There was a distinct difference when Ryota "Kazunoko" Inoue took to the stage and fought his Dragon Ball FighterZ matches during the DBFZ World Tour finals at the Red Bull Final Summoning on Sunday. His super dashes looked faster. His meter built quicker. His movement was electric. His mix-ups created chaos.
The owner of four Dragon Balls entered the finals as the favorite to take down the entire event, and he looked every bit the part in claiming the World Tour title in Los Angeles.
Kazunoko cemented his status in the game as the No. 1 player in the world. Even when faced with a grand-finals bracket reset and a relatively close set against Goichi "GO1" Kishida, Kazunoko was in total control of his own destiny. His team composition of Gotenks, Adult Gohan and Yamcha sped the game pace up in typical Kazunoko style. His offense was an impossible puzzle to solve; if you avoided his forward-moving assists, he could select which part of the screen to land on for an unpredictable hit or super dash for plus-frames. If nothing else worked, he could reset the screen and put you through the ordeal all over again.
"The other players had teams that focused on dealing damage, and I went into it with a team with extremely high mobility," Kazunoko said. "I got my first win at CEO 2018, and that confirmed that I was not wrong and that something was working. I was sure that my team composition was the answer to the game, and it gave me the confidence to win more matches."
The "other players" in the finals were largely from Japan, with six representatives from the country (four qualifying through the brutal last-chance qualifiers) and two North Americans, Dominique "SonicFox" McLean and Eduardo "HookGangGod" Deno. It took an entire day's worth of last-chance qualifiers to finish the field, and two of the qualifiers placed among the top-four finalists.
For many players, the addition of an entire half of a tournament field would throw a large wrench in the game plan, but Kazunoko was unfazed. Despite the lack of preparation time for the final four, Kazunoko's concentration and confidence remained the same.
"In my mind, all the players that had the potential to beat me had a Dragon Ball," he said. "The other high-level players did not concern me as much because I was confident that I could win."
Although much of the competition was in Kazunoko's native Japan, many of the players who made up the field were from West Japan. Kazunoko, who hails from East Japan, considered himself the best in the region and was undaunted by the familiar opponents.
"It helped a lot because we knew each other's playstyles, and my team composition helped me put the right strategy into play against each one of their styles," Kazunoko said. "I knew they were developing some anti-Kazunoko strategies, but I felt confident that I was still the best, so there was no pressure."
Kazunoko's biggest concern was character unfamiliarity, specifically in matchups against Piccolo, and he knew players such as HookGangGod or GO1 would give him issues. In his lone match against GO1, Kazunoko needed to rely on his player knowledge over character strategy to advance in the tournament.
However, his toughest matchup came in the grand finals against Shoji "Fenritti" Sho. The offensive dynamo was Kazunoko's first-round opponent, a 3-0 sweep in Kazunoko's favor, but Fenritti adjusted his strategy in the rematch to reset the grand finals.
"Fenritti adjusted his play after our first set and dodged my assist calls, and I felt like a lot of situations where he avoided my setups caught me off guard," Inoue said. "After the reset, his focus and strategy was around avoiding my assists or setups, so I focused on super-dashing up close to take him down."
Only after he landed the final hit on Fenritti did Kazunoko allow himself to smile and put his hands in the air. As the confetti dropped onto the stage, all of his work to collect the Dragon Balls and his overall dominance in the game was recognized.
"The fact that I won this and performed so well throughout the world tour proved that my philosophy and concept was not wrong," Kazunoko said. "As a fighting game player, it gave me confidence beyond this game that I identified the right strategy."