It was a Birthday Decision

Clap and I spent the majority of our 24th birthdays Friday unloading and setting up 75 TVs with the rest of the staff for MLG St. Louis, and what did we get in return? A big ice cream cake from Sundance with the words “You Suck!” scripted on the icing. Well, that and we got to once again be a part of the single greatest phenomenon in competitive console gaming, which is always an untouchable experience. With 63 teams in attendance, STL was host to the biggest Halo 2 tournament of the season so far, and probably the best one too. Sporting a strong lineup of old, new and remixed teams, as well as an instantly-legendary Finals series between Team 3D and iGameSpot, MLG St. Louis was one for the record books, which was made all the more amazing by the fact that behind the scenes the whole thing seemed to teeter on disaster.

“The hotel had some sort of pre-historic Internet connection where pterodactyls flew your data to and from your website.”

The two hours we spent looking for the 30 missing Xboxes that the truck driver had unloaded into some long-forgotten catacomb of the Renaissance Hotel was nothing compared to the time it took to update all 75 Xboxes with the 1.1 patch and the new maps. All of our equipment is stored in a third-party warehouse between tournaments, so we have no access to the Xboxes until the day before each event. The hotel had some sort of pre-historic Internet connection where pterodactyls flew your data to and from your website. What took me two minutes to do at my house on Roadrunner took 40 minutes at the venue for each Xbox — at a maximum of three at a time. We were literally still updating Xboxes mere hours before the end of the tournament, which included heroic back to back all-nighters pulled by one Chris Puckett, Head of Halo (somebody buy this guy a steak dinner!). What really made the wound salty was the knowledge that no more than a week later all of these updates would be available on a handy-dandy DVD that would have saved poor Puckett, oh, about 36 hours of staring at progress meters.

We went through several stages of panic before we discovered that through some kind of wizardry cooked up by Anakin, we were still able to operate the tournament normally without all the boxes being finished, and the tournament went pretty well from that point on. No, scratch that–it went incredibly well.

Four Sharks in a Swimming Pool

Day One was nothing if not a bit misleading, as the results of the Pool Play drew a much different picture than the bracket rounds. Team iGameSpot, the squad that would later go on to deliver an 11-game nail-biter versus Team 3D in the Tournament Finals, was limp as a dead fish on Saturday afternoon, coming up with a 1 – 5 record in Pool Play. Gandhi swears up and down that it was because he “sucks at split-screen,” but whatever the reason, IGS was left in the fourth place slot heading into the Championship Bracket. Their result was somewhat below expectations, because IGS took second in Orlando, and the swapping out of Vash for Sergio since then was generally regarded as an improvement.

In sharp contrast, Team 3D was unstoppable in Pool Play, winning all six games and setting themselves up with a cushy first place seed going into the bracket rounds. Watching those matches must have been taxing on the morale of the other top teams, as they were probably expecting another trouncing first place win a la MLG Orlando for 3D. However, the Ogre twins, Saiyan and Walshy were in for a much bumpier ride on their way to victory…

Easily the second-strongest looking team in Pool Play was Str8 Rippin. Moving into second seed with a 3 – 3 record (keep in mind two of those losses were to the scorching-hot 3D), Rippin was looking like a sure bet to make it to the Finals. Fonzi and Foulacy have continued to up their game along with the competition throughout the season, refining their play styles and learning from their increasing experience. Despite numerous lineup changes, these two always manage to end up near the top–a testament to their quality as players. The hopefully-permanent addition of Karma to their team turned out to be a very wise move, as he is perhaps the most consistently awesome FFA player in the game right now, having appeared in the FFA Finals at all three events he’s attended, including a first and second place finish. Not only does this help his team with seeding, but it shows that he is a great individual slayer, and he fills his role nicely within his ranks as a power player.

Also a huge credit to the Str8 Rippin lineup is the addition of Zyos. While the 1.1 patch has undeniably catered to the skills of Halo: CE veterans, no one player seems to have benefited more than Zyos from the changes, and he didn’t hesitate to show us his improvement in STL. Nobody disputed that Zyos was an excellent strategist, but a common critique since the advent of Halo 2 was that his combat skills were not comparatively as good as they were in Halo: CE. Well, all the haters can finally put that one to rest too. Zyos did have one of the most accurate pistols in Halo: CE, and that ability has finally been able to shine since the arrival of the patch. He was one of the most solid players throughout the tournament, and he helped his team take home a very respectable third place finish last weekend.

