Spend any amount of time in the fighting game community and you’ll find that folks will play just about anything competitively. If it pits two players against one another in an esoteric test of skill, there’s a good chance that someone will have a setup for it at a major fighting game tournament, even (and sometimes especially) if it skews from genre norms. Even so, when one looks at Def Jam: Fight for NY, the phrase “competitively viable” doesn’t immediately come to mind. But when put in the hands of a small but dedicated community, this competent wrestling game becomes a legitimate competitive experience.
Def Jam: Fight for NY arrived in 2004 on PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Xbox. Developed by EA Canada in cooperation with Japanese studio AKI Corporation, it combined the world of body slams and piledrivers with the hip-hop stylings of era-defining artists like Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, and Xzibit into a mashup of truly ridiculous proportions. Def Jam was a crossover the likes of which we don’t see in video games anymore, an artifact of a moment in games and music that would finally, definitively end with 2009's 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand.
The gaming and music landscapes looked very different 15 years ago. Back then, mainstream wrestling games like AKI Corporation’s own WWF No Mercy were actually pretty good, and the Def Jam Recordings label was beginning a new era in its decades-long period of influence on the music industry. While it wasn’t all positive—the tumultuous years surrounding Def Jam: Fight for NY’s release saw the record label embroiled in controversy when distribution partner Murder Inc. Records was investigated for money laundering and many of the artists Def Jam had launched in the 1990s were losing some of their luster entering the aughts—Def Jam was still one of the biggest names in music. Jay-Z became president of Def Jam Recordings the same year Fight for NY graced consoles, cementing the label as one of the premier destinations for rap music thanks to his status as hip-hop royalty.
Just as hip-hop was changing, though, the standard conventions for fighting games were becoming only more codified in the years following Street Fighter II’s release in 1991. That is partly why Fight for NY seems so “off” when compared to even non-traditional fighting games. Sure, it has the requisite health bars and super meter, but it’s more of a hybrid wrestling game than a traditional fighter. At a casual level, players can simply button-mash their way through matches, throwing martial arts strikes with Snoop Dogg and landing grabs with Ghostface Killah, and the way the camera remains static while the characters fight in a full 3D environment makes for awkward viewing as characters can often be obscured behind each other rather than in traditional 3D fighters like Tekken and Soulcalibur, which make sure the camera stays alongside the fighters no matter how they move around the stage.
“We designed the core of the fighting system with strategy in mind,” Def Jam: Fight for NY producer Devon Blanchet told Waypoint via email. “We wanted players to make decisions that mattered and to have to do that second to second as the fight continued. At the time, competitive fighting wasn’t a thing, but we wanted to deliver strong in-room, couch competition. We also wanted distinct styles and character choices so that there was lots of depth for players to explore and lots of characters to master. We also liked the idea of making a game where you could sit down with your friends on a Saturday night, have a few cold ones and beat the hell out of each other.”
“Def Jam’s core mechanic is weighted rock-paper-scissors,” Chris “MundyCindy” Princler, who placed fourth at major fighting game tournament Community Effort Orlando (CEO) last year,told me. “Strike beats grapple beats block/parry beats strike, with some interesting wrinkles thrown in. Some strikes are invincible, some strikes don't lead to guaranteed damage on parry. Light strike strings don't really lead to anything other than frame advantage and another mixup, so the game is mostly about conditioning your opponent to take the committed option you want them to and punish them severely for it. Casual play looks similar to competitive but it’s a lot sloppier. It’s part of why I like the game: you can give it 15 minutes and you'll know everything you'll need to know to ‘get it.’”
The “conditioning” Princler mentions is a key component to playing any fighting game at a competitive level and part of the various mind games players use to gain an upper hand against the opponent. Say, for instance, you’re playing against someone in a game that likes to jump-in to start their offense. By consistently smacking them out of the sky with an anti-air move, you will condition knowledgeable opponents into understanding that jump-ins won’t work on you, which will keep them on the ground and eliminate a chunk of their offensive options. Conditioning can also be as simple as always going for a throw after a specific move. Soon, the opponent will always try to tech the throw (which is done by inputting the same throw input) they’ve been conditioned into thinking is coming, which gives you the opportunity to “shimmy” out of the way and land a huge punish while they recover from their throw whiff animation.
