“…This is the place?”
As our vehicle pulled up to the MegaCenter of the Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, Illinois, which has been the site of the past few Combo Breaker tournaments, I have to admit that my initial reaction was less than enthusiastic. I was attending the event for the first time, and I didn’t know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t this. The PRR is a 250-acre resort that looks as old as it is; the place opened for business in 1963, and its architecture is charmingly stuck in a late 70’s-early 80’s style. It’s a timeshare salesman’s wet dream, the kind of place that my grandparents would whisk me and my brothers to as kids during summer vacation: indoor and outdoor pools, a full golf course, a bunch of restaurants, theaters, and a quaint, WASP-y charm.
Given all that, I just had a real hard time imagining that a fighting game tournament was supposed to be taking place here, let alone one with such an amazing reputation as Combo Breaker.
For me, it’s hard to disassociate fighting game community (FGC) tournaments from very urbanised areas. Whether it was SoCal Regionals and West Coast Warzone in Orange County, California, the Evolution tournament held on the Las Vegas strip, or even the legacy East Coast tournaments like Final Round in Hapeville, Georgia, I got used to a certain experience when I was traveling. The big tournaments are usually held in the ballroom of a regular hotel or in a massive convention center in a densely populated metropolitan area, with expensive food kiosks set up outside the main area and, unless you’re in Vegas, usually not a whole hell of a lot to do aside from getting a set of casuals in the main gaming area (where you can grab space) or in whoever’s hotel room is the hot spot. If you’re not doing that or spectating, you’re probably splitting an Uber or walking to a nearby restaurant or bar with a massive group of tourney goers and hopefully finding some sane way to split the check and leave a generous tip.
St. Charles is certainly in the Chicagoland area and many tourist destinations are within a short distance, but it just didn’t have that feel I had gotten so used to at other tournaments. The resort itself took up a ton of land, and all around were vast stretches of country with nary a sense of metropolitan flare to be found; the only evidence that I was still in a major American county were the Wal-Mart and McDonalds within walking distance. A Culvers across the street (whose sign had a humorous “WELCOME GAMERS” line) and midwest staple Portillo’s were the only other major restaurants in the area, with Portillo’s being the only sit-down restaurant. For the FGC, which is a diverse little sonic boom with dirt on it, the whole area just seemed like a odd culture clash.
Then I stepped inside the MegaCenter.
The journalist Kelefa Sanneh, writing about the history of hardcore punk music, described it as a “double-negative genre: a rebellion against a rebellion.” In a time when many felt that the first wave of punk music had grown soft, the hardcore kids wanted to “out-punk the punks, thereby recapturing the wild promise of the genre.” In many ways, this is the spirit, the blood that runs through Combo Breaker’s veins. No better is this creed captured than in the event’s long-running tagline of “No coast. No kings;” it’s not only timelessly catchy, but also a cheeky callout to the long-established FGC strongholds of the East and West coasts, where the vast majority of the scene’s tournaments and more eSports-oriented opportunities are located. Even for the comparatively small FGC, the Midwest has long been treated as a red-headed stepchild, an area devoid of tournaments, big money, and players that are seen as “marketable” for those eSports opportunities. In two sentences, Combo Breaker takes these indicators of the status-quo and tells them to go screw.
In this era of year-long, publisher-funded competitive tours and an influx of corporations looking to make a quick buck, there’s a lot of pressure for these bigger FGC events to embrace the more mainstream eSports aesthetic and appeal as they grow ever larger to meet demands. Very few tournament organizers are able to operate these days without a significant amount of red in their ledger, so any opportunities to market or brand themselves can help suture that wound. But in becoming a brand name, many of these events start to become bigger than the community that brought them to the table. Evolution, the Super Bowl of the FGC, is an event obsessed with its own legacy; its logo is everywhere from the hundreds of banners and signs plastered around the ballroom to the way the stage is setup, even the lighting rigs are in the shape of the familiar triple diamonds. Recently, the brand moved to Japan, hosting Evo Japan in lockstep with a few Japanese eSports organizations two years in a row. The Arc-System Works title BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle was released with a big sticker on it announcing to the average passerby that it was an Evo title, a choice made long before the game’s actual release.
