The fighting game community was dealt quite a blow when, last year, Adam “Keits” Heart made the decision to bring his Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament series to a close, riding off into the sunset after the tenth installment. Many would count this final outing as one of the best in its history, if not the history of the scene itself, thanks to its strict adherence to the tenets that made it popular in the first place: impeccable scheduling, tight bracket arrangement, and a long list of activities outside the regular competition.
Fortunately, Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament coming to a close brought with it a little ray of sunshine, some faint hope that the Chicago area would still have something to look forward to in the coming years.
Near the end of the tournament, during the portion reserved for thank yous, raffles, and a general destresser from the rigors of running a major event, Heart brought a man named Rick Thiher onto the stage for a special announcement.
Thiher, a longtime collaborator with various groups in the fighting game community, quickly laid out his plans. “I love tournaments, you guys love tournaments. I love tournaments that don’t suck, which is why I love tournaments in Chicago,” he explained, the home crowd cheering loudly for that last, slightly pandering point.
He would go on to set a number of lofty goals, saying that he would stake his reputation on creating an event just as good Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament while keeping a number of its key attractions in place: the mystery game tournament, Street Fighter, some weird form of Marvel, and even newcomer Killer Instinct. “We will run great things again,” Thiher promised. “Please come back.”
This was intriguing. I myself was not super familiar his work before this announcement, but the swagger with which he dropped these details and the confidence everyone seemed to have that he would meet those benchmarks told me there was something special in the works.
I soon got in touch with Thiher to discuss his plans for Combo Breaker, the follow-up to Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament he had teased in 2014, to discuss his plans for this momentous event and how exactly he planned to fill the huge shoes left behind by Heart. But to know the man completely, you have to travel back to the genesis of his love for fighting games.
“The very beginning for me is pretty easy, it’s a distinct memory. My first real ‘sit down and play a game over and over again’ experience with fighting games was with the Sega Genesis version of Mortal Kombat,” Thiher explained, dropping some interesting tidbits on Sega Channel along the way. “From there on out for awhile, it was a daily activity of biking over to his place after school and playing a fighting game that would have horrified both of our parental groups. So, I actually have a very large soft spot for the Mortal Kombat series and for the Mortal Kombat community because of that game.”
These early memories of days spent playing the gruesome fighter and learning Scorpion’s iconic spear attack were his birth space, but it wasn’t until the release of Street Fighter IV in 2009 that the genre would sink its teeth deeper into his skin. As the older sibling to a brother that generally picked up games at a faster pace during their childhood (“Even to this day, [my brother] is a significantly better technical player than I am,” he would go on to say), he found an edge in the title early on that he wasn’t ready to let go.
“That kinda got the competitive edge going, so I had to seek out a local tournament. I distinctly remember being very excited because I would sit home before class, play Street Fighter IV, get back from class, play Street Fighter IV, and rank up enough online points that I thought I was an amazing player. I got to that first tournament, brought my girlfriend at the time, was like, ‘Okay, watch me be amazing,’ and got completely wrecked.”
Despite experiencing the rough start that’s become a sort of tradition for those entering into the world of fighting games, Thiher found his passion become stronger than ever before, giving that first proper hello a lot of credit for igniting the fire of competition.
He would go on to win a couple of locals and even a regional or two in Minnesota, at the time believing those championships were going to be the highlight of his gaming experience. After throwing the original Combo Breaker in 2011, Thiher partnered with a cinematographer who was putting together a short documentary on the local scene, sponsoring a five-player group to Evolution that year with local retailer Games N Go and Old Abbot that saw one competitor make it out of pools.
These early moments, he said, have shaped how he views the community in the present, speaking fondly of Level|Up Series’ new series of online tournaments for giving players who may not have the same opportunities as others the ability to get in some form of competitive experience. “I just think we need a lot more of that. A lot more side video content, a lot more of that kind of community-focused content, because that’s how I think we grow.”
Shifting from Competitor to Organizer
His first inklings that he may have been more suited for tournament organization over playing competitively came at Focus Fire in 2010. Held by Gaming Generations in La Crosse, Wisconsin, the event was Thiher’s first experience with event details we mostly see as necessities these days: matching setups, a main stage, the whole nine yards.
But it wasn’t perfect. “I thought the [tournament flyer] was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen,” he said, deadly serious. “The logo offended me.”
