Evolution 2013 was this past weekend, and it was a blast. I wrote a whole bunch of words on it for Shoryuken and Ars Technica, but I thought I’d save something for the blog.
Evo was a blast this year. It always is fantastic, but it was really neat to meet a lot of folks who had been following my writing re: fighting game stuff and gave me encouraging words. It really made me feel loved — thanks, y’all.
On the other hand, I personally don’t think my work is anything special — anything that other equally motivated, passionate writers could do. And when it comes to the kind of everyday nuts-and-bolts posts on SRK and such, I’m fully willing to admit that I’m still relatively new at sports reporting and learning all kinds of things on the job.
But that’s the thing. This is something I do as an all-consuming hobby, not a job, and I think the FGC deserves writers who can cover it professionally without having to dodge day job demands. So I thought I’d offer some advice from my perspective as a longtime fighting game community member about writing about and reporting on, well, us.
(It’s also a shameless excuse to plug some of my other work, just FYI.)
To the writers:
From my perspective, I see this year’s Evo (and all the stuff in the weeks preceding that I wrote about on this blog) as kind of a breakout year for the fighting game community. It seemed like every single outlet wanted to cover fighting games, but wasn’t quite sure of how to do it — so they mostly just did extracts and linkouts to other people’s content.
Which is fine — that’s how blogging works — but if you want to generate some actual original good stuff, you’re going to need to change up your approach a bit. Polygon sent a photojournalist but no reporters; GameSpot sent a few folks; I think IGN sent one or two people; and then I was there to do a single writeup for Ars Technica (which wasn’t actually assigned until the morning of). That’s better than before, but it’s certainly not enough.
See, games are big now, and the skills that you developed cutting your teeth in the modern game blog economy simply don’t transfer over all that well to covering fighting games. And as much as I’d love all the new demand for fighting game coverage to go straight to me and pay my bills, the fact is that I would much, much rather see everyone else doing good work out there!
1. People engage in the fighting game community at a few different levels.
I get the impression that people who don’t particularly understand the FGC don’t really see what sets Evo apart from, say, a brony convention or BlizzCon or something. People who are active members of the fighting game community engage with the games and each other at a few different levels; some are more prevalent than others, and understanding this is key to angling your coverage appropriately.
The dominant mode of engagement is player. The reason so many people have been bitten by the FGC bug over the years despite anemic publisher support is because we play the games and fall in love with them and then want to play them as often as possible against as many people as possible. People go to these events because they want to meet new people, make new friends, and then virtually beat the shit out of each other.
You can see this is often reflected in Shoryuken.com’s front page content: Pretty much everything that goes up there is either news relevant to people who play the game seriously, videos showing off new techniques and setups to those looking to step up their game, and so on.
This is also reflected in the tradition of the events themselves; the fighting game community prides itself on its history of open competition. You don’t need to qualify to enter Evo; all you need to do is show up and pay your money. Aside from a few invitationals, every tournament is open to anyone. This is relevant to why FGC members often bristle at being called “eSports”, which I’ll cover next.
The secondary mode of engagement is viewer/consumer. Think of people who follow the NBA, pro soccer, etc.; their investment in the activity is based on the teams or players they’re watching, the entertainment they derive from talking about said games with other people, the way their team or player preference reflects their own identity, and so on. They don’t watch top players compete to refine the way they play the game themselves any more than most NBA fans watch the Lakers game to pick up tips on hitting their jump shot.
This is what the eSports model of competitive games (Major League Gaming, etc.) is focused on: Finding the best players, creating a spectacle of the best players competing against each other, and selling that spectacle to viewers, who engage more passively with the game than the players do. To many fighting game players that have played these games for decades, the way established eSports organizations draw such a strong distinction between pro players and amateurs is downright offensive and against the community’s values; the dream of Evo is that anyone who enters has a shot at winning it, and when you’re devoted to just having the best play the best with significant barriers to entry in the eSports model, you lose that.
However, the FGC is starting to get more and more people like this who just watch and don’t play, or who watch and play roughly equally, and this kind of work is drastically undercovered in the fighting game community, so it’s definitely worth doing — especially because much of this is likely to be more relevant to general-interest games publications like IGN, Polygon, etc. The important thing to acknowledge is that everyday members of the FGC don’t generally regard top players with the same reverence as others regard basketball stars; we regard them as targets that we yearn to defeat ourselves, in order to establish our own reputation as a fellow top player.
Here’s an example I’m rather proud of: I wrote a piece on how to beat Chris G, Marvel’s dominant player prior to Evo. It uses top players as primary sources to offer takeaways that are ultimately meant to be relevant for both viewers (who want to know how other players are gunning for Chris G) and for players (who want to know what they can do to beat Chris G themselves). It’s not perfect; I really wanted to go into more granular detail, with GIFs of specific patterns and such. Next time, perhaps.
