Tournament Recap: Japonawa 2013 in Tijuana

This past weekend was Japonawa 2013, the first ever Road to EVO international qualifier held in Mexico. I had the opportunity to attend and snagged some quick interviews and photos while I was there. Below is a full recap of my experience playing KoF among some of the best players in Mexico!

The outdoor venue for Japonawa

The outdoor venue for Japonawa

The Trip to Tijuana

Tijuana is literally right across the border from San Diego. From most parts of SoCal, it’s only about a 2-3 hour drive, making it even closer geographically than NorCal. Over the years I’ve heard countless stories of how skilled and passionate Mexican KoF players are, so I jumped at the opportunity to check out this event. Because there is so much tourism from the US, traveling to Tijuana is a lot easier than you might think. There are numerous parking lots right on the border which offer daily rates of around 20 bucks, so you can literally park your car and just walk right into Mexico. Driving and insurance can be a pain to deal with in a different country, so walking is definitely a good idea. Also, the line to get back into California is much faster if you walk back than if you drive. I made the trip on Friday night with my buddy Tasty Lumpia and my roommate Mat, who helped take a lot of these pictures.

When we got to the other side of the border, we were met by Team Lago’s Kenshin and Monica. Team Lago organizes fighting game tournaments in Tijuana, and is composed of OG players who specialize in KoF, Marvel, and Street Fighter. The team is named after the neighborhood Kenshin is from. The first order of business after crossing the border was going to their favorite local taquería. Spoiler alert: I will talk a LOT about tacos in this post. The tacos in Tijuana are straight up godlike.

From left to right: David Kong, Monica, Kenshin, Tasty Lumpia @ Tacqueria Picante

From left to right: David Kong, Monica, Kenshin, Tasty Lumpia @ Tacqueria El Picante


After tacos, things got really exciting. We headed to “El Santuario” (the sanctuary), which is the local hangout for KoF13 players in Tijuana. ArchiKahn (aka Pecas) runs the place and lives there. There, we met up with The Answer, Luis Cha, Kanibalito, RealKim, Polly, Clon from Mexico city, and met a ton of the TJ players.

El Santuario

El Santuario

Here we played first to 5 casual sets. This is the point of the weekend when I realized how totally free I am compared to just about every player in Mexico. I got BODIED. Every set I played was either 5-0 or 5-1. Players had styles and setups I had never seen before. I was very impressed, to say the least.

After casuals, we went out bar/club hopping around the Tijuana “strip”. I definitely saw a lot of NSFW illicit activities which will not be mentioned in this post, but overall it was a really fun night. Brass bands and street performers were everywhere. Everyone stayed safe and nothing dangerous or sketchy happened. At the very end of the our escapades we got street tacos before heading back to the hotel. It was the best taco I’ve had in my entire life, no exaggeration. I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried while eating this taco. The tears were partially induced by the intense spice of the salsa and the smoke from the grill, but mostly by joy.

The Event

Saturday we walked from the hotel to the venue, which was about 4 blocks away. I was not prepared for how big of an event Japonawa would be. Edgar Vera, who is in charge of the whole operation, has been organizing anime conventions in Mexico since 2006. What started out as a cosplay centered meetup has now blossomed into the biggest anime convention in Mexico.

David Kong and Edgar Vera, the mastermind of Japonawa

David Kong and Edgar Vera, the mastermind of Japonawa

Edgar is a man of the people. “My goal with Japonawa is to bring together different communities. Our common goal is to have fun doing the things we love.” At this event, there were about 4,500 attendees. Booths were set up by local organizations like “Sociedad de Pokemon Tijuana” and “Tijuana Bronies”. There was cosplay and Kpop dancing. Edgar flew in an actual JRock band from Japan. There was a wide variety of food available, ranging from pizza and hot dogs to ramen and takoyaki, all for very reasonable prices. I’m not that into anime, but even I thought the convention itself was super fun.

