I watched a video the other day, from a group that I’ve enjoyed a lot in the past – Hold Back to Block. If you haven’t seen it, they created a killer documentary on Killer Instinct that is almost required viewing if you’re a fan of fighting games. This is in addition to a ton of other near documentary-length interviews and video essays that I think are really cool. So believe me when I say that nothing of what I say here is to be indicative of my overall thoughts of that group as creatives or that they are bad for anyone. Not at all.
But they did sound hopelessly naive in their latest video.
The gist of this video is that recently, All Elite Wrestling, an upstart professional wrestling promotion, has made a huge mark on the previously hegemonic reign of king of pro wrestling World Wrestling Entertainment by offering a product that feels more authentic, fan-focused, and ultimately more satisfying. This culminated in their most recent large pay-per-view offering, All Out, which has been heralded across social media as one of the greatestling pro wrestling shows of all time.
With that setup, it then pivots to the fighting game community, and how the Evolution tournament, which is our biggest of the year, is kind of like the modern-day WWE: stale, beholden to sponsors, and fan-indifferent if not outwardly hostile. HBtB thinks that we need an “AEW-type” alternative to Evo that is more focused on a “raw community feel,” because while Evo has the history and the location to get big eyes on the community, it’s
The alternative, in their view, would be “a hub that brings people exciting matches with decent production value that an audience can invest in,” while simultaneously “express[ing] and experience[ing] that quirky and at times rough personality.” The conclusion drawn is that “…both succeeding will help expand the audience beyond what either may think is capable, and if that happens, everyone wins.”
First and foremost, I am unsure where HBtB gets the idea that Evo is this unique “business,” the term being used here like it’s an aberration against God and his followers. Seeing as how we live in a society (no joke[r]s, please) that is implicitly focused on the superiority of market economies over pretty much everything else, the idea that Evo is this unique capital enterprise in the FGC is pretty goofy. I’m sure every other major tournament in the various communities run social media pages dedicated to the events, sell merchandise for them, hold them recurring every year and partner with other businesses or entrepreneurs to sell their products at the tournament itself are just “the good ones.”
The video even admits this as much when it says that an “alternative” to Evo would be an event or streamed variety show “with decent production value that an audience can invest in.” So, an event with significant financial or administrative management that an audience can invest in with their time or money? Sounds like a “product” to me! Evo, a high-production value event that brings sponsorships and attention, is a “product,” hereby meaning passé and stale and no longer about “the community maaannnn,” in dire need of an alternative, but that alternative would be…a similarly highly-produced product that sells something to its audience, but with “quirky personalities”? Functionally, how is that much different than A) the other major tournaments that exist (Combo Breaker, CEO, which literally had an AEW show on its first night in 2019) or B) any garden-variety of streamers or YouTubers that already exist? The difference is purely aesthetic which is my main complaint: this all seems like very shallow analysis.
Also, for the record, I no longer know what it means to have a “quirky personality” or “raw community feel” that isn’t invoked in a way that is just another bullet point on a potential slide deck to show to advertisers as to why they should invest. Does it mean cursing? In 2021, who gives a fuck about cursing as a reason why they can’t make money with you? Does it mean using edgy jokes? Does it mean gambling? Does it mean more strange games that no one’s heard of but like ten people who are all blisteringly talented at it? Does it mean more open tournaments like they would have been back in the day? All I know is I see the same talented, charismatic people getting hired to do the same job all the time – they curse and tend to be themselves too. What is anyone talking about when they say this?
When people so often invoke a term without really defining what it means, it then becomes a buzzword, and buzzwords are only good to either obfuscate what you really mean or sell products, just like what this video is. The AEW/WWE comparison is really wonky and devoid of nuance in not only how it plays out in the scheme of the wrestling business but also how it applies to the FGC, but it’s not there to be a good analogy. It’s there because it’s a buzzy event that recently happened and a good way to get eyeballs on your product would be if you mention that, knowing AEW has a pretty direct connection to the FGC. Slay on slayer, I’m not judging! Hell, this is probably pretty good advertising, in the end.
We all serve somebody, and focusing on Evo as this shameful “product” that is uniquely handcuffed by advertiser responsibilities or censorship is silly. I can agree that Evo is frequently not the most exciting tournament to attend sometimes, but that has as much to do with logistical choices, pricing, and organization as it does with the idea of feeling censored or particularly corporate. Evo is now also one of the few major fighting game tournaments expressly owned by an actual evil corporation, Sony, which is probably a bigger deal but strangely goes unmentioned in this video. Probably not a good idea to make enemies of them.
The content of this video reeks of being too lost in what I call ContentWorld. In ContentWorld, there is a constant state of emergency about losing the eyeballs of John Public, a crisis only solved by the steady hand of market analytics, slide decks, and highly public-but-inoffensive chats with larger entities. It’s a myopic world, shifting only with the trends that are in its immediate peripheral vision and doing its best to imitate them but with a unique aesthetic spin. So in HBtB’s video where they talk about potential ideas to “get weird,” it’s all strangely familiar: reality shows, variety shows, invitationals, etc. None of these are new ideas, but many of them haven’t had the “FGC” aesthetic splashed over it, which means success is only a Brokentier shirt and invocation of mass tier lists away, am I right?
