Capcom certainly kicked off the announcement of Street Fighter 6 with a doozy, eh?
For anyone who hasn’t heard, Capcom recently published a long post on the Capcom Pro Tour website that explained, through extensive legal language, the assumed responsibilities of any organizer, no matter how small, who wished to use Street Fighter V at their tournament. This included, but was not limited to, forfeiture of full ownership of any footage, a hard cap on the amount of money that could be provided in both sponsorships and prize pools, and proper procurement of a license should tournament size exceed the basic licensing agreement. Failure to honor those responsibilities was akin to breaking a contract, with all the legal liabilities that implied.
This immediately led to a massive backlash from a wave of organizers, who responded dramatically to the equally dramatic language that Capcom issued:
After less than 24 hours, Capcom immediately released a new statement that affirmed their position but attempted to assuage the backlash with promises of further review:
For a legally informed response, I’ll leave that to David “UltraDavid” Graham, who summed it up nicely here, but suffice to say, this statement is neither unprecedented nor irrational. Rights holders have all the right in the world to protect those rights and seek damages from those they feel are infringing on those rights. Further still, many games with major eSports inroads have community license agreements that are just as direct about their terms. While Capcom has specified some things that are uniquely harsh, this is more or less a boilerplate legal agreement.
Before I really get into what I think, I should clarify that I have ultimate confidence that Capcom will either choose not to strongly enforce this agreement or heavily modify it based on community backlash. In almost every situation before where there has been a major negative response to a policy or policy change, Capcom has been pretty quick to reverse position to get back in the good graces of the larger gaming community. The 2018 Capcom Pro Tour was given significant grief for heavily weighting premier events largely based in North America and Asia while softening the gains made from more common, widespread ranking events, but reversed course in 2019 by evening out the points distribution and regional disparity. Calling out a failure on behalf of their Code of Conduct enforcement is as easy as ringing them on Twitter and directing collective angry energy at them. As a good corporation should, it has the spine of a swamp reed.
Having said that, I feel that even if they ultimately back down from full enforcement of this, the future is set in stone.
Between the changes to CPT in 2018 and now this, Capcom is directly stating what it desires: a large base of enthusiastic-but-amateur players that monetarily support a much smaller ecosystem of tournaments that they and a select few can directly benefit from through licensing agreements and approved sponsors. Plain and simple.
If the new deal is that you have to own a license from Capcom should you grow in size, and you are directly limited in what sponsorships and potential money you can offer, what other end goal could there be? Surely there isn’t a single tournament entity that could match what Capcom offers with the Pro Tour in sheer dollar amount, and potential sponsor embarrassments like WePlay are not happening everyday. Nor would I expect a massive company to put into policy something that isn’t meant to account for the future direction they would like to go in.
The problem is that everytime they try to push toward this, there is a substantial pushback from the base that buys their games, and because they have an obligation to more or less bend to the whims of their constituents, they go for the appeasement route while figuring out a better way to frame their ultimate goal. Then they eventually go for it again, and the same cycle happens again before they’re blasting off again to figure out a new way to sell it to the larger community.
While this time seems to have backfired pretty badly, I’m sure in another couple years there will be yet again an indication that Capcom wants to further bury its tendrils into the fighting game tourney circuit as a whole. And I, again, am left wondering how best to address the underlying tension that arises from the most popular tournament game’s parent company’s rather obvious ambitions, and the fact that there is no method of resistance to these ambitions that wouldn’t be incredibly damaging to players and organizers alike.
I’m an adult and won’t pretend ideology isn’t in play here, so let’s put that on front street: there will always be an inherent tension between enthusiasts who attend tournaments for fun, and those who do it as their major source of income. The prize money, structure, and long-term feasibility of tournaments is something one party is far more invested in than another, and organizers of big tournaments will always have to struggle with the tension in compensating both groups. Combine all of that with the fact that organizers themselves have to worry about their financial situations and how to find ways to compensate the scores of people it takes to run these while not putting the entire burden on themselves.
It’s a complicated situation, one that not enough people approach with nuance, and it makes talking about all of this rather difficult. It feels odd that I even have to couch any statement with this, but no, I think it’s silly to think of someone who would prefer a smaller tourney ecosystem if it meant they could earn more money as ‘bad’. Conversely, I don’t think there is an inherent ‘good’ in wanting a tournament infrastructure that is completely open and free of biases towards certain players.
