In many ways, yesterday’s Capcom Cup Ultra Street Fighter IV tournament was a pivotal moment for the fighting game community. First, it was Ultra’s last major tournament before Street Fighter V takes over as headliner at just about every fighting game event. Second, it was the first fighting game tournament where the winner walked away with a six-figure paycheck, marking a monetary high point in fighting games. Finally, it offered the fighting game community the best glimpse at what its events might be like if fighting games grow beyond grassroots efforts. And in just about every way that mattered, Capcom Cup succeeded at both sending off arguably the world’s most important fighting game and forging new paths for a community used to getting by on prestige rather than hard cash.
As Paste chronicled earlier this year, the fighting game community wears its shoestring budgets on its sleeve. It’s weary of outside money, and takes a disapproving stance against anything it dubs as “e-sports,” a term synonymous in FGC circles with “sellout.” If the scene is going to make it big, it’s going to do it in its own way, not by catering to corporate interests. What FGCs define as “e-sports” is vague; plenty of outside companies, as well as many competitive games’ developers, have chipped into recent tournaments’ prize pools. But any time you watch a fighting tournament, you can feel an undefinable but definite distinction from other competitive gaming events.
By most measures, Capcom Cup was “e-sports.” It had all the glitz and showiness of a typical League of Legends or Counter-Strike tournament. More often than not, you could see the extra money being thrown around. Sponsored by the likes of Twitch, Sony, Turtle Beach and Totino’s (a sponsor you usually don’t see at events like this), the production end of the event was lavish, and made a huge effort to appeal to people outside the hardcore fighting game fan. Bumpers defined key terms like “Punish,” “Psychic Dragon Punch” and “Focus Attack Dash-Cancel.” Every player at the event also got had a small lower-third dedicated to pointing out their defining traits, such as “Patient,” “Amazing Reactions” and “Unreadable.” Throughout the event’s livestream, there were also informal polls asking who would take the next match, then revealing how everyone voted. It let everyone know what the stakes were, and the polls established favorites and underdogs for everyone to see, creating better narratives for each match.
The event started with a recap video cataloging some of the best moments in Street Fighter from the last year. Next, FGC mainstay Mike Ross introduced the event by talking about the stakes, the money, and the road the competitors took to get there. Unlike most fighting game tournaments, which use open brackets anyone can enter, the Capcom Cup was invitational. In order to snag an invite, you either had to win one of several premiere tournaments, or gain enough ranking points through other tournaments. This meant the bracket was a who’s who of fighting game players, from past EVO winners such as Daigo “The Beast” Umehara and Olivier “Luffy” Hay, to relatively unknown upstarts like Keoma Pacheco and Benjamin “Problem X” Simon.
The invite-only nature of the event also allowed for more of a focus on every individual player; each competitor got their own introduction, emerging from behind a glossy door showing an enlarged silhouette through a puff of smoke—not unlike the sort of entrances you’d expect from a MMA title match. Then, the player would calmly walk out, wave at the crowd, and take their place on the main stage. Some players rolled with it, while others added their own spin; Seonwoo “Infiltration” Lee held up his cell phone to the crowd, a symbol of his tendency to take time before matches to pour over his copious notes.
One by one, they emerged, in a format that gave the audience time to pour over the competition and decide on a favorite from the get-go, instead of randomly encountering them on stream at some point, wondering “who’s that guy?” and taking a moment to characterize them by their play. It took a while, but this is exactly the kind of extravagance you can afford when you don’t have to host a tournament with thousands of entrants across ten games. Every player got an introductory video telling the audience the stories behind some of these players, as well as a Face-Off-style headshot.
The event’s six commentators were also given a proper introduction, which you don’t see at many other tournaments. Usually, the commentators themselves act as emcees for the online crowd, but having Ross host the event proper allowed the commentators to have their moment without making the whole thing feel awkward. The commentators also had a proper booth and a wide camera shot to establish a sense of presence. The camera could cut to the commentators between matches and still have a clean aesthetic.
