To understand a sport, study its players. To understand a community, talk to the people who cherish it.
My best friend, David, has always been an avid baseball fan. Though he never played above the high school level, David was a talented young pitcher and continued to follow the sport long after his fastball had slowed to a more leisurely pace. A few years ago, while we sat at a Yankees game, it struck me that I would never understand baseball as well as my friend. I understand how the game works but I don't have an appreciation for its nuances or the stories that come with each player. In every matchup, David can see history being made; I just see another game.
Then again, I don't love baseball. I love Street Fighter. More to the point, I love the fighting game community.
To understand a community, talk to the people who cherish it
This past weekend thousands of players gathered in Las Vegas for Evolution 2013 (also known as Evo), the largest fighting game tournament in the world. Evo is part competitive event and part family reunion. Friends who never see each other the rest of the year meet at the tournament, right beside veterans of the 20-plus-year-old scene, trading stories from the games' long history. It's also a place where fans can still find small tournaments for decades-old fighting games and maybe get a chance to meet and test their mettle against the heroes of their sport.
If you don't follow the fighting game community (also known as the FGC) it can be hard to understand some of the amazing moments from this past weekend. For instance, the outpouring of support to the beleaguered Smash Bros. community, who almost weren't allowed to play their game only to pull in over 120,000 viewers on their livestream, or when Infiltration, an incredibly dominant Street Fighter 4 player, eliminated his best friend and training partner, Laugh, from the tournament and denied him a Top Eight medal.
It's difficult to care about a game you don't play and, though no group is above critique, it's even harder to understand a community in which you play no part. As someone who stands at the outskirts of the FGC I try to be aware of the errors my perspective might produce, but there are a few things I've observed that might be worthwhile for people trying to understand these games and the people who love them.
It's hard to understand a community in which you play no part
First, much of eSports is now run by companies like Major League Gaming (MLG) and Valve, but the FGC isn't as monolithic. In fact, it's a federation of communities and events more than anything else. Capcom and other fighting game makers certainly play important roles, but there is no centralized authority. Many in the community can tell you of the long years before Street Fighter 4, when the only thing that kept the scene going was the hard work of dedicated players and organizers. This experience seems to have taught them not to rely too heavily on the capricious largesse of multinational corporations.
Second, the FGC is exceptionally international and diverse. I can tell you from experience that the tournaments have a wider variety of racial, ethnic and class backgrounds than any other gaming event I've ever attended. Over 80 nations were represented at Evo this year, and quite a few of them have no significant presence in any other pro-level video game competition. This diversity is to be admired and emulated, and undermines casual generalizations.
Third, the FGC is not a subculture of the eSports scene. Fairly or not, players in the FGC tend to see those in eSports as more concerned with developing businesses and careers than ensuring the integrity, authenticity and independence of small communities and players. For more on this check out Michael McWhertor's excellent piece on how the organizers of Evo are approaching the growth of the event. There will always be a lot of overlap in players and convergence of interests in these two scenes, but their differences should be respected, especially by those who participate in neither.
The FGC is not a subculture of the eSports scene
It's because of this international popularity, diversity, and history, that some in the fighting game community take umbrage at being lumped in with other communities, having its bush league players being used as examples of the scene, or having it suggested that they should take notes from a sport with a racially problematic past that started as a mostly regional concern.
Finally, I'd like to comment on the FGC's problem with misogyny, harassment, and gender equity, which is widespread and I believe damaging to the scene. Though this generalization may seem harsh, Patrick Miller, former editor of Game Developer Magazine, has pointed out the problem is part of every gaming community. Misogyny is not a problem just for the FGC, but is a structural and global problem. That said, members of the FGC should address the issue more often, just as the rest of us should be more sensitive to the particular histories and character of the community when shaping our critiques.
For what it's worth, I take as a reason for optimism the central ethos of the FGC, which is respect for all communities and individuals that play and love fighting games. It's this principle that made the mecca of the NYC fighting game scene, Chinatown Fair, welcoming to the LGBT community before it closed, and why many players become fast friends even when they barely speak the same language. It's also the reason that people like Jennifer Vargas, who organizes a women's fighting game meetup in New York City, are just as much a part of the community as top players like Xian and ChrisG.
The central ethos of the FGC: respect for all communities and individuals that play and love fighting games
After the Yankee game I showed David some matches from Street Fighter and StarCraft. Specifically, the famous fight between Justin Wong and Daigo Umehara from Evo 2004, and a series between StarCraft players MMA and DRG from the Blizzard Cup in 2011. While he could definitely understand the quirks and character of each game, it was clear that these games would never spark the same interest in him as the great American pastime. What was also clear, though, was that he appreciated my enthusiasm and understood its source.
There are serious problems to solve, and hurdles to overcome, but we're extraordinarily lucky to be living in a time when these wholly new, digital sports are growing and finding an audience. A life with the love of a sport is, the vast majority of the time, a richer and more uplifting life than one without. To the extent that people in the fighting game community, like those at MLG, Valve, Nintendo and others, are bringing that experience to new players and audiences, they deserve our praise and admiration.
Charles Pratt is a game designer and Assistant Professor at the NYU Game Center, where he teaches game design, theory and history. He is also a pretty garbage Ken player. He would like to thank Toni Pizza, Adi Robertson, Mark Robson, Li Xu and Dylan McKenzie for their help with this piece.