2020 sucked. You know it, I know it. It was amid this chaotic year that the fighting game community found itself pushed out of the arcades, hotels, and convention centers to which competitors had grown accustomed and into the unpredictable world of online play. Early on, organizers were unsure if the community could survive, but now, it’s clear that its competitive spirit lives on. It’s just a matter of whether fighting-game developers can get their own acts together.
In the months preceding the covid-19 outbreak, the fighting game community pretty much functioned as normal. Regional tournaments provided exciting moments on a regular basis, the Tekken 7 world finals concluded with a new villain, and the prestigious Evolution Championship Series announced its 2020 lineup.
The first sign of trouble didn’t come until February 20, when a weekly Granblue Fantasy Versus tournament in Japan was canceled out of concern over what was then a new outbreak of a novel strain of coronavirus. Fighting game tournaments across the world quickly took notice of the dangers covid-19 presented to their events, with some organizers openly worried about the future of their events after the steep financial hit of canceling venue contracts and refunding would-be attendees.
“Unfortunately as of right now it does not look good for us,” NorCal Regionals organizer and veteran Street Fighter competitor John Choi told Kotaku at the time. “We are able to deal with a few thousand dollars lost on sunk materials, labor, and miscellaneous costs, but we are unable to deal with the venue cancellation fee the hotel is holding us liable for. That hit to NorCal Regionals is around $50,000, which we are not able to manage and will instantly bankrupt us.”
From there, the community saw a cascade of canceled and condensed events. SNK indefinitely postponed its King of Fighter XIV and Samurai Shodown championships. A high-profile Tekken 7 exhibition between teams representing Japan and South Korea was scaled back after two Korean players chose to stay home rather than risk travel. Final Kombat, a year-end Mortal Kombat 11 competition, called off a last-chance qualifier and reduced in-person spectating. Capcom canceled the first half of the Capcom Pro Tour, and Evo eventually called it quits for 2020.
While some organizers, like Combo Breaker’s Rick Thiher, were hopeful that offline events were still in the cards for 2021, that still left players wondering what to do for the rest of the year. That void was soon filled by both existing and newly established online competitions, but it wasn’t the same. As fighting games typically require split-second decision-making and the ability to execute strategies in mere frames, the inherent latency of online play has been a consistent obstacle to high-level competition in many games. With no way to play in person without risking infection, the demand for competent netcode began to grow.
This groundswell of support, especially regarding a technology known as “rollback” netcode, didn’t fall on deaf ears. After an unofficial mod improved upon Street Fighter V’s proprietary (and faulty) rollback netcode, Capcom attempted similar improvements in-house, though that didn’t stop top players from quitting official competitions. Bandai Namco did the same for Tekken 7, with slightly better results. Classic games like Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus R and Garou: Mark of the Wolves received rollback netcode via post-release patches and saw massive spikes in their online player bases. Guilty Gear developer Arc System Works has since promised that the upcoming Guilty Gear Strive will utilize rollback netcode.
Unfortunately, not every fighting game developer is as tuned into the community. When a group of Super Smash Bros. Melee fans created Slippi, a third-party program that added rollback netcode to the old-school platform fighter by way of the Dolphin emulator, it seemed like the diehard Smash community finally had a light at the end of the tunnel. But the first major online tournament to use the mod, The Big House, was forced by Nintendo to cancel its competition after the corporation learned they would be emulating the 19-year-old GameCube game.
“I am very disappointed that the one year [where] our only option is to play online during the pandemic is also when we are told that path has been shut down,” The Big House organizer Robin “Juggleguy” Harn said of Nintendo’s decision at the time. “I don’t have all the answers, but I still believe Melee will find a way. We always have and we will again.”
Nintendo’s overbearing policies set off a firestorm in the Smash community that continues to this day, with many high-profile players and personalities demanding the Japanese company work with the community to solve these issues rather than shutting the event down completely. Nintendo maintained that it was well within its rights to throw its weight around, since The Big House’s use of “illegally copied versions” of Melee constituted a threat to its “intellectual property and brands,” which as I noted before is absurd bullshit.
That’s not to say that fighting game developers have given up on official tournaments altogether. After the first half of the Capcom Pro Tour was canceled, Capcom resumed Street Fighter V play with an online variant that’s set to conclude offline in the Dominican Republic next February. Street Fighter League, the company’s team-based Street Fighter V competition, has also continued in earnest, though it was forced to push back its start by several months and replace a handful of players who were either unable to travel due to restrictions in their home countries or willingly stepped away out of caution. Bandai Namco just wrapped up a series of online national championships for Dragon Ball FighterZ across four countries. But none of these events have been able to live up to the grassroots tournaments the community lost in 2020.
Fighting games have long been hobbled by their lack of stable online play. When the only way to get good, foundational experience is to travel to an offline venue, it adds yet another barrier of entry for newcomers. Several developers, including Killer Instinct’s Iron Galaxy Studios and Mortal Kombat’s NetherRealm Studios, made significant strides toward implementing quality rollback netcode before 2020.
But that’s no longer enough; the larger fighting game scene is really a complex ecosystem of numerous, smaller communities, and they require depth and variety to survive. Every company that makes fighting games needs to have a serious internal discussion about the ways their games are played, and how to make the online experience feel as close to possible to what players enjoy offline.
If players aren’t able to return to in-person competition soon, it’s imperative that the next generation of fighting games get online play right. I don’t see much in the way of future growth for the competitive community should players, newcomers and veterans alike, be forced to contend with the current constraints and frequent, predictable frustrations of today’s online play. This community’s strength has always been tied to consistent, grassroots organizing, and that means making competition viable for as large a group of people as possible.
When a virus has everyone trapped at home for an entire year (and counting), state-of-the-art netcode is enormously important to achieving that goal. The community knows this, and the publishers need to listen if the continued existence of the competitive scene is a priority.