It’s hard coming across articles like this recent VentureBeat community article and stop yourself from immediately laughing it off or writing a scathing response. I myself decided to call it “painful to read.”And it’s so easy for the people in the fighting game community, people who know the games being talked about inside and out, to dismiss this kind of viewpoint. Where they see an opportunity to make a game more watchable by changing certain elements and making the game more fun to watch, people who’ve played (or even watched) the game for a long time can clearly see why separating the Street Fighter IV tournament into fireball and non-fireball brackets is such an absurd idea.
And, had that article come to my attention a little more than two years ago, I might have actually agreed with that kind of suggestion.
I’ve been watching fighting games regularly since EVO 2011. I’ve watched every EVO since 2009. I almost failed a pushover computer management class in high school because I spent so much time watching old Capcom VS. SNK 2 matches instead of “learning” how to use a computer. But I didn’t watch streams regularly, didn’t fill entire weekends with match after match of Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom, and other fighting games until I heard that EVO wasn’t the only time people sat around and played fighting games, which was only after I saw a video of an interview with EVO 2011 Super Street Fighter IV champ Fuudo, and the youtube recommended videos lead me to Excellent Adventures.
So I haven’t been around the scene all that long, and I think the issue at the core of a no-fireball tournament is one we should discuss. But first, allow to elucidate why a no-fireball tournament is not a great idea.
Fireballs, as boring as they may look being flung out over and over, make the characters who have them who they are. Disallowing their use in a tournament (even if it was just a tournament complementary to the regular one), would effectively make some characters who rely on their fireballs useless.
But instead of seeing “a whole bracket where every fight felt unique, shedding light on unexplored matchups,” we’d see characters whose main weakness are fireballs dominate instead. I’m not incredibly tuned to Street Fighter IV’s balance, but I suspect we’d see a lot more of Crimson Viper, Seth, E. Honda, and Zangief1. While the change in characters and the lack of fireball wars would be a refreshing change of pace for a while, that feeling wouldn’t last long. It doesn’t have the novelty of a gimmick (like having a low-tier character tournament) to see it through. Instead, we’d see people complain about the new characters that dominate those brackets, and instead of being bored by the fireball wars, viewers would eventually be tired of the constant coin-flip battles that characters like Cammy and Crimson Viper create.
In fact, one of the main reasons Zero is currently one of the most-hated characters in Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 isn’t because he’s too good at keepaway, it’s that without enough keepaway to prevent his mixups on incoming characters, he can just tear through entire teams who never get a chance to even play the game properly.
Then there’s the issue of the legitimacy of a no-fireball tournament. The article asks for there to be a side tournament for the game, not unlike the two or three-man team tournaments you’ll often see on the first day of some major tournaments. These can be fun (and occasionally produce great moments), but they’re not the main event. No tournament that changes the standard rules of the game without good reason can really serve as the main event. A tournament where certain moves are banned, and therefore where balance is affected without the intent to make the game more fair (i.e., banning unfair characters like Akuma in SF II), would be playing the game at less than its full potential.
In some cases, such as the ban on O.Sagat in Street Fighter II in many Japanese tournaments as more of an unspoken rule than a concrete one, rules will be set in place to make the game more “fun” to watch, but that’s mostly so that a dominant character won’t ruin the game for viewers and competitors. Fireball characters aren’t dominant or overpowered in Street Fighter IV. In fact, a comment on the VentureBeat article breaks down the SFIV tournament’s character choices:
Rundown for Top 48 (mains, didn’t count counter-picks):
3: C. Viper, Fei Long, Sakura, Sagat, Yun
2: Ken, Zangief, Rufus, Adon, Makoto, Akuma, Guy
1: Gen, Ibuki, Balrog, Seth, Rose, Vega, Oni, Gouken, Abel, Dhalsim
24 different characters were represented in the Top 48.
20 of the 48 players main a character that has a fireball (41.66%). This means that 58.33% of the characters represented in the Top 48 do not have a fireball.