We’ll probably never know what would’ve happened if Check 6 would have stayed together and attempted a comeback after their disappointing 5/6 place finish in Orlando, but it’s not entirely depressing that the once-undisputed second best team is gone. Everyone who was on that team is a startlingly good player and it’s easy to tell by the fact that all four members finished in the top four with their new teams in St. Louis. The biggest chunk of that team can be found on Exigent in the form of Tupac and Killer N. Consisting of the aforementioned two plus Tsquared and Vash, Exigent seemed like a team that was put together with one thing in mind: slaying. And you have to admit, on paper it would be tough to assemble a team with more pure killing ability. Despite all the murderous power of this team, they were also the team in the top four with the fewest returning players from previous tournaments, and their slightly less polished teamwork may have been their demise when they were knocked out by Str8 Rippin and landed in fourth place. If they stayed together for another tournament and worked on their team game, it’d be very interesting to see just how high Exigent could climb.

“While there was only one change to the roster, this was a totally different IGS team–one that was making a serious push to be considered a good match for the champions rather than the distant second that every other team has been this season.”

The 11 Game War

Honestly, I didn’t think the Finals would be very close at all. Most anyone who witnessed the 3D vs. IGS Finals in Orlando was probably having the same thoughts. In Orlando, IGS seemed to have resigned to defeat before the match had even begun, perhaps a bit surprised to find themselves in the Finals in the first place, and then suddenly having to face the team that has absolutely dominated the 2005 MLG season thus far. They had poor morale, feeling that the Finals gametypes were not at all suited to their skills or what they had practiced, and it was obvious that they were giving up after certain turning points in each game. In one match, it seemed like Gandhi spent more time doing 1080 degree jumps off of high platforms in Colossus than he did trying to rack up kills. It was frustrating, because we knew that the team could be so much more than that.

Well, we found out just what iGameSpot could be in St. Louis. While there was only one change to the roster, this was a totally different IGS team–one that was making a serious push to be considered a good match for the champions rather than the distant second that every other team has been this season.

The first indication that things were going to get interesting came during the Winners’ Bracket Semi-Finals between 3D and IGS. It wasn’t decided at the time, but this round turned out to be the beginning of the 11-game Final match up. IGS came out of the gates hard in the first game of Oddball Midship. After the previous day’s poor performance, the last thing people were expecting was for IGS to win the game, but that’s just what they did. This being the first game of the tournament that Team 3D had lost, people from all over the tournament floor immediately crowded in to watch the series on the side station.

Game two of the series found Team 3D back to doing what they do best: controlling maps. The Team Slayer game on Warlock felt more one sided than it was, as somehow IGS managed to only lose by seven kills despite being trapped on the floor for nearly the entire game while 3D spread out and covered the map from the top positions. Feeling that Warlock is a definite weak spot for them, Gandhi and McGavin from IGS could be overheard discussing how they “just don’t know what to do against these guys” on that map.

IGS clearly knew what to do on Sanctuary CTF though, as they craftily edged out 3D three captures to two for the win and the lead in the series. Ogre 1′s 47 kills and 3D’s general out-slaying of IGS was not enough to buy them the win, which is something that seemed to be the case in many of the objective games 3D lost. The abundance of kills put out by 3D was not necessarily guaranteeing that the objectives were being accomplished.

Obviously, 3D has excellent strategies that have consistently won them tournaments, but it looked like IGS was able to exploit one aspect of their play style that helped them to make the matches closer. Typically in objective games, 3D puts a heavy emphasis on controlling the map/weapons first, then spawn killing, and then completing the objective. This has worked incredibly well for them in the past because they are a very coordinated slaying team that is constantly double-teaming enemies. This affords them the luxury of setting up big plays so when they do get in the hill or grab the oddball, they’re almost guaranteed to control it for a while.

