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 celebrate and chronicle their rise.
Yoshinori Ono sits in a chair across from me with his trademark miniature Blanka figure grimacing at me from the table separating us. As Ono speaks, I listen for any words I might recognize from my two-year stint in Japanese classes at community college. Ono seems to run on an endless supply of energy fueled by his passion for Street Fighter. It’s been a part of his life for over 20 years, from his early days in sound design on games like Street Fighter II and Street Fighter Alpha, until he took over the mantle of producer of Street Fighter IV. It’s fair to credit him for the fighting game genre’s resurgence in 2008. He has been instrumental in keeping the Street Fighter franchise going nearly 30 years after the first game released in arcades.
Capcom rocked my world back in January 2008 when I walked past a magazine rack in a grocery store and saw Ryu splashed across the cover of a magazine touting its 13-page world exclusive on SF4. “Everyone had given up on the idea because too much time had passed since [Street Fighter 3, and everyone at Capcom seemed perfectly OK with letting it end,” Ono told Electronic Gaming Monthly back then.
The key to bringing back Street Fighter wasn’t setting the bar higher than Street Fighter III: Third Strike, the final edition of Street Fighter III, something Ono said the development team stressed about. Street Fighter III had reached a point Ono described as like climbing a mountain, and Third Strike had become “a peak beyond Mount Everest”. The skill gap between a top-tier player and average players had grown too wide for most to overcome. Look at the infamous Evo Moment #37:
Many Street Fighter fans and players today credit this moment for getting them into the fighting game scene. It’s an example of just how high the competitive bar was set: one of the greatest Street Fighter players of all time, Daigo “The Beast” Umehara, parries every single hit of his opponent Justin Wong’s most powerful attack at inhuman speed and steals the round in a shocking victory.
“When the team came to me and asked how we surpass Street Fighter III,” Ono said, “I said, ‘No, no, no. Forget about Street Fighter III. We’re going back to Street Fighter II. We have to get more people to play this game. We have to widen the audience.”
We chatted at the 2016 PlayStation Experience, Sony’s gaming convention in San Francisco.
Ono knew he and his team had their work cut out for them. He needed to convince Capcom to greenlight a Street Fighter sequel almost a decade after the last game in the franchise had been released. Ono played it smart by garnering fan support from conventions and online communities, using that as leverage to show Capcom there was interest for a new Street Fighter game. He wanted old players to come back and to bring new players into Street Fighter IV, and his persistence paid off—Street Fighter IV has dominated the fighting game scene over the last eight years, providing some of fighting game competition’s greatest matches ever. But like Third Strike before it, Street Fighter IV players got better and better and it became daunting for new players to jump into the game.
“People are coming up with strategies. People aren’t necessarily playing characters because they like the characters. They’re playing the characters because they want to win,” Ono said.
“From a spectator standpoint, that’s super fun to watch. But with 44 characters and having to learn all of that stuff, it’s time to hit that reset button again. We’re doing exactly what we did when we came up with SF4: hit the reset button again and go back and widen out the community again.”
DARKSTALKERS ARE NOT DEAD
Ono hasn’t always been successful in convincing Capcom to revive fighting game franchises. For a short time, Ono was a champion for Darkstalkers (known as Vampire in Japan) and he gave fans hope there could be a sequel. In a time where Capcom didn’t seem interested in hearing what fans wanted, Ono teased the possibility of a Darkstalkers 4 if a re-release compilation called Darkstalkers Resurrection sold well.
Speaking about his approach to getting a Darkstalkers sequel made, Ono wanted to gauge the sense of interest in a new game. Capcom released a teaser trailer at New York Comic-Con 2012 that ended with the quote “Darkstalkers Are Not Dead”. That led to Darkstalkers Resurrection. What he realized was the same people asking for a new Darkstalkers game were the same people who bought the re-release and that, as it turned out, wasn’t enough to push interest “over the tip of the iceberg”.
“Secretly, we believed that a silent majority wanted a Darkstalkers sequel,” Ono said.
The decision came down to how the community would support a new game. Low numbers at the outset would likely make it a side tournament title at Evolution and the numbers would dwindle over time. That simply isn’t enough to invest the time, effort and money to develop a new game.
But with growing popularity thanks to major tournaments and the worldwide Capcom Pro Tour, interest has never been higher in a sequel to Street Fighter, and so that franchise marches on as other fringe Capcom fighters live in the shadows, hoping for a shot at a sequel someday.
“People are asking for new Rival Schools or Capcom vs SNK 3 and these people have a very loud voice,” Ono said. “I would do the exact same thing again to gauge interest to see whether or not people actually care. Are they passionate? Do they really want a new title? At the end of the day, we want to make sure we have a robust community.”
The world has changed since Street Fighter IV launched in Japanese arcades in 2008. In the Western world arcades as we knew them in the past have given way to specialty barcades (for the most part). On-demand video sites and live streaming have given fans more access to games and their communities than previously was available and eSports continues to grow. Capcom took advantage of the opportunity to bake eSports into Street Fighter V’s development from its inception and to partner directly with Sony to make sure Street Fighter remains the premier competitive fighting game.
GIVE IT A CHANCE
Street Fighter fans have had unprecedented access to Street Fighter V thanks to Capcom bringing various builds of the game to conventions and major tournaments and running multiple public beta tests that fans could play. There are players who won’t like it because it isn’t the game they grew up or matured with, but Ono believes Street Fighter V is in a state where it’s easy for someone to jump in. And he’s right.
For roughly eight years, Yoshinori Ono has been the glue holding Street Fighter together at the height of its popularity and during tough personal and professional times. He’s overcome everything from a health scare when he collapsed from exhaustion while promoting Street Fighter x Tekken in South Korea in 2012 to his public disappointment in Street Fighter V leaks he’d hoped to share with fans officially. Despite being “a middle-aged dude”, the Street Fighter producer has been the game’s biggest advocate, showing up in cosplay and asking fans to give him their best dragon punch while shouting “Shoryuken!” at conventions. He’s a man who loves going into work and making great fighting games.
“There may be some people out there saying, ‘This isn’t the Street Fighter I know. This isn’t the brand I grew up playing.’ I want to say to them, ‘Hey, this is where fighting games are going, let’s have fun with something new.’ Now is the time to jump in. If you’re new to it, give it a chance,” he said.
Michael Martin is a full-time freelancer based out of Seattle. His favorite video game series of all time is Street Fighter and he loves the competitive fighting game scene. Follow him on Twitter @Bizarro_Mike.
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