I'm at San Francisco's Moscone West complex, an hour away from witnessing the start of 2015's Capcom Cup, the grand finale of the year-long Capcom Pro Tour circuit. Thirty-two of the best Street Fighter IV players from across the world have gathered to compete for a share of a $250,000 prize pool – the winner will walk away with close to half that amount, a very useful $120,000. Honestly, if you'd told me back when I was a kid, sat on my pal's floor playing endless matches of SNES Street Fighter II, that one day this game would be played with such high stakes, and to such amazing levels of skill, I'd have laughed at you. But here we are, eight years since the release of the series-revitalising Street Fighter IV, with the Ryu-and-company brawler once again the bona-fide king of the fighters.
But the most important Street Fighting man in San Fran right now arguably isn't a pro-player at all. His name is Yoshinori Ono, an employee of Capcom since the 1990s with credits on Dino Crisis 2, Shadow of Rome and Dead Rising. He was 'sound management director' on 1999's Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, but his love for the franchise went further than many who worked on III's various spin-offs and revisions. It's Ono we have to thank for Street Fighter IV ever seeing the light of day. It was his initially resisted pitch to (then) Capcom R&D head Keiji Inafune that started the development process within the famous Osaka-headquartered studio. In the same way you can't think of Mario without thinking of Shigeru Miyamoto, Ono is now Mr Street Fighter.
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"I've been with Capcom for over 20 years now, and I've actually been involved with the Street Fighter brand my entire career," Ono tells me, ahead of the Capcom Cup's first bout. "At the time we started talking about SFIV and what we wanted to do with it, what was hard was that I wanted to bring the analogue experience of playing head to head at the arcades into the online sphere. Obviously that was something very different for the old-school Street Fighter players.
"In the '80s and '90s, everyone was playing with each other and having this face to face time with each other, so maybe some of those players felt somewhat betrayed that we took it online. But at the end of the day we really felt that was the right way to go. If you look what is actually happening with the online community, with Twitch and the streamers out there, they're constantly putting Street Fighter stuff out. And if you look at the tournament scene, there's a tournament every week, 52 weeks out of the year, being streamed on Twitch. So people can enjoy Street Fighter whether they're playing it at home, in person or even just watching it being played. It's a completely different experience.
"But what has been interesting with SFIV is that this aspect of it, the tournament scene, has grown substantially. At the same time, the online component of the game also grew incredibly. It's a really rare occurrence, and something that makes SFIV incredibly special. And from my perspective, it was like raising a child, and watching them go out into the world and now grow up."
Ono might have had nothing to do with the creation of the famous fists-and-fireballs series, but his campaign to get IV made at a time when beat 'em ups were at an all-time low, in terms of both sales and quality, showed an unmatched enthusiasm for all things Street Fighter. Now, mere weeks before the release of Street Fighter V, it is clear that this personal passion has translated into a framework for what he and Capcom are looking to achieve with their next numbered game.
"So, we have this Capcom Cup, and the community has grown incredibly but, ten years ago, when we discussed making SFIV, it wasn't part of the vision. It just kind of happened. Now, with Street Fighter V, it is part of the concept as to what we want to do with the new game. We're really working hard to broaden and widen the overall community, whether you're a player or someone who just watches the streams online. We want it to be more fun for both! So, not to talk negatively about SFIV, but we didn't see growth with that game like we've seen with say, Nintendo's amiibo figures, where it is just widening out at an incredible rate. We did see growth, but within the same communities as before, amongst the same core group of players coming to the tournaments.
"Now, as SFIV has grown and it's matured, that core group of people is maybe about 1,000 people who can compete at a really high level. That's where SFV comes in. We've made plans to try to grow the community at an exponential rate. We're doing that by resetting the game and evening the playing field, so that it's approachable whether you're new or old to the series. We're not trying to be adversarial to those who've been playing Street Fighter games for a long time, but we want to make sure that new people can come in and enjoy it, even if they just want to watch. They'll still have fun and get involved with the Street Fighter brand."
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Ono emphasises two key points during our conversation. Firstly, that this is effectively a "reset" of the Street Fighter games, and secondly that Capcom is making a serious push towards courting the lucrative eSports market, set to hit revenues of over $450 million come 2017. But such intent naturally carries risk, most pertinently the concern that the series' existing fanbase – one that Capcom's spent most of IV's run growing – could be alienated by too many changes to how their favourite fighters perform.