Like I said, this has been extremely successful for them in the past, but it seemed like in St. Louis IGS refused to play 3D’s game, instead taking the objective games to a dirtier, more guerrilla-warfare level. Instead of locking down sections of the map, they were scooping up all those miscellaneous seconds of hill or ball time while nobody was in control of the map–seconds that 3D usually passes up in favor of a more fortified position for when they do make their move. This strategy pressured 3D to push harder than they wanted to, because every second they spent collecting a sniper or a rocket was as second that IGS was adding to their score, preventing them from completely controlling the pace of the game like they often do.

Although this strategy served IGS well throughout their series with 3D, it wasn’t enough to overcome them on KOTH Beaver Creek. It could just be me, but I feel like Beaver Creek has become the new “Ogre City” (a nickname for the Ogre twins’ best map) that Chill Out was in Halo: CE. I rarely see 3D beaten on this map, and I almost always see Ogres 1 and 2 come up huge. Although I heard some griping from IGS about the hill spawns, 3D won this map by 40 seconds, tying the series at two games each.

Team Slayer Lockout would decide which of the two heavyweights would have to work their way out of the Losers’ Bracket for a shot at the Finals. This was a really bizarre game, with most of the battling taking place on the mid-levels of the map and somewhat out in the open. Neither team could control a sniper and lock down one of the towers all at once, so it lead to a series of nasty skirmishes at choke-points and through windows. It was a one-point game all the way up through 40, with 3D trailing several times along the way, but then suddenly it all snapped and 3D went on a tear, winning the game 50 – 41. Team 3D has an amazing knack for pulling out clutch plays to win important games, and this was certainly one of those cases. On the brink of elimination from the Winners’ Bracket, 3D pulled together and inexplicably won by a fairly wide margin. While it’s difficult to say how they do it, it’s clear that it happens too often to be luck.

After eliminating Exigent in five games and Str8 Rippin (who had just been sent to the Losers’ Bracket by Team 3D) in four, IGS climbed back up to the Winners’ Bracket for the continuation of the Tournament Finals with Team 3D. Just like the previous series, these games could not have been more evenly matched or frenzied.

Once again, IGS made big moves right away, sweeping up in Oddball Lockout to tie the overall series 3 – 3. Lead to victory by Gandhi in just one of his many impressive games during the Finals, IGS seemed much more confident than they were in the Orlando Finals, which started to rub off on a crowd eager to see a change of scenery on the first place podium. IGS must have sensed that a significant portion of the crowd was willing them to win, and it helped them step their game up to another level.

Unfortunately, no matter how high you step your game up, there’s a glass ceiling when it comes to playing Team 3D on Snipers Colossus. Walshy, Saiyan and Ogre 1 and 2 are probably the most destructive sniping force in all of Halo, and it’s rare that they are beaten. They made disgusting kills through narrow angles and forced terrible spawns for IGS at the flag bases to control all of the good firing angles on the map. IGS played a good game, but there was little they could do to prevent the 50 – 33 loss and Walshy’s 15 – 7 game, once again putting them behind in the series.

Things seemed to be going downhill for IGS. Directly following the 3D snipe-fest was an unsettlingly one-sided game of CTF Warlock that can only be described as complete destruction. 3D was not interested in letting this series draw out any further, and they intended to put an end to it as soon as possible, working toward it with a 5 – 0 game. The intended nail in the coffin was struck slightly wide right however, and IGS managed to stay alive, winning a ridiculous game of Neutral Bomb Midship. I say it was ridiculous because the game was extremely close and IGS was up 1 – 0 with about 15 seconds left. Team 3D had possession of the bomb and managed to clear out most of IGS from the base. Gandhi mistakenly thought the arm time on the bomb was 10 seconds (it’s five), which he thought wouldn’t have given Ogre 1 enough time to arm the bomb, even if uncontested. As result, he called his team off the attack, and the crowd watched in horror as Ogre 1 came within a half-second of arming the bomb before the time ran out. This flub could have cost IGS the entire series, but luckily for them they still won and the series sat at 5 – 4 in favor of Team 3D.

