Killer Instinct is special. Its greatest esports days seemingly belong to the pages of history, yet the tightly-knit community keeps the game alive and well. The latest example is the KI Lives event organized by the one and only Maximilian Dood and hosted by Twitch Rivals. The peak viewership reached an astonishing 43,000, overshadowing many events held before. The winner of the event was Hologram, defeating Wheels in the epic and dramatic grand finals with bracket reset and the highest of stakes. We spoke with Dayton “Wheels” Jones, a silver-medalist of said event and one of the most prominent members of the whole KI community.
Let me start by asking about the most recent event. You placed second at KI Lives. Do you consider it a success considering the competition, or did you only aim for the top spot?
I always aim for the top spot. But to be fair, it's kind of been like a monkey on my back where it's hard for me to get first at these big events. I will say I was a little bummed that I ended up getting second, again, but given the gravity of the event and how many people were watching and how stacked that event actually was, I wasn't too upset. I was very happy with how I played. I did some really cool things in the process, so I couldn't be too mad.
You had to battle Hologram twice in the tournament: in the winner’s final and then in the grand final. You lost the first one, then forced a bracket reset in the grand final, but ultimately you lost the deciding match. What went wrong?
One common thing that kept happening in the grand final that I only noticed after is that in just about every game, I had a life lead in pretty much every game. And then every game ended up coming to the last moment pretty much. So for the next time, I need to figure out how to keep these life leads. I think that's what happened: something kept going wrong where I just gave up too much life. To add to this, that matchup is very difficult, and Hologram is very good at conditioning you to block how he wants you to block and not play as you want. He gets you to block in certain ways, or he makes you think twice about what you want to do. And then once you do that – he got you. That's pretty much what he did in the games that he won, and then he just closed it out from there.
In the first matchup versus Hologram, you used Eagle, Fulgore, and Gargos, yet you stuck with Gargos throughout the whole grand final. Why is that?
Gargos is probably my best character. I had the most experience with Gargos against Thunder, more than anyone of my other characters. So I thought, "All right, I'm just going to go with who I feel comfortable with right now against Thunder and then just hope that it works." I was hoping that when I used Eagle that I could have possibly won just based on unfamiliarity, but that did not work at all, so I had to switch. I played against Hologram with Fulgore before, but I wasn't playing the matchup right, and I noticed that right away. So I decided to go with my best character and just try to adapt on the fly.
You’re known as an Eagle and Gargos main. What is the decision to main them based on?
I started using Eagle because I felt like he was still underexplored, even at the end of 2020. He came out in 2017, but he's still very unpopular. And I really wanted to see if there was any crazy dirt or tech that I could find with this character. So I kind of took it as a challenge. I didn't think that I'd actually main the character, but the more I started using him, the more fun I thought he was. He's still pretty underexplored. I started using Gargos because, at the time, Rico Suave was using him and I would always have trouble fighting his Gargos. So I decided that I needed to learn how to fight this character. To do that, I just started playing him. And once I started playing him, I thought that this character was also pretty underexplored, especially with his minions and stuff. I started learning him, using him in the tournaments. And then he just became one of my most played characters. He's pretty much the one character that I'm mainly known for right now.
Image credit: Microsoft Studios
Nicky, in his interview, stated that he disliked facing your Eagle so much that he went into Gargos with an unfavorable character.
That's the thing against Nicky. He's the type of player against whom you have to have the advantage at any point of the set. That first game was so important because, after every game, we're going to end up just counter picking each other throughout the set. Once I lost that first game, I actually got nervous. I mused, "Okay, if I win the second game, then he can just go for Fulgore." And then I did. And then he did switch to Fulgore. But luckily, me winning against his Fulgore with my Gargos helped a lot because then it forced him to make a decision: he can either stay as Fulgore, but then I can actually counter him with Eagle, or he can switch to Mira, which he actually did, but it's an unfavorable matchup for him. It's one of those things against him.
Do you care about tier-lists at all, or do you mainly play what you’re comfortable with regardless of them being perceived as strong or weak?
I play like a lot of characters. Before, I would usually just play who I'm comfortable with. But recently, I did add Fulgore to my rotation because he's a pretty complete character with less than a handful of bad matchups. I felt that I really needed a character like this in my pocket. So I did pick up Fulgore for that reason, just because he is a very strong character. But I enjoy the game more when I play who I enjoy playing, which is characters like Gargos, Eagle, and Orchid, characters like that. So the answer is kind of both for me. It kind of messes with my concentration if I'm using a character that I don't like playing in general. It can just leave me very unmotivated. I like to pick who I like playing and, but if I absolutely have to pick Fulgore for something, then I will.
