Recently, renowned FGC commentator (and honestly, ‘historian’ might be a title worth throwing in there) James Chen made some comments on Twitter relating to a problem he cared a lot about but couldn’t find much traction with others:
To sum it up, Chen is increasingly concerned about a certain plateau that the fighting game genre appears to have with regards to maintaining a motivated, bountiful player base and what that could mean for the future of the competitive circuit. He aims high, too, with his own hypothesis – that the “fighting game environment” of utilizing online matchmaking in solo queues is “miserable” and leads to a lack of enjoyment and disassociation for many would-be players. Beyond just particular grievances with fighting games on a mechanical level, Chen is looking to diagnose the “deeper reasons” why there is such a wide gap between fighting games and the most popular multiplayer game types of First-Person Shooters, Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (MOBA), and Battle Royale games.
First off, I think he is right in that these deeper reasons are something largely dismissed in favor of arguing about tired topics like accessibility, mechanical depth, and the status of a game’s netplay options. These are dead-end arguments with either clear answers (Yes, rollback netcode is superior, there is no reasonable dispute), broad, anecdotal appeals to one’s personal, formative fighting game that can do no wrong, or nitpicks about mechanical minutiae that have largely played themselves out. Auto-combos might be the first step towards permanent infantilization of all fighters, or they could be a superfluous mechanic that is frequently not useful or enticing, but I know for sure that the ten-plus years of arguing about them hasn’t given a solid answer either way.
On the other hand, I think the common explanations for why more people don’t play more ignore some tough empirical truths about not just the genre, but well studied aspects of socialization and education as well. In the spirit of good faith, I’d like to take James up on his offer and take a more serious approach to why, in my opinion, fighters can’t pull their weight compared to the other heavy hitters in competitive gaming.
Before I get to the more meaty stuff, I think it’s important to get some pretty obvious observations out of the way:
- IP is a massive determinant for which games will have the most players, therefore the largest potential base to absorb into playing fighting games competitively. Specifically, 90’s arcade fighters that were huge innovators in their time and still releasing sequels today (Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat, Tekken) are consistently the best selling, as are fighting games adaptations of immensely popular IP (Dragonball FighterZ, Super Smash Bros., Injustice). This is not always indicative of runaway success, as CyGames’ Granblue Fantasy Versus, based on the immensely popular mobile gacha title of the same name, has made only modest gains comparatively
- The top five most popular online multiplayer games are all free-to-play, and those that are on consoles have cross-platform play as to have zero barriers between the playerbase. With few notable exceptions (Killer Instinct (2013), Rising Thunder), free-to-play fighting games are largely the realm of independent developers.
- Of those games, many are backed by companies with unbelievable capital invested in growing their competitive scenes. Riot Games, developer of League of Legends, is a subsidiary of Chinese mega-conglomerate Tencent, who also has a significant investment in Krafton Inc., the South Korean developer of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and Epic Games, makers of Fortnite and Fortnite Battle Royale. Activision-Blizzard, one the largest game companies in the western world, is responsible for Hearthstone and Overwatch, and Respawn Entertainment, publisher of Apex Legends, is a subsidiary of Electronic Arts. Nintendo, Capcom, Netherrealm Studios, and Bandai-Namco, also massive, massive companies (or parts of one),are not pouring in hundreds of millions of dollars into the game’s competitive scenes like Activision-Blizzard, Riot, or Epic in order to facilitate an entire Esports economy. It’s just a completely different level
- Even amongst fighters in the current market, there are distinct tiers in what sells and reaches the highest audience – at 22 million copies sold by Dec. 2020, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is far and away the biggest fighter on the market, with no real competition. Mortal Kombat 11 is the next closest, having crossed 8 million units sold in 2020, while Tekken 7 just crossed 7 million units, and Street Fighter V: Champion Edition is sitting around 5 million units sold. The important context, of course, is that SSBU released in 2018, MK11 in 2019, SFV in 2016, and Tekken 7 on consoles in 2017, while being released in arcades in 2015. Some caveats should of course be considered (Smash is on an incredibly popular console featuring incredibly popular characters, MK11 is on every major console, and SFV is an exclusive for PS4 and PC), but there is a pretty clear pecking order, with only SSBU and MK11 competing with other major games on the market, while most other fighting games don’t have anything near the market power (Notable exception of Dragon Ball FighterZ, which is already a big hit at 6 million units since its 2018 release). For comparison, the biggest game of 2020 was Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, which came out in November of 2020 and is already amongst the highest selling games ever sold in the US, which would likely put it north of 15 million units in just 5 months.
