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Inside the UK’s Largest Fighter Tournament – Part Two

Alex Donaldson continues the story of Super Versus Battle 2011, battling on amid the smoke of the London Riots.

One of the most well-known pieces of gaming trivia is that Street Fighter’s Balrog is called M. Bison in Japan, and is an obvious tribute to Mike Tyson. Scared of lawsuits, Capcom switched the names around for the Western release, and he became Balrog.

A quote from Balrog’s inspiration actually best explains what happened to the team at Super vs Battle 2011. With everything planned and ready and raring to go, the tournament was hit with the revelation of shocking scenes of rioting and mass disorder mere miles from their location.

“Everybody's got plans... until they get hit,” Tyson famously said during his boxing career. For Richard Denton and the rest of the Super vs Battle team, the quote suddenly carried a significant amount more weight. With the riots in London, best-laid plans for SvB were falling to pieces.

“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.’”

Worse, the team had already spoken to the police, and the word from the powers that be wasn’t looking too positive either. “The police were telling us they were going to just cancel it anyway,” Denton explains. “It was gonna be out of our hands.”

The police’s reaction was with good reason. The riots saw 3100 people arrested, 5 people killed and scores of property damaged, sometimes beyond repair. Police worried that hundreds of mostly-young people and a bunch of expensive gaming equipment in one place could become a target.

"We had the idea of not doing it... but, we can’t. What about our players?"

“We all sat down and we had a conversation via Skype. When it calmed down – as we were watching it Monday, Tuesday were bad but then it got to Wednesday and it calmed down, we had this conversation and we had the idea of not doing it...but, we can’t,” Denton says, shaking his head animatedly and gesturing towards the bustling, busy event in the next room.

“It’s not just a case of we can’t structurally; it would be hard but not impossible to move it to September or October, but what about our players? What about all the Europeans who have bought plane tickets out here and booked hotels to stay? There’s at least 100 of them here, and, y’know, and people that were looking forward, or even travelling to the UK... it was just, the idea of – nah.”

“We couldn’t do that to them,” he states. To him it’s as simple as that. Everything about the way he says it oozes pure passion and dedication to this community and the people that make it up – and it’s hard not to admire.

“As long as it was our decision we were still gonna do it. Always.”

Safety First
The determination from the team behind the actual tournament went a long way to help push it through, but some people previously involved would now pull out for the safety of their staff. The loss of Capcom was perhaps the most significant, meaning Street Fighter series Producer Yoshinori Ono, who attended SvB in 2010, would not attend.

“Funnily enough, I first found out that Ono-san wasn’t coming via twitter – someone close to us tweeted it. Capcom told us shortly after I read that,” Denton tells me, the tone of his voice clearly showing the team was strained by some of the losses sustained. “It slipped out, then MarkMan (Mark Julio) from Mad Catz put a statement out saying he can’t come because of work issues.”

“Then Ono-san was saying via social networking to the wider public that he wasn’t attending, [Tekken Series Producer] Harada-san from Namco – same kind of deal. It was a shame.”

Capcom UK’s PR rep Leo Tan spoke to me before the show about Ono’s presence, citing that the “volatility” in the UK meant that Ono would no longer be attending. Safety of their creative staff, after all, is crucial to publishers.

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Mad Catz’ Global Communications and PR Head Alex Verrey told me after the event that they had wanted and intended to be there but “the show took part in a perfect storm of activity” alongside Comic Con, MLG, GamesCom, PAX and various managers’ conferences of companies like GameStop and Best Buy. Team Mad Catz sponsored players Ryan Hart and Kayane still attended the event, but unlike last year the company didn’t show to demo or sell their products.

The loss of these key names in the world of fighting games from the event and overall fear from potential competitors about the state of London cost the event dearly. “In the end, we’ve probably lost around 30% attendance,” Denton estimates, rolling his shoulders as he does.

