There are few franchises in the fighting game community that carry as much weight as Street Fighter. An inception point for the arcade fighting game scene, the next mainline entry for the venerable series released to checkered response last year with Street Fighter V.
For a while, it was difficult to go anywhere and not hear about the game's shortcomings. A lack of proper story or arcade modes, no ability to play a proper Vs. match with the CPU and the perpetual promise of "more to come" eventually peppered every discussion.
"Eight frames"—the amount of input lag between a button being pressed and the character executing the corresponding action on-screen—became the subject of both serious analysis and mocking memes. Just recently, Street Fighter V was awarded Best Fighting Game at this year's Game Awards, which was met with jokes and cynicism.
Yet, watch any Twitch stream, go to Evo or even just talk to an average layman, and they will tell you: despite being one of the smallest premier esports, Street Fighter is on the rise. Between its spotlight on ESPN, hosting the grand finals at Mandalay Bay Events Center, and touring the country with the Capcom Pro Tour, Street Fighter V is both the most visible and most watched fighting game, and it lives in the pantheon of top eSports. How can a game be so celebrated, yet still so critically panned?
Kenneth Bradley, who plays Street Fighter V for eSports organization Evil Geniuses under the handle "KBrad," says he was also reticent towards the game in its earliest days.
"At the beginning of the game I [complained], because the eight frames was a little too much," said Bradley. "There's a lot of clutch situations, where you don't want to do a certain thing because you don't know if you can react to it or not. So like, Nash's super, he gets a free dash. So he can either go low or go high. Anybody that can react, that can hold down-back to block the low or they can stand up last-second to block the high. When it was eight frames of lag, it was way harder to react-block to stuff like that."
The earliest days of Street Fighter V were shaped by the "eight frames." Compared to Ultra Street Fighter IV, which boasted 5.1 frames of lag on Xbox 360, those three frames may be unnoticeable to casual players. Pro players who have spent the time to learn the match-ups, feel out the situations, notice these things, and in a tournament situation in can create tough situations. Ken and Nash dominated the game early, according to Bradley, because they were able to get away with so much.
Patches have gradually lowered that number, to what pros estimate to be about six frames of lag, but complaints can still be heard. If it isn't input lag, it's modes, characters, lobbies or any number of issues you can read about in forums and subreddits. Though Street Fighter V's baggage seems more visible than most, many pros like Julio Fuentes argue it's a discussion that comes with the territory for any competitive game.
"It creates a divide, because at the end of the day, I feel like the voices of the casual crowd and the spectator crowd are so loud sometimes," said Fuentes. "They speak louder than the tournament players. The tournament players are just a small portion of the whole community, so it does create a divide.
"I feel like it made the reception a little more negative. [...] lot of those reviews or articles about Street Fighter V would be negative stuff about what the community is saying, despite the fact that the tournament players loved it. So yeah, it did create a divide, but what can you do about it, right?"
In many ways, Street Fighter V's PR problems are an issue of perception. Commentator James Chen tells me Capcom ventured to try something different with Street Fighter V, to move beyond the incremental sequence of past games and mold a living platform for Street Fighter that could last through multiple seasons of competition and casual play. It's a model not unlike its cousins in other eSports genres, from League of Legends to Hearthstone and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
"I don't necessarily feel like they conveyed that message properly, so I don't think they set the expectations correct[ly]," said Chen. "I definitely think there's a lot of people who were kind of disappointed with a lot of things that aren't the game, like not having arcade mode."
Above: the Street Fighter V cinematic trailer.
In diving into this question, my goal was twofold: to understand the reasons why the Street Fighter community rallied against the game it actively supported, and to uncover why the community can still stay so cohesive and supportive even in the midst of its complaints. Street Fighter, as I gradually learned, was not just about V or any specific game. The community, borne from grassroots in the arcades and convenience stores, represents something greater for these players, an intangible connection to each other and to a scene that persists through every frame of lag.
Mike Ross, prominent Street Fighter personality and former player, opened this year's Capcom Cup with a speech about the last year in Street Fighter, a monologue about where the scene had gone in such a short time. "We've had wrestlers, rappers, actors, LI Joe's dad on SportsCenter," said Ross, recounting how a competitive fighting game had reached heights no one, including him, thought possible.
Recounting the story of his upset over Liquid Metal at Evo 2002, Ross said "it was that fire, that hunger, that passion that keeps us coming back for more, that keeps these seats filling up. This is the fighting game community. This is not going away anytime soon. And I assure you that the people that come up on this stage tonight sacrificed everything just to get up here. This is not a hobby, we try to tell you, this is just our life. This is who we are."
That recurring theme of the journey from average Joe or Jane to grand finalist was one that drove CapCup weekend. 32 players assembled, the best in the world at Street Fighter, and they came from all walks of life. Some young, some old, from many different races and backgrounds, using controllers or custom fightsticks alike, competing under organizations or simply under their own name. Fuentes told me that diversity is deeply rooted in the game's origins, dating back to Street Fighter's role in early arcade culture.