What I do think is that, even if this new licensing agreement isn’t enforced as strictly as the language implies, that tension will naturally escalate. I imagine it is very likely most small tournament organizers online and offline have no interest in shelling out more money, in addition to what it already costs to run the event, for a single game on their roster. That said, I also imagine it is very likely that SFV is the most popular event in many organizer’s tournaments, and dropping that may be very well akin to self-sabotage.
In the Pandemic-era of mostly online events, popular players/influencers streaming their tournament runs or directing people to watch the official streams of the tournaments is most likely a massive boon. Whether they have crowdfunded pots through Matcherino or simply rely on the revenue they might get from Twitch, the more eyeballs on the tournament, the better. SFV, more than most, has a large number of popular players/influencers who are always playing in tournaments and mostly make SFV (or Capcom)-related material. It would be unbelievably foolish to take this large group of potential customers, whose inclusion can provide a lot of gains and say “Sorry, I’ve got nothing for you.”
But of course, could anyone be blamed for taking the actions that the tournament organizers posted above have? While the act itself isn’t unprecedented at all, it largely is within fighting games; the only people who have cracked the hammer down this hard have been Nintendo with regards to modded Smash games, but even that was mostly restricted to major events. Under their license agreement, a streamer wouldn’t have full control over their own footage, photographers over their own pictures, or TO’s over their own tournaments. They also wouldn’t be able to get too big through 3rd party crowdsourcing or sponsors, and even then, they can’t get it from gambling, alcohol, or other types of sources. If any streamed event at all, regardless of size, is now engaging in theft for featuring the game’s art in a digital flyer, or having sponsors that Capcom doesn’t like, or, heaven forbid, has too big a prize pot, why take the risk?
Perhaps the dilemma is now clear: do you risk cutting out a massive proportion of players from your tournaments to cut your losses, or do you deal with the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head from Capcom? It’s such a difficult choice that is now being forced upon TO’s of every station, and I can’t think of it as anything other than coercion: play by our rules, our way, or don’t play at all. Is there anything more antithetical to the entire mythos of the greater fighting game community than that?
I’ve been banging the drum for years that eSports, as it is now, is all about drawing class distinctions between groups – amateurs and pros – and making it so the amateur class can’t earn or have a say in any sort of widespread communal effort as a means of gatekeeping them out of earning. I’m not the first person to say that, and clearly it upsets the hackles of longtime eSports figures because they have ideologically convinced themselves that it is selfish for the lower class to raise that objection.
They can dress it up in nice language on a blue background as much as they want, but Capcom, the corporation, believes all of the above too – they’re just nicer about it and understand that those amateur classes competing in an open bracket ecosystem are not exactly an existential threat. The collective power of the gaming community can continuously force them into delaying punitive measures or being nicer still about it, but there is ultimately nothing to stop them from doing it. No amount of community members getting a job at Capcom, no matter how big a tournament gets, there is no swaying Capcom from this route – it is ideological in nature, and ideology is a hell of a drug.
At some point, that tension I mentioned earlier will get to be so big that a lot of organizers are going to have to make hard choices about what they support more, and believe it or not, I completely empathize with it. Providing a service like a tournament means providing the best means possible for your volunteers and employees to provide the best possible experience for your constituents, the players. And a lot of times that takes money, money that they likely don’t have and need help to raise. The brand power of something like a Capcom game in the FGC is incalculable – these are the games almost all of us grew up playing, there is a firm attachment to not just Capcom but Street Fighter as well. There are very few tournaments out there that don’t run some form of SF, and it’s clear to see why.
How could ponying up to ensure you can run SFV or other Capcom games anything less than a rational action? At the same time, how could ensuring that you can run the tournament without potential legal action barring them from running it be irrational?
Capcom has put tournament organizers into an almost impossible choice, purposefully, because they feel that the only way to make eSports a more achievable goal is to pasteurize, homogenize, and sanitize what’s currently existing into something that bigger money may be attracted to so they can donate more money. Sometimes the only way to get people to agree with you is to draw a hard line in the sand and demand fealty. eSports has always been packaged as a dream, the just desserts of a legitimate talent finally being recognized, but unfortunately it’s just musical chairs, and Capcom stopped the music and is charging for chairs.
Can you afford to pay for one?
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