Round One, Fight!
Criminals roam the streets on a cold Gotham night. For the petty, hold ups and bag snatches abound, while the more... unique... of Gotham’s residents set into motion much more heinous and elaborate plots.
All the while, the Batman is nowhere to be found; he’s otherwise occupied, on the rooftop of one of the grim city’s iconic skyscrapers, fighting - another Batman?! Clearly one of these is an imposter, but it would be impossible for a spectator, were there any, to tell them apart.
The Batmen mirror each other’s moves, fists and feet and Batarangs flying back and forth. Seeing an opening, one of the Batmen tries to set a trap, but he’s too slow. With an unexpected foot to the face, the Batman fumbles the bomb he was trying to lay, setting it off and knocking him down, while his twin comes in to finish him off...
Suddenly, an exclamation from an unseen speaker; “NO! F*ck!” - and the words “Batman Wins” appear on the screen.
No, this isn’t an excerpt from some really terrible Batman fanfiction. Rather, this is a brief account of part of the finals section of a small Injustice: Gods Among Us tournament; a Batman mirror match involving the tournament organisers Charlie “chuckk” Findlay and John “jsculls” Scully. This event also featured the popular Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition and Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3, and is just one example of an increasing number of fighting game tournaments, big and small, being run across the country.
It used to be that, if you were serious about your fighting games, you went to the local arcade. This is where the best players played, where new players were put through the wringer and came out as warriors, where you had to put your money on the line with every match. Sadly, the popularity of arcades has dwindled as home video game consoles have become more affordable and accessible, and as a result, fighting games were something of a dying breed, barely kept alive by a small but dedicated cult of tournament players.
With most fighting game competitions taking place on consoles these days, arcade sticks are the weapon of choice for many fighters. (Photo courtesy of arseynimz.com and standingfierce.com)
That all changed in 2008, when Street Fighter IV came out and brought the genre back into vogue. Arcades that could afford the exorbitant price of an SF4 cabinet were suddenly packed once again, but in many places, this arcade culture was nonexistent. The new influx of would-be Street Fighter champions had to find other ways to get their competitive fix. For some, playing online was enough, but others needed to be able to stare down their opponents face-to-face. To that end, regular meet ups and local tournaments became the way to go.
Aotearoa wasn't exempt from this resurrection of the fighting game community (FGC), and players now gather often in the major centres to play, talk, live, and breathe fighting games. Auckland has major tournaments a few times a year - in March, First Blood 3 attracted 30 entrants, a lot for a tournament in our little country, and this year’s Nationals being held later in June are expected to pull at least 60 people from across the nation to vie for the title of New Zealand’s best.
Big events like this are less common outside Auckland, but Wellington and Christchurch both have regular weekly tournaments known as ranking battles or “ranbats” (players earn points on a ladder over the course of a season, depending on how they place each week). Aside from these more formal, structured tournaments, players in all the major centres often meet on an ad-hoc basis for casual gaming sessions, usually at someone’s house or, in the case of Auckland or Christchurch, at one of the few remaining TimeZone arcades.
Rumble and MEKA.Tt massi4h face off in the Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition grand final at First Blood 3. (Photo courtesy of arseynimz.com and standingfierce.com)
With the recent release of Injustice: Gods Among Us and Persona 4 Arena reigniting my love of fighting games, I decided to start going along to the Wellington ranbats. What I found was a smallish group of players and a whole lot of hype - the cheers and “ooohs” and “Wake up Ultra?! Really?!” make watching and playing exciting and intense, especially during the finals.
In between the cheers, those not playing can be seen discussing tactical details of the games, talking about the exploits of some of the New Zealand’s and the world’s top players, teaching new players, or otherwise just hanging out, talking shit, and having a good time.
Despite the warm atmosphere and friendliness of the players, everyone at the ranbats is there, first and foremost, to win; this is ultimately what separates the tournament player from ‘casual’ players who ‘play for fun’ without striving to master the game. Competitive players also play for fun, but for them, winning is the most fun part - Wellington ranbats regular Blackout captures it well with a line from the much loved Pokemon cartoon theme song: “I want to be the very best, like no one ever was”.
Jonny Brown, another regular who started playing Street Fighter IV just a couple of years ago and has quickly become one of Wellington’s (and indeed, the country’s) top players, expands on this by talking about the mindgames inherent in the genre.
“In fighters . . . you can actually teach the other person during the course of the match that 'at this point, I'm going to throw', then they Dragon Punch, and you didn't throw like they expected, you blocked. And you blow them up. It's godlike.”
Fighting games are so much more than about who has the biggest combos, they’re games of the mind, of being three steps ahead of your opponent at every turn. The intensity and excitement that comes with this is something that the casual, keep-no-scores, ‘playing for fun’ approach can never hope to emulate. The organiser of the Wellington ranbats, jsculls, puts it best: “The only time I've gotten butterflies in my stomach while playing games are while I've been playing fighting games.”
Some of Wellington’s fighting game community compete at the weekly ranbats.
If you’re interested in the becoming part of New Zealand’s fighting game community, the best place to start is at standingfierce.com. This is where the country’s fighting game community meets to discuss games, plan events, share usernames for online services like PSN and XBL. Join up and make yourself known, the community is very helpful and welcoming to new players! Wellingtonians, I look forward to seeing you soon at ranbats.