"So I'm a Latino dude, right? So it's a super diverse community, Asians, blacks, whites, Latinos," said Fuentes. "Mostly minorities, funny enough, but it makes sense because most of us... When I was growing up, my mom took me to the laundromat, y'know, we're poor, so there would be arcade cabinets there.
"That's kind of like, the same story with everyone else that started Street Fighter," he said. "Especially back in the '90s, you know. They're just like, 'well, it's at my local 7-11.' If you go to 7-11, if that's your regular thing to do, you're gonna get introduced to Street Fighter.
"It makes sense why it's diverse, and it's just interesting, you know? Because the other PC games, you need to build a whole entire PC, you gotta dump like thousands of dollars to even get started," continued Fuentes. "So you're obviously going to see a different crowd, maybe not so much of the second-generation immigrant crowd. You're going to see more of like, the people who already have established families here, and have a wealthier background. Those games, PC games for example, you're not going to see as much diversity."
These pro players came up from the community, representing a hometown scene and the streets they grew up on, and it's still reflected even today. In a video feature aired during Capcom Cup, each of the top players were asked what they would do with their earnings. A consistent reply was that they would use it to bolster their home scenes, to support up-and-coming players, a response that was always met with applause from the crowd. As Chen put it, these kids started playing early and got their friends playing, and from there it kept growing, building up a scene around the ever-expanding word-of-mouth.
I saw the heart of this homegrown spirit in the Street Fighter community, more so than any other eSport I've covered. But with growth comes conflict; terms like "franchising" have been gradually seeping into the eSports lexicon over the last year, and for a scene so devoted to its communal roots, there's resistance on all sides.
Chen pointed out to me the dangers of having a developer be judge, jury and executioner in an eSports setting, pointing to issues like Riot Games' ban of two competitive teams as a cautionary tale.
"It's a tricky dance right now. There are obviously a lot of players who would love for it to get that point, because then it could be a real career," said Chen. "You could be a pro Street Fighter player and not have to have a secondary job, and live comfortably.
"But, [...]as someone who wants to do commentary for a career and everything, I'm still a little wary of that, because you have these situations like at Riot right now, where they're like, 'this team or team owner, you're banned.' There's no appeals process, there's nothing you can do, so having that kind of thing on top is kind of dangerous."
For a pro player like Fuentes, it has less to do with a governing body—he just wants to enjoy a sustainable career. Like Chen, Fuentes wants to see more major events like the Capcom Cup.
"It's weird. Some people are so about the underground scene and the grassroots stuff, that they really don't wanna let it go. They like that grungy Street Fighter-ness. Some people, they love Street Fighter because like, 'oh yeah, it's a video game thing,' alleyway-type setting.
"It's ghetto, but it's thuggish, and they like that feeling, you know? But some people are like 'no dude, we need to get more legitimized, let's move forward.' And I'm more in that crowd, I want it to get more legitimized. Despite how awesome it is to go to these sneaky spots, these speakeasy spots and play some Street Fighter, that's really cool and all. But if you wanna grow, you gotta get more legitimized. eSports has to grow more."
Complaints aside, discussion aside, there was palpable excitement in the air in Anaheim the weekend of Capcom Cup. It was hard to not walk away and feel like Street Fighter V was simultaneously at the top, and barely getting started.
The promise of a new season with less input lag, balance for problematic characters like Rainbow Mika, and more variety in the pool already has players excited. Coming into the event with layman's knowledged gleaned from op-eds and user reviews, you would think Street Fighter V was a sinking ship. In person, it was just shaking off an uneasy maiden voyage, and preparing for the long cruise ahead.
What stuck out to me the most that weekend, even beyond the intense matches, the wonderful storylines, and the passionate players and fans I talked to, was Du "NuckleDu" Dang. I've long been self-conscious about my choice to play on a standard PlayStation 4 controller (sometimes dubbed a "pad"), and I felt that even harder seeing so many pros walking around with high-end, expensive arcade sticks.
Dang walked out on stage, in the grand finals of the biggest Street Fighter V tournament of the year, and won the Capcom Cup with a standard black PlayStation 4 controller. "If he can," I asked myself, "why not me?"
"It all depends on who wants it more."
Bradley further expanded on this aspect of approachability in Street Fighter. "That is why so many people from all over the different regions can be good, because it's all just with your hands, right? You're just sitting up there, it's all in your hands' execution," said Bradley. [...] "It all depends on who wants it more."
Who wants it more? That was the real question, whether discussing upsets, tournament prospects, homegrown aspirations and controllers. Street Fighter's legacy was built by those who wanted it more. The passion of the community sprouted from the dark corners of arcades and laundromats, kids sitting at home grinding match-ups to beat their friends at the next meet-up.
As eSports continue to grow, those concrete jungle ideologies will still clash with glamorized marketing ideals. Fans will continue to find something—anything—to complain about, especially when they're losing. But the history of eSports will be written by who wants it more, and right now, Street Fighter V desires and demands your attention. The rough early days are over, and the champ is poised to reclaim its spot in the pantheon of competitive games.