The whole eSports controversy has been on my mind for a while now. A lot of this started brewing up for me when I first saw pictures of the Madcatz TE: MLG edition. My response was a mix of confusion and anger. Why? I’ll get to that.
I wrote this partly to send a message in part to players involved in eSports leagues who seem shocked that the Fighting Game Community (FGC) wouldn’t want to be a part of eSports, as well as to newer members of the FGC who also do not understand the nature of the controversy. eSports leagues do not seem to be able to relate to us on a very basic level, as demonstrated by many of the questions asked to Tom Cannon (inkblot) on the recent vvv Loser’s Bracket podcast. This piece is meant illustrate both why the FGC is quite different from the eSports both in culture and goals, and why it is in our best interest to keep control of fighting game tournaments in the hands of the FGC.
The FGC is unique in competitive gaming in many ways. Inkblot touched on a very important–primal even–part of the FGC culture: the Arcade. The way arcades work in relation to fighting games is very simple; the winner plays, the loser pays. What this means in practical terms is that it doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter who your opponent is. It doesn’t matter where you are from, who your family is, or what kind of background you have. All that matters is you have a quarter in your pocket that says you are better than they are.
I know that quarter doesn’t seem like a lot, but it really was. It wasn’t just the 25 cents. It was also the act of putting that coin on a cabinet (to get in line, for those who don’t know) in front of a somewhat hostile room. It was also that adrenaline rush you got putting that first quarter of day in. It was part of working your way up the ranks in the local scene, going from another random scrub to one of the guys people said “sup” to when you showed up. It was the difference between staying on the machine to play the next challenger and having to do the walk of shame back to the token machine to get in “just one more game, then I’m out.” Hell, I still have tokens from my old local arcade as keepsakes, more than 10 years after it closed down.
The only thing we really had in common was the love of competition, the idea that somehow that quarter in our pocket was worth more than 25 cents. That one common root was enough to bring a truly unlikely crew of people together. The FGC is one of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse subcultures that exists in modern America. You know those corny community college pamphlets with a bunch of different ethnic groups posing for photos? That is essentially the FGC in a nutshell, only that instead of making forced grins for a camera we are very naturally talking truly glorious amounts of trash to each other. Also, we have joysticks.
The hype that is a Street Fighter tournament would not be possible without these roots. These are roots that run deep. These roots make us what we are, a community.
One of the single biggest differences between the FGC and “eSports” leagues such as MLG is that, to put it simply, the FGC is a community, while the MLG is brand. This very important distinction means both the way we operate and our goals are often not the same. For example, the eSports leagues seek to add value to their brands by incorporating already popular games to a tournament series. It then markets players as athletes in an eSports arena, some of whom get well compensated for their successes. The games themselves don’t really matter to the leagues. They just need to be popular enough to bring in revenue; competitive merit is a secondary consideration. With the exception of Starcraft 2 and Tekken 6, none of the games featured in these leagues have been the top of the genre competitively, only in popularly or perceived marketability.
The way their model works is that when games no longer provide the needed numbers, they are dropped by the league. This is because the focus of the leagues is not the games in particular, just “eSports” in the broad sense and the league’s branding in a more narrow sense. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. In general, it’s fine really. It gives a lot of games that don’t have existing tournament infrastructures a shot at their 15 minutes. Good times are had, people get paid, they move on. Maybe if a game is really huge it will even stay around until it is replaced by its sequel. Starcraft 2 will mostly be an example of this. In general though, games that are dropped are replaced by something entirely unrelated.
The only thing eSports leagues getting in the game did for the FGC as a whole was give us a lot of laughs when DOA was picked up as a tournament game. Thanks guys, those jokes are still funny today. We couldn’t have done it without you. Oh and some Tekken players got paid as well. That’s cool too. Until Tekken was dropped, that is.
