Street Fighter’s Shine on ESPN2.

 

    Finally.

 

    After all the hype died down and alcohol was out of my system, that was the first word that came to mind after ESPN 2’s broadcast of Evo’s Street Fighter V Grand Finals. Finally, after years of League of Legends, Dota 2, and Counter-Strike dominating the scene, an eSport was presented to the mainstream that made sense. Everyone understands a fight, no explanation necessary. Beat the other guy up more, you win. We’ve been doing it since our siblings were born.

    I was pretty amped to watch Evo. I told friends. I told my girlfriend’s family. They didn’t care. I kept telling them anyways. I had been keeping track of matches here and there on Twitch, but the ESPN announcement had me really curious. I mean it’s ESPN, everyone has a pretty solid idea of how their broadcasts go, but would they really take it as serious as they do football and baseball? It was a coin-toss.

    Then Bill Walton showed up out of nowhere hyped as all hell.

 

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Click the pic to see for yourself.

Even his buddies can’t believe it.

 

    For those not in the know, Bill Walton is an NBA Hall of Famer who was also voted one of the top 50 greatest basketball players ever. Sports fans know this guy. It was an obvious play to try to convince traditional sports fans that Street Fighter really is legit, but he really seemed like he was enjoying himself. He was enthusiastic, informed, and honest about the business incentive involved. This was ESPN saying to their typical viewers “Yea, seriously. You should watch this.”

    So there I was, beer in one hand, beer in the other. Case on the table. SPORTS!

     As the broadcast fired up we were immediately greeted with Mike Ross and Seth Killian giving the play by play and color commentary, with Ryan ‘Gootecks’ Gutierrez running around on interviews wearing the snazziest suit on television.

 

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    Solid move on ESPN’s part. These guys have been involved in the Street Fighter scene for years and know their shit. Mike Ross is a well known YouTube personality within the fighting game community, placed 4th at Evo 2010, and hosts Capcom’s weekly ‘Capcom Pro Talk’ show on Twitch. Seth Killian has been in the Street Fighter scene from day 1. He actually worked on the team that made Street Fighter IV, and has been involved in the development of several fighting games since. For Street Fighter fans, this was the moment we knew ESPN wasn’t half-assing it. Honestly, I was hoping for James Chen, but he took care of play by play for Twitch and Mandalay Bay, so I couldn’t complain.

     I forgot to mention that the Grand Finals were held in the Mandalay Bay Events Center. You know what says legit? Grand Finals in one of the most recognized sports venues in the world. It was freaking packed, and the crowd was off their rockers excited. It was the excitement that Pacquiao v. Mayweather should’ve had, but with better fights. Because in Street Fighter, you actually have to damage your opponent. You have to move forward! YOU ACTUALLY HAVE TO FIGHT MAYWEATHER! I wish I could’ve taken my PPV money from that bout and thrown it at ESPN. Goddamit.

 

Check out the full Grand Finals broadcast.

 

     Lucky for ESPN, there was at least one American left in the field. Nothing is better than rooting for the hometown hero, and this surely helped retain viewers. Those of us in the know would’ve had no problem watching international players go head-to-head, but had no Americans qualified curious viewers would’ve been less likely to hang around for the show. But there he was, with a Nash full of freedom and apple pie, ready to represent everyone watching at home.

    So after the obligatory Bruce Buffer-ish fighter intros, we got underway with Fuudo and MOV. Did I mention my girlfriend was watching with me? My girlfriend was watching with me. I know, I’m a lucky guy. Unless Clash Royale qualifies her as a gamer, she’s completely outside the gamersphere. Perfect subject to see what a casual viewer would think.

    The first event was filled with me giving 90 mph explanations to my girlfriend that she did not ask for. I would excitedly “oooh!” and “ahh!” and “What are you doing?! That doesn’t work on wakeup!”, then furiously text my brother who was also watching in South Carolina.

     But you know what? After a couple matches of yelling in her ear, she did start to ask. Why was that smart? What’s a frame trap? Why does everyone pick Nash? She didn’t understand it all, but she was pulled in. Character repetition was something I thought might make the broadcast boring to the casual viewer, but she didn’t mind. She only disliked Nash because of his play style. To her he was too defensive, weaving in and out around midrange. She preferred watching Mika because she went ham the whole match. I think she just liked her outfit. She won’t admit it, but she’s definitely an ass-girl.

