Can Fighting Games Become the New Poker?

By on January 4, 2017 at 3:00 pm

I am far from a professional Poker player. The game is technically illegal in my state (which definitely, absolutely means I have never played it in my life. Ever. Shhhut up!). but I’ve always been in love with the game at its highest levels, even if it’s a more distant affection than the affection I have for fighting games.

In Texas Hold Em’ Poker, it’s the math, the analytics, and focus on the long game that fascinates me. And I’m not alone–Poker is one of the most watched “non-physical” sports in the USA. For many spectators, it’s the thrill of the “kill” that keeps them glued. Be it a big bluff or finally trapping someone with a big hand, these red-hot plays elevated it beyond other card games.

Oh, and Chris Moneymaker wildly humanized the sport for a lot of people. That helped, too.

Bluffs are the wakeup DPs of Poker.

Chris Moneymaker, in 2003, was little more then an appropriately-named accountant. He was completely unknown to the poker world and actually won his trip to the World Series of Poker through a $86 dollar online tournament. Entry to the World Series of Poker is very expensive (even in 2003), so just getting to the event probably felt like something of a win.

In the end, Chris would live up to his (actual) last name. He turned his $86 dollars into $2.5 million. Over the tournament he eliminated pro after pro, including his final showdown with poker veteran Sammy Farha. With that victory, he made profitable poker seem attainable to the viewing audience. The narrative of unknown to super star drew eyeballs across the world to both Chris–and the sport itself.

I have to think when Joe “LI Joe” Ciaramelli placed 5th at Evo, he felt the weight of new eyes watching him, too.

The pop that LI Joe (and, let’s be honest, Papa LI Joe) got at Evo was huge. I don’t need to tell you that; you already know. LI Joe’s charisma and good nature won the crowd over, but his humble path to get to the main stage won the media over [Shoryuken included; no regrets! – Editor]. For a moment, Joe became the face of America’s FGC.

There’s not too many other parallels between him and Moneymaker. But that’s not the point–LI Joe made Evo Top 8 seem attainable. He was the story, and not the game or tournament itself.

Joe steals the show.

The FGC did not bring esports to ESPN’s attention, but Evo’s stock has steadily risen anyways. With ESPN also airing Capcom Cup, it is unlikely that fighting games will do anything but gain more traction in mainstream media (at least, for the time being). Though Capcom Cup’s numbers are technically down from last year, ESPN’s own reporting indicates that esports is stealing views from their traditional programming. The all-American grand finals between Liquid|NuckleDu and EG|Ricki Ortiz certainly didn’t hurt, either.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that we are seeing pro leagues pop up left and right from SNK, Namco, Microsoft… there is a new market opening up for fighting games, and it’s you, viewers on the internet.

There are parallels between poker and the FGC that, I believe, extend beyond just their humble beginnings. If the FGC wants to really take over this new stream-dominated world, there are important lessons we can from their past.

Cash Games vs. Money Matches

Tournament Poker works, marketing-wise, because there is a clear winner. It’s sport. It’s also a very, VERY different game from cash poker, which is a game that only stops when no one is sitting at the table. Each format has its own specialists and histories. Tournament Poker is ultimately better for viewers looking to see a champion crowned, but the (infinitely more complex and loose) cash game format provides more opportunities for growth in regular player’s pocketbooks. Only one person wins the WSOP. But there’s a new winner in every hand of a cash game.

Money matches, too, are often the most feasible way for a player to at least break even at a stacked tournament venue. Though you and I like to see money matches played out, broadcasting networks and fighting game companies have made no attempt to promote or support this form of playing the game. It’s not surprising, given the massive backlash Poker has suffered legally in the States. Which is a shame, because the SAFE Act does not cover money matches at all! In fact, no federal law impedes on money matches so long as the game itself proves it is a game of skill and not of chance. Professor I. Nelson Rose has pointed out: “…if participants are merely betting on themselves—more of an entry fee than a wager—it would not fall under any federal law.”

State law, however, gets a lot more complicated. Each individual state has its own restrictions on gambling, and some states have outdated and complex laws that even actively ban games of skill. Arizona is a clear example of a state that actually bans placing money on games of skill.

There is a part of me that thinks money matches are going to be a difficult thing for the FGC to figure out as it grows. Their legality is somewhat gray, they are very popular at larger tournaments, and the beefs/storylines that emerge from them have the potential to be a PR nightmare (or, dream; or both) for everyone involved. The money exchange is one problem. The intense emotions and hype that can swell up is another thing all together.

Drama vs. Professionalism

In LowTierGod vs. Viscant’s first to ten, you couldn’t argue that either player was a great representation of Street Fighter IV’s highest level of play. The level of game-play had nothing to do, however, with its viral success on YouTube. I doubt even the players themselves would argue this point. No one clicked that thumbnail to see major Top 8 play. Hype and rivalry was top billing, and that video has more views then some grand finals matches at huge majors.

