This is a question I ask myself a lot, and I phrase it this way. I think it’s important to note the phrasing. I don’t say “Why do people play fighting games” or “Why do I play fighting games”. It’s the competitive gameplayers as a collective unit that I am trying to figure out. What is it that keeps us playing these games, despitethe lack of recognition(and sometimes rebuke) carried with it?
The hard thing about answering these kinds of questions is that I have to do it in a way which is universal, and yet, I only have my own experiences (and observations of others) to draw from. And I’m not the best arbitrer either; as a player who doesn’t win tournaments and doesn’t exhibit much in the way of outside social forces. However, I am still part of the whole, so my own experiences can be useful in answering this question.
I play fighting games because it appeals to my ideals and dreams: to be able to fight without risking your body to harm. The fighter characters don’t die, even when they lose. They may appear to (ie. Mortal Kombat) but they’re back to fight again should the user choose to use that character. This also carries down to the players themselves. If I lose to a player that is better than me, I don’t forefeit my life and I have the opportunity to play (and learn from) him again.
It’s also a place where ability matters, and not connections. In a world where a complete idiot can become President of the United States just because his last name is Bush, Street Fighter offers a place where people are judged strictly on their own ability to handle the game and other opponents.
SF’s lack of outside appeal is also, ironically, an attraction for me, as is with I’m sure many other players. Alex Valle, Justin Wong and Daigo Umehara are stellar names within the community, but outside they’re just another guy on the street. I think this is an attraction because in this day and age, people are fully aware of just the kind of stress that worldwide (or even just national) fame implies. People relish the idea that they can be famous only with people that understand what they are doing, and not among strangers.
There’s an air of mystery around champions. People aren’t really sure what they do and when they vanish from the scene, there’s uncertainty as to their fate. Sometimes their names are forgotten and only the old guard remembers them. This kind of mystique is highly attractive to a secretive person such as myself.
What drives people to get together every year for tournaments like Evo? I think it’s vindication. We want to know that we’re not alone in what we’re doing. It’s hard to be your own coach, and the size of the tournament makes us feel comfortable in our sbuculture.
I guess it also does appeal to those who consider themselves to be tactical fighting experts but don’t have the body (or the courage) to actually fight. These would-be generals need a sense of direction and a belief that they alone can improve themselves. Such an attitude, however, misses the forest for the trees.
They don’t think about the time they cherish so much when losing meant death (and, depending on what you believed in, ceasing to exist). With all the fuss and bother about people dying in the streets for no reason at all, the SF battlefield is a relatively graceful arena to participate in. It’s extremely rare that a grudge gets beyond heated words, and many a grudge is solely to veil good competitors’ hidden respect for each other (for fear that their friends might consider them “soft” for acknowledging the other).
In short - it’s war and peace at the same time. That’s its appeal.