Serving Two Masters: How Street Fighter Is Punting on the Mainstream

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Serving Two Masters: How <i>Street Fighter</i> Is Punting on the Mainstream

After a weekend of playing Street Fighter V, I sat in my office’s breakroom evangelizing it and choosing my words carefully. I waved my arms in front of the unconvinced crowd as I described in exaggerated terms a match I had online, puffing out my chest while I explained how much I had been winning to overcome the palpable skepticism in the room. I did my best to coax people to play the game so I could play with friends and not just random fighters by persuading them how fun it is to fight against random fighters. It wasn’t working. Evangelism does not penetrate when you can’t assuage their fundamental fears, I discovered.

To those on the outside looking in, Street Fighter V is not just a game, but a mountain to climb. The very concept can outright frighten—it’s a game where all I do is compete, and where the other person can just always be better than me. Not just because they know more, not simply because they have been playing it longer, but because their own natural abilities combine with both of those other factors to overpower me. In Street Fighter V, it is not possible to win and lose as a team—my defeats come down to my own abilities and feel personal without anyone else to blame. To some, it sounds like a lot of effort and heartache to get good enough to have fun.

This problem has been at the core of Street Fighter’s struggles for years. When the series triumphantly returned last generation with the much-lauded Street Fighter IV, a future for fighting games was looking more optimistic than ever. It soon became apparent to Capcom that Street Fighter had a ceiling, an immovable barrier for people that simply found the genre too gargantuan a task to take on. The publisher thus had to figure out a way to convince people to want to lose to get better.

This, too, is not working.

When Street Fighter V launched in February of 2016, assessing the response as tepid might be generous. While most fans and critics agreed that the fundamentals of the game were excellent, there remained a vacuum of content in the periphery of that foundation to hook in players new to the series. The game shipped with a very simple story mode of questionable quality and a survival mode as the progress-based single-player features. The lack of a basic arcade mode or even a simple way to fight an AI opponent for a quick match baffled new purchasers.

It isn’t that these modes are particularly good or even required, but they provide a base to dabble and experiment in, as well as an opportunity for players to feel good about making advancements. Street Fighter V essentially cut off the bottom part of a necessary skill ladder and simply hoped everyone could make the leap by competing online. A badly-written tutorial was all that took its place, using game-specific jargon devoid of elaboration, context and even personality. It was a colossal misstep in Capcom’s stated goal of attempting to get new people on board and essentially threw fresh players into shark-infested waters as a means of learning to swim.

Unfortunately for Capcom, Street Fighter V perpetuates the idea of the two separate Street Fighters: the hardcore competitive game with a deep and arcane fighting system, hidden within a mainstream series that’s open to anyone. As the series has evolved, the former audience has gotten bigger while the latter has fallen off and hasn’t been able to find the necessary enticement or footing to return. The competitive audience benefitted greatly from the meteoric rise of home and tournament streaming, while the casual audience come to look at this same high-level eSports play as the “true” form of Street Fighter. This widened the schism between the two kinds of Street Fighter and reinforced the negative reputation that, in order to have fun, a player needs to be performing at a high level.

In simpler terms, skill inflation occurred, and Capcom had no idea how to properly handle it.

The fighting game community looks to Street Fighter as the standard-bearer, but the mainstream audience has different prerogatives. While Street Fighter does fairly well for itself, other titles like Mortal Kombat and Super Smash Bros. blow past it in the sales charts. Both of these games, in different ways, prioritize the intermediate audience as the dominant market and tend to act in counter to Street Fighter’s continued slide in the other direction. Producer Yoshinori Ono seemed to realize this and made lofty promises of story modes that rival competitor Mortal Kombat, but could not finish the content in time for release. As such, it was one more bullet point added to the list of reasons why Street Fighter V felt like an incomplete product for anybody outside its most dedicated audience.

It is safe to say that Street Fighter V did not accomplish what Sony and Capcom wished, despite being a great fighting game at its core. Although Capcom slowly adds features missing from its initial release, such as a more intricate and involved tutorial for new players, the gap between those that invested their time at the beginning and those that are late to the party widens. It becomes a harder and harder proposition for people to dip their toes into the Street Fighter pool knowing what lies ahead on the path to getting better. No one wants to feel like they will never catch up and Street Fighter V had no answer for newcomers at the launch, entrenching a problem that might never have a solution due to that rocky beginning.

There may be no way to properly bridge the two Street Fighters together, but as much as I enjoy the game, I can safely say that Street Fighter V is not the solution. And no amount of my evangelizing will help convince people that salvation is merely a mountain climb away.

Imran Khan is a San Francisco-based writer that tweets @imranzomg.