Drama is hard to defeat, sometimes, and I would be a liar if I told you I didn’t watch it, too. I don’t have an intelligent answer for how the community can balance this blood red antagonism with a desire for a “more respectable sport.” The latter is what esports strives for, after all.

Which is odd, isn’t it? “Real Sports” have blow ups all the time. It is the very centerpiece of the human spirit to be intense in competition. No matter how much someone may hand wring over the integrity of a sport, we remember the drama. Sometimes it sells tickets. Sometimes it loses tickets. Remove the personalities from the game, and you may remove a lot of potential interest.

No one’s accountable when it’s a beef at a local, other than the two parties. But what if similar antics happened at Capcom Cup, on stage? It’s intense entertainment that looks just awful for a “professional” scene, but it’s also the sort of thing that gets people hyped and interested. We, collectively, like passion. We also like (or like to hate) characters. Poker knows this. And if it didn’t, it learned it very recently when it chose to try and penalize a controversial player mid-tournament: William Kassouf.

Bad Tournament Rules Make News

Neither the first nor last time Kassouf tilted the table.

You would think the last game that would try to prevent players from interacting with each other would be Texas Hold Em’, and yet… here we are.

There’s a lot that’s been said about William Kassouf’s 2016 WSOP run, and I’ll try to quickly summarize it. Kassouf’s loud, chatty, psychological play was a gray area for WSOP’s ruleset, and it drove his opponents nuts. His banter looks “bad” on TV in a way that mostly just makes him a cartoon villain, but it looked worse on the WSOP when tried try to scold him for something less severe than the antics of previous winners. Instead of letting Kassouf play his game, they caved in to complaints of his opponents. As the WSOP dragged on, it became increasingly clear that it didn’t matter what Kassouf did, as tournament officials and his entire table had allied against him. Kassouf was penalized mid tournament for trying to talk to his only opponent in the hand, and repeatedly kept under the thumb of officials throughout the remainder of his stay, like helicopter parents circling a child. This was an official mistake that hurt the WSOP, and fiercely split the poker community.

Kassouf somehow managed to be the loudest and most annoying player at the WSOP, undoubtedly, yet still emerge from it looking like the victim of a system that favors the establishment. It also drew a lot of new attention to the sport, giving it perhaps its biggest pop in years. Kassouf didn’t win the WSOP, but he’s certainly Poker’s biggest name in 2016 because of it.

Mercifully, we haven’t had many moments that are quite as high-profile and dramatic as Kassouf’s final run. I haven’t heard “collusion” jokes in a while, and in general the biggest blow up at tournaments lately are usually within game, where they should be. Kassouf is hardly the first Poker player whose behavior stirred emotions, but the way he was handled so clearly illustrated the weakness of a sterilized industry ill-equipped to support the part of its game it should be proud of the most: the mind game. You should never grow out of touch from your own scene if you’re running a tournament.

I mean, NuckleDu never had to forfeit a round for putting on his shades. That’s all I’m saying.

This won’t be as much of a problem for our scene, given the nature of the way video games are played. Still, it’s not like we haven’t had our own arguments over formats, legal peripherals, and perceived collusion. Clear and well-communicated rules can prevent this sort of thing. The WSOP failed hard on that, and hopefully we will do better as we grow.

Dealing with the Fallout

After Poker’s boom, it faced blows that, several times, nearly killed the sport. Legislation. Controversy. Theft. You could put together a history class just on the trials and tribulations of professional Poker. And yet, this silly little 1900s card game (with only four moves!) is one of the most enduring pastimes of America. There’s a wealth of meta, dynamics, and culture just in their own world.

It survived because of the passion of its players.

I think that’s one area we, the FGC, already have plenty of experience in.

This isn’t necessarily the most fun to think about. At the end of the day, I just want to mash out a combo or two as much as the next guy. But, if we’re serious… if we really want to stand side by side with the world of any successful sport, we need to look at history. And, frankly, not just the history of Poker, but our contemporary esports as well. We need to see what decisions they’ve made that were right for each sport, and what decisions were very, very wrong.

Often times, it’s easy to feel like the FGC is marching into uncharted waters. It’s easy to feel like it’s a coup when we show up on ESPN, or any esports news at all. No matter how OG you may think you are, there’s an older variant of your efforts that you can draw from. I cannot shake the feeling that the more visible our community becomes, the more mindful we need to be of what has and hasn’t worked for the games before us.

Even when we aren’t playing, we can still grow.

Hey, I'm just a 3D-head in a 2D-world. I like pretty much all FGC stuff, and I really like hearing about the way people think about games.