When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong – “You’re Biting the Hand That Feeds”

As a youngster, I was all over TestYourMight.com. The FGC is full of characters, and forums were the ultimate haven for loud personalities to shine, thanks to the anonymity of the internet. But this kind of digital autobahn isn’t for everyone, and tempers can flare even under the most innocuous of circumstances. Some of the bolder individuals in the community may even go so far as to engage in flame wars, under the guise of “keeping it real.” While this is all well and good, there is a time and a place to engage in a war of words with geeks on a forum.

definitely don’t recommend keeping it real if you happen to be a member of the team running the majority of large scale tournaments for the community.

Back in the dizzay (The dizzay is roughly 2014, just for reference), the NRS scene had grown a bit, but was still pretty small. I wanna say that the NEC 2013 tournament in Philadelphia was the biggest tournament we had that wasn’t Evo, with a whopping 127 entrants. And that was an anomaly! So, needless to say, we weren’t headlining any tournaments.

One thing that hasn’t really changed since then is how much of an imbalance there was in the location of the various NRS scenes across the country. My local Arizona scene was very, very small, and California was a 6 hour drive away to hold casuals with a slightly bigger group, although no less talented; Injustice 2 Pro Series finalists George “Nubcakes” Silva, Rogue’s Frank “Slayer” Perales, and Echo Fox’s Jivan “Theo” Karapetian were three of their regular players. Aside from another small holdout in the Washington area, the western part of the country was pretty sparse when it came to bumping NRS hubs.

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Super Arcade, the now defunct Walnut, CA based arcade where the California players held tournaments. It wasn’t much bigger than what you see here.

Everyone knew that if you wanted to play NRS games seriously, you had better luck back East. The Midwest had a few big scenes, but was not quite as populated as the New England, Atlanta, and MD/VA areas. There were a lot more major tournaments out there, and they were all within a reasonable driving distance. Over on the West side, we had the excellent SoCal Regionals, the small but fun Northwest Majors, and little else besides Evo, which wasn’t really ours to begin with. At least six major tournaments a year were held in the East, and most of them were co-ran by a group known as Kombat Network.

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E-Sports posing before it was cool! From L to R, front row: Miguel “Darth Arma” Perez, Matthew “Shock” Luongo, Ray Riazy. Back row: Mike “MikeMetroid” Riazy, “Frantastic”, Unknown

Matthew “Shock” Luongo founded Kombat Network after a 10 year stint hosting various small tournaments for Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 in the Northeast. Mr. Luongo sincerely believes that his efforts formed the bedrock for the modern scene, as he told now defunct website Jemmillion.com back in 2014:

“…there wasn’t always a place for MK games at tournaments. There was a huge effort to gain favor and have MK literally ‘allowed; and respected. The game that did was UMK3. Without the roots of the 2D scene, MK9 probably would have been a whisper in the wind, having but a cup of coffee at ECT that year, maybe hitting EVO with a low turnout, and never to be heard from again…MK9 came about and cemented itself in the NRS brand as a game that players were willing to travel for, and with this, a new spark of life into the scene that capitalized on the foundation of the 2D games. The whole thing can really be described as a snowball effect.”

Due to his long stint as a streamer for many of the Northeastern based tournaments and his roots in the early online scene for Netherrealm (Then Midway)’s games, he is often dubbed “The Godfather.” Whether he is Michael or Vito, I have no clue, but needless to say, Kombat Network has earned a dedicated following amongst the NRS scene, as well as the trust of most of the Northeast tournament organizers when it comes to taking care of the games they choose to run and stream.

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Shock about to slap the piss out of MikeMetroid for not acting like a man

Now, up until 2014, there had definitely been some rumblings and grumblings in the bowels of TYM about Kombat Network. At the time, becoming a premium member of TYM was a $10 charge that went directly to Kombat Network for “enhancing tournament viewing experience,” but therein lied the issue: there were multiple times where the stream for the tournament went kaput, and the viewers at home were left out to dry. Despite promises and promises of doing better next time, there always seemed to be some sort of issue with the streaming. And that was usually just the icing on the cake; bracket issues and some odd shifting of favored players always seem to creep up at their events as well.

