Fighting game commentator Ultradavid has written an incredibly in-depth piece on the origins of fighting game culture and how it compares to that of other gaming communities. It’s a thought-provoking examination of how we got to where we are, and potentially where we are going in the future
Editor’s note: The contents of this article represents the opinions of Ultradavid, and not necessarily those of Shoryuken.com or its authors. We are posting this in the name of open communication and discussion on this topic.
Momentum Matters: A Historical Perspective on the FGC and Esports Communities
Recently I popped by the North American Star League, or NASL, in Ontario California to experience the StarCraft 2 scene firsthand. You might have heard about us trying to get hype with side bets. Maybe you heard that some of the spectators and stream monsters weren’t entirely happy about that. We even got on Reddit’s StarCraft forum and TeamLiquid.net for it!
But you might not have heard that most of the people there are actually very high on the professional potential for fighting games. In fact, some of them believe that fighting games are more suited to it than StarCraft. Most of the people at this SC2 event preferred SC2, of course, but those who understand fighters all thought they should be much, much bigger than they are today. I expected to have to defend my games, but I had to defend my scene instead.
What’s wrong with the fighting game community that we can’t accept professional tournaments or corporate influence, they asked? For them, the answer is simply that we wanna be underground and separate. They believe that we believe that going with Major League Gaming or whoever would be selling out, and that we don’t want to look like sellouts. They believe that we have to choose whether to get big or stay true to ourselves. They also believe without even realizing it that these are choosable choices for us that we can make with the same calculus and for the same reasons SC and other esports communities did.
And it was thinking about that last point that got me thinking about the real differences between the fighting game community and the esports communities. Yeah, we’re louder and more hype, okay. Yeah, we’ve been underground and haven’t yet shaken that mentality off. But the differences are much deeper than that. Whatever the relative merit of fighting games to RTS, FPS, or MOBA games is, the fact is that our community is very deeply different in ways that make us less accepting of and less fitting for professional tournaments and corporate influence even as they’ve given us the ability to stay so cohesive for so long. We are very deeply ourselves, and not many of us want to see that go away. There’s quite a bit of misunderstanding here. Let me see if I can dispel it.
It’s not just that we’re louder
Simply put, we’re the products of two extremely different environments: the arcade and the personal computer. The fighting game community, or FGC, comes from loud, gross, confrontational arcades where players had to bet a quarter they’d win every single time they stepped up and where battle for control of side by side elbow space with the current champion was almost as important as the strategic battle happening on screen, which by the way made up the entirety of the game’s viewable area. Nobody else has anything like this. StarCraft 2 is played on expensive rigs in games that can take an hour and that are played exclusively through an internet connection; even offline tournaments are played over Battle.net.
The results of these seemingly innocuous gameplay and venue differences are extremely wide reaching. Because of them, the FGC has tended to select for people with less disposable income and time, more socio-economic and racial diversity, less gender diversity, and fewer people overall. These differences then selected for even more differences: compared to the FGC, the SC community selected for a more business friendly, professional-ready culture and individuals who are much more likely to know how to navigate the professional corporate world. There are additional twists that come in as well, including some luck and some differences in game developer support.
We’re loud because we can be
There I was at the NASL single elimination 3rd place match with Potatohead, Sanchez, Offcast, Nasir, Magnetro, Pimpwilly, and MrJared. Holy balls, the 3rd place match! Get hype! So we did. And then someone’s adorable grandpa dressed up as a 20-something male gamer named Nick, came up to us, and asked us to stop yelling quite so very loudly.
Nick: “Hey guys, I paid $25 for these seats (note: yep, $25 spectator fee) and I really just want to enjoy the matches. I was watching from home yesterday and heard your voices over the commentators, and that kind of ruined the stream for me. I think what you’re doing is great, but… boy, I sure can’t wait for you to stop it.”
We got shushed during top 3 at a video game tournament?? WTF! At first glance that makes no sense to us. But let me explain.
StarCraft is a very complicated battle for resources, positioning, and information with lots of different things happening simultaneously over a much larger area than can be seen at one glance. Without either a practiced eye or a really good observer/commentator to tell you what’s happening, it can be pretty difficult to follow. And even if you do know what’s going on, it’s still way more enjoyable if the commentator can observe well, keep you informed, and entertain you during downtime. SC is also a complicated enough game that it requires significant mental investment from the start of a game to the end. If you miss a build order or an important drop or an expansion denial, your understanding and therefore your enjoyment of the game will be impaired.
Fighting games are different. All the information is on screen at once, the pace is extremely fast, the hype makes itself, and as a viewer the game music and sounds are irrelevant. Sure, having a commentator is nice, but nobody needs a narrator. We like analysis, jokes, hype, or stories, but we don’t need a commentator to tell us that Zangief just hit Sagat with a standing roundhouse, we already know. The bite sized nature of fighting game pace and the presence of time disruptors like ultra and super animations also means that you can come into a match midway or take a second or two off from paying attention without your enjoyment being too impaired. Of course it’s more fun and easier to understand late round play if you saw what happened in the first round, but paying such close and continuous attention isn’t quite as required.
One of these games needs a commentator; for the other, a commentator is icing on the cake. So we wanted to get loud and crazy because who the hell needs to hear anything or sit in rapt attention? But Nick wanted us to shut up because he wanted to hear the commentators and be able to follow all the action. Okay. I can’t hate on that.
Arcades can also be very loud and cramped places. If you wanted to talk to your friend, you either yelled or went outside. Even tournaments and console gatherings can be loud. You play with a bunch of people surrounding you and turn the game volume up, so you have to talk loudly to compensate. The only way to get your whoas heard by other people is by yelling. And while the game audio matters to the people playing, it could not be less relevant for anyone watching. Who cares if you drown the game out? There are also no chairs. With stand up cabs, even the players might not have chairs. So you get used to standing or being able to move around or sitting on the floor. This penchant for standing or moving around has continued even at lots of major tournaments, and even at Evo dudes tend to just plop themselves on the ground regardless of the chair setup. So we’re used to that kind of loud, volatile, active atmosphere. StarCraft fans are not. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not always used to chairs at their events, but they are used to relative quiet and to people sitting down in chairs if they can.
