The Revival of the Fighting Game Community

Courtesy of Carlton Beener, EVO

Fighting games are a peculiar genre, not quite like anything else. While other games have their own terminology and player bases, fighting games are the only genre of video game where its rich history is practically a part of the barrier to entry. Terminology like Dragon Punch, Tiger Knee, DHC, Okizeme, and Meaty are all necessary terms to learn for players looking to break into the genre as a whole. So why is it that one of the most mechanically demanding and hard to get into genres of video games is also one of the most close knit communities around?

Thankfully, I didn’t have to find the answers to these questions myself.

I was lucky enough to sit down with Ryan “PariahDox” Allen, a streamer who is both active in beginner tournaments and also hosts his own, to get his thoughts on the Fighting Game Community and the fighting game genre as a whole.

I met Pariah through a beginner bracket for Guilty Gear Strive that we both frequent, BAN. We played through a few matches of Guilty Gear while I picked his brain about how streamers affect the FGC, how the scene has changed in recent times, and the revival of the FGC as a whole. Together, we sought to uncover some of the intricacies of the FGC and how it compares to other video game genres and their communities. When I asked Pariah about his start in the FGC and his thoughts in general about where it was going, he said, “So I’m not the most familiar with it first hand but I have learned a lot about it. Like I said earlier, I’m obsessed with content so any space that I am interested in at all, I’m doing deep dives into that world to figure out what’s making it tick.

I spent a lot of time watching Sajam who I think is a great resource who is very similar since he spends a lot of time thinking about what it means to be making content for fighting games and stuff like that. It is such a young thing because it took a lot longer to hit esports when compared to something like League of Legends because it’s been around for forever and fighting games are just now starting to scratch the surface. When you’re broadcasting and commentating a fighting game as I do, you have maybe 60 seconds of fighting game content to give a play by play for and you’ve got another 20 seconds of downtime before the next game, it leaves a lot to be analyzed and that's still something that's relatively new for fighting games.”

Arcades and Fighting Games

You can’t talk about fighting games and the FGC without first talking about arcades. From the mid 80’s all the way up to the late 90’s, arcades dominated the scene and games like Pac-man and Galaga were the driving force behind the early success that arcades enjoyed.

While these games were popular and had a large fanbase, everything changed on Feb. 6, 1991 when Street Fighter II was brought to the United States from Japan.

Street Fighter II, arguably the most important fighting game ever made, revolutionized arcades and saw the birth of the golden age of fighting games and the start of the FGC. While early arcade games would allow players to compare scores, Street Fighter II brought about a true multiplayer experience by allowing players to fight against each other while they were side by side. This simple change paved the way for a community to be built as players needed to interact with each other in order to play the game.

While the community was still in its infancy, tournaments popped up occasionally for Street Fighter II, leading into what many people view as the golden age of the FGC. Many influential players got their start here. Despite the humble beginnings of the FGC, this focus on a close knit group of people would set it apart from other genres of video games. I asked PariahDox about his thoughts on the community aspect of fighting games:

“With streams, guides, and just overall content being made, I feel like it’s hard not to think of this as a community. Not many other games have this connectivity where information is being passed around and people are looking to better themselves. You have different brackets and tournaments that foster that relationship between players where you feel like everyone is trying to learn something. I don’t think that would have been possible a few years ago where everyone was more cut off and doing their own thing.”

The spread of information from in-person and from player to player also had a ripple effect throughout the history of the FGC. Even today, players still use the terminology that was common during the heyday of Street Fighter II. Despite the rise of more complicated and demanding games, like the Tekken series, players instead opted to use the traditional terms found in Street Fighter for a more uniform experience between games.

While this choice didn’t seem like much, it affected the fighting game genre as a whole. Without the terminology differing game by game, newer players would be forced to learn both the terminology and the history of fighting games to be on an even playing field, compared to someone who had prior experience.

Unlike other genre, fighting games were more open to experimentation. A game like Tetris had rules and tricks that needed to be learned to perform at a competitive level against other players. Fighting games, on the other hand, had a much higher skill ceiling where two players could foster drastically different playstyles while still keeping up with each other at a competitive level. Because of this, knowledge on both the character someone was playing and the game as a whole became one of the most important aspects of fighting games. Players needed to be not only intelligent but mechanically gifted enough to perform against strong opponents. This need for knowledge is something that has stuck with the FGC, though the way that knowledge is received has changed drastically.

Streaming and Its Affects on the FGC

This search for knowledge, whether that be optimal punishment combos in Tekken 7 or frame data on a specific move in Guilty Gear Strive, should be at the forefront of every player's mind. While this has remained a constant since the introduction of combos, the way that the average player receives information has changed drastically.

