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Fireballs and fists: the unique appeal of fighting games

Chris Kissack
15 Jun 2023

When it comes to thinking about fighting games, one of my earliest memories is getting my ass kicked in Street Fighter 2 by a girl. It was around 1992, and I was about 13 years old and was pretty much the champ of Street Fighter 2 in our little gang of gamers. I was the one to beat. I had mastered all 8 characters, even Zangief’s Spinning Lariat, and a few juggles and combos before they were commonplace and recognized in the game as more than an exploit. It was “pure skills,” as we said back then. When, in fact, a lot of it had to do with a Video Cassette I got from the cover of a gaming mag, probably CVG or perhaps even Gamesmaster Magazine. The video was about an hour of tips, tricks, and strategies for every character in Street Fighter 2. A bit like what would be commonplace to find on YouTube these days. I must have watched that video about 100 times. It had gotten to the point where I was banned from playing as Ryu, which I was the most deadly with. Then one afternoon, playing winner stays on at my pal Robin’s place, one of his older sister’s friends asked if she could play. While I cannot remember exactly how the exchange went, I imagine there were eye-rolling and sniggers exchanged between the lads. This was the early ’90s, and I’d be lying if I said that the concept of a female playing a video game and her being any good was laughable. Yeah, we were dumb.

Turned out she was good. Really good. She had made easy work of the other guys, with them resorting to button mashing or spamming one move. She punished them with projectiles or well-timed blocks and then a flurry of strong attacks and special moves to finish them off. I remember when it came around to my turn, the lads breaking form with “Go Ryu Chris, yeah go Ryu.” This was serious. Not only did a girl know how to play, but she was better than us! That was not right, that was not fair! How is that a thing? So, to reclaim the honor and dignity of foolish gamer boys everywhere, I picked up the SNES controller to select my fighter. It was on like Donkey Kong now, only it would be years before Donkey Kong would be on the same fighting roster as Street Fighter 2 characters, so I went with Ryu. But it was definitely on!

I got my ass handed to me. Over and over again. It was not even the fact that she was impressively good with her main character, she was devastating with every single one. Had she gotten hold of the same VHS as I had? Was she also trained in martial arts, and this was just an extension of years of training? Probably neither of those. She was just better than me, better than all of us! We did not take it well, and in that moment decided it was a rubbish game anyway and should play Mario Kart or Bomberman instead, which she declined and floated out, leaving us with our fragile egos in pieces. While we played some other games, Street Fighter 2 soon returned, with the day of defeat never to be spoken of again.

While it is nice to go down a gaming memory lane again, we have done that before with CS, and I don’t want you to think I only have one style or have my editor here at TEN facepalming at the thought of another “back in my day” piece. But there is a point to bringing up the Day of Defeat. There is a difference between those who play fighting games for fun and those who are absolute masters and see beyond the cool animations of special moves and combo announcements. Just like real martial artists, they look for openings and exact timings for their moves. They don’t just practice their own moves. They study those of their opponents and look for weaknesses and opportunities that they can counter and ultimately punish with devastating accuracy.

The last time I played Street Fighter 2 was in Le Hive a few years ago, a gaming and esports bar in Cannes. Along with PC rigs to play League and CS on, they have some retro consoles in their basement. I was in town with some folks from the industry, and I know very well I enjoy watching League a lot more than I enjoy trying to play it and failing badly. So I made myself very comfortable with a few cocktails and the old SNES, schooling some of the younger guys while they waited for a free rig. Bon temps!

Like other genres I have talked about in this blog series, mastering a fighting game takes practice, and when you become decent, you can compete professionally, be part of a team, create a legacy, and have people study your tactics and playstyle. The world of fighting games has its own origins and history, it has its own scenes and regions that favor different titles, and its unique place in competitive video gaming. Most of all, it has its own Fighting Game Community.

The FGC stands apart from the rest of esports in a number of ways. While I am no specialist in fighting games, and I have my guard up and combo breaker ready for hard-hitting comments being thrown my way, this is my take on what makes the FGC different from traditional esports.

One-on-One Competition. Unlike most esports titles, which are often team-based, fighting games are typically based on duel matches. This format puts a significant emphasis on individual skills and solo decision-making. There’s no team to rely on or blame for a defeat; it’s just you and your opponent standing toe to toe in the arena.

Mechanical Skill. Fighting games demand very high levels of mechanical skill. Players need to execute precise inputs, often within tight timing windows, to perform combos and special moves. This includes frame-perfect inputs, teaching throws, performing reversals, and executing complicated combo strings. It can create a very high skill ceiling with significant differences between players’ mechanical skills. 