Why This Model Doesn’t Work for the FGC
The big thing the eSports leagues don’t really “get” about the FGC is that we are, in fact, a community. Not a brand, a community. Although we do naturally have financial considerations ourselves, games that make the cut for our tournaments are there because of the interest in the community, not the ad shares of the streams or the anticipated value the game will add to the brand. They are there because even though arcades aren’t a viable venue any longer, we still have our quarters ready. Similarly, our goals are different. While eSports leagues are interested in developing the value of their brands, the FGC is interested in expanding the FGC. Though clearly adding the Street Fighter community to eSports would add value to their brands, it actually would have a negative effect on community growth. Why?
eSports league tournament play doesn’t really lend itself to the FGC for a number of reasons. Firstly, a space or two for fighting games really isn’t enough for us. At most FGC majors we showcase four or more main games, plus give space to other, lesser-known games in order to help foster community growth. Any fighting game presence in eSports leagues would very much be a downgrade to an actual major. Games played in the FGC have a much more organic life cycle than in eSports leagues. We play them competitively until the competitive scene moves on, not until the ad revenue moves on. Thus eSports leagues would add an external and unwanted influence to tournament life cycles. Moreover, when our games are dropped from the lineup, we’re the ones left picking up the pieces.
Perhaps most importantly, the very model of eSports is more or less to throw a bunch of different, unrelated types of games together in one setting. Although this indeed serves goal of expanding the value of eSports brands, the jury is still out on whether this is actually a good thing for the game communities themselves. We often hear the claim from the eSports camp that we “all need to work together in order to take it to the next level.” This might well help eSports leagues take their brand names to the next level, but all the average member of the FGC will see is diluted, lower quality fighting game tournaments operated by people who put the needs of their brand over the needs of our community. Oh, and more Halo.
The Next Level?
Let’s say for a second that the FGC decides to embrace the eSports model. Suppose that we join up. What does “The Next Level” really mean for us? As far as what the eSports leagues can offer currently, it would simply mean a short-term increase in income for a minority of the community. With the growth focus being that of the league brand and not the FGC as a whole, the long-term benefit the FGC would gain is unclear at best.
There are promises of an increased player base due to “cross-pollination” and similar promises of increased stream viewers. These promises are largely unsubstantiated. Take MLG’s game lineup for example. Aside from perhaps SC2, their lineup is not something many members of the FGC actually find competitively interesting. Perhaps more importantly, in the case of SC2, we really don’t need an eSports league to know the game has competitive depth. In the same sense, people who are interested in fighting games really don’t need eSports to push them that way; most gamers have already learned to use Google at some point in their gaming careers.
As far as streams, our streams do great already. We don’t need eSports leagues to promote them for us. Furthermore, sharing our stream time with other, unrelated games makes no sense for us. We already know that most SC2 viewers find having to share stream time with fighting games to be an annoyance at best. I don’t blame them. The FGC doesn’t want to see a switch to SC2 matches mid tournament either. Many of us barely tolerate watching other fighting games we aren’t interested in, trying to suffer through a Halo match is simply an affront to our senses. The idea that eSports leagues push that people who are interested in one competitive game are interested in competitive gaming as a whole is fundamentally flawed. It’s fascinating to me that leagues that call themselves “eSports” don’t understand sports well enough to know that basketball fans don’t all want to watch soccer.
So with long-term benefits unclear, what does the FGC stand to lose by signing up with eSports leagues?
Make Room for “Progress”
The FGC already has a very busy tournament schedule. What’s turned into the Evo season has more or less a major every weekend. At any given week, there are tournaments somewhere ranging in scale from small locals to huge majors. There simply isn’t even room in the market for eSports leagues to get involved without displacing current tournament organizers. Most of the ones that will end up losing out are smaller tournaments. While the gentlemen who interviewed Inkblot the other day seem to view this as progress, this is actually a bad thing for local Street Fighter communities as well as the national community as a whole.
Fighting game players don’t start their careers by winning Evo. Having small tournaments as well as large tournaments fosters community growth in the sense that it gives newer players a place to enter the scene and develop in. Displacing these tournaments removes this outlet of community growth, especially since eSports leagues intend on adding tournament caps. It also hurts grassroots tournament directors, whom–unlike the eSports leagues–are actually members of the FGC.
