Where eSports Leagues Go Wrong With Fighters

By on December 4, 2011 at 10:50 pm

The whole eSports vs. fighting games debate has flared up once again, with this rant from team manager for Evil Geniuses, SirScoots.  Here’s a brief summary: a segment of the FGC is just too stubborn to get along with the broader eSports community, so as a result we will never “blow up” like we could and we will be stuck with our “little events” forever.  Similar sentiments are starting to echo throughout the twittisphere.  Since a lot of this heat is directed specifically at this site and honestly at me, this editorial is to set the record straight.  I know I speak for a lot of fighting fans when I say that my reluctance to leap into the arms of eSports is not out of stubbornness, but because past eSports leagues have an abysmal track record when it comes to fighting games, and they are dead set on doing things their own way, without input from the community.

The Fighting Game Success Story

First, let’s talk about things blowing up.  Fighting games, especially Street Fighter IV, are indeed growing like wildfire, but it’s because of the way the FGC handles it’s business, not in spite of it.  In 2011 EVO and the FGC posted better viewership numbers not just than the MLG event running the same weekend, but of any competitive gaming event EVER.  The secret ingredient was hype, and with due respect to Capcom, the game is just one ingredient to building that hype.  SF4’s hype is the result of thousands of careful decisions, big and small, made by the hundreds of passionate gamers that are caretakers of the fighting game tournament scene over the last 20 years.  We have steered this ship from tiny gatherings at arcades, through the death of those arcades onto consoles, and into one of the biggest things in competitive gaming today.  SF4 didn’t magically blow up overnight.  We built it, and we’re going to keep building it.

So the issue is not whether fighting games are going to continue to blow up, because they will.  The issue is this: can the eSports leagues be responsible partners in continuing to cultivate what we have built?  Can they push it forward even more?  Unfortunately, the leagues have an uninterrupted run of screwing up fighting games, so the resounding answer is “no.”

eSports Fighting Blunders

The history of eSports fighting game screw-ups is long.

WCG 2005

Rewind to 2005.  The fighting game scene looked very much like a smaller scale version of what it is today.  It’s a year after the infectious Daigo parry video.  The Marvel vs. Capcom 2 craze is in full swing, but SF3 Third Strike and Capcom vs. SNK 2 still garner hundreds of players at major tournaments.  Evo 2005 attracts top players from Europe, Korea, and Japan like Ryan Hart, Qudans, Ohnuki, BAS, Kindevu, and Tokido.

The FGC wanted badly to come out of the shadows, so we were hopeful when World Cyber Games announced that they would pick up a fighter for the first time.  Hope turned to disgust when they choose Dead or Alive Ultimate, a game that almost no one took seriously and that had literally 1% the competitive following of the Capcom and Namco games of the day.  For non fighting-game fans, this decision was akin to choosing Age of Empires 2 over Starcraft: Broodwar.  WCG stuck with DoA through 2007, then switched to Virtua Fighter 5 in 2008, a game which was popular in Asia but had far less western appeal than the big games at the time: Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Tekken 5.

MLG 2005, 2010

Also in 2005, MLG collaborated with Evo for a joint event in Las Vegas.  MLG held tournaments for Halo and Smash Bros.  Evo held tournaments for SSF2T, SF3 Third Strike, MvC2, CvS2, GGXX, Tekken 5, and TTT.  Evo attendees outnumbered MLG attendees by more than 4 to 1, but Evo was only allocated 1/4th of the total floor space, resulting in lots of cramped players and hard feelings.  We were literally shoved into the corner of an otherwise all-MLG event.  In retaliation, Evo attendees booed the Halo finalists (an act which we condemned publicly on the spot, by the way).  MLG disengaged with the FGC utterly until 2010.

In 2010 MLG briefly flirted with Tekken 6, a game on its last legs competitively.  When the player numbers were predictably lackluster, MLG dropped the game at the end of the season.

