Street Fighter And The Lost Art Of Playing Together - By Mike Doiron
I’ll always remember when my brother first brought home Street Fighter II. I was 6, he was 11. He spent weeks saving money from his $5 weekly allowance and paper route to buy the game, which was a whopping $125 in 1993 — which is nearly $200 in 2019.
From that time forward, Street Fighter became a fixture in our home: the voice lines and move sets became a running joke that persist today. I even memorized what Ryu says when he he performs his hurricane kick.
Learning To Play Together
When we played Street Fighter, it was all about the basics. We only ever used “Hard Punch’ and ‘Hard Kick,’ because, well, why use anything else? Why punch someone lightly in the face when you can swing away with haymakers? Stringing together intricate combos using all of our options never really occurred to us.
Eventually we would go on to perfect ‘Special Moves,’ like a Hadoukens and Sonic Booms. Landing a Shoryuken for the win was a pinnacle highlight in our youth. Basically the game was all about finding avenues of attack and exploiting them. We never thought about more efficient or correct ways to play the game. To us, the best Street Fighter player in the world was the metaphorical kid down the street with a Nintendo Power magazine.
Sure, things got heated sometimes. As an eruptive youth, I remember throwing tantrums when I’d lose. Once, I swung around the controller like a mace and clocked my brother in the eye. He still has a scar. But the dude was Hadouken spamming, and it was totally justified.
In my teens, I aimed to git gud, as the kids say these days. I don’t know exactly how many hours I spent “training” in Street Fighter Alpha 3, but it was a lot. I would simply go into the VS. Mode, ramp up to the highest difficulty, and move the speed to the impossibly fast Turbo 9, and just practice. Even after I stopped taking it seriously, I still played this way as a method to de-stress after school.
I didn’t care about how I stacked up in the world or anything, I just wanted to make sure I could whip Sagat’s ass.
Becoming The Teacher
In 2009 I was in my early 20’s, and I weaseled my way into a cheap living situation, so I had some extra cash to spend. I did the responsible thing and bought an HDTV and PS3. I still remember the glorious moment when I first plugged in the HDMi cable (which were prohibitively expensive at the time), and of course Street Fighter 4 was the first game I teed up.
SF4, along with Super Smash Bros Brawl, became the competitive in-house games. As the experienced vet, it was up to me to teach my pupils about the basics. From move execution, to the rock paper scissors mechanic of the jump, block, duck game, I took my baby birds and taught them how to fly.
I’m proud to say that my young padawans eventually crafted games of their own, branching to different characters that I never touched. I’m also proud to say that I won about 2 thirds of the time — but I mean that’s obvious at this point, right?
Street Fighter allowed for moments of glory in our little pad, and yes, also moments of frustration. But still, we were playing together and making memories. Our fights were more akin to matches between dorky backyard wrestlers rather than seriously contending to be the best like some Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt.
The good times didn’t last forever, and we all moved out. This would be the end of our Street Fighter playing days, at least for the moment. I couldn’t deny the game’s allure forever. The new Sexy Ryu would eventually win me over— but unbeknownst to me, it would never be the same. Something was percolating in the collective gaming consciousness, and it was ready to take over.
The Emergence of Esports and Streaming
The rise of esports first came to my attention when I joined the Street Fighter subreddit. I was expecting a group of individuals who nostalgically pined for the good ol’ days. People playing for the hell of it, or even just some good ol’ fashioned shitposting.
What I encountered instead was a group of hardcore fans who followed each professional event and strived to be the best. It was a place to celebrate classic moments like this, and a place to share their custom joystick controllers. I always just played on the console controllers, so these joysticks were completely foreign to me.
Even in my wildest childhood fantasies, I never imagined that playing video games would be a viable profession. Maybe it’s because of my pragmatic upbringing. Maybe it’s because I never saw The Wizard. Either way, it never entered my mind.
Fun fact: this was the first time American audiences would ever see Super Mario Bros. 3.
But that’s exactly what happened in our decade. Esports and streaming — thanks to sites like Twitch — are going mainstream, both able to rake in millions of viewers. Billion dollar companies like Amazon (who owns the aforementioned Twitch platform) and many others notable groups are investing a lot of money into esports, and the most popular streamers like Ninja have become minor celebrities who make millions of dollars per year.
Through all of this, I learned a painful lesson. Despite the hundreds of hours I’d poured into a game franchise that I truly loved, I was nothing more than a filthy casual
The Death Of Playing Together
Of course, once you take the internet, social media, and humanity’s competitive nature into account, this all seemed inevitable. Today, games hinge on their online play. It’s no longer necessary to have your friend sit next to you. Players are content to compete against a faceless individual from the other side of the globe.
The current esports culture has also facilitated a culture of knowing the ‘correct’ way to play any given game. When I was a kid, Street Fighter was all about choosing your moments, executing specials, and yes, super combos, but today if you can’t string together intricate combos like these, then let’s face it, you suck.
The best player in the world isn’t just the kid down the block, but now a quantified champion of numerous tournaments.
Online gaming has dominated the market. Now, I haven’t gone full grumpy grampa, my friends and I have moved to different cities through the years, and playing online has given us the ability to connect on a regular basis. Talking shit to your friend right next to you, inviting people over to play a game, and even LAN parties are all largely things of the past.
Even if you’re chatting with people, the reality is that gaming has become a solo endeavour.
What’s especially tragic to me is that we’re not allowed to play anymore. Every online gaming interaction is framed as a serious competition. This is evidenced in the latest Street Fighter game where you are forced to choose a ‘main’ to play online. If you choose Ryu, for example, you are forbidden to pick any other character.
The game, by its very nature, expects you to pour dedicated hours into training just one fighter. Messing around and have fun with different characters is almost prohibited. Each interaction is also concluded with your score and global rank, always reminding you how you stack up against the competition.
Games are serious business now, and if you try to come with a different approach, you will always be reminded that online gaming is no place for simple play.
Maybe that’s why we always come back to classic games. They’re never as smooth, intuitive or graphically good as newer games, but we’re still drawn to them. Maybe it’s because they are from a time when we were actually allowed to explore, experiment, and yes, play.