Every fighting game walks a tightrope between competitive viability and casual enjoyment, and it’s clear the folks behind Def Jam: Fight for NY hoped to achieve both. When a developer makes a fighting game too focused on high-level play, they risk alienating newcomers that might not be able to grasp advanced mechanics and techniques before becoming bored. On the flip side, fighting games that cater too much to folks whose experience with the genre amounts to a spending a couple of quarters at the arcade won’t engender the longevity they need for a community to form around them. Very few fighting games walk this line perfectly, and the tension between satisfying veterans while still welcoming casual players is always an ongoing discussion within fighting games. Fight for NY, a game that was, in part, made just to give folks the opportunity to beat each other up with their favorite musicians, erred on the side of casual fun. If its small, devoted competitive community was ever going to reveal the diamond in the rough, the game needed some new rules.
God Tiers and Above
Shortly after CEO 2018, two Def Jam: Fight for NY players released the first version of a comprehensive tier list—a ranking of the playable characters that gives players a good idea of how they compare to one another strength-wise—lending an air of legitimacy to a game that isn’t on the same level as more traditional fighting games in terms of player numbers and tournament spotlight. Over the course of two months, sibling Def Jam fanatics Joey “Joey Bag O’ Donuts” Bagi and John “TheGatekeeper” Bagi III ran through thousands of matches, studying the footage and discussing how every character stacked up from a competitive perspective.
Upon completion, their tier list included, among other things, a large swath of characters that they believed should be banned from competition altogether due to how strong they are in the right hands. Princler, as the game’s chief tournament organizer, approved the bans, and CEO 2018 would be the last event to be run without these rules in place. Outright character bans aren’t something you’ll see in most fighting games, but it does happen (see: Akuma in Super Street Fighter II Turbo), just not to the degree with which the Def Jam community has chosen to prune the game’s roster.
“There tend to be two factors that make the banned characters so dangerous: outrageous stats and a kit that makes the character near impossible to defeat for someone on the regular portion of the cast,” John Bagi III said via email. “Snoop Dogg functions as a boss character. He can knock you out with any of his heavy kicks (which are safe against most of the normal cast, a mechanic that is unique to him) and has a whole host of other moves that he should not have [because of his in-game archetype].”
While it can be a bummer to see popular rappers like Snoop Dogg, Red Man, Slick Rick, and Busta Rhymes missing from normal Def Jam: Fight for NY competition, the game’s relatively huge cast still features over 50 characters to choose from after the banned fighters are removed. That said, the Def Jam community does combat some of this disappointment with separate tournaments that allow banned characters as a call back to events that were run before these rulings were established.
But even with so many banned characters, there exists a tier above Def Jam: Fight for NY’s gods: the “exiled” Sticky Fingaz, who isn’t allowed in any organized competition. The real-life Sticky Fingaz is best known as one-fourth of the iconic New York City hip-hop group Onyx, whose 1993 release Bacdafucup established them as major players in the burgeoning east coast rap scene. Onyx was signed to Def Jam via umbrella corporation Rush Associated Labels until 1998, and the group’s “Throw Ya Gunz” would appear in Fight for NY predecessor Def Jam Vendetta in 2003 as a nod to their history with the label.
The reason Sticky Fingaz is exiled from Def Jam: Fight for NY events rather than being included in the sizable tier of banned characters is because, even in the aforementioned tournaments that allow the entire roster, he is so unbalanced that he would still completely dominate the competition. And because Def Jam doesn’t allow players to choose the same character, the only way to logically beat Sticky Fingaz (i.e. also use Sticky Fingaz) is impossible.