Of the 24 various characters used in the Top 48, 50% of them had a fireball.
Cammy, whom many consider to be one of the top characters, represents the most played character in the top 48 with 5 (about 10.5%).
24 different characters were mained in the top 48. Out of 39 total characters, or 61% of the cast in the game. That’s pretty impressive considering this is a sample of 48 of the top players in the world.
So what a tournament where fireballs are banned for reasons purely based on “watchability” and not balance would do is simply change the dominant characters and likely reduce the overall character variety. Less variety, in turn, would make the tournament less interesting to watch. What’s more, because the ban is based on how fun it would be watch (and not balance) players wouldn’t take it as seriously, because they wouldn’t be playing the “real” game. This tournament would be a distraction at best — something for players to do while they wait around for the real tournament to start, while everyone is still arriving. People would still end up watching the Akuma-Akuma mirror on Sunday night primetime.
So when people complain that Akuma is boring to watch because of his diagonal fireball, it absolutely irks me, not because the character isn’t less fun to watch, but because they’re making judgement based on a superficial understanding of the game they are watching.
The point here isn’t to look down my nose at someone who doesn’t understand why a no-fireball tournament is such a bad idea. It’s to help those players understand the game they’re watching, which is a chronic issue with competitive gaming2. This also, of course, does not address the main concern, the reason why some viewers would think that a no-fireball tournament could work. The fact of the matter is: watching people trade fireballs, or watching a character dominate with them, isn’t as much fun to watch to most people as aggressive play. Even if you don’t know the specifics, you can’t change the fact that lame play can intrinsically be more difficult to watch.
Even the author’s favorite game at EVO, Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, suffers from this. ChrisG is one of the most divisive players of the game, in part due to his consistent dominance, but also because watching his team win is often frustrating to watch; if ChrisG’s gameplan works (and it usually does), characters have a very difficult time even moving as Morrigan fills the screen with fireballs in front of and behind his opponent. For someone who doesn’t understand what’s happening, let alone why it’s happening, this fireball war does indeed seem boring. This is not a recent problem, nor is it only experienced by people who are only spectators. The ChrisG hate is pervasive across the entire scene, by casual and hardcore players alike, and people have hated current people’s champ Justin Wong’s “lame” play for years, going back to his Marvel vs Capcom 2 and Street Fighter III days.
I, for one, actually enjoy this kind of style, because rather than focus on what is currently happening (the fireball barrage), I’m thinking about what isn’t happening: In the Akuma-Akuma mirror, I’m learning how Tokido and Infiltration have completely different styles of play using the same character, how they both have different ways of breaking the fireball war and get in on their opponent, and I’m eagerly waiting for when they’ll finally see their chance and break sequence. But that’s an acquired taste, and you probably won’t like watching it the first time you come across it.
Of course, there’s no real way to “fix” the natural watchability of lame play. You can balance a game so that lame play is discouraged, but even at the heart of the most aggressive game is a tinge of lame play, because sometimes, using the clock to your advantage, or waiting for your opponent’s patience to break, is as viable a fundamental strategy as giving them no room to breathe.
The best way to “fix” the viewership issue is to educate the viewer, to help them acquire the taste for and understand of lame play. So let’s watch that Akuma mirror match.
Some quick background information to spice things up: Infiltration (the dark-purple Akuma) was the person to beat at this year’s EVO; not only did he win last year’s tournament undefeated, but he made it look easy, and he took almost every other tournament he attended over the following year. Tokido (the red Akuma), though one of the five Street Fighter “gods” of Japan, had fallen off a bit as the world’s premier Akuma, but as mentioned in the video, he’d finally defeated friend and rival Daigo Umehara in a major tournament and made it all the way to winner’s finals, where he lost to Xian, who would go on to win the whole tournament.