“I’ve had emails from people saying ‘I want a refund,’ and it’s hard to say but we have to say no. We always said no refunds under any circumstances because we need to pay for the event, and I think a lot of those people acted too soon and were silly because Harrow itself never had riots and stayed safe. “

“They decided not to come – and I’m not being funny – but Harrow’s not a danger area and there are over 500 people here. I can understand if you’re a young boy whose parents now don’t think the trip is safe, but we have to have one rule for everyone – no refunds. That’s the rule we’ve always had.”

In addition to companies and special guests skipping the event, the riots meant other partners failed to follow through on promises of loans of equipment including consoles, TVs and even copies of games. Again, though, what Denton later described as community spirit and drive helped the event to stay on its feet.

“This year has proven that the community always comes along and saves the day,” he says, again gesturing to the hundreds of players out in the main hall. “Out of the blue, 30 machines turned up when sponsors failed to bring hardware due to the riots – the fans rescued us there.”

“Ultimately it’s all about them – it’s a partnership. We can’t do it without them and they can’t do it without us.”

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The fans aren’t the only partners that remained on-board with the event, though. Fighting peripheral makers Hori still attended with their latest products for people to demo, while Rising Star Games were on hand demoing the upcoming King of Fighters XIII, even putting up cash prizes for a mini-tournament of the game.

Zen United also braved London to attend, bringing their new anime fighter Arcana Heart 3. Zen’s Geraint Evans took some time out to tell me exactly why they decided to stick to their guns and attend in the face of the riots.

“It’s absolutely vital,” Evans said of events like Super vs Battle. “It’s a chance to get to know our core audience. Playing our games alongside them, listening to their suggestions and answering their grievances face to face – when you have an audience that cares so much about your products it’s unthinkable that we wouldn’t do them the honour of attending.”

“I have a huge amount of respect for this kind of passion, and for us to not support that, get involved with it, would do it a disservice. I can’t think of a single genre that really fosters this kind of face to face community – to rally community members to get together, in person, to enjoy these games together. I think fighting games are unique in this way – and that’s something to celebrate.”

Fan-made vs. Official
Despite that attitude from Zen, Denton does seem to worry about the future of events that aren’t wholly controlled by the large publishers.

“In the past we’ve been lucky with exclusive products,” he offers as an example. “Look at last year; we had Marvel vs. Capcom 3 ages before its release. We also got Super Street Fighter IV before that. We’ve always fallen on dates where we can get accessible builds from the companies for our attendees to play the games.”

“Now Capcom have started doing what their official Fight Clubs I think there’s less need for them to bring stuff to us anymore. I think that they might feel that the hardcore will buy it anyway, so they don’t really need to play it ahead of time. I think that’s a bit harsh. “

Despite that, Denton admits he understands Capcom’s reasoning if what he has been told is true. “If we were to do the Fight Club, new players would see these ridiculous people just obliterating everyone over and over again. We can share people off. Those events are about promotion, and us being there doesn’t allow the casual gamers to get on as much. I get that. They’d see some of our guys playing and think ‘oh my god’ – those guys watch stuff on YouTube before the game is out and analyse it in their head – they’re ridiculous.”

Despite his worries, Denton remains optimistic time will see balance restored, allowing the two styles of event to co-exist.

“Capcom’s got a massive drive on their Fight Clubs and stuff at the moment. Maybe next year when it balances out and they’ve been doing that for a while we may get some of the products back. The riots didn’t help with Capcom – Ono-san having to drop out and that – but they were never bringing any products anyway.”

Fight for the Future
One way to ensure the survival of events like Super vs Battle is to grow the event without the support of external companies, and Denton and the team have plenty of plans for that. One thing that’s stopped many fans of competitive gaming struggle to follow SVB is the lack of an online stream, and there are plans in place to remedy that. “We really want a stream up for all three days next year,” he tells us, the excitement at the idea pretty clear as he gestures towards the rest of the hall.

“We want to be able to stream as an actual show. We’d cut to different games. We’d bring up certain people out of the pools to play on the ‘stream’ machine. Pre-recorded segments during breaks in the matches... we want to be able to do all that, but we’d probably have to double the team to do that.”