In the early days of fighting games, back when the FGC was limited mostly to people who played in arcades or to people who had enough money to travel to tournaments, information was shared player to player in person. If you saw a top player perform a combo at your local arcade, the only way to do it was to either play against that player and memorize the combo (a nearly impossible task for anyone without a photographic memory) or to ask your opponent themselves to teach it to you.

While this fostered connections between different players in the FGC, it unfortunately didn't leave a lot of room for knowledge to get out into the general public. This spread of information proved to be a fruitful topic between PariahDox and I. When asked about the access to information that newer players possess when compared to older players in the scene, PariahDox responded,

“Even though people can look up a guide or watch a stream, I feel like a lot of that is still in its infancy in a lot of ways. It can still be unfriendly for new players despite all of the guides or videos that they can watch and while some of them will get it and stick with it, a lot of them are going to get confused and turn away from it. I think it’s a lot better now than it used to be and while information is a lot more uniform because of awesome websites that break down things like the vernacular used, some people are still going to look at it and say ‘this just isn’t for me.’”

Luckily, the roughly 30 years between the beginning of the FGC to now have given us various different ways to share knowledge between players. The internet has been a monumental help in growing the FGC. Information such as terminology, character guides, and combo videos are all easily accessible in a way that simply wasn't possible when the FGC was locked behind arcades during the 90’s.

During the mid 2000’s, when the internet was beginning to pick up steam, fighting games were arguably at their lowest point. While popular series like Street Fighter, Tekken, and Mortal Kombat were still periodically releasing new entries to their respective franchises, the FGC was still suffering a decline.

Fighting games were deeply stuck in tradition. From a player's point of view, it could be seen as a positive — new players could learn and experience the rich history. But it was also to their detriment. Poor netcode, less than stellar tutorials for newcomers, and the overall favoring of returning players over the new one were just some of the ways that fighting games clung to the past. When compared to more modern titles, such as Call of Duty, a game with a relatively low barrier to entry, it's no wonder why so many people were put off from fighting games for such a long time. With the decline of the genre, arguably one of the most important things for the FGC was underway: The beginning of online streaming.

Smaller groups, all made up of people involved in the FGC, could come together and share their knowledge, play against each other, and bring the community into a more unified group. While there were forums and websites dedicated to spreading information over the internet, in ways that at that point could only have been done in person and in arcades, online streaming took the basic concept of asking a strong player at your local arcade for various tips and demonstrations on how to better yourself. Having the chance to ask PariahDox, a streamer himself, about his role in the FGC was the most eye opening:

“I think a really crazy thing about the FGC is that when you’re learning a new fighting game nowadays, it takes maybe a day for everything to be solved. That was just not the case even five or 10 years ago. If you were playing in your local arcade and you had tactics that you would do and someone shows up for a big tournament and they’re doing something you’ve never seen before, you have no way to google what they’re doing. That person would be the only guy to know that combo and unless he taught it to you, you would never experience that same combo again.

It was a really interesting thing seeing just the amount of mystery that existed in fighting games. You were restricted by the level of the people around you to advance and now that you can see anyone, more information is available now than ever before. Information from top players is more readily available in ways that just couldn’t exist before through streaming.”

The Possible Future of the FGC

This building of smaller groups into a larger community as a whole is the main reason that the FGC exists in its current form. It's responsible for the revival that the FGC experienced during 2014-2018. FGC streamers are now easily accessible, each with their own unique part of the community that gets together, shares detailed guides and information, and even hosts their own tournaments to better bring the FGC together. Player-led tournaments and beginner brackets are now an essential part of the FGC and are typically led by streamers and their own communities, encouraging newer players to compete in a more serious manner than just simply playing matches in online modes. 

Having a streamer’s insight to what makes the FGC tick was an interesting thought and one that I took with me while writing this.

Looking over the history of fighting games and how they have changed mirrored the relationship that a new player has with the fighting game genre. It was with my interview with PariahDox that I was able to understand the fighting game genre and the FGC as a whole in a way that I hadn't considered.

While the genre itself has evolved since the days of arcades, I sometimes wonder if it's evolving quickly enough. While other games shape themselves to better fit the current state of the industry, fighting games feel like they're still lagging behind. Although there have been great strides to move the genre forward, including better netcode and better tutorials, the only way that the fighting game genre will be on par with other genres is if the FGC demands change.

Although the FGC is growing at a pace similar to the golden age of fighting games, change will not occur without people with platforms, like streamers, advocating for it.