Written by: Richard Lewis
Twitter: @RLewisReports        

By the time you read this, the cat will very much be out of the bag. Street Fighter will be coming to ELEAGUE. Surprised? Don’t be. Fighting games have been instrumental in helping put esports on the mainstream map, a fact often overlooked by those who focus on team-based games. Now, we get to give it the Turner treatment and I’m excited about what that means for all parties.

This marks a point where my career comes full circle, as the fighting game genre is where my esports journey began. I may well have put my roots down in Counter-Strike, but my very first experiences with competitive gaming were in the fighting game community. Even if I discounted the childhood I spent at the local arcades waiting to take on local champions in Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, as a young man, over fifteen years ago, my first introduction to what would become “esports” were all fighting game tournaments.

These local competitions were a weird scene. People travelling from across the UK to come and meet in dilapidated warehouses or student union bars to play one another, covering many miles on rickety trains or National Express coaches. Most of the major players knew each other, knew their styles and fighter preferences, which looking back, was impressive in a time before online play had really taken off. It allowed for people to throw in surprise selections, to learn new things to try and get the edge on an opponent who was expecting something else. Most of which were greeted with cheers from a crowd of twenty people swilling flat beer from plastic cups huddled around a television the size of a refrigerator.

For the winners, there were few financial rewards. Most of the UK competitors I knew, long since retired, finished out of pocket just by the sole act of attendance. Any winnings amounted to a few hundred dollars, a game console, and a copy of the game they had just beat everyone on. I’ve told the anecdote about how somewhere, gathering dust in my gaming memorabilia, is a matching bandana and sleeveless t-shirt that I won for winning a regional “qualifier” one glorious evening.

I never stopped thinking about these experiences and when I managed to secure my first proper industry job, working at what was the largest UK LAN center, doomed to go bankrupt from its inception due to an insane business model, I wanted to reconnect. Working with some staff who I believe now might be at Electronic Dojo, a Midlands based tournament organizer, we ran the single-biggest fighting games competition that the UK had seen. Multiple titles all being played at once, the mish-mash of gaming technologies from different eras that each required. It was a vibe like no other. As we handed out our modest prizes at the end of each competition, the winners placed the money behind our on-site bar and drank together until the place closed. Some things hadn’t changed.

Of course this is only a small part of the FGC ecosystem. At the other end of the scale, you have the glittering experience of EVO, based in Las Vegas. For many years, this has been the showcase of the best the scene has to offer. Thousands of entrants from across the world, huge prize pools and hundreds of thousands of viewers watching the drama unfold. It often goes unsaid when we talk about the evolution of esports, but fighting games were firmly part of connecting us to the mainstream media, finding its way to television and succeeding before Counter-Strike had its time to shine.

For me, what a fighting game brings in terms of skillset is wonderfully unique in an esports context. It’s easy to think about the dexterity involved in hitting moves and combinations. Start to factor in the breadth of knowledge required – you must know every potential fighter in the game and each of their moves – and timings, and you’re almost there. Small windows of opportunity exist for blocks and counters. Precision positioning and distance are crucial. I defy anyone to watch someone land an unbreakable combo, juggling their opponent’s helpless body, and not get excited or marvel at the skill it takes.

These are just the mechanical elements, which I could never truly do justice in a short piece, but as with all one on one titles, there is also a psychological component. Many top competitors believe that the mind games aspect of tournament play is crucial. In-game feints and taunts are used with external trash talk and banter to gain edges on opponents and can occasionally spill over into heated rivalries. Few complain as this is part of the show.

That has to be the greatest lip service I can pay to the FGC as a whole. At a time when many esports titles were going through an identity crisis, unsure of whether to clean up in a bid to appeal to the mainstream or remain faithful to the hardcore, they unabashedly embraced the latter. The connection between the competitors and the fans is perhaps the closest I’ve seen. Recent discussion rippled through another top-tier title recently about whether or not it was proper for competitors to have a space that was inaccessible to fans, with many pros coming out and saying that was the stuff of divas. Even if the pampered TV personality I’ve become doesn’t agree, such dedication to remaining down to earth has to be admired.

Of course, we will be coming back to Counter-Strike after our achievements with two seasons and the major World Championships under our belt, but for now, get ready for Street Fighter coming to ELEAGUE.