Growing the Scene: Fighting Games and the Mass Market

I like fighting games, despite not being all that good at them. I’ve loved them since I started playing the terrible SNES port of Mortal Kombat when I was way too young by most people’s standards to be playing Mortal Kombat. There has always been something deeply appealing about the direct, one on one competition against an equally capable foe that has always had a draw to me.

My neighborhood friends would gather at one of our homes, each of us bringing what multiplayer games we had to the gatherings, and fighting games would often dominate the playtime. The short matches meant that controllers could get passed quickly and everyone got hands on the game, though the fact that whoever was winning got to keep playing encouraged us to get better. I was never a child of the arcade, but we had something similar in our little friend groups.

This… is not a thing that happens so much anymore. Much has been said about how online has all but killed couch and Lan multiplayer culture, but I think the effect has been much more pronounced in fighting games. While I think there are definite and large benefits to fighting games going online, I think there are some major economic issues that are not getting addressed in the larger conversations about fighting games.

I’m not doing this to say online competition is bad. The internet has really been great for competitive fighting game circles. You are no longer limited by your geographic location in finding human competition. New tech can be learned quickly by checking forums online cutting down a lot of the initial grind of learning a new game. Though traditional couch gatherings of friends are no longer the norm, nearly any region in the nation hosts at least one regular fighting game meetup where enthusiasts can sharpen themselves against other enthusiasts. Competitive play is streamed from all over the nation and beyond allowing us all to see what it looks like when these games are played by the best.

And, I think this is kind of a problem for the success of these games as big triple-A projects. Everything that the internet has brought to fighting games has been a great boon for the competitive player and the enthusiast, but has been incredibly detrimental to casual interest in fighting games.

Once upon a time, your mettle was tested against whoever you encountered face to face. Most likely, this was your local friend group. If you had a local arcade with a machine for a fighting game that might prove as a gathering point as well. You’d test your mettle against this relatively small circle and, as long as you were able to keep up with your friends, you’d win a reasonable number of games and feel good about playing.

I feel like this was an important part of the commercial success of fighting games, because while the enthusiast and the competitor is going to want to seek out greater and greater competition to prove themselves to be the best or sharpen themselves against equally hardened competition, casual players in almost any genre of game tend to fall off when their win rate drops below a certain point.

Many other genres have ways of mitigating this effect. Many of the biggest multiplayer games on the market right now bank their success on these techniques. Call of Duty and Overwatch both give players moments of power above and beyond their competitors with killstreaks and ultimates, and in both games the weight of winning is spread across a team. Similarly in MOBAs, though you feel the rush of every victory, the weight of loss is easier to bare when you can blame it on your AWOL support or the top laner who fed. Fighting games are unique in that the pressure of winning or losing falls directly on the shoulders of one person controlling one character versus one other person controlling one other character.

Pressure aside, this also creates another problem in online environments. Skill Gaps. There is a strange phenomenon I have noticed in online fighting games. After the first month or so, online matchmaking among low end players gets really touch-and-go. It’s not that you cannot find matches. Rather, new players will reliably encounter the same pattern.

First, when you begin playing, you are paired with other novices. Many of these players will not even bother to play single player or training before hand, and if you have even a passing knowledge of fighting game conventions these matches will be free wins for the most part. Then, presuming you stick with the game for any period of time, there will be a sudden shift in gears and you quickly find yourself losing most of the time.

This occurs because there is a gap in skill progression among the community. If we were to use a 1 to 10 scale, where 1 is a complete neophyte and 10 is an international competitor, the 3-5 range is largely nonexistent in most online fighting game matchmaking. You have 1s and 2s who are just picking the game up, and they will either drop off when they get slammed up against a 6 or, if they tough it out, will get good and start winning again.

The problem is that sort of dedication comes from enthusiasts of the genre, and the results are apparent if you talk to anyone who plays video games but not fighting games. You will hear a lot about how they don’t want to put the time in or have to deal with getting stomped over and over by players who put more time into that one game than they have free in general. There is this general feeling of being at a basketball court playing one on one matchups where at any given moment Stephen Curry might just step up and play you. For some people this concept is super exciting, but for many the idea of being trounced by someone clearly in a different weight class than you sours the whole experience.

It’s easy to simply shake off these worries and tell casuals to get good. After all, if they care, they’ll put in effort. If they don’t, who cares? But we live in a world where Street Fighter 5, the biggest fighting game in the world today, is failing to meet sales expectations. This should be worrying to fighting game fans. The first fighting game dark ages came from market saturation, leaving an era without competitive titles that didn’t end until 09 when Street Fighter 4 brought fighting games back to the market forefront. I’m worried that we might be slowly heading back towards another dark age as fighting games become more and more niche and fewer and fewer players are willing to put in the time and effort to break into the genre when so many others provide much smoother introductions to competitive gameplay.

I think part of the reason people don’t like to talk about this problem is that it doesn’t have an easy solution. Online and in game resources exist, but casual players don’t want to have to study a game before they play it. I honestly feel like a lot of this could be alleviated with better single player AI opponents, but that is a field that could be a major time and money sink and is of little interest to the core fighting game audience. Ultimately the best thing that can be done right now is outreach. I didn’t know about my local fighting game group until I ran into them at a public event. Gathering new players and building a base of new and intermediate players can do a lot for the health of a local scene, and if this happens in enough cities, you may actually begin to see an effect on matchmaking.

Fighting games are bigger than they have ever been, and despite the fact that I’m not actually all that good at them, I still love them. I love the struggle. This year I got to see the biggest fighting game tournament in the world broadcast on ESPN2. I want to continue to see scenes grown and new fighting game players be born. I’d hate to see things begin to backslide because the next generation didn’t have a group of peers to get their start with.

12/14/2016 EDIT: Turns out I’m not the only one with these concerns. Here’s many of the same points being made by someone wildly more qualified to make them than myself.