Semifinals Preview: USA vs. France – Mario Kart World Cup 2021 (8DX)

In a year like no other, the Mario Kart 8 Deluxe World Cup has returned with a lot of unexpected twists. There were a lot of firsts for MK8 players this year, starting with the Play-in stage for newer teams. This was also the first year the cup has hosted over 30 teams for one event, and the first since 2015 where EGtv formally hosted a MK8 Cup. Yet despite all of the exciting new things to be excited about, we’re back in a familiar position for any veteran MKWC spectator. This is because arguably the greatest rivalry in the game takes place tonight: France vs USA.

The MK8 World Cup notoriously hasn’t been the most balanced in terms of champions over the years. It’s been the Team Japan show every year since Mario Kart 8 launched back on the Wii U. Up to this point of the cup, it’s been no different, as Japan advanced to the finals in dominating fashion against Team Mexico last night. That being said, the next man up, or the challenger, has always been an interesting storyline. Team England (formerly UK) has a pair of finals appearances, which is enough to hold the record for 2nd place finishes in the MK8 era. However, that record will be broken this year. This is because Team France and Team USA are both tied with a pair of finals appearances as well, and one of them must move on, as we all know. The race for 3 appearances will come to an end very soon.

How those appearances have happened are interesting – France has finished in the top 3 every single year of the cup so far, and has made it to the finals through England on occasion. On the other hand, the less consistent Team USA has never finished 3rd – which means that when they’ve made the Semis, or Loser’s Finals, they’ve delivered both times. Coincidentally, both of those times have been against Team France. Yeah, we’ve definitely been in this spot before.

Another unfortunate reality of the World Cup has been that even among some of the best teams, head to head tally has shown a lot of imbalanced matchups. Japan has commanding leads against some of the best teams in the world up to this point. In fact, Japan has been so dominant, that when stacked up against the top 8 teams in the history of the MK8 World Cup, they have an overall record of 37-3. This is additionally against a group of teams that almost never loses to teams outside of the group. Despite Japan’s dominance though, Team France and Team USA once again stick out. These teams still have winning records amongst the top 8 teams despite having rough marks against Team Japan up to this point, which is a sign that they’ve been the next best teams. 

But what is really fascinating is that despite the teams playing 9 cup matches against each other, the most matches between any two teams in cup history, the count is almost even. It makes sense as a favorite to win tonight that France has had the 2nd best history in MK8’s World Cup, but one thing that they would certainly enjoy is if they could retake the lead in their all time series against Team USA tonight when the total number of games goes into the double digits.

RIVALRY ORIGINS

Though the rivalry’s roots started back in Mario Kart 7, things got a lot more serious in the first iteration of the Mario Kart 8 World Cup, back in 2014. This was back in the day where groups were entirely randomized and all matches were 12v12 – this resulted in a group featuring Team Canada, Team France, and Team USA. After losing in a shocking upset against Team Canada, Team USA was facing potential elimination going into the bracket phase with a match against Team France, and in the first leg, they lost by a pretty wide margin. The general thought was that Team USA’s cup was coming to a close, but to the surprise of many, USA completely dominated the 2nd 6v6 of the war and did just enough to get the win.

This was the second major shock in this group alone, and when the two teams squared off in the bracket phase that year, there was major interest to see how Team France would respond – and respond they did. They handled Team USA in all facets of the game, and made sure to not let a repeat happen when their tournament life was actually on the line. Coming out of the first MK8 World Cup, the teams had a split record of 1-1, and it created an exciting storyline for the season after.

If the first cup was a great showing of this new rivalry, the one the year after was an all-timer. In a lot of ways, the 2015 World Cup is most similar to the one we’re currently in the midst of. Not only is EndGameTV hosting a MK8 cup for the first time since then, but even the bracket is looking familiar. For the first time since 2015, the bracket phase is a single elimination best of 3 tournament, and just like then, Japan is awaiting the winner of France-USA in the finals.  Back in 2015, there were a lot of people skeptical of whether or not USA was even on the same playing field with France though, because they seemed to have lower lows in the first year. Was the original win just a fluke? This year, they seemed to be answering these doubts. 