- For number 4, keep in mind that this is being fairly reductive just for easy comparison. Fighter-adjacent games like the various DragonBall Z and Naruto arena fighting games likely sell millions of units, but good luck trying to get fighting game purists to call those fighters. SSBU is still not a fighter to a huge group of players, somehow!
As I said, these are elements that are obvious to most: fighting games are a comparatively small slice of the overall multiplayer gaming market, only the oldest IP’s from the arcade era or otherwise popular non-fighter IPs tend to break through the cultural consciousness, and none of these companies are pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into their competitive ecosystems. We’ve known this, the grassroots nature of the various communities making up the larger FGC is extremely well documented, including a full-length documentary about the Super Smash Bros. Melee community persevering on ancient technology and outright hostility from rights-holder Nintendo. It has been discussed to death that the sheer passion of many charismatic players and giving, hard-working individuals has cultivated a dedicated coalition of sub-communities that can still put on big tournaments all across the globe.
But it’s still quite small, relatively speaking. Evolution 2016, the first year for Street Fighter V at the biggest fighting game event in the world, drew in about 15,000 attendees, and SSBU at Evolution 2019 was watched by 279,000 concurrent viewers, a record for the event. Meanwhile, the Fortnite World Cup’s inaugural 2019 event at the Arthur Ashe stadium in New York sold out the 27,700 seat venue, with 2.5 million people watching across Twitch, Youtube, and Fornite itself. The 2018 League of Legends Worlds Finals was said to have peaked at 96 million viewers. The metrics of concurrent viewers on social media platforms is a bit of gaga – there’s lots of obfuscation of the numbers and just blatant bullshitting – but suffice it to say, there is no comparison.
So why is that (Aside from the *hundreds of millions of dollars of investment*)?
Honestly, I think that depends on how you interpret James’ statement of “not enough people are playing fighting games.” It could be one of two valid statements: A) not enough people in general play fighting games, or B) not enough people who buy fighting games go on to play competitively or engage at a serious level. Contextually it seems pretty likely he means B), but B) can’t be explained without A) in my opinion, so I think it’s good to cover both questions.
Why Don’t More People Play Fighters?
Street Fighter 2 was a legitimate phenomenon, one of the biggest arcade games of all time and a massive mover of 16-bit consoles in its time. It was revolutionary, it was popular, and over time has seeped into the general consciousness, a slice of 90’s nostalgia at its most ripe. I would imagine you ask most people in my general age group if they’ve ever played or heard of SF2, the answer is a resounding yes. The same goes for Mortal Kombat, Tekken, a bevy of SNK titles like Fatal Fury and Samurai Shodown, and the list goes on.
In a sense, the fighters of today are still chasing that feeling, that vibe, in the parlance of our times. To have the game be on everybody’s lips and for everyone to have at least a casual understanding of how the game plays and coming together to watch wordless stories play. Hopefully this is communicated not just through the game but in the players – the panic at getting low on life, the thrill of a good comeback, or the all-too-familiar head nod of begrudging approval at a good move. That culture is still replicated in the very tournaments we have today, but as James has said, it has turned from mass phenomenon to smaller, loyal legions of enthusiasts. So what gives?
Occam’s Razor would tell you that, like all passing fads, it simply burned out the attention of the wider cultural lens. Add to that the advancements in direct, player vs. player (PvP) gaming that has taken place since the hallowed days of the early 90’s. Not too long after SF2, Doom was passed out as freeware to anyone who wanted to get their hands on it. Its innovative idea of First-Person Shooter (FPS) multiplayer free-for-alls (“deathmatches”) were directly inspired by those arcade hits like SF2 and Fatal Fury. Also gaining a lot of popularity at the same time were Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games, the likes of Dune II and Warcraft and Command and Conquer.
By the time the 90’s were wrapping up, more homes had the internet and access to these revolutionary RTS and FPS multiplayer games, while consoles were successfully chipping away at arcades by luring away traditional coin-op developers to the lucrative home game market, now finally free from Nintendo’s hegemony. There were a lot more options for that same rush of PvP-style gameplay, and ports of already passé 2D fighters that were still beholden to the coin-op model couldn’t pass the mustard. That’s the simplest explanation.
