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“Flukes”: Competitive Rigor vs. Sustainability in Esports

The question of whether or not to stratify different groups of competitors occurs in any competitive setting, but it tends to be ground zero for debate in gaming even more than in traditional sports or fields such as Chess. For this reason, a recent tweet by veteran League of Legends and Overwatch commentator MonteCristo lamenting the lack of “pros-only” tournaments for fighting games garnered a significant backlash.

There’s one core reason for the negative response to MonteCristo: those who consider themselves part of the fighting game community tend to consider the ability for “gods” and “mortals” to meet in open competition—and for god slayers to emerge at any moment—as one of the strengths of fighting games. In particular, people latched onto the use of the word “flukes” as evidence of the esports works being afraid of “true competition.” If esports could be compared to tennis, then to the FGC a world of invitationals (and nothing else) would be akin to the pre-open era of tennis—when pros and amateurs were not allowed to compete against each other at major tournaments.

However, having followed esports for over ten years now, I’ve noticed that this seeming incongruity in values stems from a difference in what aspects of competitive gaming are prioritized. Is it about competition and camaraderie, or competition and sustainability? While the two are not wholly incompatible, the esports side has long expressed a desire for recognition, expansion into the mainstream, and eventually a reverence similar (but not necessarily identical) to traditional sports. With respect to this, figures in esports have emphasized the importance of “narratives,” and seeing how big a deal they are is very telling as to how esports tends to try and achieve sustainability.

In 2010, StarCraft II ushered in a new era in esports, and tournament circuits such as GOM Starcraft League in Korea and the US-based Major League Gaming were established to give players a chance at competition. While there were many differences in their formats—GSL participants played only a handful of matches per day over the course of weeks and months, while MLG pitted hundreds of players against each over a single weekend—both came to the table early on with a certain goal in mind: to create stars.

GSL created a distinction between the cream of the crop (Code S) and the almost-greats (Code A), where players from the latter could earn the right to be promoted to the former. However, in the first few incarnations of the GSL, it was purposely made difficult for players to fall out of Code S. Essentially, the players who performed the worst in Code S had to compete against the best of Code A in a potential changing of the guard. The number of players who dropped down to these “Up and Down Matches” was restricted, and the Code S players could still end up defeating the hopefuls from Code A and send them back down. The reason? To make sure that recognizable faces remained on camera so they could establish fanbases, and by extension garner a sense of celebrity—to be people that fans and players could remember and look up to.

This was also the reasoning behind MLG‘s seeding system for its multi-tournament season, which saw players who did well at earlier tournaments get byes into much, much later stages of later league tournaments. Going on a tear in your first tournament could pay off down the line. If a player earned a top-32 spot in one tournament, they could keep getting place into a high spot for the next, and then play just well enough to not tank out, it meant a stable spot for increased visibility.

Eventually, both GSL and MLG revised their formats to encourage less ossification of brackets and more chances for rising stars to make a name, but that still doesn’t erase the fact that their initial versions tried to create a delineation between the “Pros” and the “Joes.” Central to all of this was the idea that “good narratives draw viewers in.” What better way to encourage a good narrative than to have a consistent cast of “characters” for the audience to know and root for?

Examples of the benefits that heroes and heroic narratives provide to competition are numerous, but one that stands out in particular is the story of basketball legend Larry Bird. At the time, basketball was seen in the US as largely a “black sport,” and thus had a relatively small white audience. Larry Bird helped to change that, as could be seen from one nickname of his: the Great White Hope. Was this racist? Yes, to a degree. Did it also help pull basketball into the mainstream? Yes it did.

(Is there a comparison to be made between this example and the fact that esports vs. FGC exists along something of a similar divide in terms of racial demographics? Also yes, but that discussion will be for another time.)

Narratives do not have to be manufactured whole-cloth. Seeing an underdog defeat a champion, or watching a winner cement his place with an undefeated streak happens just from competition existing. However, in a world where visual presentation can often be confusing to those unfamiliar, presenting these bouts as being between humans with wants and desires and emotions (especially simple ones like anger) can bridge that gap. So it’s no wonder why esports organizations frequently try to control it through player perception, delineations between pros and amateurs, and so on. But one question that arises is, does setting things up so conveniently end up compromising the integrity of competition? The answer is that it can, but it largely depends on severity.

