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Tier Lists Are Full Of Shit

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Almost no one played as Blanka in Street Fighter IV. This is because the low-tier green Brazilian is weird, doesn’t play like any other character in the game, and is widely considered not to be very powerful. Nonetheless, Street Fighter V is adding Blanka into the game this January after two years without him. I can’t wait for him to come back.

His perceived low-tier status in SFIV meant that no one bothered to figure out how to fight somebody who had bothered to learn how to play a passable Blanka—someone, in this case, like me. I used to enter online competitions hosted by the Street Fighter subreddit and show off my Blanka skills, and I could always capitalize on my opponent’s uncertainty about how fast and how far Blanka could move across the screen with his dashes, his face-plant slide, and his somersaults that can vault him over projectiles to twist a hapless enemy’s neck.

Over the past two years without Blanka, I sank deep into the world of tier lists—fan-created lists of characters, ranked from best to worst—to determine the best choice for a replacement. Fighting game fan site EventHubs has a collection of ever-changing tier lists; gaming subreddits also often have their own running lists and charts.

SFIV’s Blanka didn’t feature well on these lists. It’s not just that Blanka is low-tier; he’s considered a “troll pick,” the type of character you’d choose if you want to fuck with people. Being good with Blanka requires some psychological trickery, since almost all of his moves rely on punishing an opponent’s behavior. You lie in wait, observing your opponent’s bad habits, and then you use Blanka’s unpredictable flying somersaults to ruin them.

I didn’t know people hated Blanka when I chose him. I did know that he didn’t feel like anybody else in the game, and I liked that. I also liked that I could win with Blanka due to his unpredictability and my opponents’ unfamiliarity with him. His moves don’t look like anybody else’s, so you can’t just use a flowchart to defend against him. Playing against him requires a specialized approach, and no one bothers to learn it because so few people play as Blanka. That gives Blanka players a real advantage.

Dudes kept giving me unsolicited advice about my choice, especially when I lost. “Well, he’s low-tier,” my opponents would say. “Imagine how much better you’d be if you had chosen a real character!”

I started to believe them. In the final year of SFIV’s run, before SFV came out, I switched away from Blanka. I rotated between the game’s more popular and predictable characters: first Ken, then Ibuki, and finally, Chun-li.

In SFIV, Chun-li is high-tier compared to Blanka. She is also far more popular, with thousands of fan-made tutorials about her online. Her fireballs and kicks make sense with the rest of the Street Fighter roster. She has a boring backstory, too—she’s literally a cop, and so something like the polar opposite of the pure, undiluted ego that is Blanka, the Hulk-like electricity goblin from Brazil.

I could win with Chun-li, but something was lost in the process. When I turned away from Blanka and investigated the rest of the roster, I pivoted from having fun to choosing my main fighters based on tier lists, tutorial videos and fan speculation about the “strongest” choices.

That is, I went from playing emotionally to playing logically and sensibly—or so I told myself. But had I actually won any more often? No. My win rate has stayed about the same. Was I having more fun? Hell no. Playing with Blanka was more exciting, and anyway, the seeming advantages of more popular fighters are blunted by the familiarity of their strengths and tactics.

Maybe characters like Chun-li, Ken, and Ibuki really are stronger than Blanka, as tier lists would have it. Maybe, if I’d been as excited about practicing with them as I had with Blanka, I could’ve won far more often than ever before. But I don’t think so. I gave Chun-li plenty of my time. I think people just don’t like Blanka.

That collective disdain of Blanka also seemed to benefit my win rate, because it meant a lack of familiarity with the spacing and speed of his attacks. That’s the big advantage in choosing a supposedly weak weirdo: everyone will underestimate you. The element of surprise can only get you so far, but it’s still an undeniable asset—and one that the bottom third of every tier list enjoys.

Tier lists are bad science

I can’t mathematically prove that all tier lists are full of shit, but my experience with cycling through different supposed low- and high-tier characters certainly made me question their validity. Tier lists exist in the fan community for any game with different types of characters, but they’re most prominent in fighting games, which have one-on-one battles rather than team-based matches. (Team games mostly defy tier-listing because of the variables introduced by character roles and team composition.)

Lists are based on supposed data, like the raw power of characters’ attacks and their movement speed, but they’re also based on more subjective stuff, like which characters have become popular among pro players at the highest levels. Pros also create their own personalized tier lists, which then influence the rankings on larger fan-sourced lists. In short, there are too many variables that influence tier lists, in their current form, for them to have any real statistical use.

Every fighting game roster does seem to have its undeniably overpowered and underpowered characters. Hence the debates about whether Bayonetta should be allowed in Smash 4, and the agony that Daigo felt last year when he finally chose to switch away from playing as Ryu, who has been his Street Fighter main across multiple generations of the game.

Bayonetta does seem pretty darn good. And Ryu does seem like he sucks in SFV, despite being an utter hunk. But what about all those characters who aren’t extreme outliers—the characters in that muddy middle of the tier list, always ticking up and down in popularity? That’s where Blanka fell in the Street Fighter IV days, although he did tend towards the bottom of that middle section.

Back then, I thought that all the people voting on tier lists couldn’t, collectively, be wrong. Sure, I could win with Blanka sometimes, but maybe I had doomed myself to an eternal plateau by choosing him as my main. He wasn’t a “real” fighter; he was just a series of annoying gimmicks. And so I switched.

The biggest difference, once I switched to Chun-li, was the lack of judgment from other players. When I lost, my opponents gave me advice about how to use her best, because everyone knew how to play as Chun-li. When I lost with Blanka, the only advice was “stop playing as Blanka.”