But I think if we were to dig deeper, one would find that fighting games, of all the other competing genre types out there, are likely a hard sell to the types of gaming audiences that dominate the market today. “Hardcore” and “Casual” are probably too reductive nowadays to use, so I’m going with research group Newzoo’s eight “gaming personas” to illustrate my point:
The actual breakdowns and descriptions are here, but essentially, “Hardcore” gamer could account for The Ultimate Gamer, the All-Round Enthusiast, and The Conventional Gamer, which make up about 27% of the market, and everyone else is all varying degrees of casual. Mobile gaming and watching streamers/competitive play takes up a significant majority of gamers. If they’re available, fighting games on mobile devices tend to be significantly altered so as to barely resemble the console version (Mortal Kombat Online), or jostling for competition against far more popular games like World of Tanks and Candy Crush Saga.
27% is a small slice of the overall pie, but relatively speaking this is still millions of people to potentially come and play. So why are fighters ceding ground even in this more specialized space? I believe that in comparison to other PvP games, the gameplay loop of a fighting game is too reliant on a stronger opponent to encourage meaningful engagement with the systems of play.
That’s not a popular answer and I’m sure a lot of people just clicked out of the browser, but I’ll do my best to explain:
Let’s say you took two neophyte players who just purchased SFV and want to play as the two characters on the box – Ryu and Chun-Li, whom they’ve seen in Fortnite, or SSBU, or the litany of other popular games that have featured these two iconic characters. They put the game in, download all the updates, and hop into versus mode as Ryu and Chun, picking random V-Triggers and V-Skills since they don’t know what those are, how to activate them, or what they do.
Round 1. Fight!
If they are truly players who have never played before, it’s reasonable to believe there are certain tangible traits they will notice that separate Ryu and Chun as characters (walk speed, dash, jump speed/arc, different normal attacks). But the intangibles, such as that Ryu is a character with special moves performed by motions while Chun’s are done by charging or the value of Ryu’s Dragon Punch and Chun’s EX Spinning Bird Kick as invincible reversals, will likely remain intangible unless they happen to discover it by pure coincidence or look up the movelist in game. That’s where relative knowledge starts to become a major factor in moving the game forward, and I think that will always be a key issue in the popularity of fighting games with the masses.
This was even noted by Chris Kramer, the PR rep for Capcom USA when discussing how to market Street Fighter Alpha in the mid 90’s (James is quoted in this article, funnily enough:
“You have to know moves and countermoves for everything” in order to even have a chance against fighting more experienced players. This is probably less of a detriment than when you would have to put a coin into a machine repeatedly, but even in the modern age, these are games that often require quite a bit of both absolute knowledge about maneuvering and positioning and relative knowledge about the game’s systems, characters, frame data, etc. Banging about with jump kicks and sweeps can likely glide you out of Rookie or Bronze ranking, but even by the time you hit the mid-Bronze rankings, not looking into that relative knowledge can make victory just that much more difficult.
Players today, on average, are far stronger than they were before, likely because the access to absolute and relative knowledge has increased greatly since having to nag a better player about it while you waited at the machine and hoping they would tell you. This isn’t even exclusive to fighters; former Poker pro Nathan Williams pointed this out in an essay on his website
If it’s a given that the vast, vast majority of gamers today are more casual and largely play in the bits of free time they have with simpler mobile games and occasionally dive into more intense games, fighting games are swimming upstream. In your average FPS, you have multiple game-types that speak to both the team-based fan or singleton, and playing it is as simple a manner of pointing a gun and shooting (hitscan bullets) at someone as you all run around a large map, with quick respawns and multiple chances to try again in just a single game. This isn’t to say that there aren’t high level strategies and that expert players can’t completely route newbies with their superior relative and absolute knowledge, but it’s far more likely that someone could get a few kills, maybe even win some games, in a team-based FPS than they are to get a round against even a marginally more knowledgeable player in a fighter.
Even a more complex game vis-a-vis absolute knowledge, like League of Legends, at least breaks down the game into roles, and makes the relative knowledge universal so as to easier apply it as a player experiments with different roles and tactics. Not only that, it keeps ranked locked out until one reaches a certain level, which usually means they have the time to at least learn some measure of how to play before they actually swim with the sharks. Most players in LoL don’t make it out of the lower ranks either, but with far longer games and relative freedom in character and role choice, the situation seems far less frustrating than having to lose to someone over and over again because you don’t know how to getup properly.
