The Year In Fighting Game Championships

Capcom Cup 2019 champion Derek “iDom” Ruffin is rewarded on stage
Capcom Cup 2019 champion Derek “iDom” Ruffin is rewarded on stage
Photo: Capcom
Year In ReviewYear In ReviewWe look back at the highs, lows, surprises, and standouts in and around video games this year.

Fighting games have never been as big or monetarily supported as they were in 2019. Every major fighting game franchise had a developer-backed tour leading into a major championship, many featuring some of the largest prize pools of all time. But if it’s never been easier to make a career out of playing fighting games, why does competition feel so stagnant? A lot of that has to do with these official tournaments failing to live up to the standards that the community’s various grassroots events had established over years and years of independent organizing.

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Once upon a time—like, in the 2000s and early 2010s—the fighting game community was a mostly disparate collection of autonomous tournaments that built towards the Evolution Championship Series as a sort of Super Bowl or World Series. Nowadays, while every tournament organizer still pretty much does their own thing, grassroots events are often enlisted to act as qualifiers in developer-backed circuits like the Capcom Pro Tour, which in turn wrap up at the end of the year instead of during the summer on the Evo stage. Evo is still considered the most prestigious tournament in the community, of course, but it has lost some of its luster now that focus has shifted to qualifying for Capcom Cup and its huge payouts.

Unfortunately, Capcom Cup sucked this year. Like, big time. A year of high-level qualifiers culminated in an embarrassing main event that was so bad it managed to distract from the players on stage, immensely talented as they were. Crucial matches were run off-stream, tournament sponsor Pocky was given way too much time to shill cookies during the half-time show, and competitors had to contend with laggy setups that apparently affected competition all the way up to the grand finals. Capcom has promised to address these issues in 2020, but seeing as Capcom Cup has been on a downward trajectory since switching to Street Fighter V in 2016, many fans (including this reporter) aren’t holding out hope for that.

Many of the past year’s official tours—including the Dragon Ball FighterZ World Tour, the ArcRevo World Tour, the Dead or Alive World Championship, and the Pokkén Tournament World Championships—also had their issues, but the only competition that has come close to matching Capcom’s dismal performance is the inaugural SNK World Championship for Samurai Shodown and King of Fighters XIV. In just a few short months, SNK has managed to completely lose the faith of its competitive community thanks to a series of mind-boggling decisions that started racking up almost immediately after the tour was announced in September with an incomplete schedule. (SNK has yet to respond to Kotaku’s request for comment about these decisions.) As the itinerary was filled out after the fact, community members told me, qualifying events were unveiled with very short notice, leaving players scrambling to book flights and hotels, with some ending up unable to attend at all. Furthermore, SNK never published an official format, leaving qualifying events to their own devices without a standardized structure to ensure every tournament was run as fairly as possible.

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Most developers do everything in their power to ensure that all players have similar opportunities to qualify across the world, but SNK handed out chances to Chinese tournaments like candy. Of the 16 spots set aside for both games, six Samurai Shodown players and six King of Fighters XIV players would come from these Chinese events. And, perhaps more egregiously, these competitions weren’t even open to the public. Instead, SNK invited a small selection of hand-picked competitors to China, including South Korean player Seon-woo “Infiltration” Lee—a controversial choice, given that he was convicted of domestic violence against his ex-wife last year and pulled from the Capcom Pro Tour. SNK’s unbalanced qualifying format flies directly in the face of the fighting game community’s core ethos: the belief that everyone should be able to compete on an even footing.

SNK did extend an opportunity for a Western competitor to participate in a Chinese qualifier via Ronin Rumble, a weekly online tournament for Samurai Shodown. Although this wasn’t a perfect solution, since netplay rarely matches the experience of playing a fighting game offline, Ronin Rumble had proven to be an excellent place for Samurai Shodown competition, and tournament organizer Geoff Mendicino was grateful for the opportunity to send someone from his growing community to China. Issues started to arise, however, almost as soon as a winner—Brazilian competitor Renato “Didimokof” Pereira Martins—was crowned.