Then there’s another difference between the games: in StarCraft you manage resources and pilot your little manz about until the opponent says good game, and in fighting games you beat the hell out of someone until their character dies. That attracts a different kind of person. Why did I like Street Fighter even before I realized it was a strategy game? Because its obvious violence was a good release and I liked making my friends and brothers feel bad about losing to me. SC is about warfare, but its violence is much less in your face than any fighting game’s. And that’s not even counting what is effectively snuff porn in Mortal Kombat. Hell, remember Time Killers?
You have to understand this about arcade culture: it was all about skill-based dickery. When it was your turn to play, you put your quarter in and stood next to this other human being who completely ignored you. There was no hello, there was no gl hf, there was a wall of indifference or even contempt throughout the match. If you lost, you walked away without any acknowledgement from the champion, got back to the end of a huge line, and had long enough to wait until your next game to stew on your loss and really start to hate the guy who beat you. Maybe he was the best player in your arcade or maybe the best player in the country, but you could stand right next to him and talk with him when he was off the machine. Of course, you could only talk if you had respect, and you only got respect if you won. Oh you suck? Eat a dick, scrub. Someone new walks into the arcade? You give him the frostiest damn shoulder you can because he’s never earned your respect. It was personal and confrontational and insular, but you’d respect anyone who won regardless of race or sexual orientation. And eventually this cycle of competition led to friendships. Yes, you could get mad and yell, but there were important limits on what was allowed. Not everyone always followed those rules, but for the most part we became accustomed to a set of rules that included among them loudness, hype, and insularity. I’ve never seen any evidence of this atmosphere in StarCraft.
I also saw a very different situation at NASL when it came to personableness. The players and commentators are completely separate from the rest of the community, and I don’t just mean hierarchically. No, there was also a physical barrier called the Player’s Lounge comprised of frames and curtains you couldn’t see through. Extending from it was a roped off red carpet, at the end of which were soundproof booths for the players and a raised desk for the commentators. At no point did I feel like anything but some schmuck watching other people do things they desperately wanted me to know I cannot do. To me, coming from an arcade setting where even the best player has to play standing right next to you, that feeling is ass, but it’s what SC fans expect. To the extent that they’ve ever played against the top players, they’ve done so from their own PC with no more contact with their opponent than a series of tubes. For them, feeling separate from top players is natural; after all, they literally are.
There are also good reasons for them to section their VIPs off. Their players and commentators get mobbed way, way worse than ours do. I saw dozens of people literally run when it was announced that HuK, one of their best players, would be signing autographs. And in a game based so much on controlling information, soundproof booths are a necessity because you can’t let the commentators and crowd have all the information and expect them to keep it secret from the players. None of the players even wanted to play casuals after the tournament, something that always happens at FGC tournaments, but… no wonder! There’s enough money involved that playing is a full time job. If I had to play the same video game for 60 hours a week, holy crap, better believe I’d take some time off. It’s also more than a little harder to set up PC gaming at a hotel room than it is to plug an Xbox into a TV.
In addition, the near requirement for offline play in most fighting games mandates that new players come into contact with established players in person. Even though some of our best new players used to be training mode monkeys and online warriors, our tournaments and meetups are exclusively offline, so they can’t help but spend time living and breathing the in-person FGC. If you want to get good at fighting games, you have to hang out with other fighting gamers, plain and simple. This has resulted in new players’ adoption of much of the established FGC culture. What began with the release of Street Fighter II in 1991 is still applicable to the far larger scene we have today even though very few of our current members took arcade SFII seriously.
So that’s cool. Both scenes have good reasons for how they’ve arranged themselves culturally and physically. But the SC2 arrangements are very different than what we expect in the FGC.
Yeah, we’re loud. We don’t need to listen to commentators, we don’t care about game audio, and we’re used to loud noises and yelling anyway. We like heckling and going crazy and betting on stupid stuff. To us, there are some obvious limits and regulations on this kind of thing, but I can understand how we might come off as mean or brutish to outsiders who aren’t as familiar with our rules. Our best players are not separate celebrities, they’re people you can play personally or get hype with in the crowd when it’s not their turn to play. Those are our roots, and we’ve managed to keep them! Even relatively new players, players who started up after fighting games moved out of arcades, have consistently adopted these attitudes.
But StarCraft has a very different culture with a very different background. When Nick asked us to be quiet, it wasn’t out of spite. It was out of a sincere desire to watch his favorite game as people in his community watch it: with an in-house commentator, in his seat, without jumping up, and with fan made signs called cheerfuls. And much as fun as we had trolling NASL, I don’t want to cause any existential problems for his culture. I want him to keep on keepin’ on.
So these tendencies for loudness, hype, player approachability, and community insularity have often been the focus in conversations about differences between SC and other esports and the FGC. That’s just the surface, though. In reality, the differences caused by our arcade vs PC origins go much, much deeper.
Straight up, it takes some dough to play PC games. You have to buy a nice computer and be able to update it fairly regularly. You have to buy a nice monitor, a nice mouse, a mouse pad, and have the space to put it all. You have to have a decent internet connection. You can play at a LAN center instead, but in North America that tends to be more expensive than an arcade anyway. You have to have enough leisure time to play games that can last up to an hour each. A game of Street Fighter in the arcades has been only a quarter for two decades and only takes two minutes. You can play at home forever for a one time fee of about $300 for a console and a game. I know people who still can’t afford sticks or consoles and can’t afford to play at majors. Hell, I know a guy living out of his car.
These different requirements have selected for fairly different socio-economic makeups in the North American SC and FGC scenes. I don’t want to seem like I’m claiming only rich people play PC games or that fighting gamers are categorically poorer; in fact, both sides have some high profile examples of exactly the opposite. But overall, the scenes tend to have pretty different levels of disposable income and free time, and the relative cost of entry has meant that SC and the other PC esports scenes tend to have more of both. Holy crap, basic tickets to NASL were twenty five dollars and VIP packages were fifty, and you couldn’t even enter the tournament!
But that’s not the only demographic difference. Unfortunately our country has found it really hard to break the link between socio-economic standing and race and education levels. At NASL in Ontario, California, a city where 69% of the population is Hispanic, the racial makeup of the attendees was so lopsided that a poll for audience race would only need three options: White, Asian, and Other. By contrast, fighting games have always had a very racially diverse population, part of the reason for which is likely linked with the low financial requirements for playing. And while I’m firm in my belief that my FGC friends are just as intelligent as anyone I’ve met in college, law school, and the legal profession, many of my friends never graduated college and many of those who did are doing way, way less fancy things than their brainpower might permit.