Take professional wrestling, which has been predetermined for many decades precisely because the promoters understood that most audience members cared more when the wrestlers had charisma. Famously, when a bland 1940s wrestler named George Wagner dyed his hair blond and became the arrogant and effete “Gorgeous George,” his antagonistic demeanor drew audiences in droves to see him in the hopes that they’d get to witness George getting destroyed. Pro wrestling isn’t a true athletic competition precisely because it becomes easier to control the narrative and get viewers invested.

But even in a legitimate sport like mixed martial arts, the desire for narrative can influence decisions. While the results of matches aren’t fixed, the media and advertising machine surrounding MMA are there to try and produce the best narratives they can, either by using what’s there or cooking up some controversy. That’s because they know that narratives make people care. Athletes will be brought out to drum up a sense of animosity between the two. Is it real? Is it fake? Does it matter if it sells tickets? A guy like Conor McGregor, who’s naturally antagonistic but also an amazing fighter, puts butts in seats. People are eager to see him be on either the giving or receiving end of an ass-kicking.

At the same time, leaving things to chance can be scary for those who have substantial amounts of money riding on the success of their investment. Conor McGregor is in some ways the ideal, but he also has a tendency to get himself in trouble and make the UFC look bad in the process. One can even compare those blunders to the number of players caught blurting out racial slurs onstream. Just because someone’s a winner doesn’t mean they’re a good spokesperson, especially if they have no media training and are just kids plucked out of online lobbies and given an environment to train in. When there are so many variables at play where something can go wrong—quality of the game itself, image of competitive gaming to the outside world, the perception of “nerds”—it’s understandable (though not immune to criticism) why teams, tournaments, and organizations would want to control what they can.

The divide between FGC and esports, or the perception of it, has largely to do with community vs. respectability. The former looks inwards, and believes that having a solid core, a group of passionate players who can weather any storm together through a love of competition, is paramount. The latter looks outwards, and aims to establish itself as a permanent fixture in the world, something that cannot die because it has the size and backing to keep it going forever. The two are not irreconcilable, but finding a balance (if a balance is desired at all) requires parties that can trust each other to not abandon the other side’s principles.

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What People Want Out of Competitive Games (Part 1)

The purest image of the competitive gamer is the person who “plays to win.” Whereas other players might decry a particular move or strategy as “unfair” or “overpowered,” the true competitor uses every tool available. But while this is the ideal in a certain sense for how a competitive gamer should behave, I find that it’s not actually a reflection of reality. If it is, it’s a reality that has long since passed.

Since the proliferation of the internet in the 90s and into the 2000s, the image of what it means to be competitive in the world of games (particularly fighting games) has been defined by two different resources. One is David Sirlin’s “Playing to Win,” which discusses what it means to not be held back by concepts such as “honor” or “aesthetic.” The other is Seth Killian’s “Domination 101,” which positions opposite the true competitor the figure known as the “scrub”—the player who constantly makes excuses, refers to things they lose to as “cheap,” and chooses to complain rather than learn. Within reason (so no foul play), both are based around the idea that what matters most in competition are the words “YOU WIN.”

Both Sirlin and Killian have changed over the years. Sirlin became a game designer who has to take a greater range of players into account. Killian is now a community veteran, old and wizened and less fiery. However, at the time these series of articles were written, both were most certainly what the Magic: The Gathering developers call “Spikes.” According to the developers of Magic: The Gathering, players of their card game can be roughly divided into three different archetypes. In contrast to the “Timmy,” who loves to make big plays using the highest-damage tools, and the “Johnny,” who loves to innovate new strategies and employ unorthodox tactics, the Spike is defined by the tendency to simply do what is most effective and efficient to beat the opponent.

Because of those articles, I believe that the stereotypical image of the competitive player, in fighting games especially, became the “Spike.” However, what’s curious is that, when you look at even the highest levels of play, that undiluted competitive mentality does not seem as dominant as one might assume. The greatest fighting game player of all time is Umehara Daigo, but in his book The Will to Keep Winning, he writes:

Tournaments are a playground for people who practice for growth. It’s where they show off their achievements. Once I made that realization, I finally started making continued growth my goal, rather than winning. Games enrich my life by allowing me to grow as an individual, and that’s what motivates me to keep on going.