The last mode of engagement is as a fan of the game content itself. Street Fighter’s narrative is anemic but we grow to love all the characters and stages and music and general quirks of the game. Evo has a few cosplayers, some people write fanfics, and we’re all so immersed in the game that we’ll gladly yell stuff like BIONIC ARM when an appropriately iconic moment presents itself. But this is certainly the least important mode of engagement when it comes to covering the FGC, and most games publications already do this (Street Fighter cakes, outlandish displays of devotion to SF, etc.).
As players, we often do get attached to the characters we play (which is why I, personally, was happy to see Flocker win Evo, as a fellow Zero player since vanilla MVC3). But that attachment is typically secondary to our desire to win.
Now that we have that base covered, here are a few more specific tips about covering the FGC.
2. Developer/publisher interaction with the community is pretty minimal.
Capcom is the standard-bearer for the modern-day fighting game; Capcom also doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot to support its competitive community. (They’re trying harder these days, bless their hearts.) NetherRealm (MK/Injustice dev) has been doing more, mostly in the form of sinking money into major tournaments closer to a game’s launch, which is handy — though others tell me that they do a lot to engage with players and solicit feedback as well. The companies who make and sell the games tend to find their own ways to engage with their communities, but except for grassroots devs like Lab Zero (Skullgirls) most can’t hold a candle to, say, Riot Games’s efforts for League of Legends (or even Blizzard’s and SC2). Few devs take an active role in regularly updating the game’s content or balance, much less organizing or sponsoring events.
3. Referring to a player by their handles or name and handle is acceptable.
This is mostly a style guide note, but: I personally prefer to refer to players by their name and handle (Patrick “Pat the Great” Miller — yes, that is my old SRK handle) in more formal pieces, and just handles for shorter pieces. Do whichever you deem best for your site, just be aware that handles are typically more recognizable than first/last names among most people in the FGC.
4. Understand the tournament format.
Barring special events like round-robins and certain team tournaments, most major competitions are double elimination, meaning that if you lose once, you still have a shot to play your way up to the end through a secondary bracket called the “losers bracket”, and challenge the top player in the grand finals. Since the player that won the winners bracket didn’t drop a match, they carry that advantage into the grand finals by only having to win one set, whereas the player that came up from the losers bracket has to win two. This is called “resetting the bracket”.
One neat quirk of this format is that it makes for some easy storytelling, on occasion; if the player in losers got sent there earlier in the tournament by the player in winners, and then comes back to win the tournament, he isn’t just winning the tournament, he’s avenging a previous loss.
5. Storylines unfold over the course of a tournament.
You really need to watch a good chunk of a tournament if you want to cover it properly — because sometimes that’s where the best stories come from. Marvel finals at Evo this year were a splendid struggle between Justin Wong — a formerly legendary repeat champion in the MVC2 days that hadn’t seen as much success in MVC3 — and Flocker, a top player out of Florida who had been seriously gunning for the crown.
However, that story didn’t happen until the last day of Evo, during top 8. Prior to that day, everyone assumed that Chris G was going to be the guy to beat, since he had been consistently dominant in the past year’s worth of prior tournaments. But he met Justin in losers (having been sent there by a notable but not top-level player named Windzero), and Justin squeaked out the win. As soon as that happened, Justin’s run at the Evo championship became the most compelling story — something which would have been hard to anticipate and prepare for before the tournament had even started.
The tournament format is a pain in the ass for telling sports stories compared to, say, boxing or MMA events, because you have to learn how to tell these stories on-the-fly as they unfold instead of being able to prep them in advance. But it’s worth it — you just need to do your homework and be able to adjust your angles quickly.
6. The finals are not always the most exciting match.
As a kind of corollary to #5 above: Sometimes the most compelling story and match isn’t actually about Who Won The Tournament. Hands-down the most exciting matches in SF4 at Evo were the two sets between PR Balrog and Infiltration, the first in the semifinals and then the second in top 8. Both players ended up placing 3rd and 4th, but the finals of the tournament were comparatively less interesting, in large part because the matches weren’t nearly as close. It’s another weird quirk of the tournament format that can be a bit anti-hype at times until you get used to it.
7. Cultivate contacts.
When it comes to writing about video games, most journalists are sufficiently authoritative about what they’re writing about that you don’t need to do too much legwork for everyday stories. (You’re either writing about your own experience, getting communications from PR or company reps, or chasing down the occasional interview.)
If you don’t already know the FGC like the back of your hand, you need to find people who can help you find the right people to talk to; community members, local event organizers, specialist writers, and so on. Learn how to get in touch with these people and get them to respond your emails, and they’ll make your life much, much easier.