Consider also that StarCraft has always been playable online from anywhere. You could live in the farms, the suburbs, or the inner city and play just fine. But fighting games find their roots in arcades. Where did arcades tend to be biggest? They tended to be biggest in densely populated urban areas like Los Angeles, New York, the San Francisco Bay area, and so on where a central video gaming location was easily reached, had more people living close to it, could even get random foot traffic, and was important because it gave video games to people who couldn’t afford to buy consoles. In the US, urban areas tend to have fewer white people and more black and Hispanic people. There have been arcades in suburban and even relatively rural areas, but that’s not the norm.
So there are two selectors for racial diversity here: the socio-economic side and the location side. In both cases, SC2 tends to select for less diversity and the FGC tends to select for more. Over the years I’ve been part of the scene in the Los Angeles area, the San Francisco Bay area, the Washington DC area, and even London and Paris. In each location the racial makeup has been extremely diverse and has remained so, even in Europe where urban location isn’t correlated as well with racial minorities and in some places is even negatively correlated with it. This fact makes me think there’s some additional mystery factor in selecting for diversity that I’ve never been able to identify. But regardless, that diversity is undeniable.
I told Nick about one of my side bets, which was that Sen (a Taiwanese player) would scratch his face before Thorzain (a Swedish player). I lost. I said, “What the hell was I thinking, betting against the white man in an itchy face contest? That pasty ass dude gets three times the grease and ten times the follicles.” My casual racism made Nick, a white guy, visibly uncomfortable. Later on in the night I told some of the people I’d met how I hadn’t seen a black dude all day. Guess who was standing like four feet behind me? Yep, a black guy. Everyone else I was with kinda cringed. Me? What, I can’t say “black guy” in front of a black guy? Get outta here.
See, I’m used to being one of the few white guys in the FGC. I’m often the only one in the room. A huge part of our humor is based on our shared diversity and the harmlessly racist jokes that come from it. This kind of interaction isn’t normal in most situations, of course. I hardly want to make it seem like SC is devoid of diversity or any more full of people who are awkward around the topic of race than the US in general. But when a StarCraft fan hears Filipino Champ say “nigga” every 10th word or people rip on Peruvian Alex Valle as Mexican or me say Jews aren’t white when it suits me, I mean, he might not even know how to react.
Or she might not. There are far more women in the FGC now than just a few years ago, but there was an order of magnitude more at NASL than I’ve ever seen at a fighting game event. Part of that has to do with how the games are played. A woman can use the anonymity of online play to game and win without being hassled, and that can draw her in. Newer female players can also see female hosts and even female commentators and feel more at home. But arcades are dirty, cramped, loud, confrontational, and smelly, and our players often reflect that. That’s not exactly the most inviting situation for a woman. The fighting game scene is also the oldest competitive video gaming community, old enough to have its roots in an American culture that clung strongly to the view that video games were the exclusive domain of young men. Arcades weren’t for girls, and they looked like it. Then this crappy negative feedback loop started, with young males getting used to being able to speak negatively about women, which put women off, so the first part was reinforced, and then so was the second. Street Fighter 4, online play, and the general expansion of the scene have brought in more women, but we’re still a far cry from where StarCraft is right now.
The last demographic difference is size. Each of the esports communities is larger than the FGC. Battle.net has hundreds of thousands of people on it at any one time. Millions of people play console shooters every day. There are still tens of thousands of people playing Counter-Strike every day. We can’t compete with those numbers. Why the difference? I don’t know that I can really get into all the reasons that FPS, RTS, and now MOBA games have been more popular than fighting games. I don’t really know them. But suffice to say, they have been. They sell better and they never went through anything like our Dead Era. From 2001 to 2008, there were literally no tournament viable 2D fighting games released without an import-only restriction. As you might imagine, that put a pretty severe constraint on how much we could grow. Even in 2004 after our famous Daigo Parry moment, only so many people were gonna be inspired enough to pick up the five year old Street Fighter III: Third Strike. StarCraft went a decade without a true sequel, but WarCraft 3 came out in the middle and Blizzard never stopped supporting either one.
One obvious reason for the difference in size, though, is online play. The esports games are based on it. SC2 can’t even be played offline, players must always be connected online even at in-person tournaments. Live tournaments for other games are played on local area networks, but they can be played very competently online as well. Someone who takes an interest in one of these games can get almost constant competition and playable connections from his home. He can play whenever he wants and feel like he’s playing the real game. That breeds interest. In addition, as above, online play makes it easier for half the population, women, to enter and remain in the community.
Fighting games are different. A delay of even a single frame in a game running at 60 frames per second can mean a dropped combo, a missed opportunity, or an undeserved loss. To make matters worse, developers have often released games with poor netcode. For example, the online versions of late 2011 releases Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 and King of Fighters XIII have enough lag even in good connections that they’re essentially unplayable from a competitive point of view. People who take an interest in either one have to go to offline gatherings and tournaments if they really want to improve. That instantly raises the barrier to entry significantly. And as I said, our in person culture has not always been the most welcoming to women, so we’ve consistently missed out on a gigantic chunk of players.
There are online StarCraft 2 tournaments that can reach over 1000 people because the game is designed for and people expect to play on the internet. I’ve never entered an online tournament in my life and probably never will. What’s the point? To me, online play is ass.
So let’s recap. The fighting game community is louder, more hype, and more insular. It also tends to be less wealthy, less educated, much more racially diverse, much less diverse in gender, and not quite as big. Our new players have largely adopted the established culture and tend to fit the same demographic molds as their predecessors. Our scene is much larger today than it was just a few years ago, and with that has come more money, more educated people, and more women, but we’re still significantly behind the esports communities in each.
We are not esports
Even though fighting gamers have coalesced into an identifiable community, we’re not exactly a cohesive unit. In reality, we’re Street Fighter players, Marvel players, Tekken players, Guilty Gear players, Mortal Kombat players, Melty Blood players, etc. To us, each of those terms means something. Street Fighter players are mainstream, Marvel players are the craziest, Super Turbo players are old men, etc. But we’ve all come together to at least an extent under the FGC banner because we have so many commonalities. Our games can vary significantly within the fighting game genre, but they have more similarities than differences. We all come from arcade culture. Through force of habit developed through the facts that many of us play multiple games and no one scene was dominant enough in the past to create its own individual major tournaments, we all meet up at the same majors to play. We tend to also have similar demographics. So even though I’ve never touched Arcana Heart in my life, I still feel a sense of connection with AH players.
