At a competitive level, fighting games are some of the most impressive games you can watch for my money. Split-second reactions, meter management, plenty happening on-screen, and each match moves at a snappy pace. There’s a lot happening all at once quite quickly, to the point of sensory overload if you’re watching too closely.
So much so that the lion’s share of the details go way over my head much of the time. I’ve tried a few times – almost getting a foothold with From Masher to Master – but ultimately the showier aspects are too tempting and I get ahead of myself when self-teaching. There was a very brief time when I was passable with a few ARMS characters, but that’s about the end of it; at this point, I’ve accepted fighting games to be categorically outside my wheelhouse.
Which is perfectly fine by me – I don’t need to understand how faults work in tennis to enjoy Wimbledon every year, and Hanebado has me enthralled week-to-week despite having only the loosest grasp on the rules of badminton. Having an intimate familiarity with something means you can get a lot more out of watching someone pull off a particularly difficult move or pulling out particular strategies, but it’s by no means necessary.
It’s in the same boat as most traditional sports for me, really; I’ve got the gist of what the competitors are doing (two different kinds of blocks, different moves having different reaches and wind-up times, and so on), but anything deeper might as well be black magic (Wavedashing? Blockstun? Effectively fantasy terms.).
Especially in such a visual arena as a game, though, having that layer of an unknown element can certainly add to rather than take away from the viewer experience. You can follow generally the flow of a match and who has the upper hand, but you can still be amazed by the specifics that blow right past you, how someone can react so quickly through so many options and pull off weird techniques that you could maybe do once in a tutorial challenge.
And as intense as it gets – both in the heat of the moment and later when players are bickering in forums – I find it refreshing how grounded and understanding the competitors are. In one of the matches I caught, a player was getting fatigued between matches and asked his opponent for a short break. In another, a player asked to trade sides of the screen mid-set.
These are the kind of technical adjustments that I imagine most one-on-one sports would dismiss out of hand, but here people oblige with hardly a second thought in the interest of fair play and general etiquitte. Regardless of how much I agree with what else I’ve seen of hte fighting game community, that level of sportsmanship.
It’s certainly more than I can say for ice hockey, which – as much as I love it – is aggressively tribalistic.
There’s something to be said for the rotating arenas inherent to these competitions, too. You’ll still see standbys like Street Fighter II pop up regularly and it would seemingly take divine intervention for players to completely move on from Super Smash Bros. Melee, but otherwise over the course of a few years every event in the circuit is subject to change.
Some of that makes a good showcase for new games that you can go out and play right now, sure. But it also showcases the skill and flexibility of players when they can come back to a slightly different ruleset year-over-year and still perform well. And for the viewers, there’s always a little mix-up to the competition format and the kinds of intense play they’re equipped to provide.
Then there was the brief time when competitive puzzle title Catherine had its own event right alongside the big guns – and now beach-disc-tennis-hybrid Windjammers is in the mix. It really is a wild west, ever-changing space.
And me? I’m content off to the side, watching someone else play Blazblue: Cross Tag Battle or Dragon Ball FighterZ. Those games look super-pretty.