Ten years ago I started playing this game I had noticed in the corner of Barcode, a half bar / half arcade nestled in the heart of Times Square. Among all the machines put there to maximize the amount of money taken out of you while intoxicated there stood this small, white Japanese candy cabinet with two joysticks and two sets of six buttons to their right. I watched the game's demo mode play for a few seconds until the screen just erupted into this mess of beams and fireballs and a climbing three digit hit combo meter. Well, that's all it took for me to pump every quarter I had into the machine, I was hooked. Five to six different games, several hundred tournaments, five Evolutions, and a decade later I'm still playing fighting games. The difference now is that the game has changed and so has its community, so let me go into my thoughts on it all.
TS Min, Empire Sanford Kelly, and TS 'om nom nom' Arturo Sanchez'
When Street Fighter Four dropped roughly two years ago it brought in a new crowd of people that had never really bothered with fighting games before. Hell, it brought back veterans that had long since 'retired' from the scene. The community at large had suddenly gotten an influx of competition, and well that's what we're always looking for, more people to play. At its core that is all we as fighting gamers want, more competition. Sure, in a way it is a bit barbaric but when you become one of us you start to see what a rush it is. Anyways, that's exactly what we got with SF4, an enormous amount of competition we had not seen for years. Local tournaments began to pop on a weekly basis, monthly tournaments starting garnering numbers you would only see at yearly majors, and said majors had gigantic brackets and pots none of us had witnessed period. It was pretty crazy, hectic, and fun! Then we saw the birth of something we had all been alien to, sponsorship.
Money money money, monaaayyy~
Where tournaments would usually just register your online handle into the brackets, we started to see players enter with two to three lettered abbreviations preceding them. TS Sabin, EG Justin Wong, EMP Yipes, the list goes on. Suddenly players were representing their sponsorship, and vice versa. More players gained the means to go to more tournaments, so long as they seemingly earned it. For the most part the ones being sponsored did have a standing in tournaments, though many have since faded away into the lower part of the brackets so to speak. Certainly we all assumed that this would drive more of this blossoming community of ours to get better at their respective games. Unfortunately it seemed to do the opposite, players began to treat sponsored players as celebrity. People would enter tournaments in hopes of getting to play against Mike Ross, or consider it an honor to have played him online.
Now that's not an inherently bad thing, some people have been deserving such attention and status for far too long. The problem here is that it begins to instill the notion that what many of us have been enjoying as a passion and poured our heart and soul into, many are taking to be but a fad. People become aptly named 'stream monsters' or 'pot monsters', and you suddenly begin to realize that the inflation of the community has resulted in the need to wait for it naturally weed itself out. I'm not hating on the players having jumped into this niche little genre of ours but a few years ago, I just worry ever so slightly for its future.
Stay the hell on my lawn! I mean it!
See the thing about our community is that we're incredibly tight knit and grass roots. We've been sacrificing days off work, our own money, hell even our health sometimes for over ten years now. More even. While there was a point where we were in a dry spot for a few years (thanks to the lack of new games in the genre) we were still going at it. While this in-pouring of players is a blessing, things have shifted to where people are attending tournaments to see those celebrities play, while not entirely caring for the game. You look at the numbers for Evolution and you see 2,000+ entries, but in reality I wouldn't hold the amount of serious competition (people actually vying to qualify, get out of their pools, etc) to be past 200. It's hard to explain my point while trying to NOT sound like I'm outwardly hating all these new folk, but perhaps it's my cynicism at play. Our individual 'blogs' dedicated to news of the fighting game genre have gone from providing a mix material for serious members and casual alike to completely shifting to the 'casual', leaving the front page ridden with videos on someone 'beat boxing Ryu's theme' or countless two minute long combo videos made by people looking to just get onto the front page to begin with.
This is where the issue of 'esports' come in. Do begin to form a season that annually climaxes at Evolution? What type of games are we going to include in there? What if I want to push Melty Blood more than I do 'SSF4 : I have to publically announce I'm sorry we imbalanced AE edition'? My cynicism kicks in again here, predicting that in two years time the 'fighting game fad will fade out' and all the folks chanting 'Fuudo-isms' and lambasting 'Daigo for tier whoring' will just mosey on over to the next 'in thing'. Are we still going to be getting 2,000 heads to show up when a game isn't being patched anymore? Will players still be sponsored two years down the line when we end up having to wait another ten years for SF5?
I don't know. I just hope that along the way we don't lose ourselves, our passion to play, and the social aspect that comes as the best bonus you could get out of any game. Maybe by then I'll have my own porch, rocking chair, and shiny cane to work with too~