“We stream on Thursday nights from Gamerbase in London – we do winner stays on tournament. People don’t realize it’s a Neo Empire thing because it’s somebody else’s thing – he runs the tournament and we stream it for them. If we can get a venue with high quality internet, at a weekend, at the size we need, at a price we can afford - we’d be streaming today.”

Evo’s stream this year was ran by Team Sp00ky and was a real incredible piece of work, and Denton’s admiration is clear. “The thing about Evo was it was just so professional looking and it was just astonishing that it stayed on – no matter who you are or where you were, it just stayed on. My internet connection is diabolical because I’m at the end of an exchange – but it just stayed up constantly. It was amazing.”

"We want a new venue so we can do more."

The team also intend to focus their efforts on production. “We want a new venue so we can do more,” Denton says, later admitting that the current venue, a leisure centre, is now inadequate. A new venue would go a long way to fixing some of the major issues some had with the event.

“For example at a smaller event we used Milford Arts Center in North London – we used the full theatre. One of our players, Liam Hoy - Agent Hoy - he works for that theatre. It was awesome. We had full production – lights, introduction music, all that... it was amazing.”

“We did that a bit at Battle of Destiny, as well. We had a sound engineer – so in our finals we had entrance music for the players. The room was pitch black when the finals started, and there was smoke and then the lights came up – that’s what I love, the production.”

“This event is much more focused on the games themselves because of the size versus how many people we have to run it, but in an ideal world we’d want to bring like a concert and a boxing match and video games together – give us the equipment, and yeah, done. That’s what I want to do in the future if we can, but right now it’s really hard – I get worn out because by the time we’ve got the hardware in, got all the printing done, promoted the event – all that – I get worn out and run out of time.”

“That’ll be our planning over the coming months. When we get to the venue in theory it should be a product in a box – then we just need to open the box. We know what we’re doing and how to do it – some our meetings are very blaze because we know what we’re doing, we just need the capital, the support, the equipment, the venue and the staff and then we can do it. But that’s a big ask, I know.”

One other ambition for Denton and the SvB crew is to get involved in other, larger events, like the growing behemoth that is Eurogamer Expo. “We’re gonna be at MCM Expo, but me and my brother have always talked about being at Eurogamer. We just don’t know how to go about it.”

"We’re gonna be at MCM Expo, but me and my brother have always talked about being at Eurogamer. We just don’t know how to go about it."

Ambitions for the future will have to wait, though – Denton’s being dragged away again to the hustle and bustle of the tournament to help keep the cogs behind the scenes turning to keep everything as close to on-time as possible.

The event has had its fair share of non-riot related issues, exacerbated by a lack of equipment and staff. Post-event discussion on the Neo Empire forums would go on to be highly critical but also thankful for the team’s efforts. There’s a long way to go next year, but from Denton’s comments its clear he believes more external help is needed to grow this event further.

Asked how he’d convince others who aren’t big fans to come and check it out next time he launches with ease into a promotional spiel that’s good enough that for a moment I’m reminded of a major publisher PR representative.

“It’s an exciting weekend. There’s nothing like it. Playing people in person – I know a lot of people picked up Street Fighter IV and play online – that’s not bad, it’s really cool online – but there’s nothing like offline. When you’ve got 500 people screaming at each other in excitement – you don’t get that in your headphones.

“Come down and watch. Come down for grand finals and watch that. Come down and play casually without competing – you won’t see a show like this in many places in this country. Arcades might be dead and online might be the big thing, but we must be doing something right to get this many people to come down to a leisure centre in Harrow a few days after the riots, right?”

There’s a problem with the power at the event, and he can’t keep talking to me for much longer – but even as he runs off to deal with even more problems, Denton’s still grinning wide.

"We’re quite bare-bones sometimes, but at the end of the day if there’s a TV and a console and the players bring their sticks or pads and it all works and people can sit down and hear it and see it and play in a tournament... we’re in business. That’s all that matters in the end."

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