Into the Lion's Den: An Outsider's Look into the Fighting Game Community
I am imagining Final Round XV to be like something out of Hollywood dystopia, replete with roving bands of unkempt men glaring at me in open and violent animosity, perhaps even menacingly swinging industrial-grade chains, pointing at me, and then running their thumb over their throat. Perhaps I am over-reacting, but a week before I attend Final Round in Atlanta, Georgia, controversy surrounding the fighting game community explodes due to comments on Cross Assault — a Capcom-sponsored streaming Internet program — because a team captain, Aris Bakhtanian, says the soul of the fighting game community (FGC) is, “based around not being welcome… When you walk into an arcade for the first time, nobody likes you.”
I take this to heart.
I secured a pass to the fighting game tournament before the events of Cross Assault, but after reading the pieces on the FGC by sites such as Boing Boing and Penny Arcade, damning it to the layer of social hell carved out especially for misogynistic racists, I am left with an unsettling feeling of walking into a roaring lion’s den. I ultimately conclude, however, that now more than ever, I am obligated to attend, if only to ascertain the soul of the community from the perspective of a complete outsider.
Welcome to the Lions’ Den
At the beginning of the tournament, before team matches start, Larry “ShinBlanka” Dixon takes to the stage to officially begin Final Round XV. Dressed in his characteristic black buckskin cowboy hat and aviator sunglasses, he exudes confidence with a Buford T. Justice sensibility. The man is the ringleader as well as the heart and soul of Final Round. In proper FGC practice, it takes event coordinators with bullhorns, promising violent removal from the arena unless people turn and listen to Dixon’s speech (with the only caveat being if you are playing, you can continue to play — this will be a continuing theme of the event). I have already grabbed prime seating — second row, eye-level with Dixon — to hear the man talk.
After some more wrangling, the unruly crowd settles down, and Dixon begins. It is immediately evident there is something off about his cadence. He pauses in spots, and his words lilt in volume and resolve. “Two days ago,” he says, “my mother passed away. I really was conflicted on doing this or not, but I know all of you depend on me trying to do this, so I’m doing this for y’all.” The crowd, overcome by this incredible act of generosity, solidarity, and faith, is brought to their feet, chanting “FI-NAL ROUND! FI-NAL ROUND!, over and over in earnest. The gratefulness in return is etched all over Dixon’s face. It is in this moment that I begin to actually sense the sheer size and passion of this community. I was expecting something else in this place. Something much more callous.
Dixon’s sign-off seems to get to the central message that the FGC needs to instill in all of its competitors especially pertaining to the Cross Assault controversy. “Respect the game, respect the tournament, respect yourself.” Dixon respects the games here, and what they stand for. Fighting games are a catharsis of digital-age gladiators, pitting man against man through avatars of skimply clad women and bristling muscled men. Shoryukens and double jumps; tiger kicks and chicken blocks. It’s an impenetrable language, strung together like a well-executed combo, leaving the uninitiated’s head flailing through an expanse of void, unable to glean more than the occasional word. The message it sends is evident from the moment you sit down and talk with fighters: if you want into this scene, you have to be willing to put in the time to understand it, and beyond that, you have to love it.
“Tekken teams!” A dissonant voice booms over the loud speakers. “Get your teams together and sign up now. I don’t want to hear you bitching when you get DQ’d.” The players are moving towards their respective stations, and Dixon is back to work. Nobody forgets why they are here — even the man who has lost his own mother.
Getting Lost in the Fray
Final Round incorporates an incredible variety of games into their tournaments. On the main stage, I saw the team grand finals of older games like Guilty Gear XX and Street Fighter III. Subsequent releases have made these games playable on the newer systems, allowing people to look back at the history of fighting games, and keeping them relevant next to the more recent titles. This means that one is able to look back at a decade or more of fighting games, and see how they have evolved over time, like a Bizarro World Smithsonian. Even these older games are still played by many people, allowing for some really incredible showings of prowess that harken back to a time without high-definition graphics or the flashiness of a game like the center ring to this circus: Ultimate Marvel v. Capcom 3.
The latter must be experienced, and not just seen. I have watched matches of UMVC3 before attending this event, but nothing compares to sitting in a conference room, surrounded by legions of onlookers, watching as your much more fighting game astute brother keeps a running commentary to give you at least some semblance of understanding.
Players take to the over thirty consoles (supplied by Final Round, and by players who donated their own for the event) on the show floor to begin playing “casuals.” Casuals are my first look into unadulterated fighting game culture. They are undoubtedly rowdy affairs punctuated by the sheer crush of people, craning and contorting their bodies to see a corner of the twenty inch screen on which two players smack each other around. A taller person can tell where a big name fighter is playing by the blossom of onlookers, larger than stations manned by two “randoms” (per FGC parlance). These matches usually hold to their moniker and begin with something akin to a handshake or a head nod, and end with nary more than a groan of defeat. However, every once and a while, players put their money where their mouths are.
Whispers spread radially from the locus of a money match, gaining a sort of pecuniary gravity, and pulling spectators to the station even if the two players are virtually unknown. These matches shed title of “casual,” replacing it with something akin to a grand finals on a smaller stage. To these gamers, the fighting needs that extra spice — like Bond villains playing million-dollar poker, or Richard Branson jumping from an airplane — to make it worthwhile.