"Something that I was very apprehensive about is that people in the games industry expect the next numbered game in a series to simply add a little to the core ideas of what came before. But Street Fighter is a special brand, because it doesn't necessarily do that – [the original] Street Fighter was one game by itself, and Street Fighter II was an entirely different game. Street Fighter III, same thing. One team working on one unique game, each time. And by the time Street Fighter IV came around, that was another reset – the first time we'd returned to a true Street Fighter game after many years.
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"We're resetting once again with V, but we're staying true to the series' roots by doing something totally different. Maybe half of the people I've spoken to about the game have been very vocally apprehensive about us doing this; but in the year since announcement, after talking with the media and pro-players, people are starting to get it. People are starting to remember that Street Fighter isn't a series where every new game just rides the coattails of the previous entry. Part of the fun is going back to zero and everyone growing from the same point. Now, we seem to have everyone moving in that direction; now, we have to work towards release to make sure everyone understands this.
"We've mentioned the keyword 'reset' quite a lot, and you might think about a PC where you reboot the whole thing. We're not looking at it in that sense! We do want existing SFIV players to come back, so we're not going to wipe the slate completely clean. But we really want to bring new players in to experience Street Fighter for the first time. With SFIV, the rulebook for that game has gotten pretty big, so we're going to have to toss it out the window in order to attract these new players."
There have been a few significant bumps in the road since Street Fighter V was announced at 2014's PlayStation Experience. The first beta test for pre-order customers was a high-profile non-starter, with most players stuck staring at a log-in screen for the entire period. Then, we have the leaks. Capcom has struggled to keep several of Street Fighter V's character announcements under wraps until Ono has had the chance to take to a stage somewhere in the world and actually confirm them.
"The very day before PSX in 2014, someone in Capcom Japan accidentally pushed a button on YouTube, and the announcement the trailer was leaked online, and it kind of set the tone for the rest of the year and the promotion of SFV," Ono recalls. "I kind of feel that leaks are just part of Street Fighter V at this point!
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"The beta tests we have been running have been very challenging. We're going to be aggressively testing the game between now and its launch, as online play is such an important aspect of SFV. As for characters, we're still working on the details of each individual character but, yeah, it's absolutely possible that even experienced players will see some surprises, like Vega going from a charge to a command character. Like, for Alex, you might find that he plays completely different, or we might do something really crazy and shave his head. (Laughs) Just wait until the information about these characters leaks in the near future."
While we're talking characters, I ask about putting Abel in Street Fighter V, but Ono just laughs. Look, you can't say I didn't try. After Street Fighter IV was released and the fighting game community (FGC) began a period of growth, every other fighting game developer had to ensure that their game was reaching the highest possible standards. The audience would no longer take some sloppy, unbalanced beat 'em up that traded on nostalgia or a particular licence. In recent years we've seen top-tier Killer Instinct and Mortal Kombat games that actually improve on a few of Street Fighter IV's weaker aspects, such as its somewhat clunky online play and community features. And Ono himself, once we've got around a translation issue of the phrase "a rising tide lifts all boats", is fairly modest about the impact SFIV had on the FGC.
"We don't feel that we've raised the bar! We laid the groundwork with Street Fighter IV. Now, we're looking at everyone and thinking, 'Wow, they've all stepped their game up!' So, we have to pay a bit of attention to what other people are doing right now. We're looking at what some of the other fighting games are currently doing well and taking those aspects into consideration. However, Street Fighter has been around for almost 30 years now, and in this time it has developed its own identity that the other games in its genre just don't have. We might look down a few side streets, but the road that Street Fighter is on is the road everyone follows."
Street Fighter V launches in February, making 2015's Capcom Cup probably the last that SFIV will be played at. It's going to be an interesting year ahead, to say the least – exciting, sure, but I'm certain that many a Street Fighter fan is slightly nervous about the new beginning SFV is going to represent. I wonder where Ono thinks the game will be another 12 months from now.
"In terms of the future, and what we want to see, we want to see the Pro Tour grow and have a bigger Capcom Cup," he says. "Hopefully, we'll have thousands of people at all the physical events; but perhaps they're going to become a more digital experience? Perhaps people will enjoy watching matches in their living rooms just as much as they will in a huge arena full of spectators. All of this will come with the bigger audience, though, which is the most important part. I would like to hear people saying, 'The first Street Fighter game I played was Street Fighter V'. Then I can sit back on my sofa and be like, 'I did it.'"
Street Fighter V is released for PlayStation 4 and PC on February 16th. Find more information at the game's official website.
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