That said, some communities have been left behind. Before Mortal Kombat 9, the bulk of the FGC considered MK players to only be weakly connected to or even separate from the larger fighting game community. It had been so long since MK had had a competitive tournament viable game, over a decade and a half, that MK players had either stuck with the very old games or played competitively awful games that nobody else could take seriously. The release of MK9 has changed this to an extent, but MK players still tend to be single-game specialists, and although much of the rest of the FGC gave the game a serious look at first, few of them have stuck with it.
The separation is even more stark with the Smash Brothers community. Even though Super Smash Brothers: Melee is a legitimate tournament viable game, the differences between the Smash scene and the rest of the FGC have been too great for Smash to come under our roof. Smash players tend not to have our arcade history, which shows up not just in the way they act but in their tendency to tweak their games’ rules in a way that the rest of the FGC, with its history in virtually option-less arcade games, has trouble identifying with. Although it’s a myth that Smash players are all teenagers, it is true that they tend to be younger. This demographic difference extends into socio-economics and race as well. Evo worked with Smash once, and although the FGC actually enjoyed watching the Smash finals, the scenes were too different to get along well in a long term kind of way. The FGC hasn’t accepted Smash and Smash hasn’t accepted the FGC.
So I, a Street Fighter player, don’t feel that same sense of community with Smash players that I feel with Marvel players. My issue with Smash isn’t just the game. Hell, I loved playing Melee with my brothers. When the sequel, Super Smash Brothers: Brawl, came out, I tried to take it seriously and even entered tournaments for it. I enjoyed it. But I found the many differences in the community so off-putting that I quit after just a couple months.
So why has the esports community been able to coalesce as well as it has despite having such a diverse set of games? Why do members of the StarCraft, WarCraft, DotA, HoN, CS, Quake, Tribes, CoD, etc communities all consider themselves esports? My guess is that they find enough similarities in their backgrounds that they can all get along. They find their roots in online play, not in the arcades. They have relatively similar demographics, at least compared with the FGC. As I’ll go into later, they tend to be comparatively pre-conditioned to accept professionalism and be attractive for advertisers and sponsors in both games and communities. Their tournaments tend to be separate enough that whatever differences they do have aren’t pushed to the fore as quickly and seriously as they have been in the FGC. They don’t get along perfectly, of course; I know PC FPS fans have trouble accepting console FPS games, for example. But for the most part there’s comparatively little reason not to get along. One of the guys I talked with at NASL told me, “Hey, we’re all just video game players trying to play our games the best we can. That’s all.” So for him, whatever differences exist between his CS background and other games are too weak compared to this point of commonality to worry about.
But we in the FGC have a hard time accepting esports, and not just because we find the word “esports” such an incredibly sad, self denying, misguided attempt to borrow legitimacy from the world of traditional sports. We all know that esports has solid, tournament viable games. It’s just… how can we put ourselves under another group’s roof after having spent two decades making our own? This is not to say that we can’t work with the esports community. I absolutely think we can. But we can’t do it without recognizing what our different histories mean to us today.
Differences lead to more differences
Many of the esports people I talked with couldn’t understand why the fighting game community is so slow on the professional uptake. One of the guys I met said something like, “Two years ago SC was nothing in North America. People worked hard and took risks and now it’s huge. Why doesn’t the FGC do that?”
For one, as I’ll get to later on, this is hardly a fair assessment considering both how much work many of us put in and StarCraft’s own history of professional gaming and developer support. But they’re also right to an extent in that many of us are a little fearful of working with established businesses, of taking economic risks, and of trusting other people. And you know what? That’s entirely understandable. History has momentum. Our background informs lots of things about us, and from the perspective of someone in esports who wants fighting games to explode professionally, some of those things might be hindrances.
Look, I’m a nerd who became a frat guy who worked in media and politics, got two law degrees, and opened a law practice and a small business. This world of deals and corporations and wide reaching debates, that’s where I’m from man, that’s natural to me. And there are absolutely some players, tournament organizers, streamers, and business owners in the scene who had the same advantages. They tend to either run solid events, streams, and businesses or understand the business opportunities of playing. They were were bred for it.
But let me tell you a little about some of the other major people in this community.
A couple have spent time living on the streets or in homeless shelters. A couple others have been in jail. Another was a drug addict famous for not paying people back. Actually, a few of them were like that. Some had really bad family situations with abuse, theft, jail, abandonment, and so on. Lots of others had relatively normal or even excellent backgrounds but little in the way of business-related experience, expectations, or role models. These people are not from a business friendly world. They’re not well educated. They never enjoyed white privilege. And they were part of a scene that had all the above quirks and for a decade was as underground as it gets.
Fast forward just a few years and here they are as some of the best known players, tournament organizers, streamers, and business owners with fans, audiences, and customer bases in the tens or hundreds of thousands. They’re putting in work and doing a great job, but sorry if they might not adapt immediately to corporate proposals, putting real trust in others, and making economically risky moves!
Obviously some members of the SC and esports communities have similar backgrounds, it would be stupid to claim otherwise. But even if lots of members of them had the same disadvantages as the FGC people I’m talking about, there were so many more people in those scenes that some of them were going to be good businesspeople. Who’d have thought, but the comparatively large, economically well off, white, and well educated esports communities ended up with people who had the technology, knowhow, and entrepreneurial expectations to make things blow up! Some of them were even strong enough in this that they managed to survive the implosion of their native gaming scenes and continue on as casters and businesspeople in different parts of the esports community.
The fighting game community, by contrast, was tiny until relatively recently. Even as shooters were going through their ultimately unsuccessful first professional expansion, our major’s major was only getting a few hundred entrants and our first place prizes were in the triple digits. During the Dead Era, we had almost no support from developers or publishers and almost no attention from virtually any sponsors, advertisers, or media. But we kept doing what we were doing. Our cycle of competition had bred strong enough friendships flung far enough across the continent and world that we survived. Our hype machine proved irresistible for those of us who traveled to tournaments for it. Our insularity meant that we didn’t care when we heard about some other gamer making his first million. Who the hell was that guy? Never heard of him, bet I’d maul that scrub’s ass in Marvel for free. And even as this period was happening, our scene was actually growing, albeit slowly, thanks not just to the sheer quality of our games but to the staying power and attractiveness of our culture.
