eSports are soaring, but Capcom struggles to lead fighting games to the world stage

eSports are soaring, but Capcom struggles to lead fighting games to the world stage

This weekend a stadium in Shanghai will be filled to capacity with thousands of fans eager to watch professional gamers play League of Legends in the League Championship Series All-Star game. Hundreds of thousands more will tune in to livestreams around the world to watch their favorite players compete.

All the while, fighting game players will be competing in a comparatively meager conference room in a hotel just outside of O'Hare Airport in Chicago. While the gaming world stops to watch the action from Shanghai, the Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament 9 will likely only attract about 10,000-20,000 viewers at any one time.

League of Legends is a game that has existed for less than four years and yet is likely to garner more viewers with this weekend's single event than all of the major fighting game events of 2012 combined. How did this happen? How did fighting games go from being at the cutting edge of competitive gaming… to struggling to hold fifth or sixth place in competitive game event viewership in 2013?

The self-assembling and self-sustaining fighting game community has independently put forth a remarkable amount of effort to organize tournaments and keep fighting games growing, but in comparison to the games that now dominate eSports, the slow-but-steady growth of fighting games now looks very small. In order to maintain cultural relevance in the League of Legends and StarCraft 2 era their tight-knit, do-it-yourself community is going to need some help from the genre's defacto leader, Capcom. However, Capcom may not have the ability to provide all the help the fighting game scene needs to compete in 2013.

When in Japan

For decades, Capcom has been the biggest name in fighting games, but their ability to lead the competitive community has often been hamstrung by cultural differences between the United States, where most of the fighting game community is, and Japan, where Capcom is headquartered.

The main problem was that large scale fighting game competitions fell under strict gambling laws in Japan and players weren't allowed to compete for money. This meant that Capcom Japan wasn't in-step with the community in the USA as the two were culturally very different. In Japan, players competed in local arcades for prestige and practice. In America, players competed for thousands of dollars, and some even made a career out of it.

“For the longest time [Capcom] didn't give a shit at all about what was going on, for the most part,” said Ryan “Gootecks” Gutierrez, a veteran of competitive fighting games and CEO of CrossCounter TV. He said that because Capcom Japan couldn't understand the Western fighting game community, Capcom's USA branch was prevented from offering much assistance or leadership.

“I think Capcom USA has a very firm grasp of how they think things should go, but I know that they have had to fight tooth and nail with Capcom Japan to do a lot of their initiatives,” he said.

Capcom was also famously reluctant to let other for-profit companies manage tournaments that represented their games, which we can still see today as tournaments like MLG always feature second-tier fighting games like Mortal Kombat or Tekken.

Some, but not all of this changed with the release of Street Fighter 4, and Capcom began to open up to the competitive scene in a much bigger way. This was thanks largely to the efforts of fighting game legend Seth Killian, who got a job at Capcom and started to open their eyes to the community that was right under their nose.

“Seth Killian basically single-handedly saved…well…not 'saved'... but kinda saved the fighting game community just by his presence at Capcom,” said Gutierrez. “Through his work they started to see 'oh, maybe we should give a shit about these people who buy our game and play it day after day.' But were it not for him and a lot of the content producers and tournament organizers that have been working since before the release of Street Fighter 4 it wouldn't have gotten to what it was. It wasn't Capcom that developed this community.” 

Unfortunately, Capcom's growing acceptance of the community hit a big snag in July 2012 when it was announced that Killian was leaving Capcom for Sony. This was something of a wake-up call to the community which had started to view Killian as their conduit into Capcom, their voice of reason. When he left it, seemed that the community had lost their advocate, but in reality this ended up being one of Capcom's best moments of the last year as they opted to replace Killian with two high-profile personalities plucked directly from the community, assauging the fears of many. 

And although the loss of Killian should have been a huge setback, it may have been the beginning of Capcom's new age of cooperation. 

The biggest sign of Capcom's warming attitude toward the fighting game community in the post-Killian era was the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary tournament in December 2012.

25th anniversary

“Last year, we created and ran the 25th anniversary tournament series as a special campaign to give back to the community and our fans,” said Capcom's Peter “Combofiend” Rosas, senior community specialist, world class fighting game competitor, and one of the people who replaced Killian. “During that series, we gave away over $500k in prizes and amenities as well as a Street Fighter branded car.”

There was a problem with that tournament though.

“It didn't make any money,” said eSports journalist Rod Breslau of GameSpot. “It just was not profitable, and for a company like Capcom…they are not Blizzard, they are not Valve, and they are not Riot. They do not have the leeway to go out there and spend this kind of money willy-nilly.”