You can tell their playstyles apart even from the first move; Infiltration is aggressive, moving in close and poking, while Tokido immediately jumps back and starts using the air Hadouken. Tokido decides the spacing of the match, but Infiltration sets the pace by not ever letting Tokido settle in for a fireball war — knowing Akuma’s weaknesses, he moves in and lands the first hit. Infiltration continues to poke and Tokido continues to go for fireballs. Infiltration will occasionally meet Tokido’s fireballs with his own, but he’s never content sit and trade Hadoukens for long. Then, the second Tokido sees Infiltration’s pokes overreach, he punishes him with a knockdown from a sweep, then promptly feeds him a combo for over a third of his health bar. Then, with a huge lead in life, he goes back into fireball mode instead of trying to finish off his opponent, acknowledging Infiltration’s knowledge of the character’s mix-ups. Now Infiltration can’t play the fireball war, but being aggressive becomes too predictable, and Tokido waits for his chance and punishes overreaching aggression a second time and wins. That’s a lot of action in a single round of “lame” play.
The second round, Tokido goes for more fireball setups, and Infiltration starts playing along a little bit; he still moves in whenever the opportunity presents itself, but he has to adapt to the keepaway with a bit of his own, but Tokido’s setups are just too safe, his ability to see Infiltration’s approaches too good for Infiltration to get through. Tokido is adapting a style similar to what ChrisG does in Marvel; he keeps you at distances that make it easy for him to create openings when you try to get in, not just “away”. And he’s not just spamming fireballs, he’s making sure that he can follow up the relatively minor threat of the Hadoukens with something strong in case you decide to try to break sequence. Infiltration is known for utilizing Akuma’s vortex options (i.e., aggressively knocking you down once then knocking you down again with Akuma’s various options after he knocks you down3), but that doesn’t work against Tokido’s knowledge of what Akuma can do at what position, and he doesn’t crack under Infiltration’s pressure. Even when Infiltration gets some momentum by learning to anticipate Tokido’s rhythms, he changes up his play and catches him off-guard.
Infiltration eventually adapts and begins shifting the game to his favor, continuing to go in again, but this time focusing more on punishing Tokido when he gets too comfortable or aggressive. He gets enough momentum to take a match by simply trading health for knockdowns, which are his bread and butter. Infiltration only really needs to catch Tokido off-guard a couple of times to get a lead, and it’s much easier for Infiltration to punish Tokido’s offense when he’s ahead than it is to get in on Tokido when he’s behind, and the match in this case ends up being in his favor. Then, finally, Tokido shifts the momentum back by cooling off and playing defensively, except this time with a bit unpredictable aggression; Infiltration matches him closely here, since he’s able to fight offense better than defense, but Tokido wins the fireball war, and eventually wins based on his ability to read Infiltration’s counters to this defense.
Yes, there’s lots of fireballs going around, but even when there are two or three of them on-screen at once, you don’t see either player sticking with the same actions for long — they always make sure to do something different after every Hadouken, so that neither player read the other too easily. There’s so much happening in the midst of Tokido’s fireball play that it’s astounding how many variations he’s able to come up with (though part of that has to do with Akuma in general).
Next, we should look at the next match, Tokido vs. Xian, to show that not only are fireball characters not boring or dominant, but that fireballs are not the only source of “lame” play.
Tokido starts the first round off the same way he did versus Infiltration: jump-back fireball. But Xian focus-cancels right through it, gaining some meter and effectively nullifying the spacing Tokido hopes to create with the fireball. Tokido still manages to keep Xian at bay, but Xian knows how to weave through the barrage, which means Tokido can’t chip him to death. Xian then trades some health for a knockdown just as Infiltration did, but he capitalizes more effectively; now Tokido doesn’t have the room to go for fireballs, and Xian’s offense overwhelms him, even when, by the end of the round, he starts switching to offense.
Tokido uses fireballs more aggressively in the second round, pushing Xian back until a fireball lands, which Tokido uses to put Xian in the corner. Tokido’s vortex pressure then blindsides Xian, and by the time Xian turns the tables, Tokido is in a position to switch back to defense, and a single punish is all it takes for Tokido to win.