But keep in mind how arcade culture looks at outsiders and how our demographics aren’t quite as business friendly. Businesses that have tried to enter or dictate deals to the FGC have tended to fail. If our members don’t do it or aren’t asked to take active roles in it, we rarely accepted it. Again, if I’ve never seen you in this arcade before, then you’ve never earned my respect and it’s on you to give me reason to say what’s up. We’ve developed a completely homegrown roster of players, tournaments, tournament organizers, streamers, commentators, and businesses, in part because that’s what we wanted to do and in part because we and the mindset that comes with our history would have had a tough time letting it happen any other way. The pro team Evil Geniuses has had success supporting some fighting game players, but its initial entry was rocky. Many members of the FGC wondered why these outsiders were taking an interest in us. Perhaps seeking to avoid this, one of its main rivals, CompLexity, decided to enter the FGC on FGC terms by striking a deal with Cross Counter, a community developed business. With CoL.CC there was little of the rockiness and rejection that EG experienced as it came in, in part out of appreciation that CoL entered holding an olive branch. It’s not that we categorically reject outsiders, it’s that we need to feel people who want to work with us give us respect and are willing to consider our terms.
So while some of us have the training to deal with professional leagues and corporations, some of our other important members don’t yet have the background for it. But personal history is not an absolute predictor of the future. We all know people who have come from poor backgrounds or whose parents came from poor backgrounds and ended up doing very fancy things. People learn, especially people as talented and intelligent as the members of the fighting game community. Those people are going through an adaptation phase and progressing admirably. They have vital roles in growing this scene and I have nothing but confidence in all of them that they’ll be successful. After all, they could hardly have gotten to the positions they have today without being the kind of smart, driven people who identify their dreams and work their asses off to get there. Just don’t expect them to negotiate a major contract with a corporate multinational overnight.
So it’s not that we want to be underground. It’s that we were underground and many of us still feel like we are underground, even those who are working very hard to help us grow. You have to also realize that from our perspective, continuing on with our own scene-driven growth is not just an option, it’s what we expect. That’s how we’ve been doing it this whole time! In 2012 we’ll have Final Round Fifteen. Okay? There is some serious momentum here. We love our community and will do absolutely nothing to hurt it or the culture, events, institutions, businesses, and people in it.
I’m very much looking forward to a stronger, not just more popular, FGC. Believe me, few people stand to gain as much from a giant FGC as me, a commentator and an attorney with clients who would benefit greatly from an influx of money into the scene. I work every day to do my bit to get us there, and so do lots of other people. We won’t be there tomorrow or next week and maybe not even next year. But we’re on our way. Our gigantic growth in players, tournament, entrants, and stream views over just the past couple years makes that clear.
But StarCraft got so big so fast!
That said, our pace is not good enough for many members of the esports community. They want us to blow up today. This weekend I heard multiple times about how weak SC was in North America during Brood War and how quickly after SC2′s release it went from that size to having the most players, the most viewers, the most tournaments, the most money, and so on. Why did this happen to StarCraft and not fighting games, these people wondered? I think there are six major reasons: SC’s relatively pro-susceptible community, SC’s comparatively sponsor-friendly game and business-friendly demographics, SC’s much more successful previous encounters with pro leagues,… and Blizzard, Blizzard, Blizzard.
SC’s own history has helped it tremendously. StarCraft had a weird community in North America during Brood War because even though very large numbers of people played or watched it regularly (including me), it didn’t engender the same attachment to community. It ran online tournaments with entrants into the 1000s, but they were online, where a sense of community is relatively weak. Unlike the modern FGC, it didn’t have more than a dozen homegrown majors and several beloved idiosyncratic streamers and a twenty year history of amateur development. Instead, it depended hugely on professional broadcasts and influence from Korea. Because of its relative lack of attachment to its own homegrown accoutrements, it had less to lose in taking risks on professional gaming corporations. Indeed, far from the trepidations of the historically amateur FGC, the North American SC community saw the Korean model and expected professionalization. And again, compared to the fighting game community, it had more money and leisure time to spend and a wealthier, better educated, larger pool of people to draw on in supporting and promoting professionalization. It also experienced an influx of people from other esports communities who knew a good bet when they saw one and helped guide the pro transition. This resulted in SC having more and better businessmen who could work effectively with professional gaming groups, something that, again, the FGC is relatively lacking. In short, the history of the SC community predisposed it much more strongly to going professional.
The second reason that StarCraft and the esports communities blew up before we did is how well they fit with sponsors. Think of how many sellable, buyable things are involved in PC gaming. Everyone who makes or sells towers, processors, graphics chips, sound chips, motherboards, factory PCs, monitors, mice, mousepads, headsets, gaming related apparel, lifestyle brands, etc has a real, identifiable stake in the success of PC gaming, and PC gaming has been big enough for a long enough time that those companies can’t ignore it. The more people who want to play or watch, the more money those companies all make. Fighting games have consoles, monitors, sticks, pads, gaming related apparel, and lifestyle brands. That’s all! And the relatively small size of our scene until just recently has meant those companies have been able to more or less ignore us. I mean, it took until 2009 and the internal influence of a dedicated and important FGC member to get even one major corporate peripheral maker to start directly supporting us with joysticks and money.
Think also of SC’s demographics. Again, more money, more education, more white, more gender friendly. Those are things advertisers like! They mean that an ad is worth more to the companies paying for them because they tend to lead to sales more often. That extra value means that everyone involved in making people view ads, from tournaments to teams and players to broadcasters, gets more money. If a company can choose to market to either the FGC or esports, and even assuming the FGC was as large as esports, that company would be better off spending its advertising budget reaching esports customers who are more likely to result in sales. Remember seeing NOS energy drinks advertised all over FGC tournaments and streams last year and earlier this year? Well, no longer. But guess who’s still a major sponsor of MLG? No wonder there’s more money in StarCraft and esports. They’re built for it. The pro leagues had and have a much stronger incentive to get StarCraft 2 than they do Street Fighter.