So, in the final days of SFIV, I had made my choice. I would stick with Chun-li for the rest of my logical, methodical Street Fighter lifetime. With Chun-li, one of the franchise’s most beloved characters, I assumed I’d be set for life on tutorials and tactics. Then, by a bizarre coincidence, Street Fighter V fucked over Chun-li.

When I went to a local Street Fighter V competition earlier this year and ran into an old friend, he asked me which fighter I’d chosen. When I said Chun-li, he gave me a look of sympathetic concern. “You must be so sad about the nerfs,” he said. “Have you thought about switching?”

Of course I had! But I didn’t like any of the game’s high-tier characters. I stuck with Chun-li, hoping she’d get buffed in a future patch, but from time to time, I’d ask my peers: “Which character in SFV do you think is the most like Blanka?” Most people say F.A.N.G., an unpopular newcomer in SFV who has a different set of moves and a different feel than any other character. He’s low-tier, though. Better not pick him!

Pros who go low-tier

Fan advice about “low-tier” characters, especially for characters who are actually somewhere in the middle of these supposedly scientific rankings, is a crock of shit. Is that character in the middle because they actually suck? Or are they stuck there because so few people have bothered to try to learn them, because their moves are different or intimidating or look silly or any number of other reasons? Maybe their costumes look bad, or their voice actor sounds annoying. That’s one of the common complaints about F.A.N.G., whose high-pitched and effeminate voice tends to bring out snap judgments seated in homophobia.

The only pro who has managed to win big with F.A.N.G. has not stuck with him. Ho Kun Xian, a longtime Street Fighter pro who often gravitates towards unusual characters, surprised his opponents when SFV first came out by winning some major tournaments with F.A.N.G. Last year, though, he switched to the character Ibuki, a much more popular choice. Xian has done well with Ibuki, making Top 8 at multiple Premier and ranked tournaments and finishing tenth in the Capcom Pro Tour 2017 rankings. He’s still considered the best F.A.N.G. player in the world, a title for which he has no real competition.

In the Street Fighter IV days, Xian chose to play as Gen, another unpopular character. Xian told Compete, “I have always liked Gen, just because he looks like a kung-fu master and is really cool. That actually draws me to play F.A.N.G. as I think their outlook [is] similar.” In other words, he didn’t pick his characters based on their supposed power level. He picked them based on how they looked and how they made him feel.

Eventually, though, Xian made the same decision I did in my SFIV days. He switched away from an eccentric weirdo to a popular, high-tier character. Ibuki is a perky teen ninja with projectiles and speedy target combos and a totally different vibe than the older, slower, robe-wearing Gen and F.A.N.G. She’s a boring option, but a safe one.

Maybe no one really can win big with F.A.N.G., but it’s much more likely that F.A.N.G. is low-tier because only one person ever really tried. The internet is full of fan-made tutorials and tips about Ibuki. F.A.N.G.? Not so much. And so, the cycle continues. Characters become popular and unpopular based on which pros happen to choose them and iterate on established tactics. If a handful of pros happen to like one character or other, more and more combos and techniques naturally tend to emerge for that character, thereby making them seem stronger.

Tier lists are broken, then, and that brokenness warps everything around it. They enforce homogeneity to everyone’s detriment; competitive and casual players alike would benefit from playing with characters they’re not comfortable with.

It’s not like pros never play as low-tier characters; those who win with them can become folk heroes, because no one understands why they chose that character. This past month, I watched Marcus “The Cool Kid93" Redmond do an incredible run through the losers bracket to win the North American last chance qualifier for Capcom Cup while playing as Abigail, a character often listed alongside F.A.N.G. on Street Fighter V tier lists. Capcom Cup’s winner this year used the character Birdie, who definitely isn’t as popular as characters like Ibuki, Laura, or Karin. Birdie is another character that gets lost in the middle of most tier lists: he might not even be that bad, but he doesn’t get chosen often, so who knows?

Fuck tier lists

When I saw SFV’s announcement that Blanka would return, all the uncertainty I felt after the nerfing of Chun-Li melted away. My choice was obvious. It’s Blanka. It’s always been Blanka.

I have no idea where Blanka will end up in the eyes of Street Fighter V fans. Maybe, by some happenstance, he’ll be deemed overpowered and I’ll get accused of hackery by choosing him. That’ll be a first for me.

The thing is, people will judge my choice no matter what. Tier lists exist so that fighting game players can offer one another endless unhelpful advice about which character they should have chosen. It’s a great way to justify why you lost—your opponent’s character was overpowered, right? Or maybe you chose an underpowered character. Or both! It’s also a great way to forget why you chose the character that you did.

If everyone diversified their fighting game portfolio by learning some weirdos in addition to the more conventional fighters, tier lists would look very different. But that won’t happen. Tier lists appeal to the fantasy of a get-good-quick scheme—choose the “best” fighter, you’ll be guaranteed a win. It feels safe, even smart, to rely on these tier lists. But choosing an unpopular fighter can grant you an advantage you never considered. Great players innovate on established strategies, and that includes picking fighters with tactics that catch opponents off-guard.

Those supposed top-tier characters might not even be the “strongest,” really. The only thing we know for sure about those characters is that they are popular. Perhaps it’s because they play in a way that fits a certain expectation, or because they look a certain way. Perhaps effective counters to their abilities have yet to be discovered. Perhaps those counters exist in the bottom half of the list, down where no one’s looking for them.

I don’t look like someone who would play competitive fighting games. It’s annoying enough at tournaments to have to constantly justify my presence without also having to defend playing the character that makes me happiest. I miss Blanka, so I’m going to play as him next year, even if they have to add a new tier to the basement of the list just for him. But I’m not just picking Blanka because he’s fun. He’ll help me beat up on some rubes, too.