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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Will fighting games survive COVID-19?

One of gaming’s most fascinating communities has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic

By JACOB ANDERSON — arts@theaggie.org

Of the many social scenes to be hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the fighting game community is rather uncomparable. Despite more or less every fighting game released for over a decade offering online play, the spaces in which the games are played “for real” — according to most of the community — remain massive offline tournaments, usually featuring a double-elimination bracket for each game as well as unlimited casual play, art sales, performances, lotteries and numberless other attractions that make bigger tournaments closer in scope to conventions than simple meetups.

For the fighting game community (FGC), playing online isn’t an authentic experience; there are two main reasons for this. Firstly, fighting games are too fast for the internet. Even with solid rollback netcode that many large developers have been slow to adopt, the presence of four or five frames of delay (one-sixtieth of a second each) can be disastrous when advanced techniques and difficult combos can often be frame perfect, requiring hours of training to perform reliably even without that added variable. The fixed speed of light ensures that it is not possible for fighting games to be played online without some amount of delay, and thus offline play will always be preferable for skilled players. 

Secondly, there’s tradition: The FGC has been around since the genre’s formalization in the early ‘90s when arcades ruled the scene — longer than most competitive gaming scenes of similar size. The lack of any requisite fixed cost (viz., a home console) meant that no economic barriers existed to restrict who could play, and consequently, the scene that has persisted to today is much more demographically varied than, for instance, competitive “Starcraft.” The scene’s arcade origins also immutably dictate that the community be oriented socially: something that lends itself to the immediate, communal nature of in-person play rather than that of distant, monitored online play. To the FGC, tournaments are inalienable.

So what, then, happens when this core component of the community is suddenly removed?

The imposition of the pandemic, of course, made in-person tournaments impossible. While the community has continued to exist online, it wasn’t until recently that in-person tournaments began to crop up again — with the requisite safety requirements. Big tournaments such as Combo Breaker and EVO have been either forced online or canceled for almost two years, and while those larger organizations were prepared to deal with the costs of a forgone event, smaller tournaments such as Michigan Masters were forced to rely on community assistance to avoid financial ruin. But these are just the yearly events. Locals, which are the weekly or monthly smaller events that form the community’s spine, have no such visibility, and in many cases it hasn’t been clear whether some of them will come back at all. Locals are what keeps the constituent areas of the fighting game community intact, and as a reddit user put it, “If [locals] start to disappear, it’s the end of the FGC.”

The community’s largest local tournament near Davis, the monthly Capitol Fight District in Sacramento, has been on hiatus (minus one event) since the beginning of 2020 — it’s now been almost two years.

With COVID-19 restrictions appearing to ramp down and certain major events, like CEO, managing to return to in-person play, the future of the community doesn’t look quite as bleak as it did before. If things continue to improve, it’s possible the community might return at an even larger scale, as serious fighting game releases like “Guilty Gear Strive” appear to be pushing up common indicators of popularity like the Steam Charts. Things could actually be better after the pandemic.

So in the interest of optimism, let the rest of this article then be a little valentine for the FGC.

When you walk into a tournament, there’s always a distinct electricity about. Before the bracket starts, players huddle in threes and fours in front of monitors. Lively conversations clutter the air and are burst by the occasional cry of defeat or victory or (usually from an observer near one of the anime games) an articulate shout of something like, “He’s free!” or “Put ‘em in the blender!” The average fighting game player seems to be now in their thirties, and it’s not uncommon to see a kid under 10 running around the tables and ogling the sometimes ostentatious arcade sticks.

Hundreds of people can be cramped into the same room, eagerly staring over the shoulders of players in unflappable states of focus. And when the bracket starts, the stations are cleared and someone calls over the crowd for the silliest usernames you’ve ever heard to play at station eight.

There’s little else that’s like it, and with the amount of fun everyone seems to be having, it’s no stupid question why fighting games remain a somewhat niche genre relative to first-person shooters and the other titans of modern gaming.

But of course there’s a reason: the separation between idly knowing that it’s possible to press down and then forward plus a punch button to throw a fireball and knowing that “236956K” is the numpad-notation translation of the input for Baiken’s “Guilty Gear Xrd REV 2” Kire Tatami Gaeshi rather than my bank account’s PIN code can feel insuperable to a new player. This is especially true when the community has often done a somewhat poor job of consolidating the information actually necessary to progress from clueless rube to fighting-game literate. The barrier to entry is high, so only those with a real drive to understand what it’s all about will usually get past the genre’s first learning stages. 

Once those travails are done, however, the world opens up; the limitless intricacies and considerations present in high-level play become observable. Knowledge of what’s actually happening on the screen serves to separate fighting-game players from the rest of the world. This barrier is what makes membership inside the FGC unique, and it’s possible even that a desire to preserve that uniqueness dissuades some players from making the information necessary to join the community readily available.

If fighting games come back bigger than ever, that would be a great thing. Fans have often been defiant in their insistence that it’s the greatest genre of video game — if nothing else, it’s managed to catalyze the creation of one of the most singular hobbyist communities around today, one strong enough to weather the temporary destruction of the thing often said to be its very center. 

Written by: Jacob Anderson — arts@theaggie.org

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