Martins ran into trouble getting a visa to travel to China since he was only afforded a few days between the Ronin Rumble qualifier and the date of the Chinese event, and so the opportunity passed to Canadian runner-up Jimmy Lee “LordJimmyBones” Pierre. Very little was said publicly about the situation until Pierre announced that he too would no longer be able to attend the Chinese qualifier, not by any fault of his own but because of the lack of communication from SNK. During a live stream discussing the situation, Pierre said that SNK constantly gave him the run-around during their conversations, and the developer eventually admitted that they would not be providing the previously promised $1,000 in travel fees ahead of time but rather planned to reimburse him after the fact. Since he didn’t have the money to visit China on his own dime, Pierre wasn’t able to make the qualifier. Due to the lack of time and preparation Ronin Rumble was given before the Chinese invitational, many in the community felt that the qualifier was destined to fail. Mendicino eventually addressed the situation via an apologetic Twitter thread.

“When SNK approached us for the China invitational, our only responsibility was to immediately introduce the Ronin Rumble winner to SNK,” Mendicino explained in the thread. “SNK said they’d take care of everything beyond that. For the entire week, I’ve been on the line with Jimmy trying to convince SNK to help us out, but nothing was agreed on. I was extremely excited and I trusted others to do what they said. I should have pushed harder. Protecting my players is my responsibility, and I am so sorry for letting you all down. Words can’t express how sorry I am. I was too excited and too trusting, ultimately letting others use my brand without regard for the people behind it.”

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SNK has been silent on this issue, and the lack of communication has left the competitive community wondering what the developer’s priorities are with regard to the SNK World Championship. This event had so much potential, especially in a scene that is typically bereft of such opportunities, but now avoidable issues have stolen attention from what’s actually important: the competition.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. This year’s Tekken World Tour was a singular source of hope when it came to developer-backed competitions, both in how the tour and its grand finals event were organized.

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Working closely with the fighting game community, Tekken World Tour organizers created the Dojo system, by which local and regional tournaments that weren’t included in the official tour itinerary could apply for the opportunity to reward qualifying points to participants. Thanks to this arrangement, regions that rarely—and, in some cases, never—see inclusion in any fighting game circuits were finally given a seat at the table, including Ireland, Lithuania, Switzerland, Austria, Luxemburg, Greece, Croatia, Bulgaria, Russia, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Brunei, Guam, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, New Zealand, Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, South Africa, Madagascar, and many, many more. The points that were offered at these events weren’t enough to help someone make the Tekken World Tour finals on their own, but acted as a beneficial supplement to players that couldn’t spend all year traveling the world to play video games as well as a spotlight for underrepresented scenes across the globe. My wish, obviously, is that fighting game tours at some point become truly international, with players from as many parts of the world as possible participating in the grand finals. This first step by the Tekken World Tour is a good start.

By the time the grand finals rolled around in Bangkok, Thailand, the Tekken World Tour was riding a wave of goodwill from the community that would continue all through its competitive weekend. The stream was crisp, rarely faltered for ad breaks or other such nonsense, and best of all, it provided a constant stream of Tekken 7 footage. The broadcast team managed to stream every match that was played, both through the last-chance qualifier and the main event, giving folks who couldn’t travel to Thailand the opportunity to keep up with everything that was happening in the venue. The payouts might not be as big as, say, Capcom Cup, but it’s clear the Tekken World Tour taking that might make for a more attention-grabbing prize pool and putting it towards structural concerns, resulting in a grand finals event that both caters to and respects fighting game community sensibilities.

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What makes for a good fighting game world tour? Well, looking at the three examples above, it’s pretty clear: working with the competitive community and addressing their concerns, first and foremost. The Tekken World Tour made sure to collaborate with people who come straight from the fighting game community, people who built the scene from nothing through years of hard work and dedication, even when there was no money to be made. Capcom Cup is a great example of what happens when a developer puts less and less emphasis on the competitive aspects of their tours and ignores folks who know better, while many of the SNK World Championship’s shortcomings can be attributed to rookie mistakes. But no matter the case, creating a fighting game apparently doesn’t make you an authority on how to run tournaments for them. The best path for developers heading into these uncharted waters should be to abandon their hubris and acknowledge that there are people out there who have already been running tournaments for these games and who live and breathe for this stuff. Whenever knowledgeable, experienced community leaders have been given the chance to run the show, it results in a more authentic, more respectful, and more enjoyable experience for both players and spectators.

Ian Walker loves fighting games and loves writing about them even more. You can find him on Twitter at @iantothemax.

Staff Writer, Kotaku

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Was thrilled to work behind the scenes at EVO for the third straight year. May they keep liking me enough to continue asking me back.