Going from a different angle, Super Smash Bros. Melee player Mang0 has discussed how he’s had to balance changing his playing style to suit more recent developments in his scene with staying true to himself:

What’s clear is that even the best players in the world aren’t necessarily subscribe “pure Spikes.” While anyone who goes to a tournament to get as far as possible is a Spike on some level, hybrids such as “Johnny-Spikes” or “Timmy-Spikes” exist. This is even acknowledged by the Magic: The Gathering developers. However, what I believe is that, not only are “Timmy-Spikes” present among competitive gaming communities such as the FGC, but they are about as prevalent as pure Spikes, and in some communities are the greatest population.

Where once even the biggest competitive gaming communities might have been incredibly niche and might have indeed been comprised of mostly Spikes, I think that world has changed immensely, due to online play, greater publicity, streaming video such as Twitch, the concept of eSports, and so on. Going from the strongest champions in the paragraph above to the lower levels of aspiring competitors and eSports spectators, it is often the case that many people care just as much (if not more) about how victory is achieved than whether it happens at all.

While few people, be they watching or playing, can say they have no investment in wins or losses, what competitive games provide for a great number of players is a feeling of power. This might come from the look of the game itself, or from how it plays. A pure Timmy, at their most extreme, wouldn’t mind a loss, provided he managed to land a breathtaking combo that squeezes the life out of the opponent. They fight for the highlight reel, to be turned into a 30-second Twitch clip or gfycat. Keep in mind that this is not necessarily a “scrub” attitude. Timmy-Spikes, while they most certainly want to win, would prefer to win with style.

There are certain games, I believe, that even encourage Timmy-Spike mindsets more than others. These include the Guilty Gear series, the Marvel vs. Capcom series, and Super Smash Bros. Melee. What they all have in common is that the flashiest, most impressive-looking techniques tend to also be extremely effective in high-level play. Techniques that make you feel like unbridled energy is coursing through your veins, things that the common gamer might never achieve reliably, become yours to control and command, and they just so happen to carry a lot of visual oomph.

None of what I’ve mentioned in this article is fully an “eSports” or “video game”-exclusive phenomenon. People want to see and experience glory, and that image of grand triumph as a dramatic moment is etched into the human experience. It might just be that, because video games are a relatively new form of competition in an age where media and personal interaction become increasingly blurred, we’ve seen eSports grow much more rapidly and visibly than other forms of competition, even if it’s still small potatoes compared to soccer or boxing.

Yowamushi Pedal: Brains, Heart, and Body

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As a sports manga and anime with an enormous cast, Yowamushi Pedal is home to a variety of characters designed to contrast with each other in terms of personality and approach to competitive bicycle racing. This certainly applies to the first-years when the series begins, as all-rounder Imaizumi Shunsuke, speedy Naruko Shoukichi, and high-cadence protagonist Onoda Sakamichi are all differ from one another significantly. In looking more closely at these three characters, however, I find that they resemble professional fighting game player Laugh’s theory of the Three Fighting Game Player Archetypes. My aim here is to elaborate why I believe this to be the case, and which archetypes apply to these three.

As described by the video above from Core-A gaming, the three categories of players are brains, heart, and body. While this distinction is not exclusive to fighting games or even gaming or competition in general, I find that Yowamushi Pedal with its theme of cycling has a lot of parallels with fighting games. Although fighting games are typically 1-on-1 matches and bicycle racing is shown to be a team sport on the biggest stages, the emphasis on how a human being competes through the use and fine-tuning of their equipment is a point of commonality. At one point, a character in Yowamushi Pedal even talks about how, unlike other sports, you don’t need to be the biggest or the strongest because what matters is how you work with your bike. Replace that with “joystick” or “controller,” and the similarities start to become clearer.

In the training camp arc of Yowamushi Pedal, where the characters compete to see who will represent Sohoku High School in the Inter-High National Tournament, club captain Kinjou purposely messes with the first-years’ bicycles in order to challenge them to work on their major weaknesses. In doing so, he reveals the archetypes that Imaizumi, Naruko, and Onoda embody.

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Imaizumi is a “brains” type, or someone who relies on superior knowledge and study to win. When Kinjou removes his ability to shift gears, it initially throwsImaizumi for a complete loop. Just as a brains-based fighting game player knows frame data like the back of their hand, Imaizumi had up to that point relied on his optimal knowledge of gear shifting to tackle any level of slope while cycling. Although he eventually overcomes this flaw during the training camp, his sheer joy when he’s finally able to reunite with his cherished gear shifters shows just how much the “heady” part of bicycle racing factors into Imaizumi’s approach to the sport.

