any other major tournaments happening locally or globally.
PM: Finally, any last words to your now new global fan-base?
WA: I believe this is just a start of the new era for me and because of GCC Majors I have been recognized in the fighting games community, tons of thanks for GCC Majors. For the fanbase, I promise to continue to impress and actively participate in events and contribute more in the growing KOF and SF communities. Thanks a lot for the tremendous support and for this interview.
Many thanks to Waqas Ali for agreeing to do the interview. You can follow Waqas on twitter @White_Ashx. Credit for the GCC Majors images goes to SultanSNK, he's @SNKsultan on twitter. And lastly, you can find the official site for GCCMajors at gccmajors.com.