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Punk is the Steph Curry of ‘Street Fighter V’

Why a brother from Philly is so talented at the fighting game

“The thing that separates him from everybody else is his reactions.”

David “UltraDavid” Philip Graham, an entertainment lawyer and fighting game sportscaster, said this of Victor “Punk” Woodley of Philadelphia, the world’s most talented Street Fighter V player. “He has superfast reactions. That’s useful in a game like Street Fighter because most of it is snap decision-making.”

Fellow professional Street Fighter player Brian “Brian_F” Foster agrees: “He has the fastest clock speed and the most threads on his CPU out of everybody in the game. He can react faster and do more things at once than anyone else.”

In March, Capcom, the creator of Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition, the most recent iteration of the iconic fighting game, hosted its Final Round tournament in Georgia. As I watched along on Twitch, Woodley’s dominance awed me. He won the Capcom Pro Tour’s first event this season, beating Yusuke Momochi of Japan.

What explained Woodley’s exceptionalism?

After talking with Woodley, Graham and Foster, I found the answer: He shares a cognitive asset with one of America’s most dominant athletes — Stephen Curry and his unparalleled quick reactions based on what he sees.

Here’s why Punk is so good

Woodley’s ability to “hit confirm” and “whiff punish” best demonstrate his fast-reaction speed. His skill correlates well with Curry’s ability to decide whether to go left or right, shoot the 3 or go to the hole so quickly the competition seldom has a chance, based on just looking at his defender. To understand hit confirming and whiff punishing, let’s start with the game’s basic mechanics.

Each of the 35 characters has six buttons: hard punch, medium punch, light punch, hard kick, medium kick and light kick. Hard buttons level the most damage but are the slowest. Light punches, conversely, level the least damage but are the quickest. Each character also has special moves that do even more damage but are generally slower than hard buttons. The best players string together moves (combos) that include hard buttons and special moves to inflict the most damage.

“If you can react to everything in the world, you’d be Neo in The Matrix, and Punk is as close as you kind of get to Neo, where he can just dodge bullets.” — Brian Foster

And this is key — slow buttons or special moves that get blocked tend to lead to pain from the opponent. If Woodley presses a hard punch, for instance, and the opponent blocks it, his opponent can press a button and easily connect because Woodley doesn’t have enough time to block the response attack.

But if Woodley can start a combo with a medium or light button and confirm that it landed and his opponent therefore isn’t blocking, he can follow up with more damage-inflicting options because the opponent can’t block the next attack. That’s what hit confirming is: confirming that the button hits and therefore pressing another button or executing a special move is safe. As Woodley says, “Being able to hit confirm one hit is very important because people get hit a lot of times with a straight hit that doesn’t lead into anything. Being able to hit confirm leads into so much.”

If the opponent blocks the hit, Punk isn’t supposed to press additional buttons or execute any special moves. If his opponent isn’t blocking, however, Punk should continue his combo. The game allows him a fraction of a second to hit confirm before deciding what to do next, and he almost always decides correctly. “Every time he catches [you],” Foster says, “he’s converting that into a combo every single time. And that’s like 30 percent of your life gone.”

Woodley says that hit confirming is “something you can learn [to a degree], but a lot of it is a person’s reactions, like, how good are your reactions.”

Whiff punishing also tests a player’s ability to react to what his eyes see in less than a second.

“He’s really good at standing just outside where his opponents can hit him,” Graham says. Punk wants to goad his opponent to press a button that can’t land because he’s too far away. Once an opponent misses, or whiffs, Woodley walks in and presses a button of his own, one that lands. “You see the button whiff,” Woodley says, “and it clicks in your head that, OK, it’s my turn to try to whiff punish them right now.”

Here’s a video of him in action:

“He puts himself in a good spot,” Graham says. “The opponent is not in a great spot, so he expects that they will stick something out and he will be able to whiff punish. But at the same time, even if you do have that expectation to be able to react in time to some of the things he whiff punishes, it is still really, really hard.

“I don’t know that anybody else in Street Fighter V has boiled that reaction down as well as he has.”

“I know it’s guaranteed that if I whiff it,” Foster says, “he’s going to clip it, and that’s a completely different mindset when playing against any other player.”

Curry’s quick reactions get him open

On the basketball court, Curry shows similar stellar reaction speed. Drake Baer, writing for NY Mag, interviewed Curry’s trainer Brandon Payne, who told him that Curry can look at his defender’s body positioning and instantly decide how to attack: “If the player is leaning left, we want to force the left foot to drop toward the basket, and we want to space backwards and to the left to give them a really odd recovery angle. It’s hard to recover if your right foot is high, your left foot is low, and all of a sudden Stephen steps back to his left.”

Curry creates space and, with his lightning release, shoots a nearly unblockable shot. “Curry’s brain is able to read his defender’s positioning,” Baer writes, “a foot set at an odd angle, a nose edging his weight too far to one side — and use the right ball movement — a head fake, a crossover — to create open looks out of thin air.”

Perhaps no other basketball player creates as much space from quick reactions based on defensive positioning. Curry regularly generates the sort of open looks that other players rarely get.

This is reminiscent of Woodley. “His reactions are so good,” Graham says, “that it feels that he kind of does things that just aren’t available to almost anybody else. He turns random hits against the opponent into major opportunities for him, and very, very few people can do that.”

“If you can react to everything in the world,” says Foster, “you’d be Neo in The Matrix, and Punk is as close as you kind of get to Neo, where he can just dodge bullets.”

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at Andscape and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.