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The pro fighting game scene is one of the most bombastic communities in all of esports. However it remains one of the more fluid and grassroots gaming cultures around. So if you’re a neophyte to esports, or fighting games in general, here’s a way to get a better understanding of how the FGC typically functions. Because, in many ways, the FGC functions a lot like contemporary combat sports such as MMA or Boxing. So through that lens, let's wrap our heads around the fighting game community and how it approaches events and gameplay.

Think Of Game Developers/Publishers As Federations

The boxing world is generally governed by a number of non-profit federations. Organizations like the World Boxing Council or the International Boxing Federation are the folks who give out those amazing belts. Their sole purpose is the proliferation of the sport. However, what they also do is maintain rankings for each weight class and determine who can call themselves champions. In MMA, the differences between federations or promotions like the UFC and Bellator are things like ring size and how long fights can be. Fighting game publishers function in a similar way.

Game publishers function like these large organizations. They create the games and what is and isn’t allowed in them. But also, these publishers often have very specific rules on how the game can be played professionally. They determine how big cash prizes can be, who can qualify for the official tournaments and which organizers can run those tournaments. And like real life combat sports, plenty of local and underground bouts occur but to get to the most lucrative purses, you must go through the publishers.

Think of Tournaments As Fight Cards (with a dash of) Promoters

When the average person thinks of combat sports, they typically think of massive Connor McGregor or Mike Tyson fights in Las Vegas. These are the products of fight promoters. These companies and individuals function like managers and talent agents and put together some of the largest spectacles in sports entertainment. Perhaps the most infamous promoter of all time, Don King, was responsible for some of the most iconic fights ever like the “Rumble in The Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. These promoters set the location of the fight, organize the advertisements, and help arrange the series of fights (called the “undercard”) that lead up to the main event. In fighting games, the effort is much more collective but doesn’t differ that much.

Tournament organizers in the FGC are more like their gaming counterparts than like Don King, but that doesn’t mean that the work they do isn’t similar. TOs have to secure the venue, organize the brackets, choose which game will be the main event and what will function as the undercard. It’s nearly the same thing. It's so similar that the Evolution Championship Series (EVO), the highest profile FGC event on Earth, also takes place in Las Vegas every year. Further connecting the legacy of combat sports to fighting games.

Think of Individual Games As Weight Classes

Professional prize fighters are generally separated by weight class. Mostly for safety reasons. A 120 pound welterweight wouldn’t have much of a chance against a heavyweight at 200 pounds or heavier. But many pro pugilists have shifted between weight classes as a means of winning even more championships. Fighters change their diets and training regiments to add or cut weight in order to move up and down divisions. Legends like Manny Paquiao and Oscar de la Hoya have championship belts in over six weight divisions. This practice is commonplace among fighters of nearly all levels. Fighting games don’t have weight classes, but there is a similar practice.

Unlike most esports, FGC events feature multiple games per LAN. So theoretically one could participate in four to five brackets in one weekend. But that’s very difficult to do. Each game has its own set of rules and systems. Keeping track of them all is one thing, to play them all at the highest level is another. Like for boxers moving weight divisions, FGC pros that can compete in multiple games are lauded as special. For example, in 2019, Dominique “Sonicfox” McLean reached the EVO grand finals in both Mortal Kombat 11 and Dragonball Fighters. While they only took home the chip in MK, the idea that someone could win two EVO championships in one weekend was incredibly rare. Doubly so for games that are so different.

So when you see players like Kazunoko, NYChrisG and Justin Wong slide into multiple top 16s or even top 8s, just know that these are some of the most skilled players in all of fighting games.

Think of Characters As Fighting Styles

There’s a plethora of fighting styles and techniques that professional fighters use to dominate their bouts. MMA fighters tend to blend a multitude of disciplines during their training. Some prefer to remain upright and face-to-face with their opponents, so they study arts like Muay Thai and Boxing. Others lean on Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) and Greco-Roman Wrestling to take fights to the ground. All of this is made to lean into a fighter's natural talents and body types to create advantages. There’s even styles within disciplines that can further enhance their abilities. For example, boxing great Floyd Mayweather’s mastery of the highly defensive “Philly Shell” style led to him only being knocked down once in his career. Fighting game players are no different. However, with the removal of physical constraints, character choice is the natural analogue to a fighting style.

Typically all fighting games have four to five archetypes that every character can fall into. All-Arounders (Shotos), Grapplers, Zoners, and Rushdown are just some of these examples. Like martial arts disciplines, they each have their pros and cons. Grapplers get in close and, well, grab you. They are often slow and powerful so they have to work hard to get in. Zoners are the complete opposite, they usually pepper you with long-distance strikes or projectiles. Generally, a fighting game pro will have one to three characters they specialize in for a given game. So their opponents can study not only the tendencies of the player, but also the weaknesses of the characters they use. Not unlike a Muay Thai fighter doing everything they can to not end up on the ground with Royce Gracie, a Street Fighter V player would do well not to end up in the blender with iDom on Laura.