Then Xian manages to take around by using the timer against Tokido. Tokido continues to keep Xian away and punishing aggression, but Xian eventually gains some momentum, and then turns the tide of the match by pulling off a Super-into-Ultra combo, and without the life lead, Tokido has to go in. Xian keeps Tokido, who is no longer throwing fireballs, off his back long enough that by the time Tokido puts Xian back in the corner, it’s too late.
The second match goes by quick, as Xian shows that he’s figured out the fireball game. He’s not afraid of Akuma’s keepaway, and can now see the holes and punish them more easily than before. This again prompts Tokido to go on offense, and this is where Xian shines. Tokido is simply not ready for Gen, and even after a close round, he still can’t manage to build momentum or keep Xian away.
Xian eats Tokido alive in the first round of the third match by using Gen’s own powerful vortex game to completely fluster his opponent, who’s not as used to being on the receiving end of ambiguous mix-ups. In the second round, however, Tokido’s offense finally starts paying off, bullying Gen long enough to starve him of space. There is, however, a particularly telling moment in this round. Tokido follows up an EX fireball with a Demon Flip-into-divekick (a common vortex setup), but Xian sees right through it and punishes it. After that, when Tokido’s aggressive momentum wears off, he’s much more careful with his fireballs, firing them lower to ground, but losing a bit of space advantage. This is all Xian needs to take his final round. The tighter, safer spacing allows Xian to move in much more easily, and after punishing the most innocuous fireball with a Super, Gen’s vortex does most of the work afterwards. Next, with a sliver of life left, Tokido can’t risk using fireballs, what he initially thought was his safest option. This is the first real time Tokido’s decided to play are ground-based spacing game (read: footsies), and it doesn’t work out.
Xian forces Tokido to not rely on his fireball pressure after seeing the holes in the strategy, then simply waits for him to switch strategies, after which he’s easily able to counter a character that uses fireballs to bully him. It may not seem like it at first, but Xian outlames Tokido.
And if you’re still not convinced that lame and fireballs have a lower correlation than you might think, Justin Wong and Snake Eyes would like a word with you.
I’m still bad at fighting games, and have only just gotten to the point where I can see matches beyond “this guy hit the other guy a lot more, so he’s winning.” I can’t count frames, and don’t know my Option Selects from my resets. And getting to that point takes a little bit of work, for sure. But even for someone who hasn’t been around long, once you begin paying more attention to what players are doing than what’s happening, you can find lots to see, and the games in general become more fun to watch. This is why it’s difficult to watch fighting games at first, and why it’s difficult to demo them at events. If you don’t have even a basic understand of the systems in place, matches can just look like nonsensical button-mashing. Fireball wars are harder to watch because there doesn’t seem to be as much going on, but there’s way more going on and it can be just as exciting as any other kind of play. You just have invest in knowing what you’re watching a little more. Whether viewers are interested in making that initial investment is up to them.
And yes, it’s easy to read an article from someone who may not see the games we watch the way we do, roll our eyes, and leave a scathing comment. But we should remember that even some diehard viewers and players share a core issue with the author, and that it’s better to educate than malign.
1 These are educated guesses based on two years of spectating and casual training. I’m probably wrong — feel free to blow me up about it.↩
2 Fighting games are among the most watchable genres in gaming (it’s much easier to grasp why being hit in Street Fighter is bad, versus knowing why a counterpick or clutch deward in Dota 2 may have just turned the tables in a match) and EVO did a better job this year of explaining a lot of the terminology used as well as the actions on-screen. But unlike sports, which are so ingrained in modern culture that it isn’t too difficult to sit down and watch them, you’re going to need a lot more viewing time with a video game to understand what’s going on.↩
3 This is, by the way, the reason I find Akuma more difficult to watch than other characters: not because he’s too passive, but because he can be too aggressive and not get punished for it. Watching the Akuma vortex is the most frustrating part about the character, not his fireball keepaway.↩