“It makes sense, in a competitive environment like that, you need things to be as close as possible and the reality is that they are not because of some of the design choices,” Blanchet when asked for his thoughts on the character bans. “[Sticky Fingaz] ended up like this based on his unlock position in story mode. We never completely balanced his character for versus mode. Our thinking about this and some of the other characters was similar to a sports game, where you can select all-star teams that are completely unbalanced for players that need more to make it fair or just want to play someone powerful because it’s fun. In the context of designing this for friends in the same room, we were comfortable leaving it to them to decide which characters were selected.”
Tier lists continue to be a hotly debated topic in the fighting game community, but at their heart, they’re a way for high-level players to identify and compare characters in terms of strength. Chun-Li, for instance, has long been considered the best fighter in Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, while Sean is among the worst. Tier lists are highly subjective, however, often taking years of research by competitors of all skill levels to truly reach a version that can be considered stable enough for recognition. Due to the relative youth of the Def Jam: Fight for NY tier list project, huge changes have already occurred, including which character is considered the worst in the game.
In a previous version of the tier list, original character Masa was described as having “no positive traits whatsoever,” but he’s since moved up a bit into the C tier. Jacob, who is based off the real-life jeweler mentioned in tracks like Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky” and Jay-Z’s “Girl’s Best Friend,” now occupies the lower rungs of Def Jam competition. Bagi describes Jacob as “utter garbage” with “terrible” stats and “weak, slow, and horrendous” moves, someone that serious players will only use to troll the opponent.
While low level play looks like just about any of the era’s wrestling games, watching real competitors go at in in Def Jam: Fight for NY is engrossing. The game’s mixture of multiple fighting styles—Kickboxing, Martial Arts, Street Fighting, Submissions, and Wrestling—make for varied and expressive competitive matches, where characters like Bubba Sparxxx, Ludacris, and Warren G make use of the stage border to inflict brutal slams and strikes against walls and chain link fences.
“In high-level play, [ Def Jam: Fight for NY] essentially goes from being a random wrestling game or beat ‘em up to a real fighting game with combos, mix ups, cancels, parries, grab breaks, spacing and positioning, etc. The whole works!” Joey Bagi explained via email. “People get really advanced with their entire play. There is honestly, in a weird way, even anime fighter-level techniques with things like step-in parries into combos that do an obscene amount of damage! But in short, casual play and high level play have no real comparison. It makes them look like two completely different games.”
In going back to watch Bagi compete against his brother at Community Effort Orlando last summer, I realized what he meant. Although it was a side tournament with only 22 players in attendance, CEO 2018’s Def Jam: Fight for NY competition was given time on stage and broadcast to the world. The match showcased many of the same core principles that make traditional fighting games like Street Fighter and Guilty Gear tick, from spacing and footsies to parries and combos.
This was a side of Def Jam that I had never seen before, and it was like discovering fighting games for the very first time all over again. I was still shaky on the fundamentals, but it was clear that the two competitors were playing Def Jam at a level that surpassed the party mode distraction it represented on the surface. And when The Gatekeeper’s Carmen Electra finally defeated Joey Bag O’ Donuts Suspect (an original character based on Joe Budden’s model), it was just as hype as watching Ibuki take down Cammy in the Street Fighter V grand finals from the same weekend.
But what drives these siblings to put so much time into learning a game that, out of the box, is such an uneven, semi-broken fighting game? To hear Joey Bagi tell it, their passion for Def Jam: Fight for NY developed throughout childhood, when they would button-mash their way through the over-the-top brawler without any thought to high-level techniques or strategy. A rivalry thrived between the brothers, and Def Jam remained one of Joey’s favorite games of all time as he grew older. He began taking competitive gaming seriously in 2015, but it wasn’t until a fateful encounter with the Def Jam tournament at Community Effort Orlando 2016 that he was reunited with the game he and his brother had spent so much time playing as kids.