Again, this is not to say that all casual gamers are drooling idiots with no plasticity whatsoever, absolutely not. But what I am saying is that fighting games, by design, are from a different era, where it was meant to be played in quick bursts as mental warfare between two players. As Street Fighter Alpha planner Hideaki Itsuno puts it in the Polygon article linked earlier, many of those early fighting games were made “with a strong artists’ disposition…games for experts, and for maniacs.” The intent was always to weed out the weak for the strong to have fun with a complicated system, and that dichotomy was evident even back then. As most fighters stick to their more traditionalist origins, I find it is simply impossible to separate that same, hardcore, “maniac” mindset from the games that are out today, and that audience is just simply not who is mostly playing games today.
I think more casual players could stomach not being as good as other players if the game wasn’t locked away so much behind knowledge, but a novice player can only play against (often substandard, easily tricked) AI or their own unskilled friends for so long before the repetitiveness becomes too much to bear. If the only way to truly learn about the systems of a game is to study it outside the game and attempt to apply it mid match, which is a quick burst of action with little room for error, I just don’t think that’s going to be attractive to most people when there’s so much more out there that isn’t like that.
Fighting games, on average, seem to be the most successful when they are absorbed and spit back out as a Chimera with a more attractive gameplay loop. Overwatch, as an example, has taken the wacky, diverse characters with special moves and abilities and the large amounts of costumes and customization in the form of a team-based FPS. LoL and DOTA have huge rosters of unique characters with special moves and abilities that are activated through button presses and require some form of execution, but it is couched in a role-based team multiplayer online battle arena. These are massively successful games for a large variety of reasons, but they definitely tap into the spirit of what makes fighting games great, just with a more engaging, rewarding gameplay style for unskilled players.
But let’s not sell ourselves short either; fighting games definitely have a not-small audience that takes the games seriously and plays them multiple days a week and grinds the ranked ladders. I’m sure as we speak there are more people playing MK11’s Kombat League than have ever entered Evo! But what stops them from taking that step, besides convenience? Sadly, I think that answer is pretty simple.
Why Don’t More People Play Fighters Competitively?
There was a study done to show how likely gamers are to persist playing a game in spite of the seemingly low reward. Hardcore gamers, to little surprise, were mainly motivated by competence – literally “git gud” – to persist, while casual and even heavy gamers instead persisted with enjoyment and connectedness to a game.
So then it seems like the main thing holding people back would be enjoyment, specifically that enjoyment isn’t distributed proportionately amongst skill levels for fighting games. With so much entertainment vying for one’s attention, the one that requires a pretty hefty amount of absolute and relative knowledge as well as lots of repetition and losing seems unlikely to be the winner. Shockingly,studies show losing a lot increases hostility, as does playing a preferred avatar or game vs. a salient, out-group member. These increases are so drastic because many people tie self-concept and identity to overall narratives, which are also much more defined when losing as opposed to winning. That is to say, most people have a difficult time not tying into a greater narrative outside of the game itself, which can increase hostility and decrease enjoyment.
PvP games in general are not exactly games that are the most enjoyable minute-to-minute, as evidenced by a study here that had players play a PvP shooter, a PvE shooter, a PvE puzzler and a PvP puzzler. The shooting games, by way of their violent nature and increased action, were enjoyed more than the puzzlers, but losing in the PvP shooter caused the most hostility and biggest reductions in enjoyment. Again, not surprising: playing against a human opponent in a game that is active and in-your-face isn’t very enjoyable.
But another thing to consider is that, unlike most shooters or MOBA games, there is no team aspect. James noted this in his argument, and I think it has merit. There is a lot of research to show that individual sports in general have more potential for anxiety, depression amongst young players than team sports, and that most play individual sports with a goal-focused mindset rather than a pure fun aspect. Add in that sense of self-identification that more intense gamers have with whatever their preferred game, and how that affects hostility, and I think you get a more complete picture.
Taking this back to Nathan Williams, I often find Poker is probably the most analogous game to fighters. Most would say Chess, but I think Chess has more defined rules and strategies that can be reasonably explained to a novice, while Poker has the elements of luck and necessary concentration through fast-changing circumstances. And naturally, that can lead to a huge burn-out rather quickly.