Similarly, the CEO tournament in Florida has turned its fun niche of having its players compete in a wrestling ring complete with entrances to just having professional wrestling companies be a big part of the event. New Japan Pro Wrestling had a full show on the Friday of the 2018 event featuring its biggest stars, and upstart promotion All Elite Wrestling will be doing the same for the 2019 event. In order to find a more suitable venue to host these shows, CEO moved out of its namesake of Orlando to Daytona, which has had its fair share of baggage. CEO has also lent its name to several spin-off tournaments that host a variety of other games, like CEOtaku for “anime” games and CEO Dreamland, for Super Smash Brothers.
Very hard work on the part of the organizers and staff behind both Evolution and CEO have gone into this staggering growth, but it is noticeable how these changes have done more for the brand than it has for the players attending the events. CEO’s move to Daytona has found many players of color finding themselves discriminated against by the deeply conservative southern city, and Evolution has faced many criticisms related to the actual logistics of how its tournaments have been run in the past few years, particularly for games with smaller followings. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to find more mainstream acceptance, especially for such a niche genre, fighting game fans may find that these tournaments are less focused on the games themselves and more on the atmosphere and the brand itself.
Like those early hardcore musicians, Combo Breaker remembers exactly where it came from, even as it expands.
Make no mistake, Combo Breaker needs the help of corporate sponsors to get to the size it has gotten. Wandering around the resort, one would find large kiosks donated by Samsung and Simple Mobile that would ask for the emails of attendants and in exchange would allow them to charge their phone in a small locker.
At the same time, however, these sponsors do not mean that the players’ experience, and indeed the experience of anyone in attendance, goes to the wayside. I remember looking at the big banners that the event had next to any of its three big stages, which featured the Combo Breaker logo, and noticing that even that conveys its more communal nature. A lot of events will have their name front and center, never letting you forget who the big brand is, with its various sponsors listed on the outside. Combo Breaker’s banner, to me, is unique in that aspect because the event’s name is listed at the very top, in sort of regular size font, with a huge list of all its sponsors, big and small, underneath, almost as if the cooperation of all these sponsors is what is lifting Combo Breaker to become the event it needs to be.
Similarly, the attendee handbook for the event, which came free with admission, is a 48 page tome that is as much a love letter to the genre of fighting games as it is informative about the event itself. Each of the event’s 23 tournaments (!) got an extensive write up from FGC information extraordinaire Steve “Acekingoffsuit” Jurek, with quotes taken from players specific to each game, even the most obscure games like the recently updated SNES game Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters and the oft-forgotten 2.5D Street Fighter EX2 Plus from 1999. Original artwork for all the games is featured by an independent artist, Irene Koh, and in between all the pages are advertisements for indy fighting games like Them’s Fightin’ Herds and Mighty Fight Federation. No game is too small or less important, which isn’t often a consideration of bigger FGC events.
Even back when the tournament was known as the Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament under the helm of Adam “Keits” Heart, a do-it-yourself (DIY) nature pumped the blood of this preeminent Midwest tournament. One of the ways that manifests is in how the event gives full power to even the smallest of fighters. Most tournaments are content with having a large bring-your-own-console (BYOC) area, where players are free to have tournaments for any odd fighting game they want (Unrelated, but Combo Breaker had the BYOC area right next to the indoor pool at the resort, which was an awesome relaxed atmosphere for what is supposed to be a relaxing pastime, but I digress). Some events even take the time to stream some of the BYOC tourneys, and games like Sailor Moon S and the aforementioned Tournament Fighters have been given a shot in the arm because of their dedicated communities. Combo Breaker takes the next step by never making those games feel like they have to be off to the side; as I wandered through the resort, there was a whole other room dedicated to these little oddities, complete with the best possible emulators and its own giant screen.
Its signature event, a carryover from UFGT, is the Mystery Game Tournament, where players compete in a different competitive game every round of the tournament, no matter how bizarre. Any one who was a geeky fan of the genre growing up, like myself, will no doubt find dozens of obscure fighters that they recognize being played, and it can even extend as far as kart racing games and party games. The grand finals this year, for example, was on the original GameBoy port of Street Fighter II. Even as fighting games become more and more polished and are played for big money, Combo Breaker takes the time to make sure that the past is celebrated and given its own time and dedicated streams to show off how far those various communities have been able to push those games.
