Editorial: Are Fighting Games the Next eSport?

By on August 11, 2011 at 5:17 pm

If you’re a regular reader of this site, you’ve probably heard of eSports. With the recent release of Street Fighter IV, many in the eSports scene have championed fighting games as the next big thing, right behind the juggernaut that is Starcraft 2. The lure is big money for the players, more exposure for fighting games, and mainstream appeal. So, is Street Fighter the next eSport?

First of all, what’s an eSport? For the last 15 years or so, the eSports movement has championed the cause of video games as a sport, just like baseball or basketball. Many of their efforts borrow elements from traditional sports leagues like big money contracts, player drafts, and pro-style broadcasting. When someone says “eSports” they are not just talking about playing games competitively. The term eSports is rooted in the belief that eventually pro video games will have the same level of recognition as traditional sports in society.

The fighting game community is about as old as the eSports movement. We’ve been around a little longer, but not by much. But we have grown up under a very different model; one rooted in personal relationships – many times positive, sometimes negative, but always personal. I’m sure many of you have your own personal story about a rival who you at first hated, then grew to respect and like through playing the game. Nearly all of us were brought into the scene by another player who took us under their wing and introduced us to other local players. That is the magic of the arcade culture, which continues to live on through us. Fighting games are a medium to test your mettle, but fundamentally they are also about making bonds with other gamers through competition. And those bonds endure after the competition ends. I’ve made lifelong friends playing Street Fighter. Friends who have stuck around long after our playing days are over.

What we have is not at all like a pro sport, and there’s no reason to twist it to a pro-sporting model, or any other model for that matter. Just call it what it is, because it’s totally awesome. We play fighting games competitively, against a worldwide community of players. Many of us travel around the country (some around the world!) doing the thing we love. Along the way we meet a lot of great people and see things that we would never have seen if not for our love of gaming.

Ok, but why not just call this thing an eSport too? Do we have anything to lose? Yes, in fact we do (and here’s the part where I piss a bunch of you off.  Sorry about that.), because the eSports movement’s obsession with following a traditional sporting model is toxic. The very term “eSports” is argumentative and counterproductive.

Destructoid.com recently put out a public call for blogs on eSports. Among some other blogs, they got back this gem which basically rejected the concept out of hand.  According to the author:

“Videogames will likely never become as popular as true sports, very simply because they are not a sport — they are a GAME. In my parent’s era, they played billiards, darts, bowling, poker, bridge or Canasta. There was both a social and a competitive element. Today, people play videogames. Just as billiards, poker and bowling have all been televised, so too may gaming be televised, but it will never be the same as actual sporting events and because of the different genres involved. Gaming will, to some degree, always be a niche form of televised entertainment, unlikely to appeal to the broader masses.”

Not such a raving review.  Now here’s the crazy part.  This author is actually bullish on the prospects of competitive gaming!  In the same piece she writes:

“That being said, competitive gaming will continue to evolve and increasingly it will likely be broadcast in some form. That form may not be on your TV, but maybe on your computer, your PS3 or your Xbox as a livestream.

Gaming is gaming. Get over it. There is no need for gaming to be “sports” and the people that play games professionally are not “cyber athletes.” They are gamers. Period. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.”

So here is my fundamental problem with the term eSports.  It immediately invites an unnecessary comparison to real sports.  It puts people on the defensive.  The author is not objecting to the idea of playing games competitively, or that lots of people will watch it as a form of entertainment.  She objects to calling it a sport, in the same way that many people don’t think bowling or chess is a sport.  It’s easy to say that people like this are just uneducated and don’t get it, but the reality is that this whole eSports concept still does not have mainstream support, even among gamers.

And starting a conversation about competitive gaming with an implicit argument (games are spooorrrrts!) isn’t a great outreach strategy.  More often than not the term just leads to a debate about “what counts as a sport.”  When you do that, you’ve already changed the subject away from something awesome (the competition and the people) to a boring debate about words, and whether gamers could someday hope to latch on to some of that sports-hero cool.  When you’re doing it right, you don’t need to borrow anything from anyone.

The eSports drive to emulate sports leagues is also puzzling.  The sports model inherently tries to borrow legitimacy from something else rather than standing on its own two feet.  It wants to be awesome by association, rather than going the harder route of being so awesome that nobody can deny it.  I know and love the fighting game community, and I know it is ALREADY awesome, without borrowing any cool by association.   Other kinds of competitive games are awesome as well, and in many ways all of this stuff is more persuasive than the sporting content you’ll find on television.  It’s precisely because the content is so awesome on its own that this obsession with a sports model frustrates me.

So the danger in calling Street Fighter an eSport is that we lose the ability to talk about what the fighting game scene is really about, using competitive gaming to build relationships with real people, and instead get rolled up into the whole eSports messaging about games as professional sports.  This bears repeating: the fighting game scene has thrived because of the heart and passion of gamers and because of the ways in which we are exactly not like a pro sports league. Calling Street Fighter an eSport betrays our very identity.

The good news is that competitive gaming IS thriving, both in fighting games and the traditional eSports scene.  In the fighting game community we need to think about what we value and why we’re playing these games in the first place.  Hopefully the eSports folks out there will do the same.  What we have is so unique and so great that there’s no need to pigeon hole it into a predefined box.  We can find our own path, just like we always have.  Long live Starcraft.  Long live fighting games.  Long live competitive gaming!

[image via Karaface]