The Culture of Digital Fighting Games: Performance and Practice
Like a lot of research, this book has its roots in my own personal experience with fighting games. The story begins in Waterbury, Connecticut in the summer of 1991, just outside the mall-side entrance of a drug store in the city’s largest shopping mall. Sitting there was an arcade machine of Street Fighter 2 , one of the oldest digital fi ghting games in the history of the genre, and certainly one of the most iconic. A gamer even at a young age, I found something fascinating about that SF2 machine. Dubbed The World Warrior , the characters of SF2 were colorful, brassy, and unique. Massive, muscled Zangief the Russian pro-wrestler would face off against an emaciated Indian yogi named Dhalsim inside a digital recreation of a Cold War-era Russian steel mill. Dhalsim’s digitized (and not at all Indian) voice rang out “Yoga fire!” as he inhaled and then spit fi re across the fi eld, the fi reball connecting with Zangief and briefl y causing his entire body to black out, engulfed in a sprite art rendition of fl ickering scarlet fl ame. My favorite World Warrior at that early age was the only female fi ghter in the group, a Chinese martial artist named Chun-li, who had a nimble, acrobatic, and showy style.
At the time I lived in Plymouth, a small town outside of Bristol and a good 20 miles from Waterbury. Whenever we arrived at the Waterbury mall, I hoarded my quarters and begged my parents for leave to run off to the drugstore to play Street Fighter . One of my most salient memories of those times was when another player—an Asian teenage boy who was much older than me—stepped up to the machine and put in a quarter. Suddenly, he was challenging me, and we were duking it out—digitally—for the right to keep playing. If I lost, then my game was over and my quarter was through. This game was entirely different than the other arcade games I had come to love: shooters, like Centipede or Gauntlet, or side-scrollers, like Super Mario, which I could play until the game itself did me in. With Street Fighter, if I wasn’t skilled enough to beat my opponent, then my quarter was gone for good.
I’m not quite sure how, but I managed to beat him, and believe me when I tell you, it had to have been a fl uke. I remember watching him turn to me with a frustrated expression, saying in an exasperated tone, “Oh, usin’ cheesy throws!” I also recall not understanding what he was talking about; my young ears heard “chinsey” rather than “cheesy,” and I assumed he was telling me the name of the secret technique I was using to defeat him. I can only imagine his exasperation when I turned to him and said, bright with pride at my perception of his approval, “Yeah! Chinsey throw, for sure!” Flash forward to 2004 and a long history with fi ghting games to that point. It’s an endless series of playing not in the arcades, for the most part, but buying home console ports and playing against the computer, enjoying the style of the game but not having another person to play against. In those instances where I could play with friends, I was always hopelessly outmatched and a terrible loser. Street Fighter 2 gave way to other games: Mortal Kombat , Soul Edge , a number of Street Fighter spinoffs, including the Street Fighter Alpha prequel series, Nintendo’s Smash Bros. series, and even a truly awful American-produced game by California developer Interplay called Clayfighter . Something about the aesthetic and the play of fighting games—even the really bad ones—drew me in and did so with a vengeance. I played any that I could get my hands on, but always alone, and almost never in the arcades, which were few and far between in the various places I have lived since that fateful discovery of SF2 back in Waterbury two decades ago.
However, in the age of the Internet and YouTube, I became aware that there was a side to fi ghting game play I’d never seen or experienced. Friends who enjoyed fi ghting games referred me to sites and videos. I learned of events such as the Evolution Championship Series (or EVO) Tournament, where serious, dedicated fi ghting gamers met to battle against each other in a competition that had a lot in common with competitive sports. One landmark wake-up call to the alternate possibilities of fi ghting game play came when a friend linked me to a YouTube video of professional Japanese player Daigo Umehara, facing off against American pro-player Justin Wong, in the finals at EVO 2004. They were playing Street Fighter 3: Third Strike , one in a long series of SF2 successors that had been released.
The video 1 is maybe hard to understand if you don’t know the intricacies of the system, but the crowd reaction that accompanies it gives even a lay viewer a taste of just how incredible that moment was for the people who experienced it. Daigo—playing Ken, the male character in white— performed a counter play of masterful skill at almost literally the last possible second, counterattacking to take the win and the tournament. In sports terms, it was the play of the century. To me, it was an example of a world of fighting game play that was beyond the scope of what I knew. Who were these professional players? What was this event that attracted such a massive crowd? Perhaps most importantly, how did they acquire their incredible skills and what seemed like, to me, superhuman refl exes? In essence: Who were these people? At the time I was completing my master’s degree at Syracuse University, however, and had little time to explore the issue, either as a player or a scholar.
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