The DIY spirit doesn’t just extend to the event’s games, however. Combo Breaker has always tried to set itself apart, a philosophy that goes back to UFGT as well, and they do it in a myriad of ways. Combo Breaker was the first event to feature a brand new method for advancing players out of pools, where both players in winners’ finals were moved on from pools in addition to the winner of the losers bracket. Another big innovation was keeping the main area open 24/7, allowing for endless amounts of casuals that don’t need to be confined to the cramped spaces of a hotel room. The 24/7 venue and the “3-out” method has been implemented at other tournaments to great success, and again highlights the team’s dedication to finding a way for the players to have the best experience possible while also being unique in execution.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the event’s aesthetic, as well. I’ve made a lot of comparisons to hardcore music, and I definitely think that is intentional on the part of the organizers. While most tournaments offer merchandise in the form of a graphic tee or a hoodie, Combo Breaker specializes in flannel shirts and bomber jackets that feature more low-key brand recognition. In addition, commercial spots for heavy metal and punk groups aired during stream downtime, in addition to the usual ads for fighting game accessories and companies. The main ballroom also had an open bar, where players could purchase specialty drinks mixed with Red Bull, one of the big sponsors, that all had names specific to fighters. It was hysterically funny and awesome to see an older woman dressed to the nines in a bow tie and vest, looking like she would be tending bar on The Love Boat, ask if someone wanted a “Yellow Roman Cancel” or a “Satsui No Hadou” drink. I can think of no other tournament that has such a specific look to its merchandise, and it creates a coolness and uniqueness that draws eyes to the tournament in a way that no amount of corporate money could.
My final comparison between punk rock and Combo Breaker would be how much the event emphasizes that it is for everyone. I can only speak for myself, but I personally have never seen so many women and children at a fighting game event. I’ve written extensively in the past about how unsafe various FGC spaces can be for anyone that isn’t a straight dude, but Combo Breaker gave me hope that maybe the tide is turning. I’ll give credit again to the event’s unique aesthetic being particularly appealing to those who usually don’t get much love at other events. I know a lot of folks who specialize in playing the more obscure fighters that don’t feel the big events really have much to offer them, but Combo Breaker is such a celebration of fighters that even they can find comfort, especially since they were given an area completely separate from the bigger communities. Like hardcore, which tried (key word) to get back to the roots of a genre almost entirely annexed by straight white men, Combo Breaker has done a lot to ensure that even the smallest groups have representation in games and a safe atmosphere to play in.
This is getting a bit long, but I did want to mention one last aspect of my trip that really got me to remember why the FGC is so awesome, and that is the familial nature that the community can foster. As many times as I complain about what’s been happening in the FGC, it’s only because the inclusivity and the acceptance one can feel just by sharing a hobby is one that I’ve never really felt before, and I feel terrible that some people don’t get to experience that because of superficial, awful reasons. In the foreword to the attendee handbook, Rick “TheHadou” Thiher, the event director of Combo Breaker, wrote that “The comraderie [sic] found amongst fighting game fans is unlike the bonds I’ve found in any other activity,” and this weekend proved that to me without a shadow of a doubt.
A couple months before the event, I asked on Twitter if anyone had any space in their room to share with me. I could have stayed with friends, but I usually like to be at the venue for tournaments, and I wasn’t sure if Arizona people were going to go (they were, I was just dumb). Surprisingly, a Twitter mutual whom I only knew through a few brief interactions on the site immediately let me know that I was more than welcome to stay with him. He explained in a DM that they were probably going to have as much as 6 people, so the cost was going to be rather low, were I interested. I immediately said yes, even though I had absolutely no idea who I was going to be rooming with. A part of me knew, however, that the bond of fighting games would carry me through. And boy did it ever.
At the event, I met up with the Twitter mutual, whose name was Nick or “Lame-o,” and he introduced me to the other folks staying with us: Carter, who went by “Jin,” a guy I only knew as Jeda, a quiet guy named Tony, and another guy I only came to know as “Frosty the Swole Man.” Frosty may be one of the funniest people I’ve ran into, a big man whose loud voice and shittalking ways bely a rather gentle and warm personality. He also definitely lived up to the name; aside from old school scene mainstay Jaha, Frosty was the swolest dude I’ve seen at a tournament in a long time.