For example: I wrote this article as a preview for the Evo finals day. I don’t know KOF, Smash, or Injustice well enough to offer my own analysis, so I chased down a few Evo volunteers who did follow the games to help me fill in the blanks with the context necessary to enjoy the finals if you didn’t already fill in the game. And as a nice side perk, it made those top 8 sets much more enjoyable for me, since I knew the players’ backgrounds and histories — in the past, I usually skipped everything that wasn’t Marvel and AE.
Reaching out to contacts can be as easy as hitting them up on Twitter and asking for help. Street Fighter communities are highly centered around geographical region, so I’d recommend looking up high-profile players, commentators, and event organizers around each major tournament to see if they can help you get in touch with players, etc. as necessary. They can be a huge help. Also, sponsored players often have people in the sponsoring organization that can make it easier for you to get in touch with their players (since they want their player and their brand to get as much coverage as possible). Team Evil Geniuses, for example, has always been really good about returning my interview requests fairly promptly.
I do not recommend using your networking contacts as primary sources if you can help it; I don’t think they’re really that interesting for readers unless you’re doing very, very basic stuff. Much love to UltraDavid, James Chen, Gootecks, and Slasher, but there are many more sources out there that can get you closer to original stories than these folks do. I personally like to run ideas by some of these folks to frame stories and put me in touch with the right people to talk to, but not necessarily to quote them outright.
8. Regional rivalries can be a really compelling story (if you get it right).
These days, people at Evo are flying lots of flags. The regional/national rivalries can be a really neat story, but only if you get it right.
Most of the fighting game rivalries I remember typically fell along the following lines: US vs. Japan, East Coast vs. West Coast, and Northern California vs. Southern California. However, each rivalry was in part dependent on the games at stake; US vs. Japan was typically contested in traditional Street Fighter-style games (Street Fighter III: Third Strike and Capcom vs. SNK 2), because Japan has historically never been very good at Marvel.
For a writer, this means that a Japanese player beating an American player in CVS2 is uneventful, but in Marvel, it’s a pretty big upset, and vice versa.
These days, total regional dominance is a bit rarer; Street Fighter 4 had Singapore, Japan, Korea, and the US represented in the top 4. This is a major change from CVS2 finals from the early years of Evolution, where it was pretty much Ricky Ortiz (USA) against seven Japanese guys in the top 8. It’s kind of like the Olympics or soccer; people will often chant for players from the USA or Mexico when appropriate but that’s about it.
9. Long combos are the norm.
Just a short note: Learning your character’s optimal combos for any given situation is a necessary part of high-level competition, so bringing attention to a player’s long-ass combos is kind of like remarking on how big an MMA fighter’s muscles are for every match of the night. Some players are known for their combo damage and consistency better than others, but it’s a nuance that you really need to study the game to understand. It’s more impressive that they land the first hit than the 100th.
10. Videos take a while.
The folks who handle video streaming and archiving for fighting game events (iPlayWinner and Team Spooky, for example) do a fantastic job, but they don’t have nearly enough resources available to quickly generate highlights videos or sorted, searchable, embeddable stream archives immediately after an event. When you’re doing pre-show or during-show coverage, it’s easy to embed a Twitch stream as a further point of engagement; when you’re filing stories immediately afterwards, you might not have an easy embeddable clip. (You can link to specific timestamps in a Twitch video-on-demand stream archive, but those typically aren’t available until the stream has shut down.) Until streamers get more resources or Twitch makes this easier, it’s probably gonna stay this way.
Also, it’s kind of disrespectful to embed stream archive videos that aren’t officially OKed by the streamers or event organizers (like the people who screencapture streams and post them on YouTube) so try to keep it legit.
11. You can only tell The Ryu Story so often before it gets corny.
People who rarely engage with fighting games like to juxtapose the players’ journeys to find and fight the best with Ryu’s own journey. They’re struck by how hard Street Fighter players work in order to be the best. Look, they say to the mainstream gaming masses, look at what these people have devoted themselves to.
We’ve heard that story a thousand times. Probably because that story is true for every single person in the community.
I like reading good stuff about the fighting game community. I liked it when Tracey Lien told Ryan Hart’s story, and when RJ Cubarrubia told KaneBlueRiver’s. I told my own story (albeit with a twist, of sorts). I’m a sucker for a good profile piece. Just try to find good angles and context for them, because otherwise they just ring a bit superficial and hollow.