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Naruko, then, is a “heart” type, who prefers to “feel” things out. In fighting game terms, this is someone who is confident they can outmaneuver you in unorthodox situations and “mind game” you. His advice to Onoda to surprise Imaizumi with a technique in a previous race, as well as his own “Sprint Climb” maneuver, are indicative of a similar quality. At the training camp, Kinjou removes his lower handle bars, thus limiting Naruko’s ability to adapt and be as creative as he’d like. Unable to do things “in the moment” as a result, Naruko is forced to work around it.

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That leaves Onoda as the “body” type. While this might not make sense given how Onoda is the “heart” of the team, that’s a different kind of conception of heart as a spiritual center. Instead, the reason why Onoda is a “body” cyclist is because of the fact that his high cadence is the linchpin of his riding style. Just as a “body” type in fighting games always has things like technical precision and perfectly executed high-damage combos to fall back on, Onoda’s ingrained ability to raise and lower his cadence like the pedals are an extension of his body lets him overcome situations where he might be “strategically” beaten. And just like the other two, when his ability to freely pedal as quickly or as slowly as he’d like is interfered with, he starts off feeling utterly helpless.

Imaizumi the brains, Naruko the heart, and Onoda the body. Together, they create a complete being, which is perhaps why they work so well together. What about the other characters, then? I’ll leave you to figure them out.

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Attack of the Imoutos – BlazBlue: Alter Memory

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Fighting game anime do not have the best reputation. While we’re not at the absolute depths of the 90s and such wonderful stinkers as Tekken and Battle Arena Toshinden, most of the time the individual stories you experience by playing each character one at a time in fighting games are all mashed together into a paste. The result is that characters do not even have enough screen time to properly showcase their already flimsy narratives, and what carries a fighting game anime to any kind of success is enough flair for the characters’ personalities to shine through in their limited actions.

BlazBlue: Alter Memory is not the worst anime in this respect. Based on the popular BlazBlue fighting game series, the fighters themselves are designed to be as bombastic as possible, and while the story is convoluted to no end it seems very intentional. The narrative and presentation of BlazBlue: Alter Memory revels in its anime aesthetic to the point that it ironically suffers from not being as beautiful in the animation department as its source material because they can’t be as meticulous compared with the intricate sprite animations used in the games. I have to admit that I’ve barely played the games, but from what I can read the anime successfully captures the fact that the story involves alternate timelines, powers that are ridiculously vague in their function, and a seemingly endless stream of little sisters.

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Ragna the Bloodedge is our white-haired, Sugita Tomokazu-voiced protagonist with a beefy sword. His little sister Saya was killed in the past, and he swears revenge against the man who did it. However, he keeps coming across girls that appear similar or even identical to Saya. There’s military police officer Noel Vermillion, who is arguably the series’ secondary heroine. There are robots that come possibly from the future (or something?) who have her face. Even one of the main villains turns out to have connections to Ragna’s little sister. I had a passing idea of the narrative of BlazBlue before watching, that time travel was involved, and that it is basically the Guilty Gear series with the anime dial cranked up to 13, but I didn’t realize that the story is basically Super Kyon (from Suzumiya Haruhi) and his deluge of imoutos.

When people use the term “anime fighter,” they’re referring to games like BlazBlue, and while it’s often associated with certain game mechanics such as air dashing and elaborate combos, the aesthetic is also important. BlazBlue, and by extension Alter Memory, takes all of the popular little trends in hardcore anime of the past seven years or so and throws them together to make something gloriously confusing. You have Catgirls and actual cats. There’s a 12-year-old looking vampire girl who’s a fan favorite. Yandere are seemingly everywhere. Angst and ninjas and flourishes of power are presented in such obtuse yet highly cinematic ways that Bleach creator Kubo Tite would blush. The sheer importance of little sisters in BlazBlue is not surprising, then, given just how increasingly prominent they have been in anime, manga, and light novels.

I think if there’s any major flaw of BlazBlue: Alter Memory, it’s from the fact that it’s an anime in the first place. This doesn’t seem like the kind of story you’re meant to experience by just watching. Rather, I think it’s supposed to kind of wash over you as you back in the aesthetic environment of the world and its dynamic characters. Maybe I should play the games more.