With a history in graphic design stretching back to high school, Thiher contacted Gaming Generations owner and operator Evan Mau to offer his services. As he wasn’t currently working on anything tournament-related, he saw it as an optimal way to bridge his love of fighting games with that of design and get his feet wet.
Outside of the work he put into it, Thiher still looks back on Focus Fire as one of the funnest events he’s ever been to, saying, “Nothing about it was pretentious, almost nothing about it was correct when you think of what the standards are now.” It was also where he was first introduced to Heart. “That actually wound up being really beneficial for me; I met a guy that to this day I think is one of my better friends.”
“Keits coming at the time was cool because he was considered an out-of-state player,” Thiher said later in our conversation, expanding on the experience of that first event, which also saw Justin Wong and Martin “Marn” Phan in attendance. Despite this all, Focus Fire almost didn’t happen thanks to La Crosse experiencing one of the largest blizzards in its history the morning of the tournament, giving an eerie tinge of coincidence to this entire piece of his history.
Afterwards, he found himself asking a ton of questions. Why wasn’t this happening more? Why wasn’t it more accessible?
These questions would lead Thiher to a meeting with Gaming Generation and the team behind the initial Focus Fire event, where he explained that tournament experiences like the one they just threw could definitely go places. They agreed with this vision, turning Focus Fire into an events company under the Gaming Generations banner to help provide tournaments with setups, manage logistics, and generally remove a few of the headaches organizers were prone to receiving. It’s this help that he credits with a portion of the expansion Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament 7 saw in 2011.
It was also around this time that the cogs of his very own tournament were set into motion. The first Combo Breaker (“Bringing the name back for the 2015 event is a nice circle for me,” Thiher explained) went down in early 2011, keeping him awake for three days straight but seeing over 600 players fill the venue.
“One of my few remaining memories from that tournament is actually Adam giving me shit for just about everything running late or starting late because, at the time, I ran tournaments on the old-fashioned Tournament Standard Time of, ‘Well, these ten players aren’t here quite yet, let’s just wait for ’em because everybody wants to play everybody anyways.’ Really happy I outgrew that.”
From there, his horizon expanded quickly. He eventually found his way to Chicago to help Heart with Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament 7 as a member of Focus Fire, an experience he describes as incredibly fulfilling. “There’s something about putting together an event that a lot of people can come to and have a memorable experience that I find really, really rewarding. I don’t get that at my 9-5 work, I don’t get that winning an important match.”
And all the while, Thiher’s toolset was expanding. “I kinda do jack-of-all-trades stuff, which is why getting to direct tournaments at this time isn’t–there’s no leap here for me.” Having so many events in his background meant extensive experience with equipment logistics, tournament structure, scheduling, and a number of other skills important to planning such large-scale festivities.
The gaps filled by Gaming Generations would be rewarded with partnerships at other events, like Youmacon 2012, Community Effort Orlando, and Texas Showdown. They would even go on to be the official equipment provider for the Evolution Championship Series. “Always an amazing experience,” Thiher described, laughing. “And a very interesting headache.”
But as the horizons grew, he found himself becoming more and more involved with Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament. By the time the ninth installment rolled around, Thiher was working closely with Heart on how the event would come together, which included facets like branding, various logistical needs, sponsorships, and more.
“By the time we get to Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament 10…it’s not necessarily a 50/50 split between anybody, but at that point it’s me, [Max “CurlyW” Wasserman], and Keits all kinda working together to make the best event we can, what I think is actually one of the best events I’ve ever been to. It ran way beyond the type of precision that I would expect even of the Chicago community. And there’s no community I expect more precision from than the Chicago community.”
Thiher continued. “I still have my second cheesy Community Effort Orlando award from the other day up on the wall in my office because it’s a reminder that if you put in work–I mean, not everyone will notice. I’ve intentionally kinda stayed a behind-the-scenes guy for the most part, but when you get a couple of people to kinda bond around you and recognize the work you’re doing or the work you’ve done, there’s a really nice camaraderie that doesn’t go away. A couple of my best friends live–like, the closest one is ten hours from me by car, and that’s because of this community.”
As this was a sentiment I heard quite a bit, I was curious if Thiher had any insight into why the region works the way it does. “I mean, this is a giant area; for me to go to a Chicago tournament is a seven-hour drive, and that’s pretty much the closest tournament I can go to,” he explained. “You don’t really want to waste time; you want everything to be what it’s supposed to be and how it’s supposed to be, and I think everybody from the top down respects that idea in the Chicago community and particularly at Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament.”