Going into the last race of game 1, USA held a 6 point lead. Clearly they could compete. But everything changed on Mario Kart Stadium – a clutch France top 4 resulted in France stealing match 1, and taking the series lead. Game 2 started better for the Americans, as they held the lead all the way through the first 2 GPs, but what one might call reality set in. France was simply too much in the third GP, and going into the final race, France held a 20 point lead. The war was looking over. It was going to be a 2-0. Match 1 probably should’ve belonged to the States. But sometimes the game has other plans. This was also the case of game 2, as France ended up losing a tragic race by 24 on Neo Bowser City – enough to push the series to a third game. USA would then go on to dominate game 3 in a way they haven’t truly replicated since that day in 2015.

Over the course of 3 hours, the community had gone from wondering if USA could compete, to realizing they could, to seeing a 0-2 loss as inevitable, all the way to thinking USA could compete with Japan. The last year of Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U was the first one to see only 1 war between the teams, but luckily, that was enough for France to tie the series at 3 games apiece. France’s roster in 2016 featured a lot of new players compared to just a year ago in this year, and despite lots of the older faces synonymous with Team France missing, the new pieces may have been even more committed. The war was close, but ended up with France pulling away in the 3rd GP. In what may be one of the most disappointing storylines of this rival on the Wii U game, both would fall to England to end their tournament runs, and a 7th game rubber match wouldn’t occur. The future was up for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe to decide.

The 1st ever match between the 2 teams, in the 2014 Group Phase.

Switching things up

A new game brings new opportunities. It was a new twist. Would these two teams stand tall after the test of an updated game? The answer was a resounding yes. It was Team USA who would triumph in the first year of MK8D, who shockingly double eliminated Team France in 2017. It truly does no justice to say it like this though. Once again, the first matchup featured a miraculous comeback, this time with the Americans fighting from 50 points down at one point and having a miracle top 6 on race 11 to put them ahead after being down most of the war. The second match in the loser’s bracket proved similar – France held a lead most of the war, and fell just short after yet another race 11 blow. They’d be eliminated by just 4 points. Despite Team USA putting on a good show in the Grand Finals vs Japan and giving them their most recent and only loss on Deluxe, it often doesn’t get stated just how close France was to defeating them that year. Despite turning the tides in 2016, it was Team USA, not France – that was once again Japan’s top challenger.

Down 5-3 overall, Team France definitely need to win the 2018 matchup to maintain a reasonable claim as a top 2 national team on MK8D. For as strong as this team was, there was one thing they had never done to this point either: make the finals. For a team with more consistent results, it was almost unthinkable for the final match to feature the USA or the UK for the first 4 years of the MK8 World Cup. Finally in 2018, Team France would conquer these demons by defeating both Team USA and Team UK , and after a repeat appearance in 2019, they put the MK8 community on notice as the eventual heir to the throne the day Japan fell. That day has not been reached yet, but after a gap year in 2020, it’s finally time to put up or shut up. With a win tonight, Team France looks to get the crack at Japan they’ve been waiting 2 years for. But one of their oldest foes stands in the way, looking to ruin that dream before it can even materialize.

Despite the head to head records and history, tonight’s match means much more than just evening the score, and after talking to both team captains, this was very clear. Winning against a rival is great, but the eyes remain on winning the entire World Cup. The road doesn’t end tonight for our winner. They say that some championships weigh more than others. When you have a team like Japan who has won 6 in a row, beating them means more than just being World Cup champions. It means you were the ones that did the impossible. Breaking the streak is a tall order, and it may or may not be the year that it happens regardless of result. But at the very least, whoever makes the Finals tonight will go to bed knowing that they have the immediate upper hand on being the team that eventually does it.

