News from the Front: Combo Breaker 2018 (Part 1)

You need to compete at a fighting game tournament before you actually can understand the appeal.

This was something I’d assumed when I’d started this project, but I wasn’t entirely sure if it was a True statement so much as a convenient gimmick. When I’d first started thinking about covering the Fighting Game Community (FGC), I thought it would make for a pretty nifty book. Sort of like an updated version of Plimpton’s Paper Lion where I trained and tried to get good at fighting games before trying to muddle my way toward competence as an aged-out reporter. It’s a solid pitch, and maybe I could’ve sold it with some sample chapters…if that’s actually what the scene was like at all.

It’s not like I was so far off: there’s a space for amateurs to wander in and try out, the classic Philadelphian scenario we all grew up with through the Garbage Pickin Field Goal Kicking Phenomenon and real-life guy from the neighborhood Vince Papale. There’s of course the room for a Plimpton to wander in and just dominate a tournament as a nobody. But here’s the thing: it’s not nearly as likely. Not that the NFL is easy to break into, but Plimpton could kick. And if you can kick on a football team in the early 70s, then you can also be the emergency QB, at least during training camp. Competence gets you a spot. In the FGC scene, competence (which, in describing my skills, is generous), gets you absolutely demolished.

Put it another way: we’re so deeply enmeshed with football, baseball, hockey, basketball, and, to a lesser degree, soccer in the United States that if you asked anyone on the street to play a pickup game with you, you’d have a good chance of finding someone who at least got the idea of the game. Nine out of ten times, you’d get someone who knew that you needed to throw the ball in the hoop, or someone who understood the idea of running from first to second to third base. They might never hit the backboard or they might pull a muscle a few yards running from home, but they’d know the mechanics.

Now imagine asking someone to pick up a game of Street Fighter 2. They can get the basic idea pretty quickly — we’re meant to punch and kick each other until the other one dies or is knocked out or whatever — but there’s going to be important gaps. They may not know that you can block, for instance. They might not know the special moves, and in early fighting games that probably means that they don’t know how to use projectiles. They may not even know the distinctions between light, medium, and heavy punches and light, medium, and heavy kicks. And they certainly won’t have a decent idea of what I’ve started to all-too-casually refer to as the metagame: the characters that need to be used to counter other characters, and the moves and strategies that complement these choices. No, chances are, they will just press the punch button as fast and as hard as possible over and over and over again.

I am here to tell you that while this strategy will certainly win you some matches against your long-suffering older cousins or your friends who own the game and can’t believe you’re not “playing it the right way,” you will not fare as well against even the lower level of competition at FGC tournaments. If I remember back a long way, I can recall a free Killer Instinct machine at a vacation spot when I was kid, and how one of the workers just absolutely murdered me with Spinal, to the point that he just comboed me from the start and didn’t let me get a single hit in. For a kid who had spent a lot of time thinking he was pretty hot stuff (I used Cinder, that’s the joke), this was jarring. I think I probably stopped being serious about fighting games at that point and then also slotted the experience away as “wow I just got beat by the best KI player in the whole world.”

What’s frustrating about the FGC is the sudden realization is that this guy probably wouldn’t have been in the top 50 KI players in the world, that what he’d done to me was basically what someone can do when they understand the basic mechanics of the game. It’s the equivalent of playing 1 on 1 basketball against someone who was still getting the hang of dribbling: you don’t have to be particularly gifted to excel. But that frustration is also the great joy of the FGC scene as well. As you’ll hear in the many interviews I’ve collected, almost everyone in the scene will tell you that they started where you did, and that with enough practice you can get to their level. And while the latter bit might be more a kindness than a truth, there’s something to what they’re saying.

Let’s take a step back to see why. You’re watching the Superbowl and, if you’re an Eagles fan like me, you’re still getting mad at the team as they win the game. Because that guy should’ve caught that! And come on, I could’ve tackled that guy! And defend the pass, come on, Brady is good but he’s not god!!! Sure, this is all stuff I have said, but I have never actually been willing to put my money where my mouth is on it. Hell no. I’d end up being dissolved in a red mist the second I tried to do anything on an NFL field, Thanos-like, dissipating into unreality. And I know this because, despite my bravado, I have tried to throw a football before and watched it wobble all over the place, and I’ve tried to catch a football and Todd Pinkstoned it to hell. I am not good at playing football, and there have been plenty of pieces of evidence to solidify this fact.

But I haven’t had those experiences playing fighting games. As it happens, I’ve mostly done couch competition with my friends, who also don’t know anything about fighting games. It’s button mashing all the way down. And so, when I was beaten so badly at Skullgirls yesterday that I had to take solace in just not letting the best player in my bracket get past me without me landing a hit (much respect to Fuzzy_Snugs, a top 24 Skullgirls player as of this writing), I had to reconsider much. I haven’t been that bad at something in a loooong time. And it made me wonder: am I missing something?

The answer is yes: I’m missing a lot! I’m missing the ability to execute because I haven’t been practicing, and I’m missing the basics of the game because I’ve gotten by by button mashing. I don’t know the metagame, I don’t know the matchups, and I don’t know enough to stand a chance against even non-top tier players. And so when I started my second and final competition in Dragon Ball Z Fighters, I realized it wasn’t a competition as such, but a learning experience. I wasn’t going to win, but I’d learn something about how the game worked.

This is eerily similar to what everyone had been telling me to my stock question of “what would you say to someone looking to get into the FGC scene?” Almost everyone said “just go to locals, man, just get to know people and love what you do.” This is not the streaming culture we have grown to see as natural; this isn’t Fortnite where you become good at what you’re doing by brute forcing hours and hours and hours of play until you’re elite at run and gun building. It’s a solitary, repetitive, and primarily mechanical affair: you need to get to know the buttons and when to hit them. And muscle memory does play a role in FGC, don’t get me wrong. But unlike king of the hill shooters, there’s a cerebral layer to FGC that is best taught in person.

And so at local scenes, you learn what I’ve been learning about strategy and the chess-like maneuvering that’s happening above the level of special moves and blocking. LTL, after beating PerfectLegend in DBZ, told me that he basically lost the first round of the best of three to see what PerfectLegend was planning in terms of execution. And once he saw that he was playing a particular style, he recalibrated quickly and won. He didn’t learn new moves in the meantime or somehow get better at the game. He just watched his opponent and took a different tack. Or take Rodney, who got bodied in Guilty Gear XRD and was absolutely happy, even enthusiastic to talk to me about why, in detail, with strategies and ways to fix the mistake in the future. Both of these guys have been playing for 7-10 years, will openly admit they are still learning, and have absolutely no interest in pulling off special moves or whatever. At the place they’re at with the games, they’re strategy games, not twitch games.

And that’s amazing in its way, right? Fighting games are the most twitch based games this side of FPS or bullet hells. But their muscle memory allows them a sort of philosophical remove. These games aren’t about memorizing button configurations. They’re about getting past that memorization, so that you can meet up with people and trade strategies. How’d you beat me there? Oh, well, I managed the way you used space. Or, I forced you to rely on mid-range attacks, which that character can’t use well, without extreme precision. Or, I managed to pull off an early combo that allowed a sort of cascading effect that forced you into defense. And after that conversation? They’ll help you learn how.

I’ll write more about the fascinating racial dynamics of the FGC (the least white gaming scene I’ve seen, and as a friend mentioned to me at the con, all the more peaceable and chill for it) tonight, but for now I’m just struck by the fact that this is a scene that is absolutely reliant on in-person communication and discussion. It is cerebral and calm, with most players shaking hands and hardly any rage quits or shouting matches, let alone broken controllers. These games that seem incredibly obtuse are, of course, incredibly obtuse. But once you come to them, the players who love these games will do their best to lead you past that obtuseness into what they love about the games themselves. And for a community like gamers, who are so often gatekeeping and condescending, this is both remarkable and encouraging.

The FGC scene is small, sort of akin to an indie wrestling promotion. I will talk further about this later, but there’s a truth to Combo Breaker’s motto — No Coasts, No Kings. There are corporate sponsors, but they aren’t Sony, Nintendo, Konami, et al. The soul of this tournament isn’t company owned, but player directed. There is a sense of ownership and labor here, but there is not a sense of solitary confinement as you see even with popular streamers. As one particularly successful GGXRD competitor told me, Combo Breaker is basically a convention where, incidentally, you compete sometimes. More important than winning are seeing your friends, getting a chance to talk shop and compare this strange and fascinating hobby with each other.

And so I find myself absolutely taken with these friendly, open, and, yes, deeply invested people who find a home in fighting games. These are the most social gamers I’ve ever met, and the most welcoming. No one was mad at me for wasting their time. No one insulted me. One player even encouraged me, telling me I was on the right track. There’s something here in the FGC that is worth exploring.

But you’re never going to find it unless you’re willing to engage with it honestly.

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