The first day of the tournament was outdoors. Although the brightness outside didn’t make for ideal playing conditions, it wasn’t a huge deal. We had a big tent covering the whole fighting game section, so we didn’t get burnt by the sun. KoF ended up having only about 30 entrants, but every single person in the bracket was a killer. From what I was told, a $32 registration fee is actually quite steep for most gamers in Mexico, so the only people who entered were extremely skilled. Despite the small number, this event definitely felt like a major. Players flew in from all parts of Mexico and came ready to play. Most anime convention tournaments in the US are pretty free and not very serious, but this was definitely the most cutthroat bracket I had ever been a part of outside of EVO. It was the same story for the Marvel and SF4 tournaments. There was not a single scrub, except for me. I got bodied by Huevo (2nd place finisher) the first match, and then lost against my pal Kira Yagami. I’ll get you next time Kira! :)

Me in the process of getting bopped

Me in the process of getting bopped

Day 1 of the tournament. Team Lago's Neto sends Luis Cha to losers bracket in this match

Day 1 of the tournament. Team Lago’s Neto sends Luis Cha to losers bracket in this match

After the first day was done and top 8 was decided, the official salty suite opened up at the hotel. Team Lago rented out the hotel ballroom so that we could all play casuals and money matches in the same place. I learned from Kenshin that there is a long standing rivalry between Tijuana and Mexicali KoF players. This rivalry started with KoF 98 and 2002, and has lasted into KoF13. Seeing this rivalry transpire in the form of hype money matches right in front of me was really awesome.

The ballroom/salty suite at the hotel

The ballroom/salty suite at the hotel. Sombra from Mexicali vs. Kanibalito from TJ

We all played casuals late into the night and woke up the next day for Top 8.

Finals Day

Before Top 8 started, Mat, Tasty Lumpia and I walked to a random local tacqueria and ate like 15 tacos. I really, really need to emphasize how good the tacos are in Tijuana. Tacquerias seem to be everywhere, since there were two within walking distance of the hotel. Each taco is about $1.25, or 15 pesos. Also, you can pay with US dollars everywhere in Tijuana, so there’s no need to exchange your money.

The face of pure joy, @ Tacos El Gordo De Tijuana

The face of pure joy, with Tasty Lumpia @ Tacos El Gordo De Tijuana

But I guess I should actually talk about the finals now. Top 8 was sick, and included guys from Mexicali, Tijuana, Clon from Mexico City, and Team Chaos representatives RealKim and Luis Cha. Instead of being outdoors like the previous day, finals were held in the hotel ballroom.

RealKim keepin' it real right before Top 8 begins

RealKim keepin’ it real right before Top 8 begins

Before the matches started I hung out with my buddy El Colt, the famous Mexican commentator/superhero, who also flew in for the event. I also got a chance to hop on the commentary deck for a quick message to all the English speaking viewers.

El Colt

El Colt

From left to right: Blurry Luis Cha, ArchiKahn (aka Pecas), David Kong, The Answer, Kenshin

From left to right: Blurry Luis Cha, ArchiKahn (aka Pecas), David Kong, The Answer, Kenshin

At the end of the day, Luis Cha fought and lost against Huevo in loser’s finals. Huevo is from Mexicali, which made the grand finals against TJ’s Koopa that much more hype. Koopa is a young player and was the favorite to win as the weekend started. Definitely look out for him at EVO, he’s a killer!

I hope you all enjoyed this report. From first hand experience, I want to confirm that all the stories you’ve heard about how strong Mexican players are are true. The average level of play at this tournament was astoundingly high. The styles of play were unique, and in general I would say more aggressive than the styles we typically see in the US. On top of the great skill, the friendliness and camaraderie displayed by the Mexican community was truly remarkable. I have never felt so completely welcomed in a foreign scene, and that is REALLY saying something. Japonawa 2013 was hands down one of the best tournament experiences I’ve ever had. The event will be at the exact same godlike venue next year, so if you can get yourself to Tijuana, then DO IT! If you love KoF and live close by, it is NECESSARY for you to attend this event.

Goodbye Mexico! See you again next time!

Goodbye Mexico! See you again next time!

Check out Team Lago and Japonawa on Facebook:


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