The hidden power of low-tier fighting game characters

Tier lists have always made interesting talking points and are a growing fascination within competitive gaming. No matter your level of interest in esports, we’re all guilty of checking a tier list to see where our favourite character ranks among the rest. Even for those playing on a casual basis, sometimes the curiosity is too strong. Fighting games, in particular, are often notorious for having multiple tier lists; it’s possible for some characters to be bad on the ranked ladder but a tyrant in tournaments. This can greatly influence the meta and forces players to learn matchups they would otherwise neglect.

But how can a “low tier” character be piloted to success if they are fundamentally inferior to their “top tier” counterparts?

The Path of a Yogi

Let’s begin with Street Fighter V’s incarnation of Dhalsim. Throughout the franchise history, this yoga flaming, air-teleporting stretchy boy has gone through many changes but the core of his kit has remained the same. Casuals and veterans alike will know him as a “zoning” character who excels at keeping you away with long ranged attacks. Combine that with his Yoga Teleport and Dhalsim becomes a hybrid zoner with rush-down potential. It’s knowing when to switch from defence to offence that separates the good Dhalsims from the bad.

Unfortunately, his luck runs out when the opponent is able to get close and dish out pressure. On knockdown, characters like Cammy have access to a fast reversal like her EX Cannon Spike. This forces the opponent to always consider the chance that the knocked down player may choose to disrespect their pressure to turn the tables. However, if they successfully predict the wake-up reversal, they will be awarded enough frame advantage to secure a juicy crush counter combo.

A character like Dhalsim, however, that has no access to a reversal nor a three frame grounded normal (the fastest in the game), is forced to respect his opponent’s pressure. This makes playing Dhalsim dependent on predicting your opponent’s moves. One small mistake can result in a knockdown, which could then lead to a series of incorrect reads on wake-up and, what do you know, there goes half your life bar.

Rob “Broski” Livingstone, a UK player and streamer, has been a dedicated Dhalsim main since season one of Street Fighter V. He ended the most recent Capcom Pro Tour in #4 for the UK and #12 in Europe. Approaching him for his thoughts on Dhalsim’s viability, he had this to say:

“Evaluating character strength, especially when comparing the same character between iterations of the same game, is never a straightforward process. Dhalsim is a good example of this. His season one incarnation had lower damage, worse frame data, less health, worse v-triggers and fewer mobility options than now, but enjoyed far more tournament success in the wider metagame. Why? Because how strong a character is in a fighting game is as much about the meta around that character as the character themselves.

2016 was generally dominated by Chun Li, Ryu, Ken, R. Mika, Nash and Guile. These were the characters most people rated as being the best. Dhalsim had the near-unique status of having favourable matchups with all of these characters, except R.Mika. He struggled against some of the lower tier characters, but often once you get to the later stages of a tournament bracket, those characters started to thin out, and Dhalsim had solidity as an almost anti-meta character.

“His extremely unusual and unique playstyle did not lend itself well to being used as a secondary counter pick. Therefore, most of the success he experienced was due to dedicated Dhalsim mains. In fact, the very first Capcom Pro Tour event after SFV’s release was won by Mister Crimson, a Dhalsim player from France. Comparing this to the current early season four metagame, Dhalsim’s worst matchups – Rashid, Necalli, Kolin and Ibuki – all sit solidly in the upper echelons. Even despite his objectively improved toolset in the intermittent updates since 2016, they routinely gatekeep Dhalsim’s tournament viability.”

Staying lucky

In some cases, low-tier characters can slot nicely into certain playstyles and game plans. Sang-hyun “Jeondding” Jeon is a Korean fighting game player who co-mains Tekken 7’s Lucky Chloe. This is a character that has always been regarded as “bottom tier”. A lack of strong lows is one of her many weaknesses.

That said, Jeondding has enjoyed moderate success with Lucky Chloe and is no stranger to utilising her quirks against players he believes are less familiar with her playstyle. It’s the lack of matchup knowledge that opens the gates for a ballsy rush-down approach. Because his opponent may be unfamiliar with her playstyle, they might not punish certain combos which allows Joendding to achieve obnoxious bursts of damage almost risk-free.

It’s important not to see a fighting roster through tunnel vision. A heavy focus on the tier lists early on could limit you from experimenting with the full set of characters. How can you find the character that’s right for you when you refuse to play them because people on the internet said so? Understanding what makes a character top or bottom tier is also crucial to, as Ryu would say in SFV, going “beyond the battle”.

But the handicap of low tier characters is mainly prevalent at the higher ranks where every opponent is playing at a 100% optimal level. Characters like Dhalsim and Lucky Chloe may lack the tools to deal with more oppressive strategies, but their pilots can compensate with a level head and intuition honed from hours of practice and matchup knowledge.

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