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More than ‘joke’ controllers, Mad Catz forever changed the fighting game scene

Mad Catz and Mark Julio helped the FGC grow

Chelsea Stark/Polygon

If you played games in the ’90s, Mad Catz had a reputation. The accessory company made controllers that didn't live up to anyone’s expectations. If you were someone's younger sibling or visiting friend, you might have been stuck with a Mad Catz controller that didn’t work as well as the rest.

And that was the company's reputation for a long time: controllers, memory cards and other third-party peripherals that didn’t compare to other name brands. When the news of Mad Catz’s Chapter 7 bankruptcy hit last week, some on Twitter — under the hashtag #ripmadcatz — recalled those feelings of truly busted gear.

But those aren’t the memories members of the fighting game community shared. Mad Catz, during the late ’00s and first half of this decade, helped revitalize the competitive scene. The company’s devotion to building quality controllers for fighting game players, as well as sponsorship of tournaments and international players, can be credited for giving franchises like Street Fighter more prominence in the esports world.

Behind the brand itself, there’s one name that every member of the community is also quick to acknowledge: Mark Julio, or MarkMan, who worked for Mad Catz from 2007 to 2016.

“Mad Catz didn’t have the best reputation in the mid-late ’90s and early 2000s,” he told Polygon. “I was actually embarrassed to say I worked there for awhile.”

MarkMan started in Mad Catz doing support, and in the meantime he was consumed by fighting games. He collected arcade sticks from other manufacturers, and “helped organize hundreds of tournaments” around San Diego. In 2008, he said his co-workers took notice of the fact he always brought his own arcade sticks from home to play games in the office.

“They asked me if I knew anything about arcade sticks and the following week I found myself working on all the Street Fighter 4 stuff.”

The “Street Fighter 4 stuff” was a partnership with publisher Capcom to make branded peripherals — arcade sticks and pads. These are preferred by players serious about fighting games for many reasons. Console controllers don’t support ideal button configurations for light, medium and heavy punches and kicks — six buttons in all — and their analog sticks don’t allow for the precision required for more complex moves. Fighting games look like they move fast, but precision — and not missing your inputs — are key to victory.

Without arcade sticks players could take with them, tournament play was restricted to actual arcades, or venues that had access to full arcade cabinet versions of games, unless enough dedicated players had their own sticks.

“FGC [the fighting game community] began the move to console years before, but Mad Catz really helped them finish it,” tweeted David Philip Graham, an FGC figurehead and commentator better known as UltraDavid. “Wasn’t just new people who needed sticks; arcade vets did too.”

There were competitors in the space, like Hori and Namco, but as Andres Velasco y Coll told Polygon, either the products were hard to find because they were sold in Japan., or weren’t good quality. Velasco y Coll is currently head tournament organizer for Evolution Championship Series (Evo for short) — the biggest annual tournament, held in Las Vegas each July. He began working serious as a tournament volunteer for Evo in 2008, right as Mad Catz sticks began hitting the market.

Mad Catz TE FighStick Street Fighter 4
The Mad Catz TE FightStick, created for Street Fighter 4.
Mad Catz

So what made these sticks so special? The FGC, used to modding and upgrading their own controllers, were looking for a brand that could be customized. And with two flavors of arcade sticks — the more affordable SE and the beastly TE — Mad Catz offered players choice.

“I remember fighting the battles early on within Mad Catz to have a feature set that would set the products apart from the rest,” MarkMan said. “I’m glad that Mad Catz believed in our design methodology and really let me drive features to benefit the players. We didn’t skimp on the fighting game stuff. We openly worked with the tech talk/modding community to improve and better the product with each of the many iterations.”

“Suddenly you had Mad Catz putting out this tremendously high-quality peripheral that was a serious thing for serious Street Fighter players,” Velasco y Coll said. “It blew a lot of people’s minds away and it very quickly became the de facto standard for the community to use.”

It took really only a year for that to happen, a fact MarkMan didn’t realize until he saw it for himself.

“Back when the Street Fighter 4 range of products first launched in 2009 and I attended Evo 2009 on my own dime. I saw the shift with my very own eyes,” MarkMan said. “Seeing the entire community flooded with Mad Catz SF4 arcade sticks and people using the products that I helped create, it blew me away.”

Mad Catz gold TE FightStick
Mad Catz gave gold TE FightSticks to the winners of Evo from 2010, and TE2s in 2015.
Michael Yu

More than just controllers, its community

But building high-quality products wasn’t all Mad Catz did. The company started scaling up its presence at grassroots tournaments, something that MarkMan said happened after his bosses were so pleased with the successful launch of the Street Fighter peripherals.

“I remember requesting some time off so I could attend a fighting game competition,” he said. “My boss at the time asked me if the event would be willing to help promote the Mad Catz products, or even sell them during the event.”