Mind Games. “Yomi” is a term from Japanese that means “reading the mind of the opponent,” and it’s a critical aspect of high-level fighting gameplay. Players must predict and respond to their opponent’s decisions in real time, making mind games a crucial part of the competition. It includes predicting your opponent’s attacks, baiting and punishing mistakes, and managing risk-reward trade-offs. While you can find this in MOBAs and FPS titles, just ask any CS coach, the one-on-one Yomi is very much a part of the FGC and high-level competitive play.

Comebacks and Clutch Moments. Fighting games often feature mechanics that allow for thrilling comebacks, such as the “V-Trigger” in Street Fighter V or the “X-Factor” in Marvel vs. Capcom 3. These mechanics can turn the tide of a match at a moment’s notice, leading to some breathtaking moments when watching competitive play at events like EVO.


Spectator Experience. The head-to-head nature of fighting games, combined with their quick rounds and visually exciting moves, makes them highly enjoyable to watch, even for spectators who might not play much or even at all. The learning curve to understand what is happening on the screen is pretty easy to follow compared to, say, a game of League of Legends or a HS tournament. I’d say this contributes to the unique energy at an FGC event.

To ensure successful sponsorship or activation within the FGC, it is crucial to hire and engage skilled and experienced professionals who understand the distinctions between organizing a fighting game tournament and an FPS one. Different crowd, different tech requirements, and different experiences. Thankfully, you are on the right site to find those individuals right here on TEN. How’s that for a power move of a plug?

Now, while I’ve mentioned the Street Fighter series a fair bit, I cannot mention fighting games and not tip a razor-sharp-rimmed hat to Mortal Kombat. MK is celebrating its 30th anniversary after all, and just recently unveiled more gameplay of its latest release, MK 1. If you have not been keeping up with current gaming events, missed the latest PlayStation showcase, AND missed Summer Games Fest, then yeah, MK is doing a reboot of sorts. While I am not about to take up the rest of the word count goal with how and why the bloodiest and most brutal fighting game is starting again, I can say the recent MK storyline (yes, fighting games have a story beyond “Player 1 beats up Player 2”) is well worth following and actually better than some Netflix shows of late.

However, I will say this when it comes to Mortal Kombat. I am pretty sure I have played every release of Mortal Kombat for the last 30 years (even the pretty awful 1997 platformer ‘Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero’), and I have never once come close to having thoughts of pulling someone’s head off with their spine still attached or performing open-heart surgery on someone with my fist after an ominous voice announced, ‘Finish Him.’ If you are reading this as someone who was not around in the ’90s for the home console release of Mortal Kombat, you won’t have lived through the hysteria that was around back then when it came to violent video games. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, and as a parent, I am all for protecting children from harmful content, I’d say as a gamer who lived through that era, played the games, and came out the other side, playing violent video games does not make you violent. Just the same as watching Tom & Jerry did not make me want to harm animals or watching Popeye did not encourage me to eat spinach.

Thinking back on that era, though, what feels a little strange is that it was Mortal Kombat that was in the crosshairs of angry politicians and parent groups. However, Street Fighter seemed to dodge those calls for it to be banned due to its subject matter and potential harm to young gamers, influencing them to recreate what they saw on screen. But out of both of those games, I’d say Street Fighter is more true to life and has a greater chance of being reenacted by a bunch of kids, right? I mean, with Mortal Kombat, you have Elder Gods of Thunder, ice and fire-wielding ninjas, and a dude with four arms, oh, and a shape-shifting soul-eating wizard. Even at 11 years old, we did not need reminding that this was not real! However, with Street Fighter, you mostly just had guys and a girl hanging out on the docks, at an army base, and even in a sauna, beating the hell out of each other with mostly just their fists and very fast kicks. When they got tired of beating on each other, they turned to parked cars and a brick wall, just for the laughs. Granted, there were a few fireballs here and there, but out of both fighting titles in the arcades and home consoles, one of them is a lot more true to life.

Surprisingly, despite the potentially more relatable nature of Street Fighter, it managed to avoid the same level of backlash and calls for it to be banned. It’s unclear why exactly this was the case, as both games featured violence and fighting as their core mechanics. Perhaps the exaggerated nature of Mortal Kombat’s violence, with its graphic fatalities and brutalities, drew more attention and raised concerns among parents and politicians.

Fortunately, times have changed, and most parents today have a better understanding of video games, and make more informed decisions regarding what is suitable for their children. The gaming industry has also matured, with defined age ratings and parental controls in place. Nowadays, parents often play games themselves and have firsthand experience, enabling them to make intelligent choices about what games are appropriate for their kids. As for my gaming preferences with my young gamer, we actually don’t play Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter. He is a huge fan of the Soulcalibur series, and I must admit, he consistently outperforms me in every round we play!

Whether you prefer Ryu or Sub-Zero, Chun-Li, or Sonya Blade, the world of fighting games has a lot to offer. Each game brings its own unique style and mechanics, catering to different tastes and preferences. It’s a genre that continues evolving and captivating gamers of all ages.

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