Team France

To finish this discussion off, I talked to the team captains and wanted to give some insight. Team France’s captain, Power, had lots of things to say. The players from Team France this year for the most part come from 2 well known MKU Champion Teams, Requiem & World Friend. Power has stated that he’s really happy with their progress, and feels they’re ready to compete with anyone.

A lot of Team France has accomplished just about every possible achievement in this game except a World Cup at this point. Being the team to deliver Japan their first cup loss would truly allow them to accomplish everything. The veterans on the roster understand the gravity of this opportunity and have been practicing accordingly. The newer players on the other hand, are incredibly happy to be of assistance. Power has said that the synergy has gotten so strong in the team, that it almost doesn’t matter what assortment of players they use in many matches. Every lineup just delivers. A big reason for this is that despite a lot of the lineup being rivals in MKU, everyone knows each other. In a country like France, meetups are easier to have on a yearly basis than in more spread out places like the United States.

While confident against Team USA, they’re making sure not to underestimate them. “6-5 is the goal tonight,” Power said, referring to wanting to take the all time series lead back. He says that it isn’t even about the series, but having the confidence boost in taking down a strong team in 2 games. Asked about Team Japan, he thinks the opportunity to win is there. Team Japan has a lot of high caliber players, but they don’t focus as much on 6v6s year round as the players of Team France do. To them, this is an advantage they must take advantage in order to bring the cup home. The ultimate goal starts with a win tonight.

Team USA

As for Team USA, I talked with Nato, the captain for many years in the past. The approach for them has been a lot different than with Team France. They don’t really do practice wars, and that’s not to say that they don’t practice. They just find different ways. As one of the strongest teams in their timezone, it’s hard at times to find opponents that push them to the limit, and they’ve felt in a lot of ways, many wars just test their frontrunning ability. This is only one facet of the match of course. Team USA for many years now has had players that for lack of a better phrase, “go for the clip”. The reason why they’re so good at it isn’t coincidental – they quite literally practice circus shots with items such as bananas all the time.

The preferred method is simply playing in frantic rooms. This is a setting that makes offensive items occur more frequently, and many of the players find it productive to be able to test anything their mind desires in these settings, where there’s no pressure if you lose. When used to this style of play, translating it to actual wars becomes more natural. Some of the ridiculous green snipes you’ll see that turn a neutral pack into a top 3 are a result of this practice methodology.

In 2019, Team USA was not the same as in years past, and a lot of this was a motivation problem. Many of the former members were no longer grinding the game, and it resulted in USA falling a little behind Team France as a result. But one side effect of the 2019 season was the experience gained by a completely new roster. In the current year, many of the former top players from the country are returning and are mixing with the best from the newer era. Nato has mentioned that mixing with these new players has not been a challenge, and while each new player brings certain strengths to the table, they all collectively understand their objectives well. Calls are very stable and calm, and communication is very clear as a result.

Nato believes that the 2015 and 2017 finals teams were the strongest renditions of Team USA to date, but that this iteration is right on their tail. This is largely thanks to the amount of new talent paired with the return of the veteran players, which he thinks sets them apart from the last 2 seasons.

When asked about Team France, Nato wasn’t really shy about motivation or about what the community expects out of Team USA. He acknowledged that France is expected to be the victors, a lot because they are the more active team, but the way he sees it is that France has all the pressure on their shoulders. “If we lose, it happens. But if we win it’d be funny, so we want to win especially for that reason.” Nato didn’t rule out that winning the cup would be pretty cool as well.

Despite everything, Nato had some high praise of the French roster. “I think our roster is strong, but this is also France’s strongest year,” he mentioned. “I think they are actually better than Japan, despite popular belief. I believe if we can beat France, we can beat Japan.”

These are some really bold words, but it goes to show the mindset Team USA has going into this. Beyond just a rivalry, this is a championship level match to them. It goes without saying, but expect the absolute best effort from both teams tonight.