At a competitive level, fighting games are some of the most impressive games to you can watch for my money, especially when properly talented players are involved. Split-second reactions, meter management, flying arms and on-screen effects, and each part moving in conjunction 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 most of the time. I’ve tried a few times – almost getting a foothold with the From Masher to Master primer (found freely here) – but ultimately the showier aspects of the systems involved 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 – at least at a player-vs-player level.
Which is perfectly fine by me – I don’t need to understand how faults work in tennis to enjoy Wimbledon every year, and Haikyuu is a consistent thrill despite my having only a loose grasp on the specifics of volleyball going in. Having a close familiarity with something means you can get a lot more out of watching someone pull off a difficult move or executing on 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 vulnerability 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 to so many options and pull off weird maneuvers on the fly that you could maybe do once in a tutorial challenge after trying for half an hour.
And as intense as it gets – both in the heat of the moment and later when spectators are bickering in forums – I find it refreshing how grounded and understanding the competitors themselves are on the stage itself. 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 or allowances 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 etiquette. Regardless of how much I agree with what else I’ve seen of the fighting game community, that level of casual sportsmanship sets the kind of admirable example that athletes can be at their best.
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 for 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 modified ruleset with a slightly different set of possibilities year-over-year and still perform well. And for the viewers, that adds a degree of 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 an ever-changing, wild west sort of space.
And me? I’m content off to the side, watching someone else play Blazblue: Cross Tag Battle or Dragon Ball FighterZ. Those games sure look super-pretty.