Why the fighting game community hates the word “eSports”
When I first became interested in watching professional video games, I was under the impression that “eSports” was a blanket term for “video games played for money.” However, I came to find that the fighting game community that ties together games like Super Street Fighter 4, Marvel vs Capcom, Injustice, and Tekken, very much considers itself a completely seperate entity that has historically had little affiliation with “eSports.”
“When people in the FGC use the word 'eSports' in a deriding way, they're referring to the sort of stereotypical StarCraft scene: straightlaced with guys in suits and ties in a very slick production and two guys are sitting in booths fighting like gentlemen and they shake hands after the match,” said Tom Cannon, organizer of the biggest annual fighting game tournament, EVO.
“That's the stereotype, and if you're not paying attention to real StarCraft you can look at that and think, 'yeah, we don't want to be like that'.”
Twenty years of tradition
There's a long tradition of rowdiness in professional fighting games both in the players and in the crowd, and some people in the scene are afraid to lose that aspect of competition once corporate influences are introduced. The fear is that once the prize pool becomes $20,000 instead of the current $2,000, the players will be expected to conform to advertiser standards of behavior rather than being themselves.
Even today fighting games still have roots in the arcade…and everything that comes with that: the shouting, the intimidation of playing right next to your opponent, and the feeling of being part of an unrestrained underground grassroots community. It's scary, it's intimidating, and that's part of what makes it great.
“The fighting game community is not eSports,” said well-known Super Street Fighter 4 player Mike Ross in a 2012 interview on Cross Counter TV. “It's very separate. I don't like the term 'eSports.' I think it's a terrible, terrible term. And the fighting game community, I like its underground, 8-Mile feel.”
It's not the first time I've heard this sentiment. There is definitely a certain feeling that what the FGC is doing is unique and special, operating as video gaming's Lords of Dogtown. The fear is that corporate influence could one day turn a small-yet-fervent community into the gaudy spectacle of the X-Games.
The cultural aspect is only one part of the standoffish attitude many in the FGC still feel towards eSports leagues. There's also a long and bitter history between the two that veterans aren't likely to forget.
In 2005 MLG and EVO put on a joint event in Las Vegas that could have been a great way to begin the merging process. Unfortunately, EVO was allocated only a small corner of the event space despite their attendees reportedly outnumbering MLG attendees 4:1. EVO's fans were so irate that they walked over to the Halo matches and booed the players.
Leagues like MLG and the World Cyber Games developed a bad reputation for never listening to the hardcore fans. When MLG finally decided to feature fighting games again after the 2005 debacle they chose Tekken 6, a game Cannon says was already on “its last legs competitively.” The WCG pulled something similar in 2005 when they chose Dead or Alive Ultimate as their only fighting game, a game with virtually zero community interest.
“And so SF4 came out, and suddenly the leagues were interested,” Cannon said. “And we're like, oh, so you're interested now that there's a game that's marketable. We've been doing this for fifteen years, and everything's been the same except now there's a game that's marketable.
“I think there's a little bit of overprotectiveness. Where people feel like we've been doing just fine on our own, and these people weren't interested in us for the value of the competition or the love of the game because that's been there all along,” he continued. “So there's this suspicion that maybe they're not in it for the long haul, maybe they're just trying to make a quick buck.”
Despite steady growth over the past twenty years, the FGC has always made it on its own. There's never been much money being thrown around, and advertisers are few and far between. It's helped contribute to the gulf that separates competitive gaming's two main communities.
“There's a long of history of fighting games not being a part of that scene,” said Cannon. “Mostly because all those games got their funding on PC, and there was just no market for arcade games. Look at the major eSports sponsors: Steelseries, Razer, Kingston, Intel. None of these guys had any interest in arcade games.”
“We evolved differently, and then we sort of clashed together with Street Fighter IV, and it was just culture shock on both sides.”
Some middle ground
After years of conflict and distrust it's finally starting to look like the two sides are willing to come together and talk about a closer relationship.
“I've personally tried to bring together the FGC and eSports over the past few years,” said Rod Breslau, veteran eSports journalist at GameSpot.com. “And I think after years of discussion back and forth things have gotten better than ever. I mean, they still think the term 'eSports' is lame, and there are still differences in ideology between the scenes, but they're more accomodating than ever.”
One of the biggest reasons why the FGC is starting to feel more comfortable is the fact that some of their biggest players have recently been signed to eSports teams, organizations that have teams competing in all types of games.
“Evil Geniuses getting Justin Wong from Empire Arcadia was a huge step forward, and then every player since such as Ricky Ortiz, Filipino Champ, PR Balrog, Ryan Hart, all of which are signed to eSports teams” said Breslau. Renowned Street Fighter champion Infiltration was also on an eSports team until a few months ago.
“FGC players signing to big eSports teams was a huge step in the integration of both communities,” he stated.
That said, Breslau thinks there's some tension within the community itself. Not everyone has the same ideas on the merging of the scenes, and there might be more behind some people's resistance to the merging than a love for the current community.
“The players are probably the most wanting to infuse with 'esports', while the tournament organizers dont want to, because of fear of having their events die out to MLG/IPL and such,” he said. “But the players want to sign to the teams because they want real contracts and salaries and to be taken care of like other players.”
When he tells me this, I think back to the video interview of player Mike Ross that I quoted and linked above. “The eSports thing, like, I feel like I have no place in there,” Ross said.
Finding a place
The resistance to cultural changes and corporate influence may boil down to a very human phenomenon. Many of the most important people in the FGC - other than those few players who have found support from eSports teams - have found a sense of place and importance in this community and may fear losing their sense of leadership and purpose.
This isn't an impassable barrier though. Ross himself began working as a liaison between the community and the IGN Pro League eSports production company last year when Capcom decided to work with them to bring their games into the eSports fold.
That deal went sour when IGN was bought out and IPL was sold in pieces to Blizzard, but it's yet another step in the right direction of bringing everybody under the same roof.
“I think that people are starting to figure out that this isn't like a corporate takeover. We have things to say in terms of how we want the games presented and tournaments to be structured, and we can make our voices heard,” said EVO's Cannon.
Right now, some major voices in the FGC are helping assuage people's fears about the seemingly inevitable cultural merging by assuring people that what they do will never die: there will just be extra eSports events attached to their community that add to the pocketbooks of their leaders and help everyone stay in business.
One example likened it to the hip hop music scene. Just because JayZ is selling out the Staples Center doesn't mean that there aren't underground artists doing intimate shows in tiny clubs for the hardcore fans.
The hope is – as it has been for more than a decade – that the two will find a way to coexist. If so, the community can continue to enjoy the scene they love while allowing the FGC to expand to more fans around the world.