CGS 2007

In 2007 the Championship Gaming Series repeated WCG’s blunder when it picked up Dead or Alive 4, a fighting game with a tiny competitive following and questionable appeal, even from DOA fans.  They structured their league with bizarre, non-standard rules and without input from community tournament organizers.  CGS promised big money contracts for its players, but choose those players not based on tournament results or qualifiers, but on a draft that some feel was rigged to favor one team over all others.  The big money dreams came crashing down when CGS declared bankruptcy after their 2008 season.

A consistent record of failure

It’s hard to overstate this point:  the eSports leagues have a consistent record of failure when it comes to fighters, from 2005 to the present day.  They are profoundly ignorant about fighters.  They can’t tell a good fighter from a bad fighter, don’t understand what motivates fighting game players, and most importantly, the existing eSports models are not built to cultivate what we value most: hype.

DOA, MK9, TK6, Smash. All have been in traditional eSports leagues. Many sold a lot more retail copies than Street Fighter. None have blown up.  Some don’t even survive. If the eSports model and big prizes for pros is the secret to success, what happened to not just one fighting game, but all of these? Was it the publishers fault? The community? Everyone gets blame except the leagues and their failure to understand fighters.

Non-engagement with the fighting game community

“That’s all in the past” you may say.  “This time things will be better.”  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  To date these eSports leagues continue their policy of zero-engagement with the FGC, the very gamers they are supposedly trying to cater to.  And this is in stark contrast to the kinds of engagement these leagues have with the Starcraft 2 community in venues like teamliquid.net and the Starcraft reddit, where reps from the leagues consistently give updates and ask for feedback from the community.

The recent Dreamhack SF4 tournament is a perfect example.  Their SF4 event was lackluster in two big ways:  many top players were conspicuously absent and the overall stream production was poor.  The matches were played too quickly for the commentators to explain what was going on, and the in-match commentary was not up to the standards set by the majors in the U.S.  Why did this happen?  Because for whatever reason the Dreamhack staff completely overlooked the FGC in their planning and promotion.  They didn’t advertise their event on sites like this one, Eventhubs, and Iplaywinner.  They didn’t invest in stream production by bringing in expert commentators.  Compare that to the effort they expended on Starcraft 2, flying in at least 8 commentators from all over the world.  Heck, they had a whole couch of backup Starcraft commentators.  I don’t want to harp on Dreamhack too much because overall I’m a fan of what they do and enjoyed their broadcast, but the contrast is clear.

These eSports organizations think they can do it on their own, when their track record proves just the opposite.  So, why should we put the future of fighters in the hands of the eSports leagues?  They have consistently botched the job, and they sure don’t seem interested in a true partnership with the grassroots organizations that built this thing in the first place.

Success stories between eSports and the FGC

Some will tell you that the FGC is too ornery and self-centered to work with anyone.  That we just want to be left alone.  Don’t believe it.  Organizations that have offered a real value proposition have found success with fighters.  Just look at the teams like Evil Geniuses, Complexity, and eLivePro.  Player sponsorship is one eSports-ism that has taken root with fighters with benefits for both sides.  Streaming is another.  A bunch of eSports heads showed the potential of fighting game streams and the community ran with it, because it worked.  Now practically every fighting game event has a pretty good quality stream.

But yet again, this is in stark contrast to the predominant eSports viewpoint, which is this: “games is games.  It’s all the same.  Trust us!”  The FGC has already learned some things from the eSports scene, to our benefit.  The eSports leagues so far have been unwilling to even consider that that they have something to learn from us, despite our long track record of success.

The way forward

So what’s next?  Esports found real success when they discovered they could do broadcast without TV.  What if the FGC discovers you can do Esports without the traditional Esports models?  Be proud of what we’ve accomplished, because it’s awesome and unique.  It’s awesome because it’s unique, on many levels.  Do I want to see bigger prize pools in the FGC?  Of course, and I’m working hard on that problem.  Do I want to give up the uniqueness of the FGC community to get them?  Hell no.  I reject the idea that the only path to more money for players is through the traditional eSports model.  I’m happy to work with anyone who has a shared respect for these games and the community that supports them, but the “our way or the highway” approach of the traditional eSports league will absolutely ruin fighting games, as it has done in the past.


Tom Cannon is now on Twitter!

[images via NYTimes]