Thanks to their impeccable scheduling, he continued, there’s no guessing when a match is going to be available. Knowing exactly when your pools run means you know exactly when you’ll have free time, giving players the opportunity to grab a bite to eat, get casuals in, or experience side events without the worry of being disqualified. Or, if you happen to operate like former competitor Eric “Juicebox” Albino, you can even head back to your room and get a nap in between your tournament matches.
“When that time is expertly managed, and I believe Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament’s was, your ability to do anything you want at a tournament outside of your base tournament matches is available. I can say, ‘Hey, come to Combo Breaker, run your matches, but if you wanna go see Chicago, here are all the hours during the weekend you could if you don’t want to compete or take part in the community aspects.”
It became very clear over the course of our interview that Thiher has very much been influenced both by the region he considers himself a part of and the time he spent, both personally and professionally, with Heart. I found myself chuckling throughout many parts of our conversation due to the similarities he shares with my former Shoryuken co-worker.
And he won’t be the only one making the transition from Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament to Combo Breaker, as much of the staff members Heart assembled over the years have signed up to help Thiher with this new venture.
“We have lots of players that volunteer. We have guys that, after they’ve been players, seem to work their way up into tournament staff. Most of the staff from Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament that are now at Combo Breaker are players themselves. They’ve gone to tournaments, want to be involved in tournaments, and want those tournaments to run better than the first tournaments they went to so new guys in the community feel like this is a great use of their time and want to stick around.”
“It’s not that that doesn’t exist elsewhere,” Thiher finished, ever humble. “I don’t want to downshine a lot of other tournaments that are doing that, but I do think there’s something in the water in Chicago.”
Filling a Gap for the Midwest
All of this leads back to the original Combo Breaker announcement at Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament 10, which, funny enough, almost never happened.
“I guess truthfully…originally, we weren’t going to make an announcement. We all wanted our tournament structure to continue but I was, and am, very content with what [Alex Jebailey] and I have been able to do with Community Effort Orlando in the past three years,” Thiher said of his early motivations. “There was an element of, ‘Hey, I could have a couple of months where I’m not doing [tournament work] every night.”
“But as we started looking at the Midwest and where the tournaments come from…I mean, yes, if Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament was gone, there’s still sort of something in the region because you have Midwest Championships farther south and Civil War farther east and Kumite in Tennessee farther southeast, sure. But I got to the realization that, like, my core buddies, the guys in Minnesota that got me into all this, they got no tournament to go to now, they got nothin’ they can get to by car, and they got nothin’ that’s trying to live up to the standards Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament set.”
And so, Thiher started to make that goal a reality. Sitting down with Heart, Wasserman, and the folks at Gaming Generation, he realized that they definitely held enough brand recognition from their work on other events. Once they came out and said they were going to continue the tradition, with some new additions here and there, he was sure folks in the community would respond positively.
Despite what he said in the original announcement, however, there’s more than just reputation on the line if it doesn’t go well: Combo Breaker is seeing more logistical effort and financial backing than Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament 10. “We’re gonna do a lot with staging and production. We’re running a stupid amount of games. We have the staff and the equipment and the space to pull that off. This team knows how to run a clockwork tournament.”
With a strong, tested team in place, Thiher’s attention is freed up to focus on an aspect he finds most important: the experience.
“I can ridiculously say that, over the past four years, I’ve gone to over sixty fighting game tournaments, of various scales, sizes, and regions. What I take away from all of that is, at the end of the day, at all of these events, I sat down and played matches–okay, that part’s cool. I played matches against people from around the country, depending on the region I was in–that part’s cool. Now, what about this event or that event made the experience better? Things like the Sunday finals in the ring with the music and the spectacle at Community Effort Orlando makes Community Effort Orlando better. That is better,” he emphasized. “Going to Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament and having an event that’s intentionally built around camraderie–and not camraderie within the cliques of our communities, because there’s plenty of those–but just around playing fighting games. That made that better. Going out to NorCal Regionals, for instance, and having an event that was hyper-focused on the two Capcom games. There were elements of that that make it better. And so, if you’re gonna take those things and put those things back on the pedestal, those are important to me. Which, i mean, yeah, it means i guess I’m looking at it more like a convention than just a tournament. But anybody unwilling to realize that at this point what we’re running are conventions that feature tournament brackets? I got a whole bunch of side-eye for those guys.”
