Forget Low/High-Tier Characters, Just Have Fun With the Game!

Jan 29 2021 9 min read

Maybe we complain too much as generation of gamers and should instead focus on having fun with the game

Since its release in 2016, Street Fighter V has always divided opinion. Upon release, the game had only 16 characters, which was upsetting as expectations were running high before launch. This is somewhat ironic as the much-celebrated Street Fighter II turbo had only 16 characters, and no one seemed to have a problem then (yes, I am fully cognizant of the fact that the Street Fighter cast has grown so much and that there are so many more characters to choose from now)

The arguments surrounding Street Fighter V ranged from the terrible netcode to how ‘easy’ it was compared to other games in the series. However, one of the most contentious aspects of the game that many players have an opinion on one way or the other is the perception of low/high-tier characters. 

The bone of contention is that the gulf in quality between low-tier and high-tier characters makes it such that the game is no longer fun to play since it seems you can’t use a low-tier character to beat a high-tier one in Street Fighter V.

Balance is the most challenging part of creating a fighting game as the developers need to find a way to create various characters with different skill-sets and moves while also making them all useful to the people playing them. This is a very difficult thing to do as you can’t give all the characters the same skills and simply swap out their designs; that will only make for a boring game with little variation. Therefore, developers have to create strong characters but give them just enough exploitable weaknesses to at least seem beatable. On the other side, they also have to create ‘weaker’ characters but give them pretty useful tools that will make them dangerous in the right hands. In theory, this is pretty simple, but in reality, it is anything but. Therefore, it is my humble submission that there is no such thing as a balanced fighting game hence the need for balance patches and so on, all produced in a bid to make the game as fair as possible for as many players as practicable. 

The result of this failure for balance is a game that has characters that are so powerful that they seem unstoppable and, on the other end of the spectrum, a slew of weaker characters that players need to pour their heart and soul into in a bid to make them remotely usable. 

Or is it?

Do tiers affect the enjoyment of the game?

This was a question that I really had to ask when I saw a tweet from @MachoorTV, who was of the opinion that simply ‘using a high-tier character’ took a lot of the fun of playing the game. I mean, in a game of 40 characters, there are at most ten high-tier characters, and if everyone had to use those same ten players, the game wouldn’t be much fun, would it?

This is a fair point, and the balance of the game should be such that people can use all 40 characters and have a good time. But is that the full story? The argument against this sort of thinking is that in order to win, you need to do whatever you can, even if it means using the small clutch of high-tier characters available. This is because winning is, in itself, fun. 

This is true because using a low-tier character and losing can get pretty old and annoying really quickly, and if you feel that your character doesn’t have the necessary buffs to take on the more high-tier characters, then the developers need to do something about it right? Well, it’s a bit complicated. To win, you need to have a mentality that doesn’t give up even when the odds are stacked against you. This might mean training a lot more to ensure that you can exploit high-tier characters’ weaknesses when the match-up comes along. It is possible to put in the time and effort to improve with a character while still cognizant of his/her needs. 

How about at the highest levels? In a competitive setting, we have seen some pro players abandon ‘low-tier’ characters in favor of stronger ones in a bid to win more. One of the most popular examples of this was Daigo, one of the five Japanese fighting game gods, dropping Ryu for Guile with how inadequate the former is for top-level competition. On the other side of this, we have seen some pro-players use these so-called weaker characters and absolutely dominate with them. A perfect example was GG Rumours’ run in the CPT Oceania tournament, where he ran riot with Cody and qualified for the Capcom Cup (even though it has now been canceled.) Another recent example is Zaferino, who won the 46th edition of the NLBC online tournament with the much-maligned Sagat. These are pro players who have put in the work and have polished their characters to the point where their perceived tier no longer matters. 

That said, it is understandable if a pro player needs to change characters to win as they are in a profession where winning reaps financial rewards, and in that situation, winning is primary while fun is secondary. Many pro players don’t enter a competition to have fun; they enter to win and should therefore do whatever they can to do so. So, for example, at the recently concluded WePlay Dragon Temple tournament held in Kyiv, Mortal Kombat pro player, ForeverKing, who has always been a huge fan of Shao Kahn, stuck with Geras because he knew the tyrant emperor isn’t a particularly high-tier character. 

As for everyone else, you have the luxury of losing while mastering your character to the point where you start winning. At the end of the day, pro players make up only about 10% of the entire FGC, and if the stats are anything to go by, people will pick who they like. For instance, the character usage stats on the official Street Fighter V site lists Ryu as the most used character in December 2020.