At the time, Capcom seemed like it might be interested in finally putting financial support behind the players and teams through tournaments like the 25th anniversary, but ultimately it was a one-off deal that they aren't interested in repeating.

“While this was very well received and extremely fun to be a part of, it was a special occasion and such an extensive execution is difficult to sustain,” said Capcom's Rosas. “However, we are still very committed to providing more opportunities for players to help share the joy of fighting games.“

Capcom has instead opted to support from the sidelines as they assist in event streaming and offer to serve as a middle-man between tournament organizers and potential sponsors.

Then came IPL…

One of the biggest steps Capcom made toward enhancing their games' presence in eSports was in working with the IGN Pro League to put on Street Fighter 4 and Street Fighter X Tekken show matches and tournaments. The move caused quite a stir in the community, and Capcom reportedly spent nearly a year negotiating and coordinating the partnership.

But it got off to a rough start with the now-infamous Cross Assault fighting game reality series that became known more for the sexual harrassment of one of its female players than for great entertainment and competition. Beyond that, Gutierrez said that this series was far from a commercial hit.

“All of that [Cross Assault] stuff was supposed to be pushed through IGN (then the owner of IPL) but they put it on the fighting games page and it got no traffic because nobody who visits IGN gives a shit about competitive fighting games,” said Gutierrez. Rather than working through established community websites and streams, they tried to go through a major gaming outlet to gain more exposure, but it backfired when even the community barely knew it existed.

Whatever modest gains had come through the IGN partnership proved to be for nothing after IPL was shut down in early 2013 and sold to Blizzard.

“The IPL thing has definitely slowed things down, because all the time that they spent working on that was literally for nothing, and it caused a huge divide in the community,” said Gutierrez. “It amounted to literally nothing. They wasted so much fucking time.”

When I talked to people in fighting games, the IPL disaster was a staple of conversation. You can't talk about the FGC in 2012 without discussing what happened with IPL. It was supposed to be the big coming out party for fighting games into the eSports scene, even if a lot of people were very upset by that thought. 

The failure of the IPL deal may have been a positive experience though, despite all of the wasted time. Capcom finally learned to trust an outside company, and they're now warming to the idea of working with other partners as well.

“While Capcom has traditionally been against partnerships with corporations who are running tournaments for profit,” said Rosas about Capcom's former policy of refusing to work with tournaments like MLG. “We now believe that if headed by the right people, it can lead to better looking events, at grander venues, with larger payouts and sponsorships. These are all good things for the scene, and can lead to more opportunities for players and organizers.”

Despite their struggles in the last twelve months, Capcom seems to be learning from these experiences and is attempting to figure out how they can be of use to a community that doesn't need their help to survive, but desperately needs their help to thrive.

Where do they go from here?

Capcom is a mid-sized video game publisher during a time in the video game business when that's a tough bracket to be in. It's hard enough just to break even on making big budget video games these days without having to worry about leading a competitive scene or organizing expensive tournaments.

Their task is to figure out how to support their community in a much more creative and cost-effective way than what we've seen from Blizzard or Riot whose idea for helping grow eSports has simply been to throw money at players and teams. While those efforts have been very successful, Capcom doesn't have deep enough pockets to do things in the same way.

“Honestly, look, Capcom not supporting Street Fighter is hurting the game, and hurting the competitive community,” said GameSpot's Breslau as he launched into a long-winded exposition on why fighting games have the most amazing community in the business for self-supporting themselves for two decades. “But saying that, the level of support that Blizzard has brought to StarCraft, and the level that Riot has brought to League of Legends, and that even Valve has done with The International is so crucial to the rapid success of those games. And Capcom could do the same with their game, and it's really just a missed opportunity.” 

The biggest fighting game tournament of the year is coming up in July, and it's then that we'll begin to get an idea of how Capcom's theories on helping the community are shaping up. There are signs of hope, though.

“Even though it's maybe not as big as StarCraft and League of Legends, the viewership has been consistently increasing since the release of Street Fighter 4,” said Breslau. “The NorCal Regionals, SoCal Regionals, and events on the East Coast have all been going from 10,000 to 20,000 to 30,000 [viewers] year after year.”

There's definitely some evidence that Capcom's lead-from-behind strategy is showing modest results. However, unless they want to wait until 2025 to see viewership approaching an average League of Legends tournament match of 2013, then Capcom will need to figure out a more hands-on way to push things along.

The core community never seems to care whether or not fighting games become a big-time eSport, they're perfectly happy in their own small-scale community. But fighting games are too wonderful of a spectator game to be hidden away as the hobby of a small group of people. It's time for this to blow up.