 

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     Even weeks later I get shakes talking about it. Let’s get to the excitement! The third match was LI Joe vs Eita, the moment American fans had been waiting for. He had been a solid player for years, but no one could have predicted a top 8 performance out of him. Unfortunately, the presentation started off a bit rocky. Eita was announced, but someone told the wrong guys to get ready. Goichi had been standing in the entranceway, waiting to head to the stage. He looked like a deer in headlights when Eita’s name blared out of the speakers. It was made even more awkward by the camera staying glued to him looking back and forth, trying to figure out what to do. Then out of nowhere Eita rockets down walkway right past Goichi fist-pumping to the crowd. I had flashbacks of Jim Duggan storming out to the ring. It was the only shaky moment of the presentation, but they seemed to recover well. LI Joe swaggered out next to chants of “USA! USA!”, signature pink JanSport in tow. The stage was set.

    And holy shit, the match delivered.

 

Match of the night.

 

    It was the de facto moment of the night. If you haven’t watched the match, fix that. Fix it now. We’re talking the type of game sports diehards dream of. Momentum constantly changing, smart surprise plays, nonstop action, a crowd on the verge of orgasm, and a finale that came down to a split second clutch decision. It’s at the top of every top Evo moment video on YouTube. LI Joe wins in dramatic fashion, and everyone in attendance collectively loses their shit. Joe didn’t know it, but his dad had flown out from New York just to watch him play. Ryan Gutierrez had a great interview with Joe and his father afterwards, who everyone dubbed LI Dad. The crowd was even chanting it. Sports fans eat this stuff up.

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Click the picture to see some daddy love.

Daddy Joe! Daddy Joe! Daddy Joe!

 

    This match proved to me that fighting games as an eSport have an appeal outside the main audience. My girlfriend didn’t know what any of the information on the screen meant outside of the timer and health bar. She didn’t need to, and that’s what I think gives Street Fighter (and other fighting games) more potential as an eSport than just about any other. She could continue watching with her basic understanding, or she could really dig in and learn the ins and outs of the terminology, strategy, and techniques involved. Try saying that about League of Legends, or DotA, or even Counter-Strike for that matter. I’ve played several hours of DoTA matches myself and I have a hard time understanding what’s happening in pro matches. The constant camera changes alone are enough to drive someone crazy. The barrier for entry as a viewer in Street Fighter is waaaaay lower than those games. The most confusing part for her was how resetting the bracket works, but that’s tournament format outside the game itself. She has a point there…it’s odd.

    The rest of the night went great. It was sad to see LI Joe lose to Yukadon, but the crowd cheered for both players and gave Joe another round of support. Everyone stayed energized through the Grand Final, with Infiltration continuing the tournament dominance he started towards the end of Ultra Street Fighter 4. His “Download Complete” closing got a rise out of everyone. Start to finish it was thrilling stuff and well done by ESPN. My girlfriend enjoyed something she would’ve never sought out herself and I got to resolve childhood issues by calling my parents about a televised video game tournament. I could’ve done something with my life! But nooooooo, instead I had to serve in the Navy and get a college degree, like an adult.

Glad I didn’t have to buy him a new pair of pants.    

 

     So after I got over my hangover, I was left to think about what had just happened. Had the hard work the FGC put in since Evo Moment 37 paid off? The results were positive to the tune of nearly two million unique viewers (not taking into account Twitch views). I don’t know what that means for the company, but I have to think that’s encouraging to ESPN internal. Someone high five Bill Walton. Or fistbump rather. He’s 6’11”, I don’t want to be responsible for someone pulling a hammie. It was a helluva way for the FGC to bust out of the cable sports gate.

     There’s definitely room for improvement though. As good a job as I think Mike and Seth did walking the casual/hardcore tightrope with their commentary, it sometimes seemed a bit too basic. Infographics also need to be a bit more detailed with their content. We should hopefully get to see them improve in the coming months. There’s still several large tournaments left in the year including the official Capcom Cup.

     So get hype, tune in, and wave your giant “Karin #1 Waifu” foam hand with pride. Grab a stick or a gamepad and pick up the game while you’re at it. Anyone can play, anyone can sign up for a tournament. That’s why Shoryuken sounds like ‘sure you can’.

 

    Dad jokes are a plague on mankind and I apologize.

 


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