Whether it’s with a knockout finish at an EVO fighting game championship, a crushing play in League of Legends, or a dorm-wide Super Smash Bros. tourney, eSports are taking the world by storm. Playboy’s eSports Highlights articles celebrate and chronicle their rise.
There are few genres more synonymous with gaming than the fighting game. It’s not just because of the genre’s history, which reaches back to the tender, early years of video game’s domination of American pop culture. It also has a lot to do with the fact that fighting games are some of the most intimate and physically demanding of all. It’s two people going head to head in a physical, personal struggle full of nuance and complexity that other types of games can’t hold a candle to.
The late ‘90s to the early 2000s was a very blasé time for fighting games. The genre that was so integral to the popularity of games in the first place was relegated to niche status. That was until recently, because the past couple of years have seen a rapid rise of public interest in digital pugilism once again. With new Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Tekken games hot on shelves or coming soon, fighters are enjoying a new golden age of community reception.
And I think that fighting game fans have one thing to thank for that: MOBAs.
MOBAs—or Multiplayer Online Battle Areas—are a relatively young type of game that have risen to the top of the global eSports scene. They mix the planning and tactical demand of strategy games with the white knuckle intensity of shooting and fighting games. The action is a rollercoaster of passive point-scoring and sudden, rapid, aggressive beatdowns. If you want to learn more about them, read why Heroes of the Storm is the perfect gateway game for eSports noobs, and if you’re confused about eSports in general, this hockey analogy might help. Suffice to say MOBA games have risen to incredible worldwide popularity in the last few years, and, in my opinion, they’ve buoyed fighting games up with them.
HIGH TIDES RAISE ALL BOATS
Above: this was called an “arcade”
Fighting games have always been the spectator sport of the arcade or game room. It’s very easy to draw crowds of onlookers when two skilled players are pulling off digital kung fu wizardry on screen. This has largely been a phenomenon of proximity, though; casual players and passersby swarm around screens nearby but don’t go out of their way to check out the action.
In the early '90s, the only way to play them was publicly, so the potential for stragglers stumbling onto a heated Street Fighter II match was reasonably high. Fighting games hitting home consoles by Nintendo, Sega and Sony began a decades-long process of pushing the genre into the realm of the niche and obscure.
If there’s any one cause for the newfound interest in dragging fighting games back into the limelight, it’s the meteoric rise of MOBAs as a competitive eSport. Sure, there were competitive gaming tournaments before MOBAs hit the scene, but they were never the spectacle they are now. They were never broadcast on ESPN 2, like Dota 2 was earlier this year. And their prize pools never reached $14 million.
With the rise of MOBAs has come a renewed demand for all things competitive gaming. On any given day, gameplay live-stream service Twitch is featuring a few live feeds from smaller tournaments, and a full menu to browse hundreds of games being streamed live by gamers all over the world. Every streamer is a kid with a quarter at the cabinet, and every viewer is that enraptured passerby. We don’t have to leave our houses to see the best players we know anymore. They can bring us right into their homes—you know, where the fighting games have been hiding all along.
Fighting games have a lot to learn from MOBAs. Just look at League of Legends, a game with well over 100 playable characters, each totally unique from all the rest in abilities as well as appearance. Compare that with the many fighting games whose meager casts are made up of similar fighters that are hardly differentiated from one another. MOBAs are teaching players that it doesn’t have to be that way, and upcoming fighting games like next year’s Street Fighter 5 will have a lot to prove when it comes to making each character feel unique. And that’s just the beginning.
There’s a very large disconnect between people who “get” fighting games and people who don’t. The enthusiasts focus on the minutiae, the split seconds it takes to execute any particular move, how long it takes to recover after launching an attack or receiving damage. Hardcore players look past the costumes, fighting styles, and other aesthetics to bathe in a pool of cold hard data. When they emerge, they are executing long combos with panache. These are the players who always seem to beat you to the punch. The ones who knew the 10 button fatalities in Mortal Kombat 3 without notes.
These players have been practicing at home and competing in small tournaments for far too long, and with the rise of eSports—thanks to MOBAs—they finally have the stage they deserve.
Jarrett Green is a freelance tech and video game writer. He mains Ryu, and isn’t ashamed to say it.