With the series seemingly attainable once again, IGS worked themselves into a frenzy and took no prisoners on Ivory Tower TS, winning 50 – 30. This was a very uncharacteristic kill differential for 3D, but there was only so much they could do against a team so hyped up. If you asked almost anyone to tell you who did the most disgusting sniping of the tournament, they would most likely tell you it was Sergio during this game. Trotting around like he owned the place, Sergio patrolled the upper floor of Ivory Tower with his sniper rifle out, racking up kills. Right before the game ended he no-scoped three people in a row and brushed it off like it was no big deal. The crowd was in an uproar as IGS tied the series and sent the MLG St. Louis Finals into an 11th tie-breaking game.

This one was a true show-stopper, and if this insane game of TS Beaver Creek doesn’t make it into the VoD Legendary Matches section, Synide and I are going to have some words–punching words. Right off the spawn, Sergio took control of the rocket launcher and IGS set up a quick and dirty camp. There was a series of tense moments that followed where neither team wanted to commit to an assault. IGS had a small early lead of 11 – 6, fronted by Sergio in the rocket tower, protected on the vulnerable side by his teammates at Red Base. He racked up a seven-kill spree before anyone took him out, which eventually lead to the score tying up at 21, at which point Ogre 2 already had nine kills.

The IGS strategy seemed to simply involve patrolling the Red Base area with combos, waiting to catch someone off-guard for an easy kill. It paid off, as they were able to stay ahead by about four kills throughout the middle portion of the game. Gradually, Gandhi built up a little hot streak with his combo, putting his team up by 11 kills at 41 – 30. Sergio once again had the rockets, and Shockwav3 was well placed to catch unsuspecting wanderers. Everyone in the audience stopped talking, blinking and breathing as each person gradually came to the realization that we may be about to see an overthrow of the undefeated Halo 2 champions.

But instead of an overthrow, they saw Ogre 1 go nuts. Drawing upon both Team 3D’s expertise on Beaver Creek and their uncanny ability to make a sweet comeback, Ogre 1 made a key kill and swung control in the opposite direction, setting into motion a domino series of kills that saw all the power weapons changing hands in an instant. With full weapon control, there was no stopping 3D as they went to work on their kill deficit, whittling it away and taking the lead. Team 3D went on a nearly unprecedented 20 – 1 run at the end to win the game 50 – 42 and preserve their title as the undisputed Halo 2 champions.

The Aftermath

Though IGS didn’t fell the giant, they certainly tripped it up and opened up the possibility in many peoples’ minds for the first time that Team 3D can be beaten, gaining a legion of fans along the way. Virtually everyone likes the guys in 3D, and there’s no doubt that they deserve every bit of the mythology that surrounds them, but like in any sport that has a dominant force, a counter-culture always forms around the underdog, because everyone likes to see other people overcome adversity to rise above themselves. At MLG St. Louis more than any previous tournament, I felt the presence of that counter-culture, holding out hope for a new champion and a killer story to tell their friends. Of course, Team 3D still has unbelievable hordes of fans hanging on their every action, and the clashing of these two camps is what makes being a sports fan so much fun. IGS is quickly cementing themselves a position as the torch bearer for any who want to see some drama in their favorite sport, and whether or not they ever oust 3D is secondary to the fact that they opened up the door and made things more interesting.

Congratulations go out to both Team 3D and iGameSpot for their stellar performances at the tournament, and for giving us all heart attacks. The tournament was such a success that most of the pro players went out to the Hard Rock Cafe with the MLG staff to celebrate. It was great to see all these players who had just fought each other fiercely instantly revert to being friends and goofing around again. Although the high-intensity matches are the subject of all the talk, it’s really the community that makes these tournaments so amazing. To see all these hundreds of people come together from all over the country (and world!) in the name of something they all love, joining back up after a long absence or meeting each other for the first time in person, is simply awesome. Knowing that so many of these people spent hundreds of their hard-earned dollars on travel and lodging just to be a part of it should really put into perspective how special this is. I was having such a good time that sleep was out of the question, so not having shut my eyes in literally 48 hours, I headed off to the airport in the morning to hop my flight home. As I stumbled past the flight attendant toward my seat, bleary-eyed and barely conscious, only one coherent thought pushed itself to the surface of my brain: “St. Louis crushed.” Then it was lights out.

Congratulations to the winners!

1st Place – Team 3D

2nd Place – iGameSpot

3rd Place – Str8 Rippin