The Rise of the Armchair Street Fighter

By on November 17, 2011 at 12:11 am
Believe it or not, this unassuming fellow is one of the great Street Fighter polemicists.

Around 10 years ago, Seth Killian wrote an article explaining why Street Fighter rules. In summary: Street Fighter rules because the barrier to entry is so low that almost anyone can become a competitor. Contrary to the world of pro sports, where your relationship with top players is forever relegated to the realm of “fandom”, if you’re even slightly dedicated to fighting games you’ll eventually find yourself one lucky – or unlucky – bracket away from facing off against Justin Wong. That’s why fighting games are great.

Ever the agitator (at least back in those days), Seth implies that sports fandom is the domain of the impotent schlub that, for reasons economic, bureaucratic or athletic, will never stand a chance of even trying to compete at the level he or she so admires. That isn’t the case in fighting games. Fighting games are great because that barrier is infinitely smaller.

So why, post-fighting game resurgence, do we see the phenomenal growth of a new demographic that cares more about cheering on their favorites than competing?

Following this year’s Evo, reports surfaced of large numbers of attendants lining up to get the autographs of top players like Daigo. That kind of thing might be par for the course in the realm of sports, but, as Seth argued, fighting games have always been a different deal – more grassroots, more accessible, more tight-knit, more ego-driven. If we agree with Seth about why Street Fighter rules, we should be clear that this kind of thing just isn’t what we’re about.

It’s only been for a few years that this kind of community member could even exist. Before Street Fighter IV made the wider gaming world stand up and take notice of the fact that people even played these games competitively, to know about tournaments you had to be pretty hardcore – and even if you knew, you had to be even more hardcore to care about traveling possibly hundreds of miles to play 10-year-old game. That’s the kind of drive that can only come from being a serious competitor, not just a fan. Now, however, there are more eyes on, and more coverage of, the fighting game community than ever before. Prior to 2009, you might get one chance a year to see Daigo, and you had to be there in person. Now you can see him play, or otherwise hear from him and other top players multiple times a month. It’s easy to immerse yourself in the world of competitive fighting games without ever playing a single match.

What’s really the harm in this, though? All this is an inevitable product of more eyes on the community – why would you complain about that?

The Stream Monster in its natural habitat.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the ever-increasing number of people taking notice of the fighting game community, it’s important that, in this time of massive expansion, we maintain a firm hold on the values of competitiveness and participation exemplified by Seth’s article. This growth in members of the community who are spectators first, players second represents a missed opportunity to expand the scene in a more important way than more eyes on streams – by turning them into serious, competitive players. This isn’t about encouraging a regressive mentality that selfishly cries “Screw you for taking notice of us, we want to keep to ourselves!”; it’s about not patting ourselves on the back for gaining the attention of a bunch of casual and non-players—some of whom may turn out to be fair-weather friends—while forgetting that it is competitors, not fans that will ensure the long-term strength and growth of our community. As much as I hope it never happens, if we ever experience another fighting game drought like the one we suffered from 2001-2009, it will be the competitors you can count on to stick around.

Armchair fans also have a certain expectation of competitive play – the expectation of being entertained. Someone who primarily spectates, or even plays casually, has a very different perspective on games to a competitor, and when this perspective is widely shared by a group vocal and sizable enough to influence the established scene, we have a problem. As Majestros argues in his Evo 2k11 Retrospective, “[W]e’re seeing an alarming trend of sponsored players getting a little too image-conscious. Everyone seems to agree that Fei Long and Yun are the best characters in SSF4AE. Can you name the top Yun or Fei Long player in America? Why is everyone suddenly backing away from the consensus strongest characters in the game? Is it just to look cool?” The negative attitudes that encourage such tendencies in top players do not, largely, come from those within the competitive scene – they come from people who care more about being entertained than seeing players play at their best.

With that said, while this phenomenon has emerged thanks to the massive scene growth of the past few years, it must be acknowledged that that same growth has also introduced in a ton of new serious competitive players. Those same factors that have made fighting game spectatorship a viable pastime can also be leveraged to turn spectators into real players. Not too long ago, unless you lived in a major fighting game hotspot your chance of facing off against a top national or international player without some serious travel were very low. Now, with sponsorship deals taking care of travel expenses and more tournaments offering serious prize money, far more players have more frequent opportunities to face off against the best. Local sessions and tournaments are much more numerous too, and online play has become at least a semi-legitimate way to hone your skills. As our community grows, so do the opportunities to get out there and experience real competition. It’s the responsibility of the established competitors to make sure that newcomers and armchair warriors alike know that it’s not just observing, but participating in that competition that makes fighting games great.

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