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Esports meets mainstream: Fighting games can't take esports mainstream until esports get there first

by Daniel Rosen Jul 18
Thumbnail image courtesy of Capcom

I think that fighting games are the perfect esports. Street Fighter specifically, but it applies to any one-on-one fighter, from Super Smash Bros. to Guilty Gear to King of Fighters to Mortal Kombat. They're simple, easy to understand and fun to watch, but they're still relegated to being second-tier esports. There's a lot of people who have tried to figure out why that is, but I don't really think we can have an answer just yet. At least not until esports get way bigger than they already are.

There's a lot of reasons fighting games should work as esports' emissary to the mainstream. Let's look at Street Fighter, the biggest game at EVO this year. It's a 30-year old brand that just about anyone who was aware of video games in the early '90s recognizes, the gameplay is easy to understand at a glance, and rounds are fast enough that you don't tend to see long, drawn out matches that just drag on forever. It's fast and exciting and that's a pretty simple recipe for hype.

That's probably a large part of the reason we've seen so many mainstream organizations try to capitalize on fighting games as part of their push to bring together their audiences with the growing esports audience. ESPN has broadcast Street Fighter V at Evo twice, and the 2016 Capcom Cup finals. Disney XD broadcast the Super Smash Bros. for Wii U Evo finals this year, and ELEAGUE ran a televised Street Fighter V league. These companies think fighting games can work, and honestly, I don't think they're wrong. Fighting games are easy to televise for all the same reasons they should be the biggest deal in esports. Again, there's no hard and fast answer here, but I think it's possible that it's just impossible for fighting game esports to hit the mainstream unless esports in general do it first.

I'm going to admit that I have something of a bias here — I really love fighting games and I want all of them to succeed. I like esports in general, but I love fighting games, and it took me a very long time to understand why the success of esports and the accessibility of fighters hasn't led Evo to have some of the biggest viewership numbers in esports. It isn't that fighting games don't appeal to the mainstream, it's that a mainstream audience isn't going to watch Evo in huge numbers until esports appeals to that audience in the first place.

The average ESPN watcher isn't interested in watching esports right now. That doesn't make them bad people or anything, it just means that they aren't that interested in esports. Look, it's not crazy to say that traditional sports are more popular than esports right now. That might change, sure, but sports aren't in danger of being completely consumed by esports for a while. Even if fighting games really do appeal to a sports fan, those people aren't coming to watch esports events in the first place because they just don't care.

That might be because they just don't know. Fighting games don't have as large a viewership base or as enormous a marketing effort as other esports do, and that means the "mainstream" audience is less likely to hear about something like Evo. League of Legends, Dota 2 and CS:GO are already bigger deals in the esports world, and that just sort of perpetuates itself at a certain point. There are a lot of reasons that the general esports community isn't as into Street Fighter as they are into those games, namely that the FGC was pretty insular for a long time, and a lot of people who play the currently popular esports titles grew up playing PC games, not fighting games in arcades or on console.

RELATED: ELEAGUE and Street Fighter on TV: How do you make a game into a Tier 1 esport?

But the mainstream audience also just isn't interested in watching esports in the first place, at least not right now. The ELEAGUE major finals pulled 228,000 viewers on TBS, according to Showbuzz Daily, which was a little better than kickboxing that same weekend on ESPN 2, a little worse than the X-Games on ESPN and a lot worse than the NHL All-Star Game. Meanwhile, ELEAGUE pulled down one million concurrent viewers on Twitch, nearly beating out that weekend's college basketball broadcast on Fox.

That's more of an issue of demographics than anything, but that isn't changing any time soon. Meanwhile, poor communication and increasingly niche games are keeping fighting games from getting over the esports hump by themselves.

I love Street Fighter, but Capcom has had a lot of difficulty communicating information about SFV to fans over the past year or two. Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite could be a good game, but the demo and the rough graphics have turned a lot of people off and Capcom's weird statements regarding character functions have done the same. Meanwhile, fighting game fans are getting hyped about more niche, anime-inspired fighting games from Arc System Works, which will have a tougher time breaking into the mainstream if only because of their aesthetics.

A lot of this has to do with the fact that many of these companies are based in Japan, as Joe "LI Joe" Ciaramelli noted on one of theScore esports' recent podcasts. The communication gap is preventing a lot of these companies from hitting large, western fanbases at times. Essentially, don't look for fighting games to pull themselves above the rest of esports by themselves — they have their own problems to work out right now.

Instead, the people who continue to ask why fighting games aren't a bigger deal should maybe work a little harder to support fighting games year round. Evo is obviously exciting, and the very best time of the year to watch fighting games, but maybe tweet about other tournaments too, check them out.

The fact of the matter is, esports are growing very quickly, and are going to need a much bigger audience to sustain more pro players' careers and more tournaments with great production values. Bringing fighting games into the fold is a good start to growing that audience organically. Either the mainstream isn't ready for esports or esports aren't ready for mainstream but yet, but they're going to have to get along very soon. Fighting games will make a great entry point for mainstream fans once the esports community gets behind them a little more. We're just not at that entry point right now.

Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.

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