Going Above and Beyond with Combo Breaker
As for what he has in store for Combo Breaker outside of the main tournament, Thiher couldn’t help but proudly list the attractions his event will include. Where Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament had the Fun and Games Corner, Combo Breaker is establishing an in-venue arcade. “And I do not mean ten cabs in the back of the room, five of which are broken and two of which are a side-by-side shooting game that nobody wants to play,” he pointedly stated. By setting up a partnership with Brookfield’s Galloping Ghost Arcade, they’ll be able to present the legacy of the community alongside modern competition.
“On top of that,” Thiher continued, “the Combo Breaker venue does not close; when we open on Friday, we’re open until grand finals is done on Sunday, which means we’ll have both official and unofficial salty suites all weekend, after-hour shows and programming, and auction events each evening across multiple stages. We’re gonna be running multiple auctions this year because there’s something hilarious and wonderful about Chicago’s auction tournaments that cannot be lost–if only because NeoGAF would kill me.”
Of course, a few things have to remain secretive to make their impact all the more memorable, and he was a little bit more coy when it came to the returning mystery game tournament. “The depth of where the games are coming from this year is…fun, and grand finals is, if everything comes together correctly, will be a…if you’re a member of the fighting game community and you’re aware of our kind of in-culture and personalities, it’s gonna come together very very nicely for a happy Twitter moment.”
Now that he was moving away from Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament and starting a new era with Combo Breaker, I was curious of the overall message he was trying to send to the rest of the community, in terms of how he would like it to be portrayed to a global audience. Like everything else we discussed, his answer was both matter-of-fact and inspiring.
“I believe in spectacle. I believe in an almost welcoming loudness. I grew up on metal and skateboards and hip-hop and scare your mom but make her still okay to give you twenty bucks to go to the show. There’s so many overlaps between a lot of the 90s thrasher cultures and what the fighting game community is right now. I’m not worried about our community being an eSport, but I am worried about our community being presented as not only something accessible and cool, but as something that can and should be a big deal,” he said, the tapping of his fingers audible through his microphone. “When I’ve got a bracket of 300 plus Street Fighter players and some guys have earned the right in be in grand finals, I want them to feel like rock stars. Because I think that’s an achievement…no matter who’s at the tournament.”
Fortunately, it’s not all about the hardcore Street Fighter heads. “Honestly, 40 to 70 entrants is going to cover the cost of logistics necessary to let them have their space and have their moment on the stream and let them be a part of this community because they should be,” he said of sub-groups like Skullgirls and Darkstalkers. “I’m not seeing any reason to look at any of the smaller communities and go, ‘Hey you guys aren’t good enough,’ or, ‘You guys aren’t Capcom.’ Maybe that’s because my blood comes back from Mortal Kombat.”
“I want this to be a tournament you can go to that has a spectacle level, that has a growth curve, but doesn’t lose the fact that this is a grassroots tournament put on by people that love fighting games for people that love fighting games. If I get 600 Guilty Gear players and I only got 100 Street Fighter players, I’ll be the only tournament in the country where Street Fighter’s not on last. I want to reward the community for being a community.”
Of course, with so many lofty goals, I couldn’t help but ask what he sees happening in Combo Breaker’s future. Due to the expenses for this event surpassing Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament (“That’s done intentionally because there’s things I believe in that just cost money and I can’t get around that,” Thiher explains), it has to prove to be sustainable in order for there to be a follow-up. “If it’s the type of thing where I pull a Lap Chi (God bless him), I don’t got a 9-5 that covers that. So, at that point, I’m gonna go back to being the happy co-director of Community Effort Orlando and try again when I can, if I can, if nobody else fills the void.”
With major tournaments all across the country, stretching from the Regionals in Southern and Northern California to Big E Gaming’s numerous yearly events on the east coast, the midwest rarely receives the shine it deserves from the community at large. In Thiher, I see a worthy successor to Heart’s legacy, an organizer who upholds many of the same ideals and is ready to expand up on them with his own sense of flair. When asked how he would distill his overall message into something more bite-sized, he didn’t have to think long before providing the perfect answer:
“Bigger, badder, and still feels like home.”
Combo Breaker is scheduled for May 22-24 in Rosemont, Illinois. More details can be found on the official website.