Winning by any means necessary is a core staple of fighting game competitions, but it's still unsettled whether fighting game pros need to entertain spectators while trying to do so. It's been an issue in Street Fighter for decades, and top Super Smash Bros. players have even been booed for their controversial approaches to competition. This conversation cropped up again after a recent Pokken Tournament event came to a close with two players sniping at each other from afar.
"This is by far the dumbest final match I've ever seen," one stream viewer announced while watching the finals at Summer Jam XI, a tournament in Philadelphia, earlier this month.
"Only four moves have been used," said another.
They were watching a grand finals match featuring the rare clash of Chandelure vs. Chandelure. The ghostly chandelier Pokemon is unique to Pokken in that a significant portion of its moveset is focused on keeping the opponent at bay, resulting in a barrage of lasers and projectiles that have become ubiquitous with the character, even if it doesn't quite reach the last stage of tournament play on a regular basis.
After battling through a stacked bracket of high-level competitors, Pokken at Summer Jam came down to Liam "Twixxie" Nelson and Johnny "SoulGuitarist" Kane. As both are known Chandelure users, spectators got ready for a lengthy, drawn out fight, and the grand finalists didn't disappoint. In the end, Twixxie rose about SoulGuitarist as the day's strongest player with an impressive 3-0 victory, securing a first-place finish at two major tournaments in a row. Where most of the community was supportive, however, a few naysayers spoiled what should have been an awesome moment by putting down the match as boring due to the tactics the participants employed.
Fighting game styles that look dull or tedious to some spectators can intrigue those with a trained eye. On the surface, a Chandelure mirror match is simply a war of attrition, with both players errantly throwing out lasers and long-range grabs in an attempt to whittle away at the other's life. But what isn't apparent is the intense thought process that goes into establishing a strong zoning game, especially when your opponent's character can return fire in similar fashion.
As fighting games have evolved over the last few decades, so too have the strategies employed in playing them competitively. Even as far back as 1991's Street Fighter 2, which is typically regarded as the forefather of serious play in the genre, competitors began to separate into distinct tactical camps that were often painted by the characters they played and regions they represented. The US east coast, for instance, relied more on a methodical style of "turtling", or defensive play, thanks to the influence of Eddie Lee, one of the first true masters of fighting game competition, while the US west coast mostly followed the example of Alex Valle and his offensive "rush that shit down" mentality.
"I've always been a defensive player, even when I was a scrub," Justin Wong, who started his fighting game career in New York City, explained to us. "Then I started getting better and realised everyone at Chinatown Fair played that way because of Eddie Lee, the pioneer of lame."
In the fighting game community, "lame" is a term used to describe overly defensive or runaway tactics, and while it can still be used in a derogatory manner, it's typically a simple descriptor of a person's playstyle with no ill intent.
"I chose defensive tactics over rushdown because, at the time, it was hard to learn with no YouTube or Twitch streams," Wong continued. "We had to rely on our local competition, watching players like Eddie Lee, Arturo Sanchez and Henry Cen lame people out in a defensive fashion."
Of course, not everyone respects the work it takes to play one way or the other. In the early days of Street Fighter competition, for example, throwing was often thought of as a cheap way to damage the opponent, despite the mechanic's inclusion as an important counter to blocking. It wasn't uncommon for some arcades to ban throwing altogether, and doing so in the wrong venue could turn the local crowd against you.
While it's rare to see anything banned in fighting games these days apart from game-breaking glitches and bugs, the mindset that there's a "right" way and a "wrong" way to compete has endured within certain sections of the community. Super Smash Bros. Melee pro Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma often has to deal with less-than-hospitable crowds when he competes due to his brilliant usage of Jigglypuff's multiple jumps to conduct hit-and-run campaigns against his opponents and, sometimes, force timeouts. It's a legitimate playstyle, akin to strategies like milking the clock with run plays in American football or "parking the bus" in soccer, but it doesn't always engender goodwill from spectators, even at events like Evo where one would expect viewers (who are more often than not competitors themselves) to have a greater understanding of a game's technicalities.
"People will say anything is boring," Summer Jam champion Twixxie told us. "They might think they're complaining about projectiles, but what they are really complaining about is watching an effective strategy play out according to plan. This isn't just a Pokken problem; there seems to be a group of people in every game who will complain about whatever is most effective and call it 'boring' or 'cheap'."
Twixxie explained the battle between offensive and defensive players as a "seesaw" in that advantage tilts back-and-forth between them during matches. Competitors who focus on maintaining space may have one up on rushdown players when the match starts, but all it really takes for offence-minded competitors to gain the upper hand is a single knockdown. Once those defences are bypassed, turtling players can find themselves overwhelmed by potent offence.
"The seesaw is there both times, and both both types of players have to work to tilt it their way and keep it like that," he added. "They just go about doing that in different ways."
It's a simple fact that folks will always have a preference for one or two playstyles in the handful of tactics that have been developed for any given game. Where things veer off course, unfortunately, is when viable strategies are derided as exploitative or somehow inferior. This undue criticism usually comes from a place of ignorance. By expanding their horizons about what constitutes legitimate gameplay, spectators can gain a greater grasp on the intricacies of fighting game competition and, hopefully, realise that a potent projectile game can be just as exciting as relentless, in-your-face rushdown. The beauty of fighting game competition comes from the sheer variety of ways competitors can approach any given situation, and stifling that creativity will only harm the community in the long run.
"It may be boring for new spectators just because they want to see action," Wong said. "When people look at fighting games, they think it has to be a full out brawl. But I would tell the newer crowd that once they learn more about the games in-depth, they will appreciate the defensive parts."