Insomnia | Commentary

Domination 101: Why Street Fighter Rules, Part 1

By Seth Killian / April 14, 2008

This article is part of a series of articles originally posted on the Shoryuken forums sometime before the Great Crash of 2003. In an effort to bring them to the attention of a new generation of players, we will be re-posting them here in the coming weeks and months.

If the Red Chinese invaded tomorrow and banned the game entirely, nobody would really miss it after two or three months. Even now, most of the games are so fucking dull that it's hard to understand how anybody can even watch them on TV unless they have some money hanging on the point spread, instead of the final score.
--Hunter S. Thompson, "Fear and Loathing at the Superbowl"

Why is this right?

I'm watching Monday Night Football right now. So are ten million other suckers. Why are we suckers? Because I could give a damn about football, at bottom. It's no part of me. I never really played, and neither have the vast majority of the sport's fans. Any connection I feel with the guys on the field is just the combination of good advertising by the NFL and my own stupidity. Sure, I used to toss around the old pigskin, and once in a while even get a pick-up game going. I've even got a pretty good arm. But of course I was never a pro. I didn't play college ball, and I didn't even go out for the high school team.

You're saying to yourself, "Hey! But!...". Save it. Before you embarrass yourself by going any further, please try to remember that if you'd had the misfortune to be born in England, you'd be making the same retarded speech in defense of cricket -- a game so stupid it ridicules itself. So if you can get past flexing fake manliness with empty defenses of somebody else's waste of time[1], let me explain why the same thing isn't true of Street Fighter. Listen to what I'm going to tell you now:

Why would you really care if Street Fighter was gone? I'll tell you why: Because you're a player. Virtually every male on the planet under 30 played videogames, and everyone who played videogames played Street Fighter. And they didn't play some half-assed, junior-league version of the game with special rules -- they played the real thing.

My high school coaches forgave my decision not to go out for the team because I'm not a freak of nature. I don't weigh 300lbs, and I can't bench that either. (No, this isn't the battle-cry of the sissy either -- I am 6'3", about 1.85). They understood that even if I was willing to try my hardest, I probably couldn't be a serious competitor. This wasn't, of course, up to me. As far as football is concerned, I was just born unlucky. I'm not 6'6", so basketball's out (and don't give me any crap about Mugsy Bogues, etc. Some idiot wins the lottery every day -- that doesn't make it a good bet). Again -- look at the contrast with Street Fighter. Where else are you going to find a philosopher going head to head with a B-Boy? A gangbanger versus an MIT mathematician? A street mugging, maybe. Or a Street Fighter tournament. From Microsoft employees to Marines to the manager of your local Blockbuster -- they're all here. This is the real fight club.

Why was Street Fighter open to so many players? Look at the way most popular sports limit their player base: They all take relatively big (sometimes huge), specialized fields. Most of them require a bunch of (often very expensive) equipment. And to compete in any kind of serious way, you have to be born with the right type of body. These are all pre-requisites before the question of skill has even come up. This is just what you need before you can even begin to ask whether you're really any good. Major sports are exclusive -- sometimes extremely exclusive depending on how wealthy you are, or where you happen to live. Contrast this with SF: you can play anywhere. It required only a machine, which were extremely common, and are now so cheap that anyone can afford to own them. And you don't have to be any particular height/weight/strength to win.

Of course, even before Street Fighter, arcades have always embodied a capacity for competition. Since the advent of high-score record-keeping, players have struggled to leave a lasting mark, and evaluate themselves relative to each other. But most of the time you didn't even recognize the guy behind the initials on the high-score list (unless you happened to see him in action), and it's hard even for the psychopaths that hang around arcades to take three letters on a high-score board very personally. Street Fighter changed all of that (and saved the arcade industry in the process).

Unlike so much of what had come before, playing serious Street Fighter required putting part of yourself, and your self-respect, on the line. SF had a second joystick, and meant it. Its two-player mode wasn't two guys alternating turns, scoring points against some common computer foe. Street Fighter invited you to stick it to the guy standing next to you. End his turn by beating him off the machine, take his money, and make him pay for the chance to question you again. Being in the arcade at all was admitting you cared, and Street Fighter was the king of the arcade. The game is simply too complex to be played at a high level dismissively. By stepping up, you were saying something -- admitting the investment in time and effort it took you to get to this level. That was fundamentally incompatible with casually laughing off a loss, claiming this was "just a game", and everyone there knew it. Walking away from the all-too-human being that just handed you your ass was also a lot harder than walking away from third place on a high-score list. Especially when this punk might even be laughing at you (and if it was me, he was).

Serious Street Fighter was a personal thing. Playing serious SF meant playing in the arcade, and arcades in the US are (or at least used to be, pre-Disneification) shady places, filled with shady characters. Going to the arcade meant taking a trip, the entire purpose of which was picking fights with these people. It's you versus someone else, one on one. You don't have a team to lean on, where the brilliant performance of a Michael Jordan can gloss over the brick you just laid. You are the team -- it's you on the line, with no one to back you up, no one to help you out, and nobody else to blame when you lose. You stand there together until someone is the unequivocal loser. You play through the smoke, music, lights, and the veiled (or not-so-veiled) hatred of everyone around you. You take all the glory for every win, the full shame behind every loss.

The NBA can bring in Manute Bol without his ever having seen a basketball, and he could hang just because he's a seven-foot-plus tall freak. William "The Refrigerator" Perry didn't get that much better at being a professional fat guy after years of practice. Are these guys skilled? Yes, but in stupid ways. You just don't see that crap in Street Fighter. Regardless of how tall, fat, or freakishly fast you might be, none of that will win you any matches if you aren't also a master of the game. Street Fighter skills are almost wholly (and beautifully) divorced from physical gifts or liabilities (ask Joe "the one-handed terror from Tuscon" Jennings). High-level Street Fighter is a real skill that must be learned and developed, while still being open (at least potentially) to pretty much everyone.

That's what loving a game is really about. It's playing the game -- really understanding it from the inside out -- that's what makes a connection real. So while you may know the ERAs for every starter in the National League, you don't really know what it is to pitch in the majors, and you're never going to. In SF, you have the same chance everyone else at a tournament has. Anyone can walk up and take a shot at the masters -- let your skills do the talking. You lumps still watching the NFL should stop kidding yourselves. That's never going to be you. The players could care less about you, and you're never going to get a shot at them. Street Fighter excludes only on the basis of skill. If golf is for rich guys and hockey is for thugs, Street Fighter is for everyone. Think football is a man's sport? Be man enough to drop those snacks, put down the remote, and get in the game. Quit living in your world of make-believe, and take a real shot in an honest competition. Go play.

[1] "Exhibit A" in the case that football really is boring: the XFL. When has it ever been the case that you can start a competing league for a sport which is dynamic and well-managed? As far as I can recall -- never. WNBA, anyone? ("Check out the passing-intensive, no-dunking sport of the future! Did we mention the awesome passing?")