Another reason for SC’s fast expand in North America was its prior success in other markets. The previous Blizzard RTS games, both Brood War and Warcraft 3, had already proved themselves strong professional games that could make boatloads of money for everyone involved. The experiments, mistakes, and successes experienced by the communities and corporations working with those games in Korea and China in particular provided invaluable models and demonstrations of success for other professional leagues. The importance of this earlier success cannot be overstated. From the perspective of a large corporation with significant investment and venture capitalist backing, even a perfect looking opportunity must be rejected if it’s been proven unsuccessful in the past. But if an opportunity has willing consumer interest in the target market, enough sellable and advertisable products to get good support, all the right demographics, and had already succeeded elsewhere, then it’s not exactly the hardest choice in the world.
By contrast, fighting games have not historically mixed very well with professional gaming groups. Tom Cannon goes over this history more in depth here (http://shoryuken.com/2011/12/04/where-esports-leagues-go-wrong-with-fighters/), but the point I want to get across is that neither side loved it. None of the games selected, including Dead or Alive, Virtua Fighter, Tekken, and Smash Brothers, was as right for the job as StarCraft 2. Dead or Alive’s problem was that nobody liked it. Virtua Fighter is respected by everyone, but it’s just never developed a strong North American scene. Tekken is respected and is an important tournament game here, but Tekken 6 had already been around for a few years and was slowly losing some steam. And while in my opinion Super Smash Brothers: Melee doesn’t get enough respect as a game in the FGC, the fact is that the FGC and Smash scenes are too separate to depend on each for support. But the real issue from our perspective is that we saw Tekken 6 join MLG and then die, and then we saw Melee join MLG and then die. There are several reasons for that. Again, T6 was already losing steam. There was a match fixing scandal in Smash. But in addition to that, the scene got used to bigger payouts and to the pros doing the work for them. What had previously been full community efforts were hollowed out, with a profit-minded corporate entity taking on a significant role. When that support disappeared, so did the scenes. And again, there were other reasons for their disappearance, but what’s important here is how the story is viewed in the FGC, and that’s what we remember. Far from the positive models for SC2 provided by BW and WC3, the fighting game experience with professionalism has left us understandably wary.
In short, not only did North American SC have less to lose in going professional than the FGC did, but the pros had less to lose in highlighting SC over fighting games as well. Their marriage and its success make complete sense. But that’s not to say that professional gaming groups wouldn’t like to get a major fighting game.
The biggest reason that SC2 was picked up by the pro leagues and part of the reason for the success of the scene is StarCraft’s creator, Blizzard. Blizzard’s support for SC2 has been extremely strong. I’m sure they didn’t release the original StarCraft thinking they had a competitive gaming goldmine on their hands, but as the Korean scene blew up they began to realize what they had. They started to get more involved. They gave contractual licenses to professional streamers and tournament leagues to allow them the legal right to use Blizzard’s games in public tournaments and online streams, which Blizzard could otherwise have prevented by exercising their rights under copyright law. At the same time, they let non-professional streamers and tournaments keep going. They tossed money at everyone. They designed StarCraft 2 not only with the tournament player in mind but even thinking of the tournament viewer as well, putting in all kinds of awesome options for spectators and replays. They kept the community involved with the development of StarCraft 2 to an incredible degree. Not only do they patch their games for free, but they let people play the updated version on a public server before the patch is even published so they can be sure their changes make sense. They even hold an event in Blizzcon where they have a panel of game balancers just talk with the community about their decision making. That panel might not sound like much, but to a fighting gamer it’s absolutely incredible. Blizzard isn’t perfect, of course; for example, they designed StarCraft 2 without the ability to play offline, which can be frustrating in some ways. But overall, they act in accordance with their understanding of how much money and pride is on the line, not a small amount of it their own. I cannot overemphasize how jealous of this I am.
The FGC has several important developers and publishers, but it’s no secret that the pro leagues want a Capcom game, either Street Fighter or Marvel vs Capcom. And Capcom has been getting better in their support of the FGC in recent years, but they’re still a million miles from even being across the street from the ballpark Blizzard plays in. Oh they’ll throw a poorly advertised tournament for a new game release. They’ll hire some unfortunate non-gamer actress to host a terribly designed show about a new release and make her talk like a 90s promo host about things we already know. They’ll set up events to let some of us play developing builds of their new games for a couple hours. They’ll even tell us about some, not all, of the rule changes to the most widely played tournament fighting game and their flagship series. Yes, they’re doing much more in this whole pre-release phase. But we’re not talking about pre-release efforts meant to increase sales of new games, we’re talking about post-release efforts to support the community, make money through the tournament scene, and create additional brand awareness and support for whatever new games come out later. Unlike Blizzard, Capcom doesn’t throw money at us, they don’t create real tournaments, they don’t give licenses to major tournaments and streams, they don’t guarantee non-professional tournaments and streamers that they’ll be free from prosecution. Not only are they not designing games with the competitive scene in mind, they’re doing the complete opposite and designing games explicitly meant to empower less skilled players. This refusal to stay involved post-release might finally be starting to change. Their decision to release the updated SF4AE: 2012 for free is a nice gesture, and as horrible as the whole DLC gems idea has sounded for Street Fighter x Tekken so far, the simple fact that they seem to believe they can continue to make money post-release is good to know. But recognizing that they can use the tournament scene to promote their game and make money while helping the scene itself has been completely beyond them.
So why is Blizzard so good and why does Capcom not see what they’re missing? I think the answer is as mundane as location of origin: Blizzard is an American company and Capcom is Japanese.
By all accounts, Capcom Japan’s corporate culture is stagnant. There is little incentive for employees to make good games or care about games after release. As often happens in Japan, people are hired into jobs with absolutely no chance for mobility, but they can’t really be fired because of the cultural stigma against it and the legal difficulties involved in doing it. American style tournaments also haven’t really existed in Japan until just recently. Super Battle Opera has been around for a long time, but it has very low payouts, no entry fee other than for qualifiers, and is around more to advertise arcade products than to satisfy players. Although events like GodsGarden are happening in Japan now, there’s still nothing like Evo or the other North American majors. The generally high level of fighting game play in Japan has nothing to do with tournaments and everything to do with the Japanese take on arcade culture. For Capcom, ignoring the tournament scene in Japan let alone outside it has been fairly easy.