“My brother and I saw Def Jam: Fight for NY and were immediately filled with nostalgia and just had to play it,” Bagi said. “Ever since that day, we have been back in the game and scene all over again. We had a blast and met some people that are some great friends to us today. From there, we have spent much time learning and labbing the game, finding new tech, and developing the meta. ”
Since jumping back into Def Jam: Fight for NY just a couple of years back, the Bagi brothers have gone on to become two of the most prominent and successful players in the competitive community, the exact size of which is unknown but Joey Bagi believes numbers above 30 active competitors. After studying the game extensively, they came away with a new understanding of the mechanics that make it tick and released a “bible” that acts as a strategy guide for newcomers looking to pick up Def Jam as a competitive fighting game or simply refresh themselves on moves and matchups before a tournament.
In addition to giving the community a framework from which to judge competition, the Def Jam: Fight for NY tier list has also provided great promotion for the underrepresented brawler. Although Def Jam tournaments stretch back as far as 2013 and the game has been at Community Effort Orlando as a side even since 2015, it wasn’t until the tier list’s release that regular competition started being held outside of small social gatherings. Now, fans can catch Def Jam matches live on Twitch courtesy of Blazin’ Fridays, an exhibition series that showcases some of the best talent the community has to offer. Princler and the Bagi brothers are regular participants, but a rotating cast of players is featured every week thanks to the wonders of PlayStation 2 emulation and Parsec, a service that has found popularity in the fighting game community by allowing users to stream gameplay to one another for a pseudo-netplay experience.
“The show garners an immense amount of support from the community, and the matches get crazier each week,” Def Jam competitor and Blazin’ Fridays stream producer Garrad “PrettyBoyJackal” Belle told me. “A sense of community is one of the best things to have when attempting to build something. By having a place where people can gather regularly, it fosters an environment of consistency and comfort that allows for greatness and positivity to happen. This not only makes people want to play, but to get others to play as well. Every week, new people come in amazed that [ Def Jam] even gets played still, and want to see even more once they realize that there’s a competitive community for it.”
Where before the Def Jam: Fight for NY community would wait every year for their major gathering at Community Effort Orlando, the Blazin’ Fridays exhibition series has allowed the scene to expand and promote Def Jam as a legitimate competitive fighting game. Every player I interviewed spoke highly of the work being done on Twitch and credit the weekly broadcast for the growth they’ve experienced over the past few months of its existence.
“It is important for all players to have a regular place to play and compete, even if it is online” Joey Bagi said. “Like any game or fighting game, you need players to fight against, to train and get better and to improve at the game in order to improve your skills as a player and to do better in competition. Also, [ Def Jam: Fight for NY] is extremely fun, and it’s just awesome as hell having people to play it with all the time. Even cooler that you can even play the game with different people from around the world.”
In a way, the burgeoning Def Jam: Fight for NY community reminds me of the massive scene that still surrounds Super Smash Bros. Melee competition, 18 years after its initial release. While it’s true that the source material isn’t nearly as iconic as Smash’s roster of Nintendo characters, Def Jam has taken a party game that wasn’t necessarily developed to be a deep, competitive experience and created something new and wonderful. From the standpoint of more traditional fighting games, Def Jam and Super Smash Bros. don’t look like much on the surface, at least from a competitive perspective, but the people who love them have done everything they can to enforce a ruleset that makes them greater than the sum of their parts.
When I first saw it, I quickly wrote Fight for NY off as a purely casual experience. But all these years later, now that Fight for NY's portrait of the hip-hop scene is as dated as its graphics and the hardware it ran on, it retains a devoted and increasingly hardcore fanbase. Though it was once considered just a shiny novelty, it’s now clear that this was always a (Roc-A-Fella) diamond in the rough.
“I honestly believe, even without the license, [ Def Jam: Fight for NY] is a solid fighting game,” Chris Princler concluded. “It has rappers, which rules. And if that wasn't good enough, the system is easy enough to understand that you can sit down with the game for 15 minutes and be fairly competitive. If you like games about reading your opponent, this is that. If you enjoy pro wrestling, it has that. If you wanted to have Ludacris fight Ice-T in a stage that looks suspiciously similar to the club from Ong Bak, you are playing the right game.”