Fuudo for Thought – How We Judge Skill in Fighting Games

I’m not a huge fan of most professional sports – not for any particular reason, it’s just not something I’m truly captivated by. However, as one of my main hobbies, video games, begins to circle more and more toward partly being a professional sport with big money players pouring in a bunch of time and cash, I can’t help but make comparisons. One of the things I’m most interested in is the idea of how pro sports determine what is considered “skillfull” in their particular game, because it’s a mess in fighting games.

Like most sports, the competitive scene for fighters has greatly evolved, largely due to external factors. Players can communicate in many more ways than before, and the tools we use to communicate are also vastly improved: we can now easily use our consoles to upload video in order to show off concepts, we can use voice chatting apps on our phones to talk with large groups of other players in order to share strategies, and best of all, that information is all publicly available. With all of those different avenues opening up, it is certainly not a hot take to say that the average player in today’s FGC is probably much more skillful than the average player ten years ago and that the games themselves reach their competitive peak much, much earlier.

Or so you’d think, because I still run into tweets like this all the time:

https://twitter.com/Frabisaur/status/970405174350155776

To be fair, this is not an exclusive thing to the FGC by any means. It is incredibly common for both fans and older, retired players of any sport to bemoan the state of the current day by propping up the accomplishments of the older playing fields and saying it was better. I’ve really noticed this phenomenon when it comes to the modern day NBA team the Golden State Warriors, who receive subtle and not-so-subtle jabs all the time at their skills, even though some pundits are willing to go so far as to call it the greatest amount of talent ever assembled for a basketball team.

You’ll notice in both the NBA-related links and the tweet I posted, there’s concerns of “low effort” in the play, which mean something is wrong. I’ll extrapolate that and say that much of the hand wringing on the FGC side seems to be over how the modern day games lack strong “fundamental” play. Because the strategies now have degenerated into “low effort,” the art of the “fundamentals-based player” is now a thing of the past, meaning the newest games are now havens for less skilled players to run buckwild and, as the tweet mentions, get consistent results. Street Fighter V, in particular, gets smashed for this so often on a regular basis that it’s almost hard not to find people saying the game is “random” and doesn’t reward skills or fundamentals, like it’s just a bunch of flailing and hoping.

smash bros
Street Fighter V, according to the average competitive player

The inherent problem with the discourse is that what we consider “strong, fundamental play” all revolves around one particular style of fighting game, which poisons the discussion, in my opinion. Unlike many pro sports with hundreds of years of activity, competitive fighting games as we know them have really only been in existence for about 30 years, give or take. Worse, some of those early fighters such as Karate Champ, Yie Ar Kung-Fu or even the original Street Fighter are the equivalent of the peach basket hoops and soccer balls in early basketball; they were a nice start but proved to be a little too primitive when it came to actually competing head-to-head.

If we count down from the release of Street Fighter II: World Warrior, then we get the more likely number of 27 years. Despite the rapidly changing technological world of the late 90’s and mid aughts, 27 years isn’t a whole lot of time for a competitive community to develop and mature, and I think it shows in the compromised discourse around “fundamentals,” which tends to take a very obvious slant towards the mecca, Street Fighter 2. I believe this to be primarily because most players’ introduction to high level fighting games comes from a couple of sources that I think get taken the wrong way.

I’m about to put two sacred FGC texts’ feet toward the fire, but I’d like to state for the record that I was (and am!) a fan of both, having read them numerous times over the years. The authors of these texts had good intentions in mind, and aren’t responsible for the cult-like zealotry with which its fans cite their words. One of them even says right on the tin that it’s a “Street Fighter” handbook, and the author mentions in the comments that a player could take some of the information presented as an introduction to other games, but not all. But I’m digressing.

Let’s talk about The Footsies Handbook and Domination 101

Seth_killian_switches_capcom_for_sony_santa_monica
Domination 101 author Seth Killian, demonstrating the way which he plays. Despite rumors, it has not been confirmed to be a mutant ability

First, let’s examine the Footsies Handbook. This was an attempt by a community member/player, in this case Maj, to try and break down the thought process of top fighting game players for a casual audience. Specifically, Maj focuses on footsies, which he defines as the “mid-range ground-based aspect of fighting game strategy.”

