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There's a Mad Dash to Sign Fighting-Game Players to eSports Teams

Once marginalized, fighting games are becoming part of the mainstream eSports scene, and top teams are signing Street Fighter and Super Smash Bros. players.

by Marc Shaw
Oct 5 2016, 4:00am

Fuudo, Xian, RB, members of Team Razer. Photo courtesy of Team Razer

It seems like every other day I load up my Twitter feed to see that another fighting-game player has been signed to a major eSports team—and often, to teams not previously known for their participation in the fighting-game community. Last year, high-profile eSports entities like Team Elevate, Echo Fox, and Team Secret didn't have any fighting-game players, but this year, they've broken into the FGC by adding Smash Bros players, Street Fighter V players, or both to their rosters.

Using the players who placed in the top 32 at EVO Street Fighter tournaments from 2013–2016 as an example, we'll see that the number of high-placing sponsored players hovered around 20 to 23. However, when we look at those sponsoring these players, there's a trend in top players moving toward what we'd traditionally consider "eSports teams" and away from being sponsored by retail stores and local fighting-game communities.

In 2013, 20 percent of sponsored Super Street Fighter IV players were signed to squads that were dedicated eSports teams (not hardware manufacturers who happened to have a team) and which had a presence in non-fighting-game competition. Thirty percent of Ultra Street Fighter IV players met those criteria in 2014; the number rose to 42 percent in 2015. When Street Fighter V took over at EVO 2016, the number of players on high-profile eSports teams had risen to 60 percent. With figures from mainstream sports continuing to invest in eSports, the trend looks set to continue as the industry expands.

The mad dash appears to come as part of the FGC, notorious for sticking to its grassroots beginnings, is accepting the fact its passion counts as eSports now. With increasing prize pots, matches being broadcast on ESPN, and celebrities like Lupe Fiasco throwing down with FGC greats, fighting games have never had a higher profile than they do now. But even with the growth in prize money, fighting games are at the low end of eSports when it comes to rewards for top players. For some perspective, the top ten earners in Street Fighter V have earned a total of $176,000 combined in the six months since the game's release while Counter-Logic Gaming, winners of the 2016 Halo World Championship, split a prize of $1,000,000 among their four members.

With the exception of Team Razer's Lee "Infiltration" Seon-Woo, who has made $79,642 in SFV so far, top players would be hard-pressed to cover the travel expenses of international competition with their winnings, never mind making a real living. That makes the chance to join a dedicated eSports team—which could provide both financial resources and training support—that much more attractive. But what does it take to make the transition from FGC standout to eSports acquisition? Do you need to be the best player? Or do you need to be an incredible showman like ANTi, who provided one of the most memorable entrances to CEO2016's top eight bracket?

At Red Bull's Proving Grounds: Fight for the 6ix Street Fighter V tournament in Toronto on September 10, I was shocked to see how many players had jerseys with their gamertags on the back. I caught up with a few sponsored players to find out why fighting games are getting so much attention and what it means to be signed.

"From what I see in other eSport games, their top players have crazy fan bases and the players are treated like celebrities," said Matthew "Blitzman" Lam who plays Street Fighter V for team Set to Destroy X (a team that made its mark in the Canadian Call of Duty scene before expanding). "Some of our top players in the fighting-game community are getting like that now. If I walk into a venue with Justin Wong, there are going to be people asking to take a picture with him. We're on ESPN now. That's pretty eSports to me."

If EVO 2016's Street Fighter V finals, which drew more than 200,000 viewers on ESPN2, are any indication, fighting games are going mainstream. This presents the problem of how to be inclusive toward TV audiences who are not familiar with FGC culture, which long focused on exposing your opponent's weakness and then letting the world know through trash talk. TV has stricter conventions to adhere to than online streaming, so longtime competitors in the FGC will need to play by new rules if they want to maintain their marketability and succeed on new platforms.

"The FGC has changed a lot. [Now] the commentary has become a lot more eSports and family-friendly," said Jacqueline "JakyoManor" Manor, part of the commentary team for the event's Twitch broadcast. Part of the FGC going mainstream is the need for investors to know what they're getting into from the players all the way to the broadcast when seeking involvement with eSports. "You have to stop living in the past and see where the scene is now. The old look of this scene was a lot thuggery, talking down to people and call outs. It made for a very harsh scene with a lot of amazing players. Now there are a lot more golf claps, but look how the scene has grown. We had the EVO finals at Mandalay Bay [the Vegas casino]. That's where the Pacquiao fight was."

The major eSports realm is primarily made up of team games like League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Squads like Cloud 9 and Team Liquid are hot destinations for skilled players looking to take advantage of the opportunities that arise from signing with such powerful brands. When teams establish a pedigree in one game, they can expand into other disciplines and attach some of that clout to the name of new signees.

What established teams have, beyond the respect associated with the name, is money. Not all sponsorship deals come equal, but the general idea is that, in exchange for representing your team's brand, they offset your costs and therefore allow you to focus on practicing and competing.

"The fighting-game community and eSports are slowly coming together. For a long time, the FGC classified eSports as 'corporate,' and they didn't want to be a part of that," said Justin "Nagata Lock II" Baisden, the director of Fight for the 6ix. "Now you've got a lot of eSports teams that have portfolios they want to diversify across as many games as possible, but they don't know the FGC because, for so long, the entities were separate. So now you've got this mad scramble because there's only so many top players that are good on stream, good on the mic, and good players. It's supply and demand. Every big team has to get their FGC rep."

Jack "White-R" Liang and Matthew "Blitzman" Lam at the Fight for the 6ix tournament. Photo by author

Major teams want success across multiple games, so the best way to represent them is through achieving consistent success beyond your initial signing. Unlike athletic sports, eSports titles are constantly getting updates, sequels, or even entirely new games on the scene. Along with skill and showmanship, versatility is another integral pillar of what it takes to get signed.

That's what makes competitors like Team Let's Play's Bernard "Raynex" Mafei invaluable. He was at Fight for the 6ix competing in Street Fighter V but is better known for his contributions to Canada's Super Smash Bros. Melee scene where he's considered one of the best Fox players in the country. Multi-gamers like him are invaluable because they can represent their team several times in a single tournament, which is cheaper than sending several players.

"How you get sponsored depends on a few things. Common denominators are good results, respect and making an impact locally," said Raynex. He signed with Team Let's Play when they approached him after he won one of their Smash tournaments. His status as a multi-gamer who could play Street Fighter V and Smash made him an attractive acquisition. "I let them know I could be their liaison between multiple gaming communities, so we communicated for a few months, and after that, I was signed."

The floodgates have opened on eSports sponsorship for the FGC, but the genre's tenure in mainstream eSports is still new, and the scene is going through growing pains. But it's impossible to deny the rapid pace of that growth.

Follow Marc Shaw on Twitter.