I probably sound bitter and bitchy, but I’m not really trying to be. This all does zero harm to me and living life out as a “content creator,” whatever that is deemed to be, is a legitimate thing to be, particularly since a part of the revenue is good-faith patronage. Having said that, it’s a giant market, one that many are playing into when they get into doing things like streaming or making YouTube videos. That’s not to say people don’t genuinely love what they’re doing, or that everyone is actively trying to grow, but at the same time, growing a channel often involves appealing to the lowest-common-denominator, massive self-promotion, or orbiting more popular people to feed on the chum that detracts from them. It’s just business, but it is a business, one that many depend on as a livelihood if not a significant second income. With that comes stakes and risk.
HBtB hints a lot at things becoming stale, and they don’t say it, but I’ll bet at some point they’ll realize the truth: when financial stakes are tied up in a hobby that you love, the risk-taking and fun levels drastically decrease. This, again, isn’t a bad thing; I would expect people who are serious about their job to take it seriously and not risk their health, financial well-being, all of that. But it also means that when push comes to shove, you play the hits: only feature the newest, most popular games or what unique game is trending on Twitter for some reason, always hire the same people to do consistently good work in production or broadcasting, engage with any trends that appear to be burning up social media, etc. etc. It’s fine, but it will get stale eventually, and I think that’s what we’re seeing.
How many older games get a brief shine, maybe even an exhibition, because Justin Wong makes a video talking about it and it sparks “discourse”? Or because some popular player makes fun of a game for looking like it’s for little girls, then plays it on stream to ostensibly “apologize” for saying it all while drumming up attention for it and themselves? Does anyone actually stick to playing those retro games for the brief time they are lighting up everyone’s timelines? The individual actors that make up the larger FGC aren’t in some communal co-op where everyone’s income is based solely on the success of one company or event. Many are trying to do their own thing, via streaming or being sponsored or something else, that will naturally supersede any incentive to “be weird” or not be a “product” by appealing to trends, fads, and blink-and-you-missed-it memes.
It may come across as conspiratorial, but it’s not, and I don’t believe anyone participating in this is some sort of malicious villain. It’s the game, we all play it, even me! People follow me because they know I’ll have opinions like the one I’m typing right now, and you know what? Okay. It doesn’t make me anything, I have a job that is fine, and I certainly don’t do it with any sort of regularity or self-censorship that makes me feel like it’s a job. But not everyone is so lucky to be in the position I’m in, and to continue to enjoy their hobby they feel a need to monetize it. I won’t judge anyone for it, it’s the world and conditions we live in, and it’s hardly your fault if you play into it.
That said, innovation is quickly squashed out like this. There is a bottleneck on these kinds of markets, and jack, you ain’t in it if you’re not orbiting the best or at least trying to imitate what they’re doing. I sympathize with HBtB position that events can feel sterile, particularly in the COVID times we live in, but this is the natural endgame when what you want is a highly-polished product that audiences “can invest in.” There’s only room at the top for what works, and what doesn’t can eat rocks. When Guilty Gear XX Accent Core +R got rollback, that was a huge deal. Unfortunately, a shiny new Guilty Gear is available, and in this market of quirky airdash games, there’s hardly room for one. I sympathize, brothers and sisters, I play NRS games and it’s the exact same thing!
One final thing that wrestling and fighters have in common that went unmentioned in the video is that a lot of its ardent fans are in fact quite fickle. Some people solely watch WWE because it has the shiniest production quality and markets some of its top figures like they are larger-than-life human beings; watching a poorly lit independent show with guys that have more average physiques and stranger, “quirkier” personalities is to describe to them Dante’s 9th circle of Hell. Much the same way, a lot of people like the spectacle of a show like Evo or Combo Breaker for maybe one particular game, and don’t give a piss for the rest of it. If you showed them a Twinkle Star Sprites tournament they’d just as soon leave or turn the stream off.
You may be thinking “Tanner, you dope, of course, thanks for the tip, captain obvious,” but when everything is a product, this matters a lot in what gets shown. There are still tournaments that will show these odder games in a big spotlight, but if the end goal is to only create products that a wide audience will invest in, that will shore up pretty quickly. I think at a certain point, there will have to be a partial acceptance of the fact that for vast swaths of people in various sub-communities, they really just want to play the game they like, no matter if it’s only with 5 other people or so, rather than be a consumer of a product they don’t care for. For that matter, some people like to stream and make YT videos without worrying how they feed into the algorithm so more people will come and watch them, or if they have to raid a more well-known creator who might give them some viewers. That tension is normal, healthy, and should probably be discussed more, but it only can be when people are honest about the state of things.
Evo, Combo Breaker, and CEO are all “products,” HBtB Youtube Channel is a “product,” the idea is to get people to invest time, energy, and probably money so the events/content can grow bigger and better. For the last time, this isn’t pernicious or snide, it’s just a fact. To try and draw a distinction between “this is a product” and “this is legitimate” for tournaments that all have a limited liability company associated with that brand name is to draw a false one. What should matter more is who is left out when growth is the only obstacle, and how do you keep from getting stale when there’s limited room at the top? Those are far harder questions that won’t fit in a quick video, but hopefully some people take it to heart.