Fighting games absolutely are eSports now, but Capcom's DLC strategy needs some work.
"EVO marks a turning point for the game competitively and otherwise and was a hell of a show, though some of what Capcom had to say at the event only served to muddy the waters again in a whole new way."
I've been strongly of the belief that fighting games are the eSport that video games need. Street Fighter especially fits the bill thanks to Mortal Kombat's gore, Smash's strange complexities and what I find to be a less immediately approachable style around Tekken and anime fighters. This weekend was the ultimate proof of that at Evolution 2016, fighting games' biggest stage.
EVO has its beginnings in tournaments held in the garage of one of its founders, and in recent years it's been held in the ballrooms of hotels on the Las Vegas strip. This year the players and fans descended first on the Las Vegas Convention Center and then on the final day to the Mandalay Bay Events Center, a venue usually reserved for huge big-name musical acts or UFC match-ups. It was a huge leap.
It's been a massive year for Street Fighter too. Back in February Street Fighter 5 launched to a mixed reception thanks to it having a half-baked and half-finished smattering of launch content. That overshadowed the game an unfortunate amount in spite of it mechanically being one of the finest fighters ever built.
The months since formed an uphill battle for the game. There were balance changes, additional training options, new stages and 4 new characters. A fully-fledged story mode topped it off a matter of weeks ago. EVO marks a turning point for the game competitively and otherwise and was a hell of a show, though some of what Capcom had to say at the event only served to muddy the waters again in a whole new way.
Let's get into that: the trouble with Street Fighter 5's DLC. When Street Fighter 5 was first announced, Capcom made one thing clear: everything that mattered in the game would be purchasable with Fight Money, the in-game currency. When you buy the game you get your hands on 16 characters, and 6 more will launch throughout 2016 (we're at 4 now, about to be 5 at the end of the month). Fine.
Characters cost 100,000 Fight Money, making the total cost for the 2016 season 600,000. That's assuming you want nothing else: Titles, Colours (more on these later) and so on. The problem is there's really not enough fight money rewarded to afford everything 'basic' without exhausting practically every avenue, such as completing each of Survival's four modes with all 20 characters - undeniably a too-painful grind. Even buying all 6 DLC characters is a huge ask, and then there's actual on-disc content such as alternate costumes players can actually use in the story modes that remain locked for local or online multiplayer unless you drop 40,000 fight money.
Outside of the single-player modes and the occasional profile level up, earning 40k fight money would require you to win 800 multiplayer matches. Digest that for a sec.
The concept behind this system is fine on paper. As with any game with free ongoing DLC, Capcom needs to make its money somewhere. I purchased a Street Fighter 5 season pass to get all the characters without worrying about Fight Money, but some of SF5's current structure seems ridiculous. Those story costumes are a huge offender; 40,000 fight money makes them too expensive for players to pick up every single one (it'd cost 800,000 FM) and so players are asked to shell out real money - £1.69 each for costumes that're on the disc and playable in single-player modes without paying a penny. It's ludicrous.
That's just the story mode costumes, but premium costumes cost £3.29 and can only be picked up with real cash. That's 10 pence more than a pack of 5 new character costumes cost in Ultra Street Fighter 4. To add insult to injury you also don't automatically get all colour variations of each costume you buy. You're stuck having to play the grindy survival mode (fancy 100 vs CPU fights in a row? Me neither) for every one. This became so tedious people began to game the system and cheat to unlock colours; Capcom then promised a solution and threatened to ban colour unlocking cheaters.
At EVO, Capcom addressed this complaint: you'll soon be able to spend real money on colours too. That somehow feels like a non-solution at best and insult added to injury at worst.
Nowhere is this confusing attitude better demonstrated than the newly announced Capcom Pro Tour DLC. Meant to hype fans dedicated enough to care about EVO, the whole thing feels like a backfire. All weekend, every time an ad for the DLC ran on stream the chat exploded with derision. "lol, $25," the stream monsters would scream; those less restrained would tell Capcom to sod off in terms I won't reproduce here. Everywhere - youtube, podcasts, comments threads, forums - it's been ridiculed for its cost.
Theoretically the idea behind the CPT DLC pack is nice. You get three new costumes, a new stage which resembles a tournament stage in SF's typically outlandish style, an exclusive set of colours for every character and costume and some new in-game titles for your online profile. A 'portion' of purchases of this DLC go towards the Capcom Pro Tour prize pot for the best players at the end of the year.
As somebody who cares about the competitive community I think the latter is a great idea, though the high price and Capcom's refusal to disclose how much of the profit will go into the tournament pot sours the whole deal. At least when Microsoft did the same for Killer Instinct it was clear: buy a special DLC and 100% of the proceeds up to $100,000 will go to their community fund. Capcom has failed to be clear, which is perhaps now a well-developed theme with SF5's development and release.
Worse still is that the Pro Tour DLC bundle is PS4 exclusive; PC players have to buy each part piecemeal. The Ring of Destiny stage is $10/£8 alone, something that's brain-melting to think about when you consider the stage is pretty but reuses background characters from every other existing stage. The costumes are even more expensive than even the £3.29 ones. As an added bonus, the titles and colours are exclusive to the PS4 bundle and so PC players who want them are out of luck.
This is all ludicrous by any measure but doubly so for DLC that is supposed to invigorate and unite the community. It's a swing and a miss.
All this and yet I can't hate Street Fighter 5. I love it, in fact: it's still in my opinion the finest fighting game ever made at its core, and EVO 2016 was a masterclass in that. Mortal Kombat, Guilty Gear, Smash Bros and others all had strong showings at the tournament, but there's a reason Street Fighter was the game picked up for broadcast on ESPN - it's a mechanical masterpiece.
In the opening of this article I said that I believe fighters are the eSport video games need. They're immediately understandable; throw Street Fighter onto ESPN and even a non-gamer can understand it. There's terminology sure enough, but life bars and characters in such a simple setting speak for themselves.
This was borne out in the response to Sunday's ESPN broadcast of EVO's Street Fighter finals: memes went around of people on twitter being converted live.
"This is all ludicrous by any measure but doubly so for DLC that is supposed to invigorate and unite the community. It's a swing and a miss."
"ESPN2 is featuring 2 grown men playing a video game. On TV. This is more stupid than televising poker," one naysayer tweeted. A matter of minutes later, he piped up again: "I want to go to bed but I'm riveted," he about-faced, adding on a hashtag: #madeforTVvideogame. This was one of many.
It's this natural appeal of Street Fighter and fighters in general that I think mean it'll one day really hit it big as an eSport and why I eventually think it could actually surpass your MOBAs and the like. Exhilarating as those games are, there's a much higher barrier for a non-player to understand at a basic level what's going on, and an up-close fight is an inherently more exciting thing to spectate than a pulled-out tactical view. These games can work for a broader audience - it's only a matter of time if they're promoted right.
This week marks eight years since Street Fighter had its resurgence with the 2008 release of Street Fighter IV into Japanese arcades. It's appropriate that the aftermath of EVO kicks the week off, as last weekend felt like the biggest moment in Street Fighter's history.
In general it was a shining moment: there were amazing matches and incredible stories out of the tournament that highlighted just how special Street Fighter 5 is as a one-on-one fighter. Beneath it there remains that dangerous undercurrent, however: SF5 still feels like an often mismanaged game, with the decisions around the cost and messaging of DLC the latest choppy waters for Capcom to navigate. Given the quality of the core game I only hope Capcom can continue to be responsive.