The FGC Keeps on Fighting
Even though the growth of the FGC has been threatened by COVID-19, there have been some positive outcomes we can take away from it.
For the fighting game community, the most offline-focused and grassroots in all of esports, the social distancing and travel restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic have posed a direct threat to what many of us in the FGC had come to think of as a worldwide scene. In place of hundreds of in-person local weekly tournaments, multiple offline majors per month, and publisher-supported pro tour series, we’ve been left with online play, Twitter, and Discord. And that’s led to fears that this bizarre year may permanently injure our unique community.
But our new online focus is not all bad. In fact, I feel that it’s leading to some important positive outcomes: more opportunities for more people, higher quality of online play, and better preparedness for the future. Despite the catastrophe that is 2020, I believe that there’s reason to be optimistic about the future of the FGC.
The FGC has long enjoyed a robust set of international, regional, and local offline tournaments. But while events exist on every inhabited continent, the ones in North America, East Asia, and Western Europe tend to get most of the attendance and viewership.
However, in some cases, this reflects more about an imbalance of resources in streaming, event hosting, and traveling than about a real disparity in player skill. Areas like northeastern Pakistan, the Dominican Republic, the UAE, and more are home to some of the most talented players in the world. And even within countries with lots of players and viewers, some of the strongest competitors have lived outside the big streaming media markets. And yet in previous years, many of these players and communities were almost invisible to the rest of us unless they managed to get to majors in the US.
This year is different. With no traveling or offline events, fighting game fans have been more willing to get their fix by watching players from more places. Publishers like Capcom, Bandai Namco, and Arc System Works have turned their pro tours into ongoing regional online series across the globe, and while different regions still get more viewers than others, the difference is now a fraction of the difference in any other year. As a result, more of us are paying more attention to more players in more places.
This year has also seen an explosion in content creation by FGC members. Some well-known ones are making more money now than they were while winning offline majors. Some relative unknowns in 2019 have converted their fantastic personalities and schticks into content careers in 2020. And many online tournament series have seen more success or have sprung up in recent months to accommodate our online-only world. In short, the lack of an offline scene has led more viewers to seek out more varied content and online tournaments.
The upshot is that more international players, more content creators, and more online tournament organizers are receiving more attention than ever before, providing them more revenue and more opportunities now and, if they keep it up, in the future too.
Before COVID, those of us near offline scenes or with the resources to travel often treated online play as a sideshow. Too many fighting games are simply too laggy or buggy online for their netplay to be comparable to lag-free play offline. We’ve been asking our developers to improve their games’ online experiences for years, especially by employing rollback netcode. But this year, that desire finally became a requirement.
The highly anticipated Granblue Fantasy Versus represents a cautionary tale. It shipped with subpar delay-based netcode in early March, just as many countries were shutting down. Although its gameplay was roundly praised, some players felt that with no offline play and poor online play, they just couldn’t justify maining it. The game remains popular, but there’s no denying that its competitive impact was limited by weak netcode.
By contrast, games with strong online play have experienced substantial growth. Thems Fightin Herds and Killer Instinct both saw major increases in player numbers online due to their excellent netcodes. And Mortal Kombat 11’s player base has remained strong even without an active pro tour, again in part because of its good netcode.
Thankfully, fighting game developers are finally realizing the importance of creating enjoyable online experiences. Guilty Gear Strive, Guilty Gear XX Accent Core, Street Fighter V, Tekken 7, and Fighting EX Layer have all seen successful, attempted, or announced netplay upgrades, and the producers of other games have at least discussed the netcode issue publicly. We’re still some years off from every game having great netplay, but the trend line is clearly pointing that direction.
Of course, strong online play isn’t only useful during COVID. Instead, even after offline tournaments start up again, we’ll be able to use it to give more attention and opportunities to more players, help get more new players interested in competing and spectating, and turn both of those into more attendance and more resources for offline events.
This year has forced all of us to change how we live and work. For too many of us, this has been disastrous. But for some of us who’d turned our fighting game hobbies into careers, adapting to COVID has prepared us better for the future as well.
As an attorney, I represent clients in the FGC and wider esports world. When lockdowns began to roll out, some of them had concerns about whether their businesses could even survive. Fortunately, I’ve been able to help them navigate these unprecedented times. In so doing, my clients and I learned new business methods and legal skills that have helped them keep going and, in some cases, have helped them find more success than ever.
The sudden disappearance of offline events was also a major hit for pro players and commentators. With no revenue from tournaments, they were forced to look elsewhere, and many turned their attention toward content creation. Nowadays, some of them are making more money on Twitch and YouTube than they did at events. This new additional source of revenue means that these players and commentators will be better situated to ride out other potential setbacks down the line.
No one knows what the future holds, but we can be certain that COVID-19 will not be the last disaster we ever face. And regardless of what comes next, the lessons we’ve learned this year can help us figure out how to keep ourselves afloat.
Looking to the future
I don’t mean to paint too rosy a picture here. I do have concerns, especially about grassroots offline tournament organizers, merchandisers, and more. But I feel less concerned than a few of my friends in the FGC.
Some of them fear that an extended period without offline gatherings will fundamentally change our scene’s character. But the reality is that being primarily engaged in the FGC through streams, social media, chat servers, and online play isn’t new to most of us. After six months of being stuck at home, my friends and I have learned that while we miss hanging out, we can still have a vibrant community even without seeing each other in person.
In addition, some folks worry that if netplay is improved, players will no longer leave their homes to play, resulting in weaker offline scenes down the line. But we’ve already seen games with strong online play still nurture offline communities. Offline events aren’t just about lag-free gameplay, after all; the truth is that our unique community and hype atmosphere have always been and will remain our biggest offline draws.
This is a terrible time in many, many ways. But for the FGC, this pandemic has also ushered in new attention, new opportunities, improved netplay, and increased preparedness. In a worldwide glut of lemons, the FGC has brewed some pretty good lemonade.