Competitors at the 2014 Evo Champion Series
Playing video games competitively can make you a millionaire. Of course, that won't come as much of a surprise if you've been paying attention to the increasingly lucrative world of eSports. The prize pot for the fourth international Dota 2 tournament, for example, was set at $10.5 million (£6.4 million) this past July, up from just under $3 million (£1.8 million) a year ago.
While some might believe that a multiplayer battle arena game like Dota 2 is still exclusively the preserve of barely washed basement dwellers, the millions of people following eSports worldwide suggest that perception is a little wide off the mark. People pay good money to see the very best Dota 2 players – and those of Riot Games' League Of Legends, and a smorgasbord of one-on-one fighting games – in the flesh, at massive, arena-held tournaments.
In June, 10,000 punters made their way to London's Wembley Arena to watch week five of the European League Of Legends Championship Series, a big enough turnout to attract coverage from the BBC, alongside the usual games-focused outlets. In 2013, around 71 million people watched competitive gaming, so you'll understand why it's been suggested that these eSports heavyweights could ultimately feature at the Olympics.
Guests at the international Dota 2 tournament in 2012
Such players were on parade at the annual EVO Champion Series, held from the 11th to the 13th of July at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort and Casino. EVO is a fighters occasion, inviting the very best from around the world to compete in matches across myriad beat 'em ups, from Ultra Street Fighter IV (SFIV)to Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom 3 via Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and Super Smash Bros. Melee (SSBM). What's interesting there is that not all of the games are new releases; unlike the big gaming expos held globally, where the excitement is reserved for the freshest reveals, events like EVO highlight only the very best games of their kind.
These games comprise the bedrock of their genre – Super Smash Bros. Melee dates from 2001, and is so closely tied to its native controller, the GameCube's oddly proportioned official model, that Nintendo are making the next entry in the series – out for 3DS and Wii U on the 3rd of October and late November, respectively – compatible with the GameCube pads. It's a game that hasn't been outclassed in 13 years. The same can be said of Ultra Street Fighter IV, merely an extension of 2008's initial iteration in the IV strand, itself part of a series that dates back to 1987.
EVO's top Ultra Street Fighter IV participant, Frenchman "MD|Louffy" (playing as the character Rose here), took away over £10,000 for his win. For triumphing in Smash Bros, "C9|Mango" scooped the best part of £3,600 – the pay-out lower because there were fewer entrants in the category. Still, not bad for a weekend's work.
So why have these games continued to prosper? Says top-three-in-the-UK Smash Bros. tournament player Robby Gee, previously featured on VICE, "It's due to the rich, deep engine and physics of the game. It's unlikely developers knew they were making something so deep, though I think they've tried to claim they were aware. There are so many small details that make it brilliant as a competitive game, which you only start to discover when you raise your level. I've been playing it for 13 years, and I still want to go back to it every day."
Kotaku UK editor Keza MacDonald is clear on why Smash Bros. not only continues to appeal in its GameCube version, but why the next iteration will be so important to the fortunes of its Wii U platform.
"Smash Bros. is the ultimate Nintendo fan-gasm," she says. "Every kid who has played something on their NES, SNES or Nintendo 64 – whether it was Mario, Zelda or Starfox, or something obscure like Fire Emblem – knows at least some of the characters. The whole universe-crossover thing will make big Nintendo fans excited enough to type a bunch of exclamation into comments boxes across the internet every time there's a new character reveal. Smash Bros. is like the Mario Kart of beat 'em ups – it's easy to learn, hard to master and fun wherever you are on the skill spectrum."
"As for Street Fighter IV, that's a different story," says Robby. "The game is less rich in terms of flexible options than SSBM, though the more rigid confines of physics and engine may mean that more players are able to develop robust strength at the game. SSBM has high barriers for player skills – it takes three to four years to really understand what you're doing there, whereas new and skilled SFIV players can pick it up relatively quickly. That's its positive side."
Which explains why the Ultra Street Fighter IV winner took home the bigger prize for their effort: more players, more entrants, more money. The way Robby talks about these games makes them seem pretty simple – expertly engineered, no doubt, and above the pack, but ultimately bound by a set of rules to be understood before any bending of them can be undertaken.