And I have to say, it really is something. Simple, easy to understand language combined with timestamped video links and short article length make it really palatable to even a novice player. Not only that, but Maj is still relatively active on the site and will respond in the comments section of each article with more specifics on what he was trying to communicate. Maj may be known for his rad combo videos, but to me, this is his magnum opus. I myself learned about these strategies primarily from this guide, and I remember waiting with baited breath every time Maj would post a strategy article, eager to soak up the knowledge contained within.

I don’t really have a problem with any of the content itself, moreso just that I think a lot of people seem to believe the whole of the guide is universal, when even Maj himself states throughout that it’s mainly exploring the strategies of the older SF games. For that purpose, it’s fantastic, but I don’t think everything in the articles applies to every fighter, and that’s okay! But a lot of people in non SF communities are linked this, and it leads to them thinking that if every concept doesn’t apply then the game isn’t really fundamentally sound. Ergh.

Let’s pivot now to Domination 101, a series of articles written in the early 2000’s by one Seth Killian. A player since the early days in the arcade, Seth was a talented player who had the privilege of playing at a high level around the same time that many FGC stalwarts were playing, including some that are still around today. Seth has long since retired to pursue various roles in the video game industry, most notably as the onetime community manager for Capcom USA as well as the creator of the free-to-play PC fighter Rising Thunder. Seth’s legacy undoubtedly lives on in these articles, which are often cited and quoted amongst competitive players as one might reference Dickensian literature for English class.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m a fan of Seth’s articles because I believe a lot of the concepts he explores with regards to the mentality of how to play fighters is really strong stuff that is still relevant today! So my nitpick moreso has to do with a couple of the articles, 2D vs. 3D and 2D vs. 3D: Seth Responds! 

In these pieces, Killian explains his preference for 2D styled games such as Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom 2 over fighters that take place on a 3D plane like Virtua Fighter or Tekken, using the existence of the fireball as his thesis. He starts by pondering why 2D games have remained “superior” over the years, which I think sets up the overall mood of the piece. Later on he praises the up-close aspects of 3D fighters as compelling, but bemoans the “collapse” of the metagame when the characters on screen are anywhere other than touching distance. The term “flatness” is used to denigrate Street Fighter III, which is pretty funny to see today, considering what people currently think of SFIII as a high level fighter. In the end of the first article, Seth states his opinion that “chaining and rushdowns,” as featured in the Vs. series, aren’t the “most (strategic)” or “involved” part of a fighting game.

The follow-up piece doubles down on the earlier talking points. 3D games, in Killian’s view, focus “more on the moment,” which means “more dramatic comebacks,” but ultimately “the format is less able to support the deepest kinds of strategy.” The conclusion Seth comes to is that there must be some way to combine the different depths hidden in 3D fighters and 2D fighters, but the only way that can happen is if players of both start to compare the two vastly different games and find their common ground. If they added a fireball, those 3D games would finally find the deepest kinds of strategy, as seen below.

I kid, I kid!

 

 

Kinda.

Obviously, my problem with Seth’s articles is that they do a lot of writing off of non-SF strategy as “inferior” or not as deep, which isn’t so bad in a vacuum, but combined with the aggressive tone of the article, I think it perpetuates the idea that SF, by nature, is just superior. Full stop. I have seen many people, normally very reassured and calm about playing SF, turn into real blowhards when discussing any other game where the strategy goes against common SF knowledge. Seth may have not intended for that tone (in fact, he’s pretty much stated that to be the case) but I feel that these articles have been so deified that they tend to be used as confirmation bias for those blowhards because it states what they already know: SF is the most pure type of fighting game that rewards the most pure skill.