Blizzard hasn’t had the same problem with its corporate culture. It realized that it can make money by supporting the tournament SC scene, so that’s what it did. Who cares that it had only ever made and released games? Get that extra scratch baby! That ability to recognize and exploit a market is something that we Americans are good at doing. It’s also been forced to care about tournaments to some extent. You don’t see what was happening with StarCraft in Korea in the early 2000s and ignore it, that’s just not possible. That explosion of interest and money was like nothing that Capcom has ever experienced.
Let’s take a quick look at other American games developers and publishers. Look at Capcom’s USA counterpart, Capcom USA. Know what they made? Super Street Fighter II: Turbo HD Remix and Street Fighter III: Third Strike: Online Edition. Say what you want about how those games turned out, but their development is based entirely in the recognition that the competitive community is important. Look at NetherRealm Studios and Mortal Kombat 9. Again, say what you want about the game itself, but NRS helped create and promote by far the largest prize pool outside of Evo for the PDP national tournament, worked with MLG, and has continued to patch the game for free to satisfy the competitive community. After years of failing to properly support earlier versions of Counter-Strike, even Valve has finally realized how important and lucrative a competitive community can be. It supported competitive DotA 2 right off the bat and seems to be maintaining that attitude in developing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Capcom Japan has consistently failed to consider any of this.
I mean, don’t think that the professional leagues don’t to get involved in fighting games. You don’t think they’ve wanted Street Fighter 4 for years? Come on. They want licenses to publicly perform, reproduce, distribute, and modify Capcom fighting game content and Capcom has said no. Personally, that’s cool with me; as above, I don’t think the current FGC is well suited to that and I want us to continue growing ourselves until we are. I just hope it doesn’t mean that Capcom will continue to refuse them licenses when we are.
With all this in mind, then, it’s not exactly rocket science that StarCraft blew up first. And in blowing up first, they’ve cracked into a market of pure spectators, people who never played Brood War and don’t play StarCraft 2 but watch SC2 broadcasts anyway. Those people have money and time on their hands and they represent even more money in everyone else’s pockets. Fighting games haven’t gotten anything like that yet.
What esports wants
The esports people at NASL had much stronger respect for fighting games than I expected. In fact, a couple of them even said that fighting games as a genre are more suited than StarCraft for major exposure and professional support. They recognize that fighters are both deep enough strategically for serious tournament play and also simple enough on the surface that anyone can understand the basics of what’s happening. The length of a match is perfectly bite sized, almost like how well football, with its short plays and frequent breaks, is built for television. The action is so exciting and fast paced that it’s hard to get bored, the ratio of whoa to time is just too high. Can I tell you how many times my friends and I have said all this amongst ourselves? And here was a group of esports people telling me the same things. Except we were at a tournament where first place got $40,000, hundreds of fans were willing to pay $25 to $50 each to come spectate, 50,000 people watched online, all of those numbers were considered relatively low, and it was their tournament, not ours.
So the conversations we had were not at all indictments of fighting games. They can’t wait for fighting games to blow up. They’re upset only with the fighting game community for being unable to do what they’ve done with their games: take risks, work with corporations, get investment backing, pick up major sponsorships, throw enough money at players, commentators, and media to support them full time, and so on. Why have games with such a natural fit in the world of professional competitive video gaming, well, not yet fit?
As I said at the start, the esports community believes that the reasons behind StarCraft 2′s explosion compared to our steadier but smaller growth is all about our choices. But I want to point out that their implicit question, “Why have you made such dumb choices?” is also a little fixed. People don’t make choices in a vacuum. Nobody starts out even. We can’t make the same choices with the same calculus for the same reasons, that’s just not how life works. Could we have made different choices? Considering our two decades of unique culture and history and their continued momentum… I don’t know. We’re working hard, believe me, and we’re getting bigger and better every single day. I don’t want to make it look like I’m upset at who we are, I’m anything but. I’m also very, very hopeful about our future. But the implied question is about our past. Although our games might be as good a fit for esports style stuff as yours, your scene was a better fit than ours, and that’s what’s made the difference so far. It doesn’t matter that alternating current fits a need better than direct if the person representing direct is Thomas frickin Edison.
Let’s keep the timing of this whole debate in mind. Did it come in 2010 when MLG picked up Tekken 6? No. Doubtless it made overtures to Capcom to pick up Street Fighter 4, but there was no major public push like there is now. This current push comes after Evo 2011 had 3000 attendees. It comes when we’ve put a major tournament attended by hundreds of people on one third of all weekends in the year. It comes as our major tournament streams have begun to push 30,000 viewers and our weekly tournament streams get to 7,000, as Justin Wong pushes 20,000 Twitter followers, as Cross Counter TV’s YouTube channel crosses 40,000 subscribers, as Maximilian’s YouTube channel crosses 13 million views. It comes as more companies are entering the fighting game joystick and pad markets and as the success of fighting game apparel grows. In short, professional corporate video gaming tournaments only began to make a strong public push for fighting games when fighting games started making money.
Nobody should be mad about this. The goal of any business, including my goal with my own, is to make money. And in any case, profit isn’t the only reason the individuals involved in professional gaming want to see us blow up. Part of their desire is about seeing other gamers do good and wanting to support people who play, commentate, and organize tournaments. In addition, people who are willing to work for professional video gaming corporations in the first place are already more inclined to see professionalism as a solution and a goal. For some of them, seeing a gaming community go pro is almost like a philosophical calling.
Some people think that our window of opportunity is now. If we don’t join up with professional leagues soon, they say, those leagues won’t want us in the future. I honestly don’t know what about our history and current trajectory makes anyone think this sounds right. After such consistent growth, why would we all of a sudden stop growing? Why is it so important that we give up our excellent community driven direction and steady growth in favor of some corporate control? Will our culture and games all of a sudden lose their attraction? I can’t imagine that happening for our culture, it’s just too awesome. The issue of games is a little more plausible. To be frank, a lot of people are worried that Capcom’s upcoming release, Street Fighter x Tekken, will be such a weak game competitively that it’ll either kill the professional interest or it’ll lead to weak community support if a professional group picks it up. But I see two possible scenarios here. One, we realize that SFxT is a bad competitive game and it gets rejected by everyone. In this scenario, the community will continue to play its current games, and that’s where the professional leagues’ interest will be. They aren’t idiots, they want the games people are interested in because those are the ones that bring in the dough. The other possibility is that SFxT is a good competitive game, in which case yay, we all play it and it’s the game MLG etc want to get. So what’s the problem? For me, any talk of missing a window of opportunity is grounded in a fundamental misunderstanding of both our community and professional gaming.