To give Shock some credit, a lot of these are systemic issues with the tournaments in what I like to call the “Good ‘ol Boy Network.” These are guys who have been running tournaments since the early 2000’s and have genuinely done a lot to help establish big tournament scenes for lots of games. But many times these events often seem as if they are preserved in amber, a throwback to a bygone era when people weren’t shelling out top dollar to go to these events. Poor planning, wonky execution, and lack of communication are all problems that have been reported consistently year after year after year. I myself went to Final Round 2012 and found it to be a slog, with Mortal Kombat scheduled for all day Sunday with no breaks and no help from the staff. Not even the mighty Capcom games are safe from this type of scrutiny. And that’s just the incidents people talk about; long has it been an unwritten rule that these tournaments shouldn’t be criticized in public. I’m not entirely sure why, since nothing seemed to change all that much despite the negative press, but, then again, I’m not Illuminati enough to know.

The worst part is that the event organizers’ response to criticism seems to center a lot on “you don’t know what I’ve done for this community,” which doesn’t hold much weight when people are discussing the present. No one doesn’t respect these guys for doing what is an insanely difficult, thankless job, but at the same time, when other events across the country have seen tremendous jumps in organization and PR work, those old excuses don’t really fly anymore. This inability to take criticism leads us back to KN.

Final Round 2014 was a pretty poor tournament for the NRS scene. This particular year, bracket issues ran amuck, with the staff choosing to condense 16 pools of players down to 8 on the morning of the tournament, throwing out any and all previous brackets. It’s not unnatural for a brackets to shift slightly upon the day of a tournament, but this was a massive switch, and it lead to chaos. Pool times changed, seeding was thrown out of whack, and pools ran extremely late due to all the delays in trying to reseed the brackets. Reports of players being added in despite missing the time to register were rampant; since Final Round was old-school and ran largely on paper brackets, this slipped by the tournament organizers. Worse still, no one seemed to be able to tell who was in charge, as event organizer Larry “ShinBlanka” Dixon would tell some players that Shock was in charge, and Mr. Luongo would tell them the opposite. The reasoning for the bracket collapse wasn’t even known until long after the tournament had ended. At one point it was propositioned to reseed once the tournament had been condensed to 32 players, but this was met with heavy criticism – reseeding after the fact is a controversial tactic, one that would get the East Coast Throwdown tournament in major trouble with Capcom later that year.

Twitter and TestYourMight.com were lit up with players complaining about the event, and even the folks at home were mad because, as was a sad commonplace, there were a host of stream issues. The tournament finished, but the event already had a massive black cloud over its head, and it was about to get darker.

Hot takes came quick: a player by the name of Legion made a thread detailing his grievances with the tournament, including criticism of the staff for allegedly doing little to help the tournament along. When confronted with this, staff member and Kombat Network affiliate “Frantastic” took it rather well…

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Like zoinks, Scoob!

…or not. To Fran’s credit, he did apologize later in the thread, but this was not the greatest opening salvo. At this point, Mr. Luongo could have reeled in his clearly tired and frustrated staff, hunker down for a day or two, then release a simple statement acknowledging that there were some issues that were above their heads but they tried their hardest to run a decent tournament. Instead, Shock decided to keep it real (Sorry Chappelle’s Show, I stole your bit!)

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And it was going so well!

As you can imagine, this snipe at the end lead into a holy clusterfuck of flaming and name-calling. The main war seemed to center around Shock and KN vs. Brant “PigoftheHut” McCaskill and Steve “16 Bit” Brownback, who were definitely two of the louder voices in the community at the time. Not too long afterwards, a video was released by Brant, containing screenshots of a long PM between McCaskill, Brownback, Luongo, and several other KN affiliates as well as Mr. Dixon, the Final Round TO, and Eric “BigE” Small, who was the other big name in tournaments in the Northeast. The video has since been deleted, but it did include the usual ALL CAPS, auto-correct ranting McCaskill was known for, as well as some more shit talk from Shock, including the threat that he’d pick the game up and beat them so they would just shut up about pools.

This feud continued to get uglier, mostly carried on by McCaskill and Luongo, who both took swipes at each other every time an event concluded. It all came to a head when rumors began to swirl that McCaskill and Brownback (who had long been radio silent) were not going to be welcome at any tournament that Mr. Small or Mr. Dixon were overseeing. I myself made a thread, pleading for some kind of sanity to be brought to the discussions so things could move on. The supposed ban never actually occurred, but boy did my thread get some heat from Kombat Network allies.