For the first day and a half, it was kind of the usual, awkward getting-to-know-you phase, but fighting games really helped bridge the gap. Everyone in the room were players of “anime” games like Under Night in-Birth and Blazblue, and although I have never really played those seriously, I knew enough about them casually to ask some basic questions as I watched them play. Naturally we would get to talking about what I was playing, which was Mortal Kombat 11, and the roles switched; I was now the expert as the other guys could casually talk the game. What’s funny is that even when you don’t know exactly what you’re talking about, talking shit about which character is good and bad, what players are good and bad, etc. is all this funny shared language that makes the awkwardness of not knowing people just evaporate as the weekend goes on.
I’ve talked a lot about what I call the “Good Brotherhood” of the FGC, and this extends past just shooting bullshit about fighters. On Friday morning I had barely slept through a splitting headache probably caused by airplane travel, which prompted me to ask if anybody had any Tylenol. Tony reached into a drawer and pulled out a bag of pills and handed me one, assuring me it was Advil. Seeing as how I didn’t wake up hours later having murdered a local comptroller and exhausted my bank account on booze, I now know it was just a genuine act of kindness. Nick and Carter, making a Wal-Mart run, also picked me up some generic headache medicine as well as a towel. On Saturday night, I brought my friend Stephanie back to the room, where Frosty and Jedah were, watching some streams. Stephanie had recently come out as trans, and this was her first big public event appearing as she wanted to be. Nervous as she was, Frosty and Jedah were both really cool, and even after she left, Frosty asked “I hope I didn’t do nothin’ to scare off your lady friend!” Afterwards, Jedah let me know that if I was hungry, he had picked up some pizza and put it in the fridge and I was welcome to have a slice.
This might sound corny, but it really touched me how kind all of these guy were to a stranger like me. They all knew each other or had at least roomed with each other before, and yet I wasn’t treated like some outsider. I don’t know what it is about fighters, but I have to agree with Rick in that I have never had a hobby that I shared with others where I was able to bond with strangers so quickly. Even little things like asking if I wanted food or needed an extra blanket were little considerations that just kind of blew my mind. When I attend tournaments I usually stay with friends, and I hadn’t stayed in a room with strangers in a long time, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I realize that as a guy I am privileged in the sense that my experience probably wasn’t going to be that bad, but I guarantee any one of those guys would have treated anybody with as much kindness as they did me, and I found that to be really special.
Combo Breaker is the premiere FGC tournament: it captures the spirit of what makes fighting games great, but also never forgets that is what brought it to the dance. Every game is made to feel like it’s a big part of why the event succeeds, and it does it while maintaining a style and aesthetic that is completely unique to anything else that is in the FGC. I won’t pretend that I didn’t have any criticisms, although I don’t really feel they were the event’s fault so much as things out of their control. Concrete floors are murder on my flat feet, and I’m usually lucky in that most tournaments are in carpeted hotels. I also wasn’t too fond of seeing the United States Army having its own eSports team walking around like living ads for the military industrial complex, but that’s a very difficult issue that I’m not even sure how to solve. I also had a run-in in the bathroom with a player who cussed me out because I’ve dogged him on Twitter, which is probably fair game and, again, nothing for the event to concern itself with.
I usually tell folks who are interested in attending an FGC event for the first time to go to Evolution, since it’s still the flagship event, but I think this year my mind has changed. The Pheasant Run Resort and St. Charles ain’t exactly a Las Vegas Strip grand hotel, but their Midwest charm and close proximity to Chicago proved to be the perfect venue, despite my initial hesitation. And Combo Breaker itself has something for everybody: whether you’re into the most watched fighters like Dragonball FighterZ or Street Fighter V, or just into Super Smash Brothers, or love oddball fighters like Skullgirls: 2nd Encore and Vampire Savior, Combo Breaker is your Mecca. That it does all of that while still trying to improve the attendee experience year after year is something that is not to be taken for granted. In an increasingly corporatized environment, it is so important to have an event that is primarily focused on the experience of those who matter the most in any community: the people.