Whether it was the local arcades or the family living room, there have been players—not all—who have thrown down extra scratch to see if being good pays off in more than bragging rights.
Players putting their money where their mouths are, betting that they are better, betting that they will win and betting with money. "Let's face it," says 30-something Scott Popular, "money makes everything interesting."
Popular is a regular on the fighting tournament circuit and self-described tourney "hype man". His job, he says, is to "keep the hype" during tournaments, and he's dead right: money may not make things better, it may not make things more fun. But that 20 or that 50 will, without a doubt, make things more interesting.
It doesn't matter where the tournament is, but you can bet, there are players there picking up extra cash. You might be the eighth best Melty Blood player, but the eighth best Melty Blood doesn't win anything besides the feeling of satisfaction. It's not like the tournament is a front, that's not the case at all. "You don't want these money matches near a proper tournament," says Popular. They get in the way, they're a distraction. Money matches are not why people enrol in fighting game tournaments — most don't even know about them. They're often in an invite hotel room or off in some corner or banquet room somewhere. But search the boards, the forums and there are people trying to set something up, make something happen.
"While the large majority of players and spectators aren't involved in money matches," says Capcom's Seth Killian, "they can still be quite common on some games. Especially as you get towards the finals, or during a marquee matchup, you'll hear a lot of shouting about who likes which player, for how much money, and at what odds." Before Seth Killian was a manager at Capcom USA and before he had a Street Fighter boss named after him, Killian was making his mark on the fighting game circuit. "It's a friendly thing with no centralised system — just player to player bets," he explains.
Betting is done usually in "First to" sets: First to seven, first to 10, etc. The first player to win seven matches, or the first to win 10 matches, wins. "Common bets include: Who will win the set, an obvious bet, who will win the next match, or even who will land the first hit," says Killian. Players may put up the money themselves or might pool money as is often the case in region rivalries — the top West Coast player vs. the top East Coast player. Side bets can round out the action. First hit bets are for those there to gamble, who want that instant rush. Bets can get complicated and interesting by using characters that are typically considered "weak" (Gen, anyone?) to mix-mashing fighting styles (rushdown down attack player vs. run-away-run-down-the-clock player). If bets get too complex, then players and punters will divert their attention to a more straight-up match.
As video game tournaments become bigger and bigger, there's the inevitable push to legitimise tourneys as actual businesses. Gone are the days winners were handed paper bags with money symbols scrawled on them in fat, magic marker and stuffed with cold, hard cashola. Winners must fill out a myriad of sheets including tax forms for Uncle Sam. More reputable tournaments will pay up in a matter of weeks, while there are horror stories from the shadier events of it taking up to a year and a half to get the tournament winnings.
Make a name for yourself as a world class fighting game player, and you'll find yourself with players lining up to play you — for money. The challengers might think they can win, or they might view the experience of getting their arse kicked by a world class player as a postcard to themselves. It's not always the top players who draw the big money matches, but the middle level players that might make the most interesting match-ups. "Some of the bets can get quite large," says Killian. "At a tournament I was at just a few weeks ago, two players faced off in a 'first to 10 wins' match in MVC2 for $US13,000."
But is this legal?
"Federal law does not have much interest in gambling," says I. Nelson Rose, an attorney and a senior professor at the Whittier Law School in California, "unless it is organised crime or the federal government has to get involved, as with interstate horse racing". One of the leading experts on gaming (here, gambling) law, Professor Rose is the author of the upcoming Internet Gaming Law. "There's too much social betting to begin with." Whether it's an office pool on the Oscars, a round of horse shoes or even Governors making friendly Super Bowl bets (which might even violate their state's laws!), social betting is so pervasive in society, that eradicating it would be a fool's errand on the part of the government. Instead, the federal government focuses its attention on those who can make money off of gambling, typically organised crime. "The enforcement of gambling laws," says Prof. Rose, "is low on the list of priority's of the federal government."
"If it is truly a game of skill," says Prof. Rose, "it is not gambling. And if participants are merely betting on themselves — more of an entry fee than a wager — it would not fall under any federal law." According to Prof. Rose, those "bets" players are putting on themselves could legally be considered "an entry fee". Side bets would not fall under federal law either as federal gambling laws do not apply to patrons of bookies. In short: Federal gambling law applies to those who are making money off the act of gambling and not simple wagering on games of skill.
It's the state laws where things get sticky. In the United States, gambling laws differ by individual states. Some states have old and outdated gambling laws on the books. Take California, which says it is illegal to bet on contests of "skill, speed and endurance". Other states, such as Arizona, are starting to even take measures to make wagering on games of skill difficult. States having measures on gambling is not unique. "All of the states have prohibitions on gambling," Prof. Rose points out, "but again, most exempt games which are predominantly skill." If video games are games of skill and not chance, then it could very well not fall under state law. Some states restrict even games of skill. The question is largely: Are fighting games in fact games of skill or chance? Play a couple rounds with guys like Daigo Umehara or Alex Valle and see how far luck gets you.
"The appeal for money matches is simple," says Popular. "It's cash in hand, right away." You play to win, bring your best game and "not some experimental bullshit tactics". Once that is cash on the table—or more often than not, television set—it starts. And it ends when the fight is over. "You're not going to rage quit in a room with a people betting money," says Popular. "No way."
Rage quitting and the arcade tradition of fighting games are driving forces for the perceived needs for players to hash things out in person. "Money matches can also be a way to settle scores between players who have online drama," says Killian. Web start-up BringIt.com is offering an online matchmaking service that using a ranking-type system to match players of similar skill levels in money matches. Players pay beforehand via PayPal to reduce the risk of sudden quits or "connection problems".
The federal Wire Act prohibits anyone in the gambling business, Prof. Rose explains, from using interstate wire infrastructure to transmit info that can be used in placing bets on sporting events. BringIt.com side-steps that as competing in video games is, as previously defined, a game of skill. Players are not "betting", but rather putting money as an entry fee. BringIt.com makes its money on the match-making service it offers, by taking a 14 per cent service fee on each match players accept or enter. "However, there are nine states within the US where the participation in skill-based video game tournaments for cash prizes is not allowed," notes BringIt.com. "At this time, if you live in the following states, you may not play for cash prizes on BringIt: Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, Tennessee and Vermont."
But for some, the appeal of money matches isn't the money and isn't even the winning, but the millisecond before a decision is made, the gut reaction. Many of the top fighting game players do gamble on cards, craps and slots. Some of them are as good at gambling as gaming, good enough to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars. "To play fighting games is to gamble," says Killian. "These guys gamble with every move they make — the gambling sensibility is aligned perfectly with fighting games."
And those thinking of playing money matches at the next big fighting tourney, Killian offers this advice: "Capcom's position would certainly be to check your federal, state, and local laws regarding gambling, and to follow them."