Behind all the trophies, the execution and the mindgames attached to fighting games is another subculture within this gaming subculture. It’s a group that knows no competition–save for the few events that actually do have competitions for it–and takes place far outside the hitboxes and frame data that the community cares about. They are merely in the shadows of the events themselves, yet when they walk into the room, people pay attention.
They trade their gamepads and joysticks for makeup, sewing machines, and wigs. You rarely hear them talking about their mains, because when they are in the event hall, they are the characters–your mains. With all the nervous energy and excitement of walking onto the venue floor, the cosplayers you see will often enhance your experience of the event. They allow you get further into the event–snapping selfies with your favorite characters and making you feel more at ease in the venue.
Loving the Games
Going to your first major fighting game event takes a lot of guts. Insecurities in lesser players’ skill levels, combined with the large amount of their congregated peers, can make for a socially awkward experience.
Going to the same type of event dressed up as a character from these games, however, is on an entirely different scale. Given the competitive nature of these events, most people are focused on playing. Their eyes are fixated on victory alone. Things like appearance fall by the wayside.
For cosplayers, however, appearance isn’t everything–but it’s one of the only things. Given the deep divide between the two, you’re likely to see less cosplay at fighting game events than at anime and fan expos, which focus more on the aesthetic experience of the attendees.
“There are a lot more people cosplaying at Comic Con or Anime Expo,” says Anthony, a Rashid cosplayer at Evolution 2016, “so while you’ll get some attention, it’s not as much because everyone’s doing it. At events like Evo or other majors, if you’re cosplaying, there’s far less people doing it, so there’s far more eyes on you than usual.”
“There’s not as much cosplay at events like these compared to Anime and general gaming fan expos,” says Mizzi Mie, who was a cosplayer working for Bandai Namco as part of their promotion of Tekken 7. “The competitive nature trumps the casual experience, so there’s not as many cosplayers here, and they typically aren’t competing.”
And much of that is true. But there is a small group that intersects. Jasmine “Miss Shinobee” Villanueva, a cosplayer and competitor from NorCal is one such person who travels to various events to compete and cosplay.
“People do tend to question ‘Oh are they legit? Do they even know their character? Do they play any games?’ when a cosplayer is at a fighting game-centric event,” says Villanueva. “When I would get confronted, folks end up quite surprised to find out I love and am aware of the fighting game community, that I’ve played at tournaments, and most of all, love and support the fighting game community.”
Mie agrees. “If it weren’t for working this event, I’d be playing Tekken 7 right now.”
Despite the lower concentration of cosplayers in the FGC, there is still a welcome mat at the door. Where most people’s passion for the games translates into their hype for matches, they still find time to appreciate the passion that is exhibited by the people donning skirts, beards, and qipaos to tournaments.
“I take a lot more selfies at FGC events,” says Andrew Hoskins, a Ganondorf cosplayer that I spoke with at Evolution. He spends his time cosplaying the character between Smash tournaments and general gaming conventions. “People get into it, because it’s the characters they play from the games they love. At general conventions, it’s half and half. I’ll get people that think of me from Legend of Zelda and Smash both.”
“I definitely get asked for pictures, especially from people who may main that particular character,” states Villanueva. “I’m really happy when they get to see their favorite character or main in the real world.”
For some, just the chance of being the center of attention is enough to compel them to cosplay. But for most, there is another, more simple reason for doing so.
“For me, [cosplaying] is just fun,” states Anthony. “For Rashid, I get to run around and be flashy, and I get to play the theme song from a hidden speaker [while I’m doing this].”
Hoskins continues, “It’s performance art in a way. You’re able to be creative, and when you walk around, people look at you. I get to create a work of art, and instead of hanging it on a wall, it’s on me.”
But the biggest motivator often boils down to a common four-letter word. “I love it. You don’t need a huge driving force to keep you doing something you love,” says Mie. “Just like with competitive gamers, if you love it, just do it. I like meeting people and cosplaying characters I enjoy, and I get to go to events like these, so it’s great!”
The reaction of fans to cosplayers at events has not been lost on the companies involved in the events. It is not unusual to see Capcom producer Tomoaki Ayano dressed in a Chun-Li outfit. However, none have shown as much commitment to professional cosplay as Bandai Namco. Having hired professional models and actors to travel the convention and tournament scene to promote Tekken 7, in 2016 you could often spot these highly decorated living advertisements across event floors.
“I had an agency constantly calling me telling me I look exactly like Ling Xiaoyu, so they asked me to take this on,” said Sara Choi, one such model for Bandai Namco.
Heihachi cosplayer Kevin Jones had a similar story. “I got a call from someone saying they were looking like someone built like Heihachi, so I decided to try out.”
While a gut reaction from the cynical community member would claim that tournaments were selling out by bringing in such shills, they would be surprised; most of the professionals had dabbled in fighting games at some point, including the Tekken series they were promoting. Moreover, all of them had positive experience with players at the event.
“The atmosphere is great, and the competitive scene is very welcoming and friendly,” stated Choi. “It’s much different than other industries that I’ve worked in before.”
Jones added, “It’s seriously awesome, and making me debate whether I need to get back into gaming and start competing, because these events are awesome.”
The impact on sales in the West of this brand of cosplay remains to be seen. However, this is not a trend that rests solely in America. Stated Villanueva, “Even the companies, for example, Bandai Namco, have Yuriko Tiger, a famous Italian cosplayer living in Japan, as an official model for many Tekken tournaments in Japan.”
Regardless of the motivation–art, fun, money, or attention–one thing remains true. The passion for the games exist beyond the gameplay. When something affects your life in such a large capacity, it tends to bleed over into your whole life. Whether it be in regards to fashion, music or culture, it will affect you. Whether you are pouring your heart and soul into training mode or putting the finishing touches on your costume, it is the reflection of the appreciation of what the games have given you.
As for aspiring cosplayers, Villanueva gave these parting words of wisdom: “As a reminder though, to fellow cosplayers, please be safe and always be aware of your surroundings! And of course, don’t act out signature moves that can hurt others or yourself.”