The FGC would also be handing control of national tournaments to people who, again, are not parts of the community. They don’t understand our needs, our culture, our games, or anything that has made us the longest standing competitive video game culture in the world. The fact that the gentleman interviewing Inkblot the other day genuinely didn’t understand how Street Fighter and Tekken are different demonstrates the ignorance the eSports leagues have of our community. If someone who doesn’t know how to turn on an oven tries to write a cookbook, the end result will not be palatable.
On top of all of this, the CEO of MLG, Sundance DiGiovanni, indeed confirmed we would have to compromise to be involved in league play. These compromises will mean everything from entrance caps to game selection. So, the end result will be the FGC giving away industry control to have smaller, capped tournaments with fewer fighting games. To put it into arcade terminology, if the eSports leagues had it their way, we would get less for our quarters than we get now. We would also be giving our quarters to outsiders whom expect us to like this arrangement.
Getting involved with the eSports leagues means directly losing creative control and leadership positions to those outside of the community. Though we know it would directly hurt many in the scene, the long-term benefits for the FGC in this arrangement remain unclear. Naturally, many of us are rather skeptical that this is actually a good move for us. The interviewers from vvv’s Loser Bracket the other night said something to the effect of ‘it sounds like he’s [ inkblot ] trying to defend his turf.’ From the perspective of an average tourney-goer, I need to make my thoughts really clear on this: damn right he is. He ought to be.
The FGC as it stands today is the culmination of decades of hard work from players and tournament organizers. The community worked hard to make things what it is today, often times with virtually no commercial support, or even new game releases. We had it rough for a long time, but we still loved it. Flash-forward to present day, the FGC starts hearing rumbling from the eSports camp, to paraphrase, ‘we just want to make sure you players are getting payed right.’ Let me ask you a question: why now? Why were you not trying to help our players earn more before?
Try as you might to patronize us under a guise of altruism, those of us who have been around long enough know well enough that you are currently trying to work your way into our community as you see the success we have made for ourselves. Though you are ignorant of what makes them special or how to market them properly, you see adding fighting games to your leagues as a surefire way to improve the value of your brand. I can’t really blame you; improving the worth of a company without actually doing any of the work is a tried and true business practice. The problem is, your goals and ours are not the same. What you would have to do to fighting games to make them work for you would be inherently damaging to not only our community as a whole, but the tournament organizers who were there for us when no one else was.
This is most definitely our turf and we absolutely need to defend it. Our turf is one of most worthy of defending not only in competitive gaming, but in broader sense of American subcultures. One of the many things the eSports leagues don’t understand about us is that we didn’t get to where we are now–both as players and as a community–by backing away from fights. We absolutely should not allow them to simply walk in and steal our quarters.
Vote With Your Quarters
This goes back to our friend from the beginning that got this all started in my mind, the Madcatz TE: MLG edition. I mentioned that I was confused and angry by its presence in the market. I was confused as, to put it bluntly, the MLG has very little to do with the FGC and absolutely nothing to do with the Street Fighter community. Seeing MLG on an arcade stick makes about as much sense as seeing Jiff peanut butter on a Madcatz TE (and just for the record, I really enjoy peanut butter). I was also angry. Why? What we have here is an example of an eSports league that has never done anything for the Street Fighter community, trying to take our quarters.
The eSports leagues wants us to let them into the market, to let the scene vote with its wallet. What they don’t realize is that we’ve been voting with our quarters for decades now. We’ve voted on one arcade over another; one game over another; one tournament director over another. Many of us voted on this particular issue even before “eSports” was a buzzword. Now more than ever, we need to continue voting with our quarters.
In closing, I’d like to implore you to continue using your quarters to support the FGC. Support your local tournament organizers. Travel when you can. Buy SRK premium. Buy Ponder a beer. Whatever! Just do what you can to support the community that supports you. As you’ve seen of the last few years, we don’t need eSports leagues “help” to develop our tournaments, our scene, or our culture. Likewise, as long as eSports leagues keep up their aggressive posturing, I also strongly advise you to similarly vote with your quarters. Don’t buy those MLG sticks. Don’t buy their T-Shirts. Don’t watch their streams. Don’t attend their events. Despite what they say, they are not here to support us. They are here to profit from our hard work.
To the eSports leagues, you do realize you just picked a fight with a community that has the word “fighting” in their name, right?