Daigo Umehara (left) and Mark Julio, better known as MarkMan.
Mark Julio

This was near the end of the last decade, and competitive gaming had not become the massive industry we know today. While people could share clips on YouTube, there was no Twitch to livestream events. There were certainly tournaments, often for Halo, Quake and StarCraft — the sequel to which didn’t even come out until the summer of 2010. Companies doing tie-in, community-focused marketing with events wasn’t really a thing, unless it was for broader gaming shows like PAX.

Mad Catz began sponsoring grassroots tournaments, and selling arcade sticks as well as “cool upgrade parts, mods, and replacement buttons and joysticks,” Velasco y Coll said. Mad Catz’s headphone brand, Tritton, got fan exposure too, and Velasco y Coll said they became the default headphone brand for fighting game tournaments for some time.

“I want to say the first time we were at Bally’s [for Evo], that’s when I first personally remember having to set up a ton of those, two sets of cans at every station,” he said.

“It went from me having to take time off to go to events, to now going to every single event for work to help support the scene and promote our products,” MarkMan said.

Those connections only grew stronger. Mad Catz began sponsoring professional Japanese players in 2010, starting with Daigo “The Beast” Umehara, a Japanese player so renowned he can simply go by his first name. He holds the record for most Street Fighter tournament wins ever, and is referred to as one of the ”five Gods” of fighting games in Japan.

Daigo’s frequent presence stateside, followed by notable Japanese players like Mago and Tokido, brought even more prestige and higher attendance to tournaments. It certainly also had similar benefits to professional sports sponsorship, as fans wanted to use the equipment of the pros, and buy merchandise too.

Daigo wins Super Street Fighter 4 at Evo 2014
Daigo Umehara, in his first year of Mad Catz sponsorship, came in first for Super Street Fighter 4 at Evo 2014.
Terry Ng

“From there Mad Catz realized what I already believed in,” MarkMan said. “We created an ecosystem where players, competitors and fans can unite under a brand and really make impact driven memories from the shared experiences.”

Mad Catz growth continued from 2012 to 2014. It sponsored Evo heavily, with nearly every Twitch ad break for the weekendlong stream featuring a Mad Catz shoutout. It also sponsored the inaugural ESL One tournament held at Madison Square Garden in New York, and Capcom’s Pro Tour circuit, which led up to the final Capcom Match in December.

The real victory can be seen in the community’s lexicon. The Mad Catz FightStick branding was so prominent that the term “fightstick” is usually used interchangeably with the generic version, “arcade stick.” It’s the Kleenex or Xerox level of brand dominance in the space.

“I was always in the ‘I told you so’ mindset of confidence while at Mad Catz. I really believed in this community and still do. By creating the community standard and having the community backing, Mad Catz went from being the joke controller to being the weapon of champions.”

Mad Catz TGS 2015
Mad Catz’s tournament setup during Tokyo Game Show 2015.
Mad Catz

The business of peripherals

While its FightStick business may have been booming, it also wasn’t the sole breadwinner of the Mad Catz business plan. The company still made other third-party controllers, including instruments for Rock Band and Guitar Hero games, as well as more experimental options like the Lynx, a strange hybrid that felt more like a multi-tool than a traditional console controller. It also jumped on the Android microconsole bandwagon, developing the Mojo console as a competitor to Ouya.

But it may have been a partnership with Harmonix that caused Mad Catz to really flounder. Before Rock Band 4’s release in 2015, the company announced it had agreed to co-publish the game. That partnership included marketing, distribution and building the guitar, microphone and drums that would be packaged with Rock Band 4, a retail kit that cost $249.99 when it launched Oct. 6, 2015. While the game started strong, later earnings documents showed Mad Catz had anticipated much higher sales.

In 2016, the company reported significant losses, much of which were attributed to unsold Rock Band inventory. Several executives resigned, and the company laid off 37 percent of its staff, including MarkMan. While many might blame Harmonix, the partnership may have been a last-ditch effort by Mad Catz to earn enough to pay off existing debts. As the company noted in June 2015, it was already at risk at defaulting on a $20 million loan from Wells Fargo unless Rock Band 4 was a slam dunk.

“I don’t think it’s fair to be salty or lay any sort of blame to Harmonix and Rock Band 4,” MarkMan said. “At the end of the day, fighting games just aren’t as big of a genre yet within the entire gaming industry. There’s a lot of crazy things behind the scenes that sort of screwed over everyone involved.”

Daigo at TGS 2013
Daigo Umehara warms up in front of a crowd at Tokyo Game Show 2013. Mad Catz held a qualifying tournament for the Capcom Cup at the event.
Mad Catz

And the trail Mad Catz blazed has been picked up by others. Peripheral makers like Hori and Qanba are becoming just as popular with players, based on posts in the Street Fighter subreddit. Peripheral maker Razer also started sponsoring players, including last year's Street Fighter 5 Evo champion, Inflitration.

MarkMan himself still helps organize tournaments like Evo, and is a consultant on Namco’s Tekken 7, which comes to consoles in America in June. As players toasted Mad Catz last week, they also spent time praising MarkMan.

“Mark had vision,” Velasco y Coll said. “He saw the opportunity, so he created that possibility for Mad Catz, and I think it worked out pretty great for all of us.”