Great games don't get old, then, aesthetical lapses aside – and that extends beyond competitive play, as something like the Super Nintendo's The Legend Of Zelda: A Link to the Past, or Team Ico's wondrous Shadow Of The Colossus prove, both as transportative today as they were on release in 1991 and 2005, respectively. It's why Tetris is perhaps the most popular videogame in the world some 30 years after its creation.
When it comes to fighters, like those featured at EVO, gaming history is littered with a litany of losers, titles that unsuccessfully went up against opponents like Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct and the ubiquitous Street Fighter. Here's a rogue's gallery of the very worst.
Dangerous Streets (1994)
"And they say Shaq Fu was bad," reads one YouTube comment. Oh, it was – and we'll look at that game and its forthcoming "sequel" in more depth another time. But Dangerous Streets, for the Commodore Amiga and its awful spin-off CD32 console, was perhaps even worse. I mean, look at it. From the awful packaging to the grossly disproportioned character models and jerky animations, everything stinks.
Amiga Power – a monthly magazine for Amiga fans – awarded Flair Software's attempt at emulating some of that Street Fighter magic a whopping 3 percent. If you had a cracked Amiga copy of this, picked up from a car boot sale, and played it once before copying over the game with anything else, you're forgiven for giving it a minute or two. But if you bought it? Nah. There's no coming back from that.
Capital Punishment (1996)
I was an Amiga owner, so believe me when I say to others out there: I feel that same pain – the system barely had a decent fighter to its name. Parts of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat were sluggish, and platform-exclusive releases like Team 17's comparatively sprightly Body Blows (1993) and Full Contact (1991) were always hamstrung by having just a single trigger to play with. But not even the greatest pirate of Amiga software deserved to witness Capital Punishment, a game so utterly unplayable that its dire mechanics nearly obscured the brazen fact that makers clickBOOM were trying to almost exclusively trade on having knockers out in their knock-about.
Seriously, the character Demona, the sole playable female, as seen above – what the hell is that about? Amazingly, Capital Punishment didn't review too badly on release, but anyone covering Amiga games by then was presumably doing whatever they could to keep themselves in beans on toast.
Rise of the Robots (1994)
Notoriously abysmal, multi-platform scrapper Rise of the Robots was all looks and no hooks – be they left, right or of the kind to keep you playing. While Super Smash Bros. Melee can still entertain and engross despite its outdated visuals, Rise of the Robots developers Mirage put all of their asset eggs in the basket marked first-impressions visuals and forgot to actually programme a halfway tolerable fighting game.
You can play as just one character, Cyborg, and he/it controlled like an errant hound in a park full of dogs on heat. That said, master the protagonist's flying kick and victory was almost always assured. I have no idea what CVG's reviewer was thinking when they gave this rusted heap of scrap a 91 percent rating, but I'd hope the memory lives in their nightmares to this day.
I was fascinated by Pit-Fighter because it seemed somehow exotic, developed by Atari for arcades that I was, at the time, too young to hang around in. It promised a new realm of realism, its marketing highlighting the game's "DIGITALLY PROCESSED GRAPHICS" in all-caps, as if the words wouldn't make sense otherwise. Having three players participating at once was a neat quirk, too – something that the original Street Fighter couldn't offer.
But then came the home ports, for the consoles of the time and computers alike (I had it on the Amiga), and they were diabolical. Characters were charmless and moved like cardboard cut-outs, controls were stiff, moves uninspiring and the whole thing felt like the biggest anti-climax to a kid who'd been drawn in by the promises of a fighter unlike the others.
Mind you, in a way, it was a game apart: quite removed from any semblance of quality. Listen to the sound effects on this Amiga footage – those hard-man kicks sound more like zits popping. Just put it out of its misery, already.
- - -
There are no hard and fast rules to making a great fighting game, though some elements – memorable characters and accessible special moves – help towards reaching out to the greatest possible audience and avoiding being quite as shit as those outlined above. Could it be, then, that we see Mario smashing several bales out of Princess Peach at a future Olympic Games, as a legion of Nintendo-loyal supporters scream for their favourite? It's unlikely. I mean, if you're putting videogames up for the Olympics, why not darts?
More recent video games stuff: