Fighting for Esports' Soul as the Big Time Beckons
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this pastime won’t stay underground forever.
By Matt Foley
The game may look close, but Snake Eyez knows his inferior opponent is on the ropes. And he’s not shy about letting the teenager know exactly how he feels. For that, the rumbling crowd inside the Mandalay Bay Events Center is appreciative. As the expletive-laced trash talk between one of the fighting game community’s Street Fighter legends and a wide-eyed noob heats up, so too does the crowd. The 10,000 fans — most of whom are members of the FGC themselves — didn’t come to Las Vegas just to see the outcome of this international competition; they came for the atmosphere that many gamers consider esports’ last frontier.
As esports rapidly turns commercial, FGC events like the Street Fighter World Championship series still manage to maintain the madness reminiscent of 20th-century backroom tournaments. Anything goes onstage, and — much like flesh-and-blood combat sports — the bombastic players become as much of a show as the games they’re controlling. But as more and more money pours into esports, FGC players will soon need to form a union if they want control. “Once this gets big enough, [unionization] is definitely going to need to happen,” says Snake Eyez, a Los Angeles native named Darryl Lewis who has turned himself into one of the most esteemed FGC gamers on earth.
It’s unfiltered, organic and not very controlled. We’re going to have to decide if we really are an esport.
Darryl “Snake Eyez” Lewis
Unlike the rest of the booming esports industry, the fighting game community is a loosely organized collective of online gamers who have yet to get in line with many massive corporate sponsors. Aside from a new Red Bull sponsorship, the FGC looks little like the large team-based esports championships generating hundreds of millions of advertising dollars on cable broadcasts and Twitch. Perhaps that’s because the FGC, built around individual-player games like Street Fighter and Tekken, strives to maintain the grassroots vibe of early-1990s basements and high school cafeterias. Even in the era of huge crowds and corporate sponsors, gamers and fans crave that individualism. “The fighting game community is going to have to decide what route to take,” says Lewis, mulling over the future of his craft. “This community is unlike any other gaming community.… It’s unfiltered, organic and not very controlled. We’re going to have to decide if we really are an esport.”
That distinction likely makes little sense to nongamers, but it’s critical. Amateur gaming enthusiast Tony DeLeo says fighting games are the lone genre of esports that still elicits adequate nostalgia. “That’s a big part of [FGC’s] popularity,” says DeLeo. “There are two generations that love these games, and we’re not ready to totally surrender gaming to the teenagers.”
At 29, Lewis estimates that he’s about the average age for FGC players — ancient when compared to Halo and other popular esports. The older fighting game circuit is uniquely positioned to learn from other sports when it comes to modern marketing techniques. Lewis points to custom controllers and other specifically tailored products for FGC fans.
Soon, though, the biggest lesson will come from other esports. As more money floods the industry, players naturally want to make sure they get their fair share of the profits. In 2017, Riot Games, the company that produces League of Legends and owner of the hit League Championship Series, announced plans to create esports’ first players’ association. It was a peculiar corporate move — union drives typically start with workers — but Riot says it wants to provide better pay and protections to secure the league’s long-term success. Yet owners have complained that online signature software shows the players spend precious little time reading contracts before signing.
Fighting gamers are eyeing the developments warily. “It makes sense for those team games because there’s a lot of conflict going on between the managers, the team owners and the players,” says Lewis. “That might have to happen with us, but I don’t want our players to suppress their emotions or lose what makes this so special.”
It means that with or without a union, fighting gamers are more apt to imitate the UFC than the NFL.