Can we work together?
The short answer is, of course we can work together. Just this past weekend, an event called BarFights was thrown in Los Angeles with the financial backing of an esports team, Complexity, and the event planning of its FGC partners, Cross Counter. It was very successful. There was nothing about the hype or planning or anything else that seemed out of whack. It was just an authentic fighting game event that happened in large part because of an esports influence. Evil Geniuses was the first pro team to make inroads into fighting games and nowadays everything is going great. vVv Gaming is doing fine as well. Neither team has mandated anything that players wouldn’t already do; they’ve let their players rock. After the initial confrontation between Nick and us at NASL, we invited him over, had a chat, and he seemed to have a good time hanging out with us. We even found other people at NASL who wanted to side bet! So yes, we can work together.
The real question in my mind is whether we’ll understand each other. Right now there are lots of accusations and media being created on all sides by impassioned people who unfortunately either haven’t taken the time or don’t have the tools to really get to know the people and scenes they’re talking about. No, we’re not just another esports scene, we’re different in a whole host of important ways that need to be taken into account. No, the esports communities can’t work with us in the same exact ways they can work with other groups. On the other hand, no, the pro leagues aren’t just out to ruin us. They want to make money with us and because of us, yes, but they also want to see other gamers do well. There have already been some examples of members of the esports community working with the FGC with good intentions and to good results. And no, working with professional leagues does not have to mean that we compromise who we are.
Look, some in the FGC worry that if we join up with pro gaming tomorrow, we’ll again risk the same kind of scene implosions that happened already to Tekken and Smash. What if everyone gets used to fancier streams and more prize money and then our game gets dropped and we go back to less fancy streams and smaller prizes? Well, that wouldn’t be a good thing. But I don’t think we should underestimate the strength of our community right now. We have 20 years of very strong momentum behind us. We survived the Dead Era, and while nobody wants to go back to being that small, there’s no reason to believe that we’ll stop getting any developer support and no reason to believe that our community efforts will be swept away. Because that’s what we’re really worried about, is the chance that our community suffers.
But if we work together in the right way, I don’t think that MLG having Street Fighter will mean that Evo will go away or even that time-honored majors like Final Round and Seasons Beatings will go away. MLG will have to consider who we are and what we want, and if they don’t, then I can see us suffering. I don’t want MLG to schedule an event for the same weekend as Evo or any other major. I don’t want them to act like they can control our scene, because that’ll just be destructive to both sides. Work with us and understand our terms, and I think we can make this work.
That said, I also don’t think it’ll be the end of the world if we don’t work with professional gaming organizations. I think it would be best if we figured out how to shake off our underground mentality while retaining the rest of who we are and getting more money into our scene on our terms before we went pro. Again, even though I have a lot of faith in the strength of this scene, I want to make sure that we protect it as best we can, and I think the way to do that is to ensure that we retain the same drive to do better and grow as a community that we’ve had for years. If we skip that step and join up with the esports community too soon, then I don’t think we’ll be as strong as we can be. I don’t necessarily think we risk the same kind of implosion that happened with Tekken and Smash; again, there were different factors there, with Tekken 6 slowing down anyway and a scandal and an inability to adapt to a new game in Smash. The modern FGC doesn’t have those problems.
We also don’t really feel the need to work with esports. We’ve had such a long history of doing things on our own that this choice between whether to keep working as we have or go pro with someone else almost feels false. Why can’t we get huge on our own? I’m convinced that we can. And if there are indications that the pro leagues would want to work with us largely on their terms or in denial of all the things that make the FGC what it is, then that’s we should want to keep doing what we’re doing. But that would be a terrible business decision, and I’d hope that they’d have better businesspeople than that. After all, their scenes selected for it.
We’ve been learning. We’ve been growing. And thanks to this whole sudden interest in us on the part of the esports community, we’ve had to really think about how we’re doing and what we want. In large part, our answers have been “We’re doing super awesome, thanks,” and “We want to keep being who we are, thanks.” In my opinion, knowing who we are and what we want is only going to result in more growth, even if we stay away from the rest of the esports world. To be crude, it’ll let us sell ourselves better, both as a community to new members and as a set of businesses to potential sponsors and advertisers. Our idiosyncrasies have helped make us as popular as we are today and they’ll keep doing so as long as we keep them.
I am so stoked about who we are, where we are, and where we’re headed. I love our hype, our closeness, our open tournaments, our players and commentators as just another part of the crowd, our diversity, and all the other things that make us who we are. Was I jealous when I heard that commentators for other games can make up to $5000 per appearance while I’m over here working for gas money? Sure, but not nearly as much as you might think. I’m too in love with my community to wish I could trade places, and so is everyone else in the FGC.
Look, we’re not inherently opposed to the world of esports. I don’t doubt that we’ll go pro someday. You know the only thing we’re opposed to? The word “esports.” Shit is straight clown shoes son, for reals.
[Editor's note. Bravo if you didn't just skip to this part] The fighting game community is not like the esports communities. Our arcade origins and the esports PC origins have led to extremely different cultures in terms of loudness, hype, insularity, and approachability of players and commentators. Those origins have also led to very different demographics; the FGC tends to be less wealthy, more racially diverse, less educated, and less diverse in gender. In turn, these differences have led to the esports communities having more opportunities for sponsorship, being able to find more interested advertisers, and developing a better business culture. Along with some luck and successful models of professionalism in other countries, the result has been that the esports games, like StarCraft 2, have been a more natural fit for professional gaming corporations. We’re not esports and we can’t be treated like it.
Nevertheless, I think the FGC is doing a great job building itself now and slowly starting to get away from its insularity even as it retains all the other things about what it is. The fighting game community doesn’t feel compelled to work with professional gaming leagues. At the same time, I expect that we’ll eventually go pro, either on our terms with something we create or working with informed established professional leagues. I think we can work together. There have already been examples of that. But as in any business venture, everyone involved has to make absolutely sure that they understand the other side.