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Geez, Mr. Aqua, tell me how you really feel!

The loudest defender, however, was definitely Ray Riazy. Riazy was a KN guy who helped to run brackets at most of their events, and was very frosty toward anyone suggesting KN-run events weren’t on the up and up. After an eye-rolling jab from Mr. Brownback about East Coast tournaments not doing much about last minute registrants, Riazy came into the thread to try and defend the last tournament that had been run there. When given the facts about the small turnout, he got defensive quick.

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Ouchies…

This would later spill onto “The On Blast Show,” a video podcast dedicated to…well, I’m not sure really. I just know a lot of old people yelled a lot, but I digress. Brownback, known for his passionate, cuss-filled outburts, was in a rare state of calmness as he addressed what he felt were systemic issues with KN and East Coast tournaments. He and Riazy had a pleasant conversation, but it turned sour when it was clear that Brownback was not going to assuage and apologize to KN. Riazy warned him that he was “biting the hand that feeds,” which was so ridiculous that it pretty much halted the conversation full stop. Some yelling ensued, and any potential peace talks were officially dead.

Ray did get the last word, telling Mr. Brownback to “fuck his rights [as a customer to complain],” and to “Keep [Ray’s] name out of your mouth and stop being an asshole.”

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Mr. Riazy was never one to be shy about his feelings.

This happy horseshit continued for a few more months, with no attempts to bridge the gap even landing on the discussion table. It eventually got to a point where several members of the site (a few of them KN members) pledged they were going to do things “For a better TYM. For a better community.” Reading between the lines, it meant that we, as a community, were going to no longer be beholden to the ruinous acts of “diva” top players, I guess? It was easy to miss underneath all the more visible, pretentious layers. This short-lived era would come to be known as the “Red Fist Avatar” era. Why? DM me, explaining it more would hurt my brain.

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Believe me: I, too, wish this were a joke.

With the release of Mortal Kombat X, everything kind of reset back to normal. With MKX came bigger support than ever from Netherrealm Studios, which meant that the squabbles of streamers and players became secondary to a whole lot of cash on the line. Kombat Network still runs events that aren’t specifically part of Netherrealm’s E-Sports tours, and it seems to be doing pretty well. Even now, they can be seen re-streaming past events on their channel, a little bonus for all their subscribers.

To say this could have been avoided was an understatement. When an event goes bad, most big time TO’s are willing and able to take the blame for the event and release a nice, milquetoast statement promising better things in the future (as seen by “ShinBlanka” here after a disastrous 2016 event). It makes sense to be defensive of a project built from passion, but Matt Luongo and co. really went out of their way to stoop to the level of the players criticizing them, without admitting that perhaps the event wasn’t that great. Not only that, their actions afterwards lived up to the “biting the hand that feeds” mentality that Ray Riazy spoke of, which is a really poor way of looking at things, especially when people are paying lots of money to go to your event and it doesn’t go so well.

On the other hand, many of the NRS players doing the critiquing weren’t capable of the kind of tact required for such a conversation. Mr. McCaskill, as already noted in a previous blog post, has a history of going into fire and brimstone-laden responses only to significantly backpedal when he calms down, which doesn’t do much to help the situation. Releasing a video of a private conversation, although entertaining in its ridiculousness, was like pouring scalding water onto Greek fire. They had a right to be pissed off and frustrated with how they were being treated, but their insistence on dragging the fight out did not make for an easy resolution.

As I said before, there is a time and place to keep it real. When an injustice has been committed, staying silent helps no one, and trying to silence the whistle-blowers is even less effective. Unfortunately, as history has shown, the arcade origins of competitive fighting games means that there is sort of an inherent need to constantly prolong and encourage conflict rather than resolve it. Releasing videos of private messages in an attempt at vindication and telling those critical of the event to go “shit in [their] hats” is definitely keeping it real, but I can’t say it goes very far in fostering a positive community. This was, without a shadow of a doubt, when keeping it real went wrong.

If you liked this blog, please consider subscribing, as I try to have at least one of these out every week. Aside from “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong,” I also do series like “Loose Screws,” where I examine current FGC trends and behaviors that are silly, as well as “Money for Nothing,” where I look at big money FGC events that turned out to be a sham. Thanks again for reading to the end of this opus, I’ll try to tone it down next time. Hope everyone has a week!

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