Contrast this with the typical fighting game tournament or weekly event, where the livestream starts with two random players testing out a streaming setup by playing several casual rounds. The commentators could end up being anyone who might be around and would want an audience to talk to about fighting games, and are as likely to talk about recent drama as they are the match. Only later on would seasoned vets take their place. Additionally, many camera angles at tournaments are claustrophobic, usually because the camera needs to be near the streaming equipment, and because the same person is running both. And when the streaming equipment is mounted on no more than two card tables, the commentators may not have as much room as they’d like.
The lack of an open bracket and the focus on a single game meant organizers weren’t scrambling to stay on schedule and keep track of everything. In fact, the matches went ahead of schedule for most the day, and twice the event took a 30-minute break for a panel to discuss the matches up till that point. It meant most people could get up and go grab food or hit the restroom, but it also meant the average viewer got a better understanding of what they were watching. The panelists could talk in-depth about the particulars of a match with the distance of a SportsCenter without having to hush as soon as the next match started.
And these matches were exactly what anyone hosting a tournament like this could have hoped for. The invitational nature meant few of the competitors had simply clutched out a win to get there—each of them had a good shot at first place and the $120,000 that came with it. The first few rounds saw a lot of favorites, like Justin Wong and Naoki “Nemo” Nemoto lose two straight matches and get eliminated. Few could have predicted the results of the bloodbath of the first few rounds, which were best of three instead of best of five.
The early eliminations were made all the sweeter by the pre-match videos, where every player would discuss how they prepared for their first-round opponent. Some developed a particular approach, others said they’d stick to their regular game plan, and others still didn’t talk about their first opponent, flat-out saying they were preparing for someone else they imagined facing later on. Several of the players who took their opponent for granted lost to them, which was a nice bit of vindication to see. It was also particularly fun to see Du “KnuckleDu” Dang talk about going on vacation instead of practicing for the event, then handily beating their first opponent.
As the event went on, you saw the character and player picks even out a bit, going from a ridiculous sea of upsets to a steadier top eight. There were heels like Umehara and Kun “Xian” Ho, but also underdogs like Pacheco (who was the first Brazilian to make it this far at an event of this caliber) and Darryl “Snake Eyez” Lewis who, as the only American in the top 8, had the San Francisco crowd behind him the whole time.
He didn’t make it into the final rounds, but that wasn’t as much of a problem as it might have been at another tournament. The production had created a narrative such that the winner was almost beside the point (congratulations to winner Ryota “Kazunoko” Inoue, by the way). Like EVO, the fact that a fighting game tournament was garnering this much attention was the main draw. You could hear the cheers of a large audience behind every moment, and the increased production value only heightened to emotional stakes.
There were crazy upsets, incredible moments, and wide variety of characters on display—the sign of a well-balanced game. Capcom Cup was about as perfect of a send-off for a Ultra Street Fighter IV as anyone could have hoped for, and it showed us that FGC can do e-sports events as well as any other competitive game. It may not be a harbinger of things to come for anyone other than Capcom. After all, will the FGC trust a game company who would benefit from brokering the kinds of “e-sports” deals which would bolster the scene to greater heights? It would automatically omit other, non-Capcom games from the scene, which we should take note of.
But after a winner was determined, a video demonstrated that Capcom might just be best-suited for spearheading another fighting game surge; the video showed many of the tournament’s competitors talking about what they were able to do as a result of Street Fighter IV, from traveling the world to gaining recognition to meeting a partner. It also made references to “Our FGC,” as a way to distinguish it from e-sports.
Capcom Cup might have been the most corporate fighting game tournament yet, but it’s clear that Capcom wants the community to feel like the scene is still theirs, that Street Fighter is where it is because of the fans, and not companies. Hopefully, through all the glamour, smoke, panels, and production, that’ll remain the case.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who’d like to thank Shoryuken.com for having a ton of useful information about the event on a single page. He’s written for Paste, GamesBeat, Playboy, and several others. You can follow him on Twitter.