Since Evo 2014 still lingers in the minds of fighting game fans, I want to spend some time today discussing a topic that came up this year during the top 8 for Ultra Street Fighter IV: what makes any given fighting game match “hype”? There are a couple of obvious answers to this: incredibly close matches and ridiculous comebacks and the tension that these moments create, but are these the only causes? And since these don’t happen all that often, how do we derive “hype” from a match where neither of the things are present?
First, let’s talk about the Ultra Street Fighter IV portion of Evo 2014. This year, nearly 2,000 people went to Vegas to compete in the largest fighting game tournament in the world. Once the weekend whittled those 2000 down to the best 8, we all had high expectations for what we’d see. We all had our favorite players, mine were Snake Eyez because his Zangief has some of the best footsies around, plus he’s from the States, and Sako because, well, I just really like Sako. He plays Ibuki… sometimes.
Everyone in the top 8 went on to play at near-perfect levels and the crowd met each of these perfect matches that ended in a time over–and there were plenty of them–with a golf clap, a rustling of chairs and a few stray coughs that soon faded behind the booming loudspeakers pumping the sounds of fists and fireballs into the room. The scene was tense to the point of bursting, but not because of what was going on on the screen. It had a lot more to do with what wasn’t going on: no one was making mistakes. Everyone played too well and the room of spectators knew that on some level they wanted to see Fuudo or Bonchan or whoever just do something incredibly risky and stupid and have it work because that would have been unexpected. That would have put some people on their feet.
When my buddy Menno turned to me after the first few players had been eliminated and said “there’s no hype” I had a hard time finding a way to disagree with him. For all the cerebral plays that were happening on screen, all of the small considerations behind every button press, there wasn’t a whole lot of excitement to milk out of two top players locked in eternal footsies until the clock inevitably ran out during Fei Long’s Ultra for the tenth time. I found myself not quite bored, but close enough to boredom to look at my phone and check the time way more often than I would have if the hype levels had been cranked up a notch or two.
Hype is a whiff punish that combos its way to an Ultra. Hype is an unsafe mix-up that works. Hype is an unsafe mix-up that doesn’t work. Hype is taking risks. Hype is making mistakes. Any of these things could have added a degree of excitement to what was unfolding on the screen.
Don’t get me wrong, I can watch Street Fighter all day, but I’d much rather see a player like Smug show complete disrespect for his opponent while he’s rushing that shit down than watch the meticulously-calculated fireballs of any top shoto player. And the fact that the game favors defensive play more than ever has only served to suck more hype from high-level play. So is this potential lack of hype when players play “too well” a bad thing? For people who have been following tournaments for a while, no, not at all. While we may not leap from our chairs and shout every time JWong nails someone with Rufus’ crouching fierce, we can respect the entirety of what we see happening before and after that fierce was carefully calculated.
Maybe all of this is why Marvel vs. Capcom, more often than not, ends up being the most exciting event at any given tournament. The game moves so quickly that players have to rely on instincts more than they would like, which leads to some knee-jerk reactions that allow for openings in play, which, well, you can see where this is going. If people are forced to think quicker than is reasonably possible, they’re going to make mistakes. Even looking back at older, faster versions of Street Fighter shows similar results. The same calculation goes into every choice, but everything happens at far greater speeds, which not only serves to provide increased excitement, but also allows players more room to fuck up because we’re human and humans do that.
So let’s raise a toast to people who make poor decisions. Without them, life would just be footsies.