Here’s a free suggestion, on me: Chris G would make an excellent profile subject, because he is a top player that has spectacularly failed to win Evo two years in a row despite dominating the rest of the major tournament circuit, he has ruffled a lot of feathers after criticizing the lack of money in the scene, and he’s a popular figure to root against. There’s room for a lot of nuance there, not just “Hey this guy plays a whole bunch of Street Fighter and he’s pretty good at it!” which is kind of how a lot of profiles can otherwise come off.
12. Each game is its own context.
Chris G was the most hated man in Marvel vs. Capcom 3 for the last year or so. When he played Injustice, he was a crowd favorite — in part because he was using a lower-tiered character, and in part because he was something of an underdog. His positioning relative to the crowd changed drastically in the 30 minutes between when Injustice ended and Marvel began. This is pretty important.
13. If you can’t do it well, find someone who can (or learn to do it well).
If you approach fighting game coverage simply as a favor you’re doing to your readers (or as an obligation you are discharging) in-between “real” news, you’re going to have a bad time.
Writing about sports (of the e-variety or otherwise), writing about competition, writing about people; all of these are new to many games writers. It requires a different background and a different set of skills, and you only get good at them with practice.
I’ve seen a few writers recently try to dive headfirst into writing about fighting games and eSports. I admire the hustle, and I think we need more good writers doing good work about competitive games — whatever the angle or audience. But becoming a good competitive games writer takes a lot of time: time spent watching streams, time spent reading and researching, time spent practicing your writing skills. I did live play-by-play writeups of the top 8 for Marvel and SF4, and I’ll be damned if that didn’t stretch my brain into some new places it’s never been stretched in before.
The thing is, if your work on the FGC doesn’t meet the general standards for the rest of your publication’s coverage, it makes you look bad. It makes you look bad because you will have readers that regularly engage with fighting games, and if you tell a story that is inaccurate, poorly contextualized, or otherwise fails to pass muster from someone that is part of the FGC, they will tell you about it, and your credibility will suffer — because your readers know more about this topic than you, and you’re the one that gets paid to know things and write about them.
The easy way to handle this is to just find writers who can cover fighting games for you. Of course, you have to pay for them, and you have to find the writers who can do it to your standards.
The hard way to handle it is to learn how to do it yourself. That takes a lot of practice, perseverance, and the ability to readily acknowledge your shortcomings and mistakes before you’re able to do anything worth a damn. It is a lot of work, though if you’re passionate about the subject to begin with, it’ll come easier than you think (and if you’re not passionate about it, find someone who is and make them do it instead). And you’ll have to be able to ask for help from people who you trust and respect, people who know more than you do and are willing to help you out because they know that is the first step in leveling up your entire community.
It’s tough, it really is. But it’s familiar work to anyone and everyone in the FGC — because that entire paragraph above describes what everyone else goes through to play these games. Which is why the last tip is…
14. Learn to play Street Fighter.
For starters, it should be taken as a matter of course that a games reporter ought to have at least a minimal amount of experience with the subject matter she is reporting on in order to establish a baseline level of credibility. The more experience said reporter has, the more credible she’ll be in terms of pursuing better, more in-depth, more ambitious stories.
Put another way: You only get to do the “novice fighting games person writes about his or her experience discovering competitive fighting games for the first time” article once. After that, you need to unlock the right to write in-depth awesome stories by investing in your writers’ credibility and experience. And the best way to do that is to get said writer to play the game with the same mentality (if not ability) as the people she’s covering — whether her readers are average Joe and Jane Gamers, or veteran FGC members, or the entire range of people we get reading our words on the Internet.
Yes, the barriers-to-entry are enormous. Yes, the games are hard — really hard. And there’s a lot of thankless work to be done before you can get close to calling yourself a Street Fighter player. But every single person who plays fighting games is willing to do that kind of work on themselves, and it’s the shared experience of improving and working hard and striving for goals that brings us all together. (It’s also why we hate it when coverage about us gets mangled by folks who clearly didn’t put in the time to understand the context or perspective.)
I’m a firm believer in the power of video games to teach people to get good at acquiring new skills — the work ethic, the competitive mindset, the humility to be open to criticism and advice, all of that is a necessary part of being a competitive Street Fighter player. I wrote a bit about this when I was pretty deep into Starcraft 2, but it applies to Street Fighter as well.
It’s also a great asset for a writer, editor, journalist, or other game-word-person to have. For all the writers out there, I don’t think many of them treat writing or reporting as a craft to be practiced and refined. I didn’t for a long time, either. Not because they don’t care, but because they’re not used to thinking about what it takes to get good at something.
Street Fighter is hard. (I wrote a thing which might help you get better at it. If you liked that enough to actually practice around a bit and finish the article, contact me and I’ll show you the Real Good Stuff.) But doing good work should be hard at first, too. That’s what makes it rewarding!
So, get to it! Learn how to write about fighting games (so I don’t have to).