Fighting games tournaments can still be great

Last week I took a plane to Lyon, France, to participate in a Street Fighter 3: Third Strike tournament. You might have notice that I wrote a a few notes about the game recently, but I also wanted to write my feelings about the tournament.

The introduction of Street Fighter 3: Third Strike.

Street Fighter 3 is a very peculiar game in all its aspects. First of all, it doesn't feel, play or even functions like a traditional Street Fighter game, even according to its creators:

There's competitive games like that, where the match is essentially a confrontation of theoretical knowledge that each player has built up. But Street Fighter 3 is a game that, by design, doesn't have a fixed answer to those questions. There is no "best" tactic; you can spend your whole life trying to find the perfect theoretical approach to a situation in SF3, but it will never be quite right. You always have to be reading your opponent in the moment; you can't just fall back on your theories. It's a game that lets you search for answers forever. And that was the opposite of Street Fighter 2.
— Shinichiro Obata - Street Fighter 3 planner, Street Fighter 3: An oral history

Its first version (New Generation) had a very rocky development (as narrated in this article) and the last one, Third Strike was purposely a swan song of the Capcom fighting game arcade era, with the next entry in the series only releasing almost 10 years later.

The subtitle “Fight for the Future” [...] we wanted to signal to players that this was a game you could only play at game centers, and convey our hope that the tradition of live arcade FTG matches will continue for a long time to come.
— Capcom, Gamest magazine translated by shmuplations

Surprisingly, 24 years later, its creators hopes are realized. We still play it on arcade cabinets and had more than 100 players at the tournament (a first in Europe!) ; and if the game is kind of "solved" and well discovered and documented, players keep looking for answers and solutions on their own personal journey with the game!

I'm not a serious Third Strike player, I just have fundamentals in fighting games, but I love playing this game in a tournament setting even if I lose all the time. There are multiple reasons for why specifically this game, and that's what I wanted to write about today.

First of all, the game is fun. The parry mechanic is intoxicating and makes you want to bet your whole life bar on a single risky read. The characters are diverse and charming, both in look and gameplay. Also the game is incredibly well animated, pretty, and its soundtrack is a banger.

Alex & Ken's Stage - Jazzy NYC '99

Secondly, the game is notoriously known for its unbalanced roster. What could be an issue actually acts as a filter. In recent years complaining about perceived unfair game balance has become standard due to social media, consumer culture and professionalization (it's always capitalism). It undermines my enjoyment of this whole genre of games, and going to a tournament knowing that noboby will complain about it felt super great.

The other thing that felt great are the side effects of the hardware. Most fighting games tournaments are run on consoles provided by the tournament organizers, and each player brings its controller. When the tournament is not running, players freeplay on available stations. But it takes a bit of time: players have to plug their controller, go back to the character select screen, check if their buttons are configured properly, pick a character, and finally the match starts. It may not sound much, but it takes usually 2 to 5 minutes, and a fighting game fight rarely lasts longer than that.

So quite logically, people run sets. First to 3 or 5, best of 3 or 5. The players waiting behind have to announce they will play the winner of the set, or the already installed players won't move. Newcomers often find this situation anxiety-inducing, as you are interrupting people who are often better than you and asking a person to leave.

But Third Strike has not satisfactory console ports, so all tournaments are held on arcade cabinets (most of the time the Sega Astro City) running the 1999 original dedicated arcade boards.

Quite logically, nobody brings a controller, everyone has the same button config, and the game automatically falls back to the character select screen after each match. You just sit, pick the character and play. And in a true arcade culture fashion, you only have a single chance to prove you're the best. If you win, you stay and play against a new opponent. If you lose, you stand up, go back in line and wait for your turn.

That may sounds harsh but it's actually a blessing in disguise. The dynamics of play are very different. You have to get into the game fast, commit on your actions, reflect on what went wrong or you'll lose all the time. But even when I lost, I did not wait long to play again due to the 20 (!) arcade cabs. It actually was one of the fighting games events where I played the most in my entire life.

The TSB event, with a lot of arcade cabs lined one after the other.
The arcade cabs are connected together in "Versus Mode", providing each player with a screen and a panel to play. | Full size

And finally, it was not an e-sport event, which means it excluded a whole bunch of annoying things that became standard when capitalism immersed itself into fighting games tournaments. There was no money to win, no sponsor to announce, no ad breaks, no ugly jerseys, no external pressure to perform, no fanboys, no autograph sessions. The tournament was self-funded and organized by two non-profits, but still managed to bring an impressive production value to the table with an amazing scene, a stream that regularly rolled commentators from different countries so everyone felt included, and prestigious guest players from Japan.

Going there, I was not expecting much. I just wanted to hang out with friends and see folks I missed for years, maybe visit the city. But when the first day ended, my roommates and I talked at length during the night about how fun and great fighting games are. It was a feeling of enjoyment I had forgotten, as if I had finally reconnected with a lost friend.

The sudden realization that yes, fighting games tournaments can still be great, and that I missed them so much.

The screen of an arcade cab with Street Fighter playing.
Preparing for a fight on the arcade cab. | Full size
Two arcade cabs under a movie screen. There are decorations and a red light.
Finals were played in a separated room, decorated for the occasion. | Full size
When the organizers were packing up things they left us with a single setup to play, which was turned into a team tournament between the two sides of the room. One of the most amazing moments of my already long fighting game life. Video courtesy of Pr0sk.
A group of around 100 persons taking a picture together.
The family photo at the end of the tournament. | Full size

Initially published: November 19th, 2023
Generated: November 19th, 2023