That leads to my final conclusion that, for as often as these two series of articles are shared, they are rarely seen as examples of one style of game; instead, they are seen as what fighing games should aspire to. When people use the term “footsies” or “fundamentals,” you can almost always find that their line of thinking can be traced back to the concepts explored by Seth and Maj, which always have that slant towards Street Fighter 2 and Street Fighter 2-adjacent titles like Capcom vs. SNK 2. There’s nothing wrong with having a preference, since it’s just an opinion, but most people, again, don’t see it as a preferential choice, they see it as the choice. That line of thinking leads to a heavy othering of the non SF fighting game out there.

In the years I’ve spent playing NRS titles, the one thing you have to fight with most is the exceedingly common notion that the games are trash because they “lack footsies,” or they don’t “reward fundamentals.” If you start an argument with these clowns, inevitably Domination 101 or the Footsies Handbook will get linked, and then it all makes sense. If a fighting game operates differently than some of the concepts explored in those articles, then it’s othered, usually in a very negative way.

rock em sock em
A horrified Street Fighter player watching NRS games

Tying it all back to legacy, it’s this othering of the depth/perception of depth of other fighting games that heavily skews history toward the players who were really strong at Street Fighter and Street Fighter-adjacent games. Now there is the very credible argument that the reason SF players are held in such high regard is because the competition is so vast, and that I can definitely see; after all, we hold the NBA in higher regard then a game of pickup ball on a street court. It should stand to reason that emerging as the champion over 2000 other high level players in one game is more impressive than beating 500 in another, but does that mean the game with 500 players is now less skillful?

Would the average FGC player ever list people like Bronson “Insanelee” Tran, a Tekken legend, or Kenichi Ogawa, Guilty Gear god, as some of the all time greatest? Or think of Hiromoki “Itabashi Zangief” Kumada or Keita “Fuudo” Ai as anything other than great SF players, ignoring their extensive history as being extremely strong at Virtua Fighter? And that goes for other fighting games with long histories like King of Fighters, or Vampire Savior, or Dead or Alive. Even worse, the same attitudes lead to this weird thing where, in order to attract people, players of these “lesser” games will thump their chest about their game having “fundamental play,” or that “footsies are back,” or some weird buzzword that plays to that bullshit about modern games lacking truly skillful play. King of Fighters and, to a lesser extent, Guilty Gear suffer from this, where the need to prove that its harder to play as opposed to these baby-mode games becomes an insufferable talking point whenever new players show an interest. It all stems back to that othering that happens.

flow chart
This was made specifically for SF4, but it’s really a microcosm of what people think modern day play is like

Keep in mind that I’m not saying you can’t have your own preference or opinions. If you  think, say, Injustice 2 is dogshit compared to Guilty Gear Xrd, I can’t stop you from thinking that! But I think to posit that Injustice 2 lacks these mythical “fundamentals” as the reason for its inferiority is absurd and ignorant, because it means you’re now gatekeeping the idea of being skillful at fighting games to some meaningless standard, which no sport worth its salt would do. Soccer and Basketball have very different rules, but it still involves using teamwork to move a ball down a court into a net. Do the differences between them make one horseshit at a high level and the other not? Obviously not, so why do we say so in the FGC? Tribalism is cool and all, but it’s probably time to grow up.

And I know the counter argument. People would say that it’s not that the strategies change, it’s that the modern day fighting game is fundamentally broken, as if you could play basketball with a ball that had a 100% chance to score if shot from halfcourt. Bullshit, I say. Video games when played at a competitive level are very often broken, using strategies that were never considered in the first place to establish a metagame of the players’ creation. When basketball established the three point shot, I’m sure people belly-ached then that it broke the rules, but guess what? People developed new strategies around that. If you don’t like it, that’s fine, but to say that there’s no skill in a newer fighting game because it messes with some of the “rules” that exist in your head is dumb.

Whew, I better stop while I’m ahead. If you made it the end, congratulations! I’m quite positive this is the longest article I’ve written, and believe me I had no intention of doing that. I generally think that most level headed people can read those great Domination 101 and Footsies Handbook articles and take them for what they are, but as Seth pointed out, it’s the loudmouths that can ruin it. Thanks so much for taking the time to read, and until next time, adios!

 

 

 

 

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