Rumours vs Somniac

Tiers are in the mind.

While I concede that some characters have more tools than others, the reality is that tiers mostly start in mind. I had the privilege of speaking to the aforementioned GG Rumours, and he is of the opinion that the more you explore a character, the more benefits you’ll reap, 

Funnily enough, I actually started learning Cody because I thought he was going to be top-tier this season.” he said, “This was probably a mixture of me being very optimistic in reading Cody’s buffs and very pessimistic about Birdie’s nerfs, my former main.” 

Expanding on his point, Rumours claims that Cody is not nearly as low-tier as some people might think. “Cody as a character is criminally underexplored – there’s so much depth to his sway mechanic, not to mention his excellent normals, Zonk, and a ridiculous 2 bar V-Trigger.

 “However, I tend not to think about Cody’s tier list position in any real competitive sense as I find it allows you to make excuses for your losses.  You don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of ‘I would’ve won if I just had a 3F / DP / a better character’ or whatever - you can’t get better with that mindset.”

 Not only that but successfully maining a low-tier character has some incredible perks like Rumours outlines here, “There’s nothing I enjoy more than a salty top-tier main complaining about Cody.  Playing someone outside the traditional top tiers definitely gives a bit of flavor to every win – they might have every conceivable tool or better versions of the tools you do have, but you still managed to win? Yeah, it feels really good. I think it’s fine to hype your wins up in that sense, as long as you don’t make excuses for your losses.”

 With all of that said, the advice will probably be this: pick a character you’re comfortable with, and if they’re low-tier, just keep grinding. As Rumours puts it, “Regardless, you shouldn’t go out of your way to pick a low-tier – don’t forget that actually winning is fun.  But if the character you want to play happens to be low-tier? I reckon go for it.”

As for former EVO champion Xian, he reckons that a lot of the complaints about low/high-tier characters stem from a love for the game, “People just enjoy talking/complaining because that’s actually what makes playing a game fun: discussion, criticism, and all that stuff.”

Xian is well known for using Ibuki and has gained a level of notoriety for his incredible skill with a character that not many will class as high-tier. In more recent times, though, he has taken a shine (there’s a pun here for those who are interested) to Seth, a high-tier character that some will even say is broken. However, to Xian, the move from Ibuki to Seth had nothing to do with tiers or anything; it was simply a result of the search for further creativity and expression. According to the CPT South East Asia champion, “My girlfriend was trying to learn Seth, so I ended up picking up [the character] for a bit as I always enjoy creativity. Also, Seth’s VT2 really is the reason why I end up playing Seth. It was a lot of fun for me, and that’s how that started. In addition, I got bored with Ibuki, and this probably is one of the reasons why I switched to Seth as well  since there’s not too much room for added creativity as I [had] played her for some time already.”

Razer Xian

Do game developers play a role in all this?

Another point made about the issue of game balance is the role of the developers in all of this. Yes, the developers are required to make a game as balanced as possible, and for this reason, patches have become quite popular as game creators, with the feedback of the community, try their best to restructure the game. But, it seems that in recent times, patches are met with ire because let’s face it, everyone can’t get what they want. There will be nerfs that you will be unhappy with, and there will be buffs that you think are either unnecessary because the character is too strong already or useless because the buffs turn out to be inconsequential to the character’s ability to mix with the big boys. The prevailing theory seems to be that developers are responsible for making the game fun. This isn’t entirely true, and as Rumours puts it, “The way I see it, the developers give us a toolbox to make whatever we want.  The first step is on the developers to make the tools varied, interesting, and worth using – not just at release, but over time with balance patches as well.

 “But the rest is on the players to make something from those tools in a way they want to. Being able to play a character in a way that’s unique to you is one of the really special things about fighting games. Of course, not every playstyle is going to work with every character (good luck to any zoning Alex or rushdown Falke), but when you find something that works with both the character and how you like to play is one of the best feelings you can get from fighting games.”

Meanwhile, Xian doesn’t think anyone really bears the responsibility, “I’ve played fighting games for 22 years, and I think a lot of games are actually broken. It’s extremely hard to balance a fighting game, and old games tend to even have broken stuff without patches. At the end of the day, games are still for fun for 99% of the people out there, so people shouldn’t care too much about tier lists and stuff besides fun and discussion.”

Xian really hits the nail on the head, games are about having fun, and as long as the developers have created a fun game, the thought of power levels and tiers shouldn’t be as prevalent as we have let them be. If you practice hard enough, you can enjoy the game while still winning matches, and if you’d rather never lose, perhaps you should pick a better character.


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