In this in-depth two-parter on Super VS Battle 2011, Alex Donaldson talks to its founding father about what makes Britain's biggest fighting game tournament tick.
It’s August 2011 and screams are erupting from a leisure centre in North West London. Hundreds of voices are cheering, whooping and hollering – and it’s nothing to do with the London Riots. Instead it’s all over Marvel vs. Capcom 3, where a major comeback has just taken place during the Pools phase of Super VS Battle 2011, the largest fighting game tournament in the UK.
“I’m not doing this like an interview – does that matter?” Richard ‘Shin Dragon’ Denton, one of the key organizers of SvB asks me as we sit down halfway through the tournament to discuss its birth. Compared to interviewing people like Bioware boss Greg Zeschuk or SEGA’s Yakuza boss-man Tashihiro Nagoshi, Denton is just an incredibly normal bloke.
He’s part of the core team of four responsible for Super VS Battle alongside his twin brother Marc, aka ‘Sho Dragon’, 33, Inti Lagos Brown, 29 and tournament mastermind and owner of NeoEmpire.com Simeon ‘Bullet Proof’ Lansicout, 34.
“Simeon doesn’t like to be in the limelight so much, so basically he’s the backbone,” Denton explains. “We run around and make sure things look good on event days, we manage the people – because we have a lot of volunteers for events too. Simeon puts it together, and then he trusts us to make it look pretty.
“Inti does all the groups and brackets and stuff. We just stick him in a corner and he does all that, he knows all 54 Street Fighter groups off the top of his head, he knows everything. He does an amazing job, and with him doing that we’re free to focus on the production and event-day running while Simeon handles the planning side.”
With competitor attendance and the presence of major special guests and sponsors put in jeopardy by the London Riots and fear of violence spilling over into the event, you’d expect Super Vs Battle to have a quiet year, but over 500 people show up – something Richard’s glad of, given all the planning.
“Simeon goes in there and sets stuff up. He talks to people, sponsors, companies, whatever, for about three months – and then we go in. That’s when we do the graphics, marketing, Facebook, Twitter, all that – we spend a good half a year on it. I’ll be jumping onto social networks once a day, creating hype, hinting at stuff. It’s a lifestyle – it’s all the time, non-stop.
“We do most of the front facing and Simeon does a lot of the back work,” I’m told. “I think it works quite well, because he’ll talk to a lot of the businesses and does a lot of the negotiation and then he turns to us and says ‘right, you have this to work with’ and we’ll do what we’ve gotta do to get this thing moving.”
The Denton brothers have been at this tournament business for some time now, and when asked exactly how long it’s been, Richard struggles to remember. “I lose count now. Jesus,” he says, before doing a bit of mental arithmetic to jog his memory.
“Neo Empire was started in 2005. The multi-day big events like this one or Battle of Destiny, which was the first event in the western world to have Street Fighter IV cabinets outside of Japan – that was 2008. It’s really hard to count – there’s different sorts of events. We do small monthlies around London and we actually do weeklies as well called WFO; that isn’t technically ours actually, but we stream it and support it.”
While at its most base level Super VS Battle is a bunch of fightsticks, players, consoles and TVs crammed into a leisure centre’s indoor sports hall, there’s a sense of community spirit that outstrips anything I’ve seen at other events. When sticks break down, others are on hand with a screwdriver to get inside and rewire them, and players crowd around consoles to watch and support each other during both tournaments and friendly matches.
The amount of equipment doesn’t look like much spread out across the sprawling room, but you quickly realize there’s an awful lot of gear for an event put on by a four-man squad. That’s due to careful planning and the help of others, Richard tells us.
“There are 25 volunteers this year. It changes year-on-year, and this year we’ve been affected by the riots and stuff, people being unable to come. Around 12 of us have been here since the beginning, too.”
"All it boils down to is that we’ve taken a massive financial risk. It’s a gamble. Again, it’s all self-generated. We take a lot of the profit and plough it back in."
Equipment doesn’t come as easily as volunteers, though. Getting their hands on the TVs, consoles and games required to run an event like this even on a yearly basis has involved major investment from the core crew.
“All it boils down to is that we’ve taken a massive financial risk,” it’s explained. “It’s a gamble. Again, it’s all self-generated. A lot of money has gone into the screens and stuff. We actually own all of the screens out in that room; they’re not borrowed. That means we’re set now for another three or four years, because they’re lag-free 19 inch monitors.
“We actually looked at that carefully, and we found out that the average monitor size is 22 inch if they’re going to be lag-free. These are lag-free and 19 inch. It would’ve been nice to get bigger, but obviously we had to consider the price. We take a lot of the profit and plough it back in. Every year we’ve got to buy equipment, replace cables, all that stuff.”
For an event of this size I was surprised at how much the Neo Empire crew have to provide themselves, especially in comparison to the larger-scale American Tournaments. EVO 2011 saw Capcom give free copies of Super Street Fighter IV for PC to every single entrant. “We do get given games, but not on such a scale that we can run the entire tournament that way,” Denton tells us.
“Plus there’s DLC – we don’t get that either. Imagine 30 Mortal Kombats with 4 new characters in – we’re not that privileged to get the DLC free. So that, too, we have to invest. And then there’s the time, as we have to sit there and update 30 machines for that game and make sure they’re in the right places for the tournament matches on the day.”
While the American tournaments are much larger, Neo Empire and Super Vs Battle represent the biggest and the best the UK has to offer, though Denton believes the UK fighting game scene needs to see wider expansion country-wide if an event like SvB is to become anything like the behemoth that is the Evolution Championship Series, which takes place in Las Vegas every July.
