As I watched Mago fight Romance, listening to open microphones pick up the roar of the crowd, I found myself dwelling on Major League Gaming’s King of Fighters conundrum. Since introducing the title at Columbus, KoF13’s performance as a tournament attraction has remained consistently underwhelming. After Columbus, the conventional wisdom dictated that the disappointment of the first outing was the result of several factors, such as location and short notice, and that Anaheim would prove to be a much more successful showcase for the game.
It made sense : Anaheim is in KoF country, and the tournament had been on the community calendar for months. However, as the event drew near, organizers and observers were alarmed by the relatively low number of pre-registered attendees. Attendance remained low, even after many claimed that the fighting game community was just being their normal, procrastinating selves.
Even before Anaheim had finished, many wondered if this would be the last time we would see King of Fighters at MLG. Some seemed certain, including event staff. Frustration was evident everywhere. How did things come to this point? What was wrong with the King of Fighters community? There was a lot of money up for grabs at both Columbus and Anaheim. Why weren’t the tournaments attracting players or viewers? In the week leading up to Anaheim, even I took to the issue, imploring KoF players to sign up, to represent their game. We all missed the point.
The setting for most sudden moments of striking clarity, I realized I’d gotten it wrong while sitting on the toilet, this morning, humming a jaunty tune. This weekend, we had a fighting game tournament outshine anything that the major productions have put on this year, fighting games or otherwise. Why? What does Alex Jebailey slip into the Kool-Aid in Orlando that allows him to attract such a stacked roster of talent and make CEO the most watched fighting game stream of the year thus far?
On paper, CEO 2012 isn’t remarkably different from most fighting game majors. It’s a bunch of guys packed into a ballroom playing fighting games. However, the event’s name sums the issue up nicely.
When contrasting event performance between tournaments like Anaheim and CEO with a game like KoF, one striking difference rushes to the foreground. CEO attracted top KoF players. In fact, I was not alone in stating that, outside of Evolution, CEO featured a talent roster for its games deeper than any other tournament you’ll see this year. Arcade Edition’s competition was so fierce that Mago, arguably one of the five best Street Fighter players to ever live, did not crack the top eight of the event’s tournament. All of this without the allure of five figure pots and with an event production budget sizably smaller than the six or seven figures it takes to produce an MLG or IPL tournament weekend.
Money and players? Are they symbiotic? Does one draw the other? No. CEO is not an anomaly, though it did serve to illuminate a possible cause for MLG’s fighter troubles.
A trip to Orlando is not a cheap thing. Though there is a strong scene in the south, the holy land is still the holy land; Mecca in Southern California, Medina in Northern California, Bethlehem in New York, Jerusalem in Japan. A lot of the players had to travel out of pocket, just as they did for Adam "Keits" Heart’s Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament last month. It’s something some of the attendees have done for five, ten, or twenty years. Many of these old road dogs have never, will never win a major prize pot. They’d be the first to tell you that. Yet, still they come, attracting like-minded souls like moths drawn to a neon sign.
Simply put, a fighting game event is a thing to experience, a thing that once experienced causes you to realize this is where you belong. Thousands of guys and girls will attend events this year for the experience of being there. This is something that men like Jebailey, Keits, the Cannons, Joey Cuellar, and Team LevelUp understand intimately. The trick to driving loyal participation isn’t money, or flashy production, or any other sort of spectacle. It is community. It is creating an event that screams, “You want to be a part of this.”
This simple element is what the major productions seem to be missing. It is something that is lost in the translation in events produced by outfits more familiar with FPS and RTS games and the cultures of those games.
MLG has created something that is a sight to behold. It is, certainly, a thing one would enjoy attending. In ways, that is the purpose for these events, to become a thing that begs attendance. However, there is a marked difference between creating a thing that would be great to attend and creating a thing to which to belong. In the latter, attendance is replaced by experience. To borrow from the monsters : “great tournament, great experience”.
High prize pots, light shows, those things make interesting spectacle. They don’t, however, engage. There were quality matches at MLG Columbus, and Tokido electrified MLG Anaheim, but they didn’t receive a tenth of the attention of Mago and Romance playing in a venue with a much smaller spotlight. Or The Answer’s tattoo, for that matter.
A wrestling ring, player entrance themes, the right vendors, the right people deployed to the right roles. It’s the little things that go into creating an event for the community, to creating something that instead of being something you gotta’ see is somewhere you gotta’ be. It truly is a community effort. That community effort, those little details, are what make the difference between your event knocking it out of the park and discussing whether you have to drop a game after two tournaments.
See y’all at the next one.
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