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For all that fragmentation, though, that the two Tekken 7 finalists represent Echo Fox is in some little way indicative of the profile esports finds itself enjoying today—the team is owned by former NBA player (and sometime actor) Rick Fox. Esports is something that people with no prior interest in video games are keen to invest in.
"Combo Breaker is neither a West Coast nor East Coast tournament, and therefore is not seen as the home of the FGC's [Fighting Game Community] more premier players or tournament series," he continues. "We've raised and serve no gods as a region. No kings. The Midwest, culturally, doesn't follow our scene's trends. Dead games live here. Vampire Savior thrives. Skullgirls stands tall. [Guilty Gear] Xrd has found hallowed ground. Celebrity privilege is ignored. No game is guaranteed a time slot and each tournament earns its prestige firstly from its player attendance. We put players before media, the stream, or the games themselves. All in, no masters but the people."
"The Midwest, culturally, doesn't follow our scene's trends. Dead games live here. Celebrity privilege is ignored." — Rick Thiher
"I went down to New York City for an event there and I realized shortly after I arrived that I was watching a match next to Justin Wong," Paul tells me. "He was just standing and chilling with everybody else. Just hanging out, watching Street Fighter matches. That really struck me. Everybody there is kind of on the same footing, when it comes to how you perform in the game. It's something you don't get to see in a lot other esports. A lot of events are invitational or online qualifiers. But with fighting games, everyone is out there. Everyone starts from the same pools, the same brackets, as anybody else."
"[This is] something you don't get to see in a lot other esports. A lot of events are invitational or online qualifiers. But with fighting games, everyone is out there." — Robert Paul
Being in the crowd is akin to going to a dog-track. Dollars exchange hands and side betting is rampant. Everything from "Who gets hit first?" to "Will the round timer end on an even number?" is up for wager. And the gamblers are a slice of the diverse fan community, as each game's supporter groups have quite distinct personalities.Street Fighter fans assume the role of the loud jocks—here, at any rate. Each combo is greeted with the type of roar usually reserved for touchdowns, and they aren't afraid to tell you when you're being bodied. The Mortal Kombat crowd is a more contemplative and quiet group, ironically not in keeping with the in-your-face aesthetic of the game. There's little trash-talk and only masterful combos and juggles merit anything more than polite clapping. The game's signature feature, the fatality, is skipped for competition play—you already beat your opponent, no need to decapitate their character, too. Each group has its own unique chants and traditions. During the Tekken 7 finals, fans mimic the juggles with their own groans and grunts. However, no other group has as many traditions and quirks as the Skullgirls fanbase.
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Released in 2015, Skullgirls 2nd Edition is a fast 2D fighting game that's based around a group of female fighters with special powers. This is its second year on the fighting game tour, with Combo Breaker being one of the few events where it's played on the main stage. At other events, Skullgirls is shoved into smaller rooms, or left out entirely. But game has an obsessively loyal following, which turns out for Combo Breaker. Fans wave signs, shout taunts, and even fling a few lightsabers in the air (one of which almost gives me a buzz cut). Someone in front obstructs my view with a large, homemade Magic: The Gathering card—the in-joke or community reference is lost on me, but points for effort.
"If we were at home, I'd have just switched controllers. At home, I'd run through you." — A competitor gets salty at Combo Breaker
Watching competitor after competitor play, the diversity within the community is also striking. A lot of esports scenes in North America tend to be dominated by young white men, but that's not the case at Combo Breaker. The fans are a true amalgam of genders, races, and abilities, with energetic discussions and arguments conducted in English, Spanish, Japanese and Korean. Though these fans come from drastically different worlds, the language of fighting-game hype is universal.Most inspiring (and frankly badass) out of all the competitors was Dayton Jones, better known as UAWheels. Jones has Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2 (SMA), causing him to require wheelchair assistance. In Killer Instinct, his main game, he's a combo master whose only limitation is how good his opponent is. Watching him feels like being in Rocky, cheering on a scrappy underdog who's proving everyone wrong.Even Thiher, a professional who's been to countless events and spends most of Combo Breaker running around ensuring everything is going smoothly, stops to watch Wheels in the KI finals. He gloriously loses all sense of objectivity and joins the fans in their fervor. Wheels ultimately finishes in second place, but at the trophy ceremony he receives a louder round of applause than the champion.Like Combo Breaker's motto, there are no kings in this sport, just fans, on stage and off. By the event's end, I grasp what's causing the people around me to cheer and wilt with every moment. During the Tekken 7 finals, I die with the crowd after each round, questioning how the match could get any better.And when the round timer hits zero, and the match ends, I realize I'm not an observer anymore. I'm a fan.Follow William on Twitter.
There are no kings in this sport, just fans, on stage and off.