The so-called "fighting game community" is really a blanket term for an archipelago of dozens of games and scenes of wildly varying size and content. Each has its champions, but they rarely get a chance to cross lines and challenge one another. But that's exactly what's happening with Dragon Ball FighterZ.
The game, created by long-time anime fighting game developer Arc System Works, captures the look and feel of the after-school anime incredibly well. And it's drawing in new and old players alike. Steve Barthelemy has been playing Arc System Works' games competitively for a while, under the name "Lord Knight."
From Persona 4 Arena up through recent games like Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2, he's seen the scope of most anime fighting game scenes — and Dragon Ball FighterZ dwarfs them.
Arc System Works has made several fighting games that are played at a high competitive level, like Guilty Gear and BlazBlue. But these games often struggle to draw in a large population. A combination of complex mechanics and inputs, alongside very individual characters with specific nuances, can turn away a larger crowd. The online lobbies, where players' avatars congregate to compete online, can become ghost towns.
But Barthelemy says that he hasn't seen the same issue with Dragon Ball FighterZ. In fact, weeks after launch, it's still not uncommon to see a bevy of filled lobbies.
"So going on US East Coast [in DBFZ] and you see there are four servers and they're all full," said Barthelemy. "You're like, what's going on? That's crazy! They're all full! I've never seen that. It's really nuts."
The Dragon Ball FighterZ lobby system.
Barthelemy says that DBFZ is a huge hit online and off — he saw an enormous crowd lined up outside Esports Arena in Santa Ana, California for a DBFZ event the venue hosted. It makes sense; this is a generation raised on, among other things, Toonami. The kids who grew up watching Dragon Ball Z after school are now in their twenties, and the show itself focused on fighting and growing stronger to beat bigger opponents — a natural fit for a competitive fighting game player.
It's no surprise that a mix of a classic series like Dragon Ball Z with a development team that's been making quality anime fighters for years should work, but the breadth of gamers it's pulling together is truly impressive. Take the ongoing feud between SonicFox and Leffen.
Just 19 years old, Dominique "SonicFox" McLean has taken multiple fighting game scenes by storm, showing talent in games like Skullgirls, Marvel Vs. Capcom, and NetherRealm games like Injustice — winning multiple championships in the latter two. William "Leffen" Hjelte is a similar prodigy: he climbed his way up to arguably "god" status in the Super Smash Bros. Melee scene by toppling a pantheon of established champions.
In most worlds, these two would rarely ever meet in competition. Though Hjelte and McLean have both spent time with the Marvel Vs. series, their main games are starkly different. But both have been investing time into Dragon Ball FighterZ, and the possibility of a dream matchup began forming.
Two players at the very top of their respective games competing against each other in a third game happens so rarely; it's like seeing LeBron James and Mike Trout face off in some agreed-upon neutral athletic contest. Fighting game commentator James Chen told me that for his role as both commentator and player, it creates compelling narratives.
"You're kind of hoping for this mishmash of top players from all the different scenes," said Chen. "And having a true appreciation of the talent of playing fighting games, you know? As much as anybody wants to talk smack about say, Street Fighter or Marvel or Smash Bros., or whatever like that. The truth is that the amount of talent to be good at any one of those games is just ridiculous.
And so when we can see the talent from the different communities face off against each other in one game, I just think that that's such a cool thing to happen".
A lot of the major fighting games are built on legacy. A new Street Fighter game might have new mechanics, characters, or concepts, but it will still fundamentally be a Street Fighter game. Some things change, but the core of the game is still there. But Dragon Ball FighterZ, as players have told me, is an entirely new system. Marvel might be the closest comparison, as both are three-on-three team fighting games, but mechanics from many other games have seeped into DBFZ.
It has super dashes and auto-combos. Beerus' orb bouncing reminds me of Venom from Guilty Gear. And Piccolo has some very Dhalsim-esque moves, evoking Street Fighter.
The game is a blank canvas. The last few weeks have been a flurry of Twitter videos and hastily compiled aggregations of tech, as players attempt to innovate and "solve" the game. Every time one incredibly powerful strategy emerges, another takes its place. Android 16's slam-jammin' grapplin', Vegeta's incredible assist, Hit's — well, it's stance-based counters and a strong ground game, but in motion it looks like dark sorcery.
Players are still just breaching the surface on what's possible and top pros, like McLean, are bringing new perspectives and ideas every day. He's been gradually filling his Twitter timeline with new discoveries, and he told me over the phone that understanding multiple fighting games has really helped him dive into DBFZ.
"It feels like a brand new thing, you know?" said McLean. "It's like, nobody knows the proper way to play [Dragon Ball FighterZ] yet, so everybody has been trying to take their experiences that they have had in other fighting games and trying to apply it to this game. But the reason why it's so hype is everybody just wants to be the best, so it's like, let the game be its own brand new IP. Everybody's going to be coming around and trying to see what they can apply."
So it's a brand new game with no established upper echelon of players. It's based on a classic that many players likely watched growing up as kids. But what could make Dragon Ball FighterZ more than a passing fancy for the fighting game community? To start, a stellar Evo tournament.
Dragon Ball FighterZ was one of two new fighting games announced for the Evo 2018 main stage. If FGC is the umbrella term for all fighting games, then Evo is the umbrella championship. For most if not all games, winning Evo is like winning the world championship for your respective practice. For Dragon Ball FighterZ, players aren't just expecting a solid turnout — several told me it could be looking to topple records.
"I mean, if it had over 3000 entrants I wouldn't be surprised," said Chen. "In fact, I would almost kind of consider that kind of low. Like I would expect probably a good, maybe like 4000 entrants or something like that. Will it get to Street Fighter V first year, 5000 entrants level? Hard to say."
To put those numbers in perspective, here's last year's registration numbers: Street Fighter V topped out at 2622, followed by Smash 4 and Melee at 1515 and 1435, respectively. That was a down year compared to 2016, when 5065 entrants signed up for Street Fighter V's first year at Evo, but both Smash games garnered comparable shares at 2637 for Smash 4 and 2350 for Melee.
It helps that the other potential Vs.-style game, Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite, was snubbed for the main stage.
In fact, players have already been eyeing DBFZ as a potential breakout game. With the number of signed and sponsored players fighting game players steadily rising, a game that's booming in popularity and already set for an Evo debut is appealing to competitors. Barthelemy is an unsigned player known for Guilty Gear, but he tells me that for now, DBFZ is his focus.
Things aren't perfect, obviously. Network issues have made playing online frustrating for players, and bugs still pop up, shared around on social media. This morning, game producer Tomoko Hiroki laid out the road map for addressing the game's current issues.
Current players are hoping that Bandai Namco addresses the technical stuff, but really, don't want the game to be overbalanced just yet. "I'm just saying, let the game rock for now," Barthelemy tells me.
The allure of Dragon Ball FighterZ isn't just playing out your favourite What If scenarios against friends. It's that this new game, forged from a melting pot of different game mechanics and ideas, could bring together the disparate genres within the FGC and create something new, unlike anything we've seen in a while. It's already created one rivalry that seemed highly improbable just a short time ago. What else is possible?