“I find that the HMV GamerBase in Manchester is better than ours – I’ve never been, but I’ve been told – bigger, better, more equipment. I’ve been told by some of their staff who are members of our forums, but what are they doing? Nothing. I don’t want to talk badly of them, but they’ve got all this equipment and they’re doing nothing with it,” Denton says.
"Bigger, better, more equipment – but what are they doing? Nothing. I don’t want to talk badly of them, but they’ve got all this equipment, but they’re doing nothing with it."
GamerBase is a selection of gamer-oriented LAN centres located inside a select few HMV stores across the country, and is a key supporter of Neo Empire’s efforts with both Super Vs Battle and its more regular weekly tournaments. As well as the London ones that support Neo Empire, GamerBase has outlets in Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh, who, despite having major fighting game players as regulars, do not put on events.
“We’ve put our money down so we can show what London is doing and do something for the community. I don’t like that right now this stuff is happening mostly in London only. I want to see other groups, other areas of the country step up to the plate and show off what they can do. There’s us, there’s ECL; but it’s limited.”
“I feel like I want to take a trip up to some of the other places like GamerBase Manchester and say, ‘What are you guys doing? There’s talented players there you could show off. You already hold some basic events. You don’t even need to live-stream; you can just record them and upload them to YouTube later.'
"We are one of the only groups that does this stuff, but that isn’t our fault – we want to see more do it.”
With that said, Denton’s quick to admit and understand why some people might struggle to get involved in spite of their love for the scene.
“Like I say, it’s a risk. I’ve lost money hand over foot in this,” he admits with a shrug.
“We’ve sacrificed a lot to do this. I’m always around people’s houses saying, ‘That monitor’s been sitting there for six months, what are you doing with it? Nothing? Can I have it?’ That works, because then we get another 4:3. A lot of the fighting games are being ported up now, but think about Street Fighter III: Third Strike. Until Capcom announced the port, we were playing it on the PS2. People don’t want to play that game stretched out to widescreen, so we find old 4:3s to keep it as it was.”
The eclectic, magpie-like nature of the equipment collected for the venue is endearing. Compared to other heavily officially-sponsored events the room is packed with TVs and consoles of all shapes and sizes, from Dreamcasts running Street Fighter III and Power Stone to a large crowd of people congregated around a Wii hooked up to a huge tube TV alternating between Super Smash Bros Brawl and Melee.
"We have to build from where we are now. It’s very hardcore. Let’s not beat around the bush here, right: 90 percent of people in a tournament go home out of pocket, but they still come back year after year."
Denton sees it as a way to save money and be green, too. “When people – friends, members of the community get rid of stuff we try to take what we can. We’ve picked stuff up off GumTree and found these amazing screens at great value and give them a new home. It’s recycling, in a way."
It's a necessary process without the large-scale sponsorship of the major American tournaments, and with the UK scene in its infancy, Denton sees it as a way to survive and grow. He admits, though, SvB is slightly more hardcore-focused as a result of its smaller scale.
“Evo is incredible and they’ve got all that sponsorship, millions of views on their live stream – those things obviously let them do things that we can’t even dream of right now. We have to build from where we are now.
“It’s very hardcore. Let’s not beat around the bush here, right: 90 percent of people in a tournament go home out of pocket, but they still come back year after year, because they’re into it. It’s interesting to see people who will go out in the first round return, because they’re trying to get into it. Getting more people interested and visiting even if they’re not playing is something we’re interested in and want to do.
"That is the direction we’re going in: we want to grow the scene.”
The Professional Touch
While players are free to bring consoles and games to hook up to the screens, the main event at Super Vs Battle comes in the tournament games. This year Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition, Marvel vs Capcom 3, Mortal Kombat, Tekken 6 and BlazBlue Continuum Shift 2 take centre stage. Split across the three days with an exacting schedule, you’re greeted upon entrance to the venue with a professional program which lays out exactly when stuff should be going down.
“We’re both graphic designers,” Denton explains of himself and his brother. “We work in the entertainment and club industry – we’re basically music entertainment designers; internal signage for events, and things like that. My brother currently works for a marketing company that owns four bars. I’m actually working at a printers, so I get my boss to run off all the big banners for us.
“One thing we’re really proud of at Neo Empire is that we polish everything up so nicely – we’ll get the standing banners, the large banners, the program, and we’ll do it ourselves. In fact, I wouldn’t trust anyone else. We do it ourselves. I want to make it look brilliant on paper. Hopefully as we grow we’ll get the support to make the events look better.”
If there was any year for mega-growth for Super VS Battle, this felt like it might be the one. Then something unthinkable happened.
If there was any year for mega-growth for Super VS Battle, this felt like it might be the one. Professional-grade fliers and banners are printed, volunteers are drafted in and Capcom’s Street Fighter boss-man Yoshinori Ono is set to attend the event alongside Tekken creator Katsuhiro Harada. Fight stick manufacturers Hori and Mad Catz were both keen to attend and show off their latest wares, while tournament players were packing their cases ready to fly in from Europe and even further afield to compete.
Capcom had decided not to show Street Fighter X Tekken at the event, but Rising Star Games and Zen United had planned to bring early builds of King of Fighters XIII and Arcana Heart 3 for fans to try out. All the numbers indicated that Super VS Battle 2011 would smash all their records and help to boost the UK fighting game scene to new heights.
And then, less than week before the event was due to begin, something unthinkable happened.
London was on fire.
“I remember watching on Sunday, and I wasn’t really grasping what was going on,” Denton tells me. “Then Monday, it moved. It was in Ealing, which was getting closer, and towns nearby got evacuated. Even Harrow was shut down for a while, people couldn’t get into the town. I thought, ‘Jesus. We’re in real trouble.’”