You can watch BlazBlue: Alter Memory on Hulu.

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to sponsor Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.

[Apartment 507] What’s Up with Anime Characters in Fighting Games?

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This time on Apartment 507, I explore the idea of the “anime fighter” and all of its surrounding meanings and associations. Hope you like air dashing!

A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding the “Neutral Game” in Fighting Games

Introduction

If you ever look into the world of competitive fighting games, people will throw out terms such as “neutral,” “advantage,” and “disadvantage,” all of which appear to be (and are) key terms to understanding fighting games on a deeper, fundamental level. Often their meanings can come across as obtuse and rather abstract, and what exacerbates this confusion is that people make the mistake of trying to explain neutral before explaining advantage/disadvantage. This is why I’ve written this article. Advantage/disadvantage are much easier ideas to understand compared to neutral, and once you get those two down, the concept of “neutral” follows along more naturally.

Advantage, Disadvantage, and Neutral

So, imagine you’re in a fight. Would you rather be punching someone in the face, or getting punched? Most likely you’d prefer the former, a position where you’re at an advantage.

However, this idea extends more to than who’s getting hit. Would you rather be backed into a corner, or backing someone into a corner? Would you rather be standing with your back towards the edge of a cliff, or forcing someone towards the edge?

All of these positions involve someone who has fewer options available to them. The guy with his back to the cliff or the wall can’t go backwards, of course, so he has to fight his way out or somehow get around. However, this also makes him relatively more predictable. In contrast, the person forcing the opponent towards the edge can attack if he chooses to, or walk back. He has the luxury of more choices.

One person is in an advantageous position, the other is in a disadvantageous position. “Neutral,” then, is when neither person feels like they have an advantage or disadvantage. Neither one is getting hit, neither has their backs to a wall or has to worry about a 500-ft drop. Both fighters are fully in control of themselves, and their goal is to get the other one into a disadvantageous position.

“Footsies”

You’ll often find characters who are considered to be great at neutral, and these are generally characters that have more or better weapons at their disposal when trying to gain an advantage. In this respect, you might see people throw out another common but also confusing fighting game term: footsies.

The idea of footsies derives from what kids would do at a lunch table. One kid tries to kick another kid’s legs. If a kid misses, then the other kid is free to kick that extended leg. Fighting games are kind of similar. If one character tries to punch another, but he misses, his arm is now extended forward, and his opponent can “punch his punch” back. Or, if he anticipates a punch is coming, he can hit more quickly, preventing the attack from happening in the first place (see also Bruce Lee’s original concept of Jeet Kune Do, the “Way of the Intercepting Fist“). When combined with the threat of a cliff or a wall, two opponents will try to trick the other into overextending or doing something predictable, and retaliating accordingly.

Neutral and Psychological Damage

You’ll also often see people say a character in a game is “bad at neutral,” and sometimes they’re right, but take the statement with a grain of salt because a lot of people don’t understand what neutral really is. They think it’s just about who can more reliably get the first hit in, and then whose attacks can lead to more combos, but neutral is just as much about potential damage as it is about actual damage.

Let’s go back to the example with two people fighting. They’re both in “neutral,” standing at the center of their fighting area. However, both want the opponent to be at the edge of the cliff, because as great as it can be to throw 20 punches at someone, it’s even better to throw one punch that knocks them off the edge of a cliff. The potential for greater advantage, and the fear of getting hit, become tools just as important as who actually successfully connects.

Leaving Off

Neutral is often touted as the most important aspect of a fighting game, because it’s where the game begins, where the mind games originate from, and is the most basic area where it’s necessary to understand yourself, your opponent, and the tools each of you have at your disposal. I hope in reading this that you have a stronger understanding of how you can use it in your own game.

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[Waku Waku +NYC Blog] Natural Selection and Option Selects: The EVO Championship Series

EVO finals Sunday is currently underway! I wrote a blog post for the Waku Waku+NYC blog detailing some of what I think are the more interesting aspects of EVO’s history. Here’s an excerpt below:

The Evolution Championship series, also known as EVO, is the largest fighting game tournament in the United States, and it’s set to return to Las Vegas this weekend. Having been in existence for 14 years through multiple iterations of fighting games, technological changes, and even generations of gamers, what I find most fascinating about EVO is that, true to its name, it is both a showcase of a survival of the fittest philosophy, as well as an example of change and adaptation.

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