As of yet, you have had many top-3 finishes, most notably Combo Breaker 2017, 2019, and KI Lives. Does the lack of the first-place finish affect you in any way, or are you able to distance yourself from those thoughts and just focus on what’s right in front of you at any given moment?
It does affect me on occasion, but it kind of just comes with the territory. You can either dwell on it and let it affect you more, o you can just move on. If I continue to improve the way that I'm improving. I feel like one day it's all gonna come together. I'm going to end up getting those top places at those big events whenever they happen. So it does mess with me sometimes, but I can't dwell on it too much. You just have to learn from your mistakes. You can't let those things drag you down. Because then you just play worse, and then you get extremely unmotivated, which has happened to me a lot. There are times where I just don't want to play because I just don't like those types of feelings. So I just avoid playing for a while. Then when I get motivated again, I'll play again. And then I might win a few small online tournaments here and there and just hope that one day when I play in another big event, it all pays off.
Combo Breaker 2019: Wheels vs Carnitas
You took a break from the competitive scene in 2018; any particular reason as to why?
Oh, well, 2018 was pretty rough. The tournaments I usually go to every year are Frosty Faustings and Combo Breaker, which are both in Illinois, in January and May. Before both of those events, I got extremely sick. In January, I basically had a cold. But then, in May, I got very sick to the point where I ended up in the ICU, I had a very bad infection and was intubated and everything. I was literally fighting for my life in May of 2018. So I missed every event that I planned to go to that year because of health reasons.
Who would you say is your biggest rival in the KI competitive scene? Nicky? Hologram? Anyone else?
I'd say Nicky is one. We pretty much go back and forth. Anytime we meet up, it really just depends on the day. He'll win, I'll win, we pretty much have an even record against each other in tournaments. Hologram is the other one. Hologram doesn't enter a lot of events, so I don't get to play him that often. I will call him a rival, though, just because I don't know if I've actually beaten Hologram at an event yet, but I also haven't played him a lot either. So yeah, I'd say Nicky, Hologram, pretty much anybody I go back and forth with, like Bass and Chronicle. Yeah. I would say those four. We're actually really good friends with Nicky. We talk crap all the time with each other, but we're really good friends. We're both wrestling fans outside of gaming, so we talk about that a lot as well. Bass and I are also really close friends as well. It is nice having close friends in any community that you're a part of, and it's something I don't take for granted.
Brandon Alexander has once again resumed the KI Tour and will be hosting the World Cup in December of this year. Do you set your sight on winning it? What are your goals for 2021 in general?
Definitely just straight-up winning it. I want to win it. I feel like December is a long time for me to get any type of weaknesses that I may notice or have out of my system. I definitely want to win the World cup. I know it's online, but it is the whole tour culminating in one big event. That's definitely something I would love to do.
What are your thoughts on other big FGC players like SonicFox wanting to enter Killer Instinct? Do you think they have what it takes to be a top competitor?
I think they could do what they want. Straight up, they can do anything that they want. I think anybody that puts time in this game, as long as it's efficient and good practice and they're grinding, they can do whatever they want. Who am I to doubt probably the best fighting game player of all time. I can't do that. And if I do that and they hear about it, I don't want them to smack me in any tournaments.
What are, in your opinion, the next necessary steps for KI to come back to its former glory as an esport? A new game? Or maybe some kind of activity from the community itself?
I really just think that it starts with the community. KI is already here, it didn't get 43,000 viewers at KI Lives by accident. I think that people still love the game. And I think that people just need to enter the tournaments that are still going on. There's always a good handful of events and tournaments going on. I really think people just need to enter them or be in Twitch chat when they're going on. Microsoft will see it, maybe think, "You know, maybe we need to do something about this." I really don't think that a new game is an answer. It would be cool to see, but I don't want the same thing to happen where a game comes out and then you don't get as many entrances for it as you thought you might get. Lack of any support just from the fan base. It's a very touchy thing. There's a lot of things that can go wrong if a new game came out. It might not hold that same magic as this game holds. It might be a completely different game, and that might not be a good thing. I saw Maximilian Dood's video recently about what he would like to see from the new KI, and I completely agree. Keep this game, maybe add new moves, new animations, maybe a new mechanic, upgrade the UI. And that's it. I feel like that's as far as the game would need to go, it doesn't need a complete reboot.
What makes KI so special to you, and what makes you so loyal to it?
When I first started playing KI, I played it just because I really enjoyed the game. It was probably my favorite fighting game at the time. Back then, I was playing that and Street Fighter 4 back and forth. And I was actually putting more time into Street Fighter at the time. But over time, I thought, "Man, this game is just really fun, and I really want to be competitive in this game." I got my Xbox three months after the game was already released, but to stay up to date, I would just watch tournaments and events from launch until then. Just take mental notes to improve on my own. Then I did get the game. The ranked mode was actually really good in the first version of KI because all the heavy hitters were in, playing it. Every match was almost like a tournament match. The practice was great, and the competition was deep. Over time I would just continue to gain friends within the scene. That would lead me to other people who also became friends with me in the scene. I really played because a lot of my closest friends still play this game. And I still feel like I have unfinished business in this game, I still want a major win. That's why I still keep playing this game.
