Opinion: Is it time for fighting game tournaments to get rid of open brackets? – The Esports Observer

Short answer: No, of course not. It’s a ludicrous statement that is obviously clickbait at even a cursory examination. However, the nature of open bracket tournaments in fighting games and the tradition and community surrounding them create several unique challenges (and opportunities) that do not exist in more publisher-run esports ecosystems. 

Understanding these challenges and the opportunity they represent is crucial to unlocking the potential of this criminally undervalued segment of the industry.

As previously reported, registrations for major fighting game tournaments have sold out in record time. This weekend, a few additional slots opened up, which were missed by some top-ranked players, once again sparking the debate regarding whether or not open bracket tournaments with limited space should make special considerations for professional or high-level players.

For now, we’re going to set aside some of the tired, bad faith arguments made in this conversation. Sure, top players have a responsibility to register for tournaments and if they sleep through the window or miss it, the responsibility is ultimately on them. However, that argument serves little purpose in the broader conversation when you’re dealing with limited space that needs to serve two entirely separate categories of attendees.

For the average person, a fighting game tournament is essentially a convention. There are booths, social activities, show matches, a chance to reconnect with long-distance friends, and there just happens to also be a tournament taking place. It’s like if you went to Comic Con, but instead of Spider-Man and Batman, you were there to interact with fans of Ryu and..well actually Spider-Man and Batman depending on which games are in the lineup. For this person, fighting game tournaments are a wonderful vacation trip, and even people with little-to-no skill at the game can have an incredible time. If there is an event near you, you should absolutely go whether you play or not.

This is not the purpose of a tournament for the high level player, however. That person is there to do a job. They are there purely to compete, to place as highly as possible in order to earn income through prize money, sponsorships, team salaries, and to grow their following to earn additional income through Twitch and YouTube. The convention side of the tournament actively distracts from this competitive side of things, and the open nature of the bracket increases risk for both the player and their sponsors that some sort of crazy upset could throw off their time on stream and their potential prize winnings.

Because of this, the fighting game community has existed in this extreme dichotomy where its biggest names, its sponsors, and its at-home spectators want the ecosystem to move in a more professionalized esports direction while the large majority of tournament attendees, organizers, and old guard figureheads place a much greater emphasis on protecting the grassroots nature of their community and the egalitarian nature of the open bracket.

Tournament organizers have a responsibility first to the vast majority of their attendees who will go 0-2 in the open bracket and attend their event largely for the social aspect. They are the reason the event can possibly generate revenue in the current business model. While there are many positives to the hands-off approach fighting game publishers take to supporting their esports, it means that pros rely on regular attendees to enable their tournament ecosystem to exist.

However, a team paying out a monthly salary and needing to meet sponsor obligations simply cannot afford to have their player not attend the year’s biggest tournaments whether they missed the registration because they overslept or because it sold out in literal minutes. The open brackets and cluttered schedule combined with a highly guarded community already make it extremely difficult for esports organizations to effectively invest in the fighting game community. Adding additional risk objectively harms the top end of the ecosystem and limits the opportunity for players looking to make a living from competitive fighting games.

And yet, given the vitriol thrown at events and organizers who have made considerations for top players, as well as the top players who vocalize a desire for “privilege,” making such considerations represents a genuine risk to the brand of any tournament organizer. Further, the open bracket nature of fighting game tournaments is an inherent part of what makes the scene so captivating to follow as a spectator. The fact that a Rank 1 player could end up losing early because it turns out a 15-year-old kid who drove up from Mexico is actually a future hall of famer at the game creates gripping drama. It’s difficult to quantify the value of guaranteeing a high quality Top 8 versus ensuring the integrity of the open bracket and its upset potential is ensured.

Not having grown up in the fighting game community, it’s difficult for me to sympathize at times with the aspects of the scene which heavily favor tradition and grassroots. I was introduced to esports through League of Legends, which pushed away from grassroots as early and quickly as it could, and in many ways thrived specifically because of that decision. That said, I fell in love with fighting games specifically because of the things that make it special. 

Would it be the end of the world if 30 spots were reserved at every tournament for the top 30 players of each game? Probably not. A lot of people would complain on Twitter, a few might not choose to go, but in six months it would be the norm and everyone would move on. In fact, many Smash tournaments in Japan already have some sort of consideration for top players. It would, however, be one more step towards pushing out the boisterous, open, community-driven atmosphere that makes the FGC such a joy to follow.

You just don’t get this in League of Legends:

The professionalization and effective monetization of the fighting game community is a complex, multifaceted topic. It is exactly the kind of thing that fuels the worst aspects of Twitter and inherently devolves into a useless, toxic discussion. That said, I believe it is a conversation worth having in the right mediums.

Fighting games are great. Fighting game esports are truly special. The space continues to be the most undervalued segment of the entire industry. But that value can’t be accessed if we cling too tightly to tradition, or if we lose all respect for the community that makes it valuable in the first place. 

How do fighting games reach the next level? By constantly innovating, experimenting, and pushing to find that balance between profitability and authenticity. By creating sustainability and reducing risk for pros and teams while acknowledging the importance of the average convention-goer. It’s hard work, but work worth doing to bring more attention, value, and revenue to a wonderful community.

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