The Inscrutable Perfectionists
If there is one main thread that runs between all the top-end fighters, it is that they are perfectionists. They see the beauty in the seemingly simple strategy, and the hydra-like questions that blossom from the one and only goal of beating their opponent. I had the opportunity to talk with some fighting gamers about what their game-of-choice means to them, and the answers all stemmed back to the central premise that they love to win. The reason for wanting to win is different, but that insatiable drive of victory is present in all of their minds. René “DMG_Kor” Maistry (reigning EVO champion in Tekken) tells me his biggest drives to win are money, and fame. Meanwhile, Eric “DMG_Juicebox Abel” Albino laser-focused on his goal of attaining perfection down to the most microscopic level and to be the absolute best in the world. Another up-and-coming fighter — GGC_Grief — wishes to build his brand (Good Gaming Company) and wants to do this by winning high-profile matches. The trend here is unmistakable: winning is everything. And to win in fighting games, the time you put in is directly correlative to how much you will taste victory.
When I asked Albino how he would compare fighting games to other competitive online environments, he said that the closest corollary is Starcraft, but even that is so different that the similarities end at the one-versus-one aspect. The fighting gamer feeds off the excitement, and the raw, visceral pleasure of landing the perfect sequence of attacks, sending their victim hurtling through the air. “In professional Starcraft, there is a metric called ‘APM,’ or ‘Actions Per Minute,” he says. “And in Starcraft, being able to do a certain number of APMs is considered acceptable. Well, in fighting games, an entire match can be over in a minute.” All during this one minute, you are trying to execute, and react to your opponent, finding weaknesses in his play and making adjustments on the fly. Sure, you make adjustments in Starcraft as well, Juicebox concedes, “but games like Starcraft give you too much of the ability to play how you want to play.” It’s an interesting mindset that takes hold in the upper echelons of fighting gaming; it seems, in many ways, to closely resemble actual pugilistic contests or wrestling. When players are able to execute at a high enough level, Juicebox tells me, “that’s when it really gets interesting.”
And during all of this, the competitors are sharing a screen. Think about that for a moment. Two gamers, shoulder to shoulder, landing fatal flurries of punches, kicks, and hadukens. You can feel your opponent next to you, where the virtual and tactile worlds blur into a mess of color and sound. That, and there is no physical exertion or release even though you are in fact pummeling the person sitting right next to you. I ask Juicebox if this is psychically tiring. “I’ve seen guys hold down a casual for hours, and after a while, they’re just so physically and mentally drained just get up and go take a nap. Every game is such a rush.”
All About the Game
I’ve never seen a community this bombastic about their passion before. They’re so into this, in fact, that they will stay in or around the convention hall for sixteen hours a day (leaving only when the Westin hotel staff demands that they do so), three days in a row, just working on perfecting their strategy, debating the strongest anchor, and tier lists. To be among them is to sense a static buzz — a mad diligence, the irreconcilable desire to win, an unstoppable drive for perfection — that permeates the air and insinuates itself into the heart of even the outsider journalist. The FGC is all about the game.
Through actually going and attending Final Round XV, I have a new-found respect for these gamers that rest somewhere outside of the gaming proper. Unfortunately, this insularity spurs on a general misunderstanding of their gaming environment. I make no assertions as to whether or not there is a significant amount of players who are sexist or racist, but I can unequivocally state is that I do not believe the FGC is based on this assertion that Bahktanian made on Cross Assault. Indeed, there seemed to be an overwhelming sense of altruism and inclusion at Final Round, best described to me by Renzo “DMG iPeru” Vigo, a veteran of both the first-person shooter and the fighting game community. “The fighting game community is one of the most open communities ever. People come from all over the country, and some of them don’t even bring sticks. People will let you borrow their stick, even if they don’t know you. We all played to be here, why would we hate?”
The FGC isn’t without its issues — while the majority of fighting gamers came out in opposition to Aris, I would be loathe to forget that there were others who supported his comments — but I would go so far as to say the issues that plague the fighting game community are similar to those that exist in other gaming communities as well. When BioWare’s Jennifer Hepler was attacked only weeks prior, there wasn’t such a push to vilify RPG players. Instead, we saw individuals — perhaps even groups — within the community who were to blame.
Perhaps it is a significantly more driven or single-minded sort of gamer that thrives in the unfriendly confines of rote memorization and one-versus-one combat, but these gamers are no different in their love of the genre than someone who plays every RPG to 100% completion, the hard core MMO raider who grinds for days on end, or the StarCraft competitor working on getting their APM just a little higher. I learned much at Final Round, but perhaps the most important thing isn’t what I learned, but what I was reminded of: gamers come in many different flavors, but in the end, we’re more alike than separate. What I learned upon entering the roaring lions’ den at the heart of the FGC is that they weren’t fighting, they were playing.
(I want to thank all the people at Dominion Method Gaming for the fantastic interviews and being such hospitable and nice people. Also special thanks to GGC Grief for his time, and my brother, Clark Hannahs and his friend Robbie Carlyle for their unflagging patience in answering the many questions I threw at them throughout the weekend.)