That makes me wish I wasn't as bad at KI as I am!
Hey, every fighting game player ever was garbage, you know what I mean? I feel like the good players, the players that have been playing for years, need to do their job and just help the other players that aren't as skilled, bring them up, give them good foundations to build on. There's no reason why anybody can't be good. All the resources are out there. That's why people like DevilMayCare are doing the breakdowns. He's also running the 3v3s to give the lesser experienced players or the up and coming players moments to shine. There are just so many resources out there that if you want to be good at KI, I don't think there's any reason that you can't be.
How did you first get into the fighting games? How did your gaming career start in general?
I've been gaming basically since I was a kid. It's kind of a weird origin story. I used to play a game called UFC 2009 Undisputed, and I was actually pretty good at it to the point where I would do game battles on the MLG site. That's kind of where I first started getting into competitive gaming, then I would play other higher level players in that game. Then I played UFC 2010, the next game that came out after that, for a bit. I actually won a Gamestop tournament in that game. That was my first ever video game tournament. It was just a local Gamestop, nothing big. After some time, I kind of started to get away from that because I really just didn't enjoy playing it anymore. A few of my friends at the time were playing Street Fighter 4, and they were hounding me to get it, but I hesitated. But then I saw the new Super Street Fighter 4 was coming out, so I decided to buy that game. So I bought it, and I actually loved it. I would often play with my friends, and I started to really get away from the UFC. Back then, I would go to the G4 TV site a lot, and one day I saw that Evo 2010 was airing. It was for a game that I was playing. I started watching it, and I think the first match I saw Ricki Ortiz vs Daigo. I thought it was really cool, they were in Vegas with the crowd behind them. I love the sport as it is. I love the competition. But with my situation, I can't really participate in stuff like I would want to. So I thought, "Man, this kind of gives me like that same feeling, but I can actually do this." So I started playing more while looking into the content on YouTube or watching streams justin.tv or Twitch. I also watched Cross Counter a lot, and one day they dropped a video featuring BrolyLegs, who's probably the most well-known handicapped fighting games player. He plays with his mouth, and I thought, "He's playing at a higher level. Why can't I do this?" At that point, I was already going to just kind of move on, but when I saw that video, it motivated me. "If he can do it, then I can do it, too." It all began there.
BrolyLegs interview for Cross Counter
What would it take from any new fighting game for you to give it a shot professionally? What qualities must it have?
It has to have a good netcode out of the gate because I primarily play online. It's hard for me to get out to local gatherings and events. I have to be able to play it at a high level without many restrictions with the netcode input lag. It also just has to be accessible to me. I won't go into it too deep, but there are a lot of games that are very button-heavy for me, and it's just difficult to play. I tend to stay away from games like that. I also have to enjoy the game at the base level too. So mostly, it has to have a good netcode, and it has to be enjoyable.
What do you do when you're not playing games? You said you're a wrestling fan, do you watch wrestling, maybe some movies, anime, music? What do you do to relax?
I definitely watch a lot of wrestling, and I usually try to keep up to date with it. It's just one of the things where you get older, you kind of see wrestling from a different point of view, but it's still something that I'm just really a big fan of. And I honestly can't wait for the video game that's supposed to come out within the next year or two, and it's supposed to have some kind of a competitive dynamic to it. If that's the case, I definitely going to be trying that as well. And I hope that it is competitive because I would definitely love to play that. I'm not in school right now, I took off because school was causing me an enormous amount of stress to the point where it was unhealthy for me. So I really just decided to do this full time, create more content like videos, stream more, do whatever I can and just improve at what I don't know how to do yet. Eventually, I want to learn how to edit videos, hopefully, and make my own thumbnails and just continue to improve. But it takes time.
Any final words to your fans or those who want to get into Killer Instinct after seeing you perform?
Hey, if you're interested in KI – play it, stream it, do whatever you can to support the game. Enter the tournaments no matter your skill level, be in Twitch chats, watch all the events that are going on. If you do want to see a new KI, you can be part of the reason why Microsoft might eventually do it. Play it, the resources are out there. I'm always willing to help anybody trying to get into the game if they have any questions. There are plenty of resources, and other players like Nicky, Bass, DevilMayCare, they're making content specifically for helping newer players. There's a KI Discord. So if you still want to get into KI, but you think it's too late, let me tell you right now – it's not. There's always something going on in this community and this game.
You can show your support for Wheels by following him on Twitter or by watching his stream on Twitch.