To hear Williams describe it, the pressure of having to learn a lot to even beat the average player, in addition to having to really grind out games in order to get a feel for how it works means that the all-consuming nature of it all is just unsustainable for a lot of people. Nowadays people don’t have all the time in the world, and if they’re going to play a fighter they will want to wring max enjoyment out of it while they can. Juggling a ton of knowledge while having to not lose in a game that is, purposefully, as tilting as possible? It’s hard not to see why people don’t play fighters competitively.
Or do they? My take is that what James and I think of as “competitive” is wildly at odds with lots of players. It’s not hard to imagine a player who hops on SFV every night for an hour or two and wins the majority of his matches while in a low rank thinks they are “competitive.” They may have a slight bit of applied knowledge that is letting them beat on people pretty good. This will inevitably lessen as they move up, but I imagine this is a spot where most are pretty comfortable. If you were to ask them if they think they could beat skilled players, they’d say “Yeah, why not? I play pretty often and beat people.”
But would they take that next step into reality? My guess is no. Like most, they probably won’t want to break that cognitive dissonance and see what’s on the other side, which is also just human nature. We like to be comfortable and surround ourselves with activities, media, and other things that affirm that comfort. Playing games can be stressful enough, but add in the tournament format, which usually takes a whole day or more of investment and is very unrewarding for that loss of time, and it’s easy to see where most just don’t see the point. They can beat players in their rank, that’s good enough. Is that “competitive?” To me, no, not really. But who am I to say that doesn’t count as being competitive? Maybe my standards are too high.
A lot of people want to attribute laziness to why people don’t do the work, but looking from the outside in, are we ever really acknowledging the “work” that we’re asking people to do? Take a highly intuition-based, difficult game and work at it enough to want to go play tournaments. I get annoyed listening to people complain about characters and strategies that have been thoroughly dissected by the higher level players in a community, as I do people who are competing in tournaments actively and still making arguments that a novice would, but I have sympathy. This is a frustrating, difficult genre by nature – is it any shock that so many people who play it often come off as hostile and frustrated?
I’ll always remember a couple of great quotes from Andre Aggassi, one of the best professional tennis players of all time:
As good as he was, the hate for tennis and how it made him feel was just as big a part of his mindset as his natural ability. It defies all logic, but human beings aren’t logical either. We often make decisions that are wildly bad for our physical and mental health, and do it out of a love or passion that can’t possibly be explained in all its complexities. Still, I think that part of being the very best at any sport is secretly hating how much it consumes the mind, and while I can definitely make peace with that when it comes to fighters, I really don’t blame those who don’t.
So that’s my very, very long spiel. Sadly, I don’t have an answer as to how to get more people to play fighting games. Gun to my head, it’s probably a pretty milquetoast answer: someone will have to come up with a game that has the aspects of the most popular fighters (Arena fighters and Smash) but can also have the same coin-op feel of the old school fighters (SF, MK, Tekken), mixed in with the more addicting bits of modern games’ progression and ranking systems. If it was so easy, it would have been done already.
As for James’ broader observations, I think he’s absolutely right that there needs to be a shared sense of some sort of community in order to power through the more frustrating and alienating parts of playing competitively. What I wonder, however, is if the genre’s old-school nature and lack of appeal to people who are looking for something quick and easy means that it is, inherently, a gatekept style of game. Now I don’t think of this as a bad thing either! But I think that difficult conversation needs to be had, particularly with regards to being okay with letting go of certain aspects of that old-school design in order to find a bigger playerbase.
As for activating the current playerbase? You’ve got me, brother. How do you convince people to let of the most precious resource of all, time, for something so difficult and, sadly, trivial? I’m not sure. I think most of us who are in deep have a nostalgic attachment that goes back to our childhoods/youths that is more than enough to counteract the worst aspects, or are naturally curious gamers who like to tinker with deeper systems. I’m not surprised that there are tons of fighting game players who love things like Final Fantasy XIV or League of Legends or Dark Souls – these are the exact kinds of games that also ask for deep commitment and expert knowledge of its systems to succeed at a high level. Yet at the same time, all of these appear to be far more relaxing than even a fighting game, and I think that is worth exploring. Hence the article.
I look forward to James’ response (if any), and I love to learn, so if I’m inaccurate in my claims or you see it differently, I’d love to hear it too. I am in no way claiming I’m an expert or have all the answers, but I’ve been playing video games my whole life, competitive games quite long as well, and just wanted to point out some things I noticed in response to an interesting question.