Why fighting game players dominate Spy Party, and every other damn system they find

Why fighting game players dominate Spy Party, and every other damn system they find

EVO is the most prestigious fighting game tournament in the world, drawing the best players in their respective games to Las Vegas. The show has begun to open the door to non-fighting games as well, and the spy vs. sniper simulator Spy Party showed up at last year’s show.

Seth Killian, long time fighting game player, supporter, personality, designer at Sony Santa Monica, and once special advisor and community manager at Capcom US made Spy Party creator Chris Hecker a bet.

“If you take me up on it, I’d even be willing to make a gentleman’s bet with you that an EVO attendee will be your #1 player in subsequent tests, and take down whoever the existing top players might be,” Killian told Hecker. “I dunno which one, but I trust implicitly in these guys as a group.”

A year later, EVO attendee Korey “kcmmmmm” Mueller is the #1 player on the Spy Party leader boards, and is returning to EVO this year to help Hecker with the booth. What made Killian so sure that a member of the fighting game community would dominate the game? I was reminded of a conversation I once had with Killian, and this was from more than a year ago, talking about the inherent psychological make up of fighting game players.

Spy Party is a psychological game, made up of many different systems of behavior, while relying on the players' ability to perceive, manipulate, or blend into those systems. This comes naturally to the most talented members of the fighting game community.

How they win

“The fighting game guys, they’re just good at stuff. And they’re good at systems. They’re good at understanding what’s happening mechanically, and psychologically,” Killian told me. “There are a ton of Street Fighter and fighting game players who are excellent poker players. Randy Lew is one of the top money earners in the world, Hevad Khan placed in the World Series of Poker, he’s been at EVO for years before that and still comes, actually. The list goes on.”

He brought up Campbell “buktooth” Tran. According to Killian, Tran never finished high school. He worked at a sandwich place growing up, and became what amounts to the world champion of making sandwiches in the west-cost chain of restaurants, due to making the most sandwiches with the least errors.

“It’s the same thing. Tran used to work in an optometry clinic and was so successful there he was put in charge of three optometry clinics by the time he was 17, which is pretty mental, actually,” Killian said. He told me Tran now works for Microsoft. 

“There is story after story like this. We were over at Chinatown Fair playing at an arcade there… we wandered out on the street and there was a street carnival with carnival games. We were there for 20 minutes, and when we walked out of there, we were all carrying prizes,” he said.

“Everyone knew how to beat one of the carnival games. There are stories like this, over and over, where if you put these guys in front of a system, and put a name on it and define a system, these guys will crack it. They will break it down. Whether that system is a person, whether that system is a game, if you can define the system…”

That specific skill can bring some downsides as well. “I think that’s part of the struggle for some fighting game players in the regular world, sometimes in life those systems aren’t so clearly defined,” Killian continued. “So in the business world, what is the game, exactly? The rules are ambiguous. I think that’s the attraction to video games, or games like Poker, because the rules are clear. If you give them a clear system, they’ll destroy it. They’ll just shred it.” 

Spy Party requires that the spy be able to blend in with a crowd of computer-controlled characters without calling attention to themselves. The sniper has to pick out behaviors that look “human,” and then shoot that player. They have one shot.

It's an exacting, methodical game, and is made up of the kind of systems that fighting game players seem built to master. An analytical mind, a desire to be the best, and attention to detail: Fighting games create a special kind of player who knows they want to dominate the competition, they have the tools to do so, and won't rest until they're on top.