Smash and FGC: Understanding the Lines Between 2 Neighboring Communities

A look into the history and sociology behind the scenes
By on October 2, 2019

One of the most significant strengths of the Fighting Game Community (FGC) is its natural diversity. This applies to demographics, but it also applies to the games themselves. Indeed, the FGC features such a broad array of games that the landscape is practically dizzying: there are 2-D fighters and 3-D fighters; single-character fighters, tag-team fighters, and sequential-team fighters; fighters that let you play as comic-book heroes and fighters that let you play as horror-movie villains; and so on. The beauty of the FGC is that all of these different standards coexist companionably under a single, unified banner – at least, for the most part.

Many people (from casual fans all the way up to professionals) play only on one game or one type of game. Thus there are relatively distinct sub-communities within the FGC: the NRS community, which focuses on Mortal Kombat and Injustice titles; or the anime community, which includes franchises like Guilty Gear, BlazBlue, and Under Night In-Birth. These various branches of the FGC are not only natural, they’re healthy for the overall FGC in that they each contribute unique and compelling ideas, attitudes, and opportunities.

However, there are also some tensions between groups, none more prominent than the ones surrounding the Super Smash Bros. community and its place within the FGC. Notably, these tensions reside primarily at the community level and not at the esports level. Smash games have established themselves as regular features of fighting game tournaments, up to and including the Evolution Championship Series, and Smash is included as a fighting game by authoritative sources both inside the FGC (such as Shoryuken, EventHubs, and this website) and outside of it (such as Wikipedia). Yet despite these official endorsements of the franchise’s place in the FGC, “Is Smash a fighting game?” is a question that even today inspires YouTube videos, opinion pieces, and seemingly interminable debate in community forums.

The question is not an academic one. It has real-life consequences and is grounded in real-life phenomena, such as the cross-game registration statistics for Evo 2019. As calculated by Shoryuken, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate had by far the lowest crossover numbers of any main-stage title this year:

Indeed, as One Frame Link added, “since Evo 2017 the top five tournaments with the highest unique entrants were all Smash”:

Numbers, however, cannot tell a story by themselves. Do these statistics show a schism between the Smash community and the rest of the FGC? Do they reveal a permanent incompatibility between the two groups? Or are they, instead, only temporary, an accident of circumstance? To begin to answer these questions, let’s turn to the histories of the FGC and the Smash community.

A Brief History

The jumping-off point for the FGC was the 1991 release of Street Fighter II. That game’s legacy, however, has overshadowed the fact that a wealth of other classic fighters were released shortly thereafter: Mortal Kombat in ‘92, Virtua Fighter and Samurai Shodown in ‘93, Tekken and King of Fighters in ‘94, and Soul Edge (a.k.a Soul Blade, the first game in the SoulCailbur series) in ‘95. SF2 may have set the bar, but these other titles quickly reinforced that existing archetype and drew lines around what was considered possible for a fighting title.

The game that started all this fighting

In particular, all of these titles had three notable things in common:

  • Victory was achieved primarily by (and game play was primarily oriented towards) reducing the opponent’s health bar to zero.
  • Whether armed or unarmed, characters’ move sets were clearly inspired by traditional martial arts and other real-life forms of combat.
  • All of the games were released into arcades. As a result, even when they were ported to home consoles, the traditional way to participate was to travel to an arcade and compete on shared joystick-and-button hardware.

With the groundwork thus laid, it took almost no time at all for a community to form around fighting games. Battle by the Bay, the forerunner to Evo, debuted in 1996, a scant five years after SF2’s launch. Even then, the tournament had international attendance, which shows the extent to which the culture of the overall FGC was already gelling.

The FGC had already developed enough as a culture to have its own lore and its own legends by the time the first Super Smash Bros. was released in 1999. Only the year before, two of these legends, Alex Valle and Daigo Umehara, provided the FGC with a prototype of the landmark moments that were to come. The two met in the finals of the World Championship of Street Fighter Alpha 3, and their match laid the groundwork for the Japan-versus-USA rivalry that would drive the FGC for years to come.

The Alpha 3 championship also stayed true to the model of the FGC that had remained unchallenged since ‘91: the game featured a health bar, its characters used recognizable martial-arts techniques, and the event itself took place in a public arcade using cabinet-style hardware.

The following year, when the first Smash game was released, it departed in many ways from the norm that had been established in the FGC. It had a percentage counter rather than a health bar, its attacks were only occasionally realistic, and it bypassed arcades by going straight to the Nintendo 64, a home console. At the time, this meant relatively little – as with the Street Fighter series, serious competition didn’t arise in the Smash series until its second title, Super Smash Bros. Melee. In other words, the original Smash was not a contender for entry into the FGC in the first place and so generated no controversy. Nevertheless, its differences set the stage for the conflicts that exist today.

Smash’s 4 player fighting was revolutionary

Consider, for instance, the fact that the Melee scene came into its own in 2002. At that time, Evo was still running on arcade cabinets. Melee, a GameCube-exclusive title, was therefore disqualified from being featured at the event. When Evo finally did switch to console hardware two years later, the decision was met with contention on the grounds that it contravened the arcade-centered traditions of the FGC. The uproar within the community was so intense that it even drew the attention of large media outlets like GameSpot. Still, despite the switch to console hardware, a Smash title would not be included in Evo until 2007.

Meanwhile, in the years between Melee’s release and its first Evo, its competitive scene had itself grown to international levels and had even witnessed five-figure payouts thanks to its association with Major League Gaming. (Interestingly, when Melee was featured in the first-ever MLG championship in 2004, it appeared alongside SoulCalibur II.) At the same time that the traditional FGC was assembling its own history, its own establishment, and its own heroes, the Smash community was doing the same. Where sites like Shoryuken and EventHubs catered to fans of Street Fighter, Tekken, and the like, Smashboards provided a similar service for Smash fans. Streamers and commentators likewise grew to prominence within one group or another but seldom (or never) both. And by 2008, Smash was able to answer the five Japanese gods of fighting games (Daigo, Onuki, Haitani, Sako, and Tokido) with five gods of its own (Armada, Hungrybox, Mango, Mew2King, and PPMD).

The two communities continued to come closer over time, as various Smash titles were featured more and more often at mainstream fighting game tournaments and vice versa – although with no help from Nintendo, which actually threatened legal action against Evo in 2013 before backing down. Every year from 2015 through 2018, Smash even had the honor of seeing two of its titles on the Evo main stage; and, in 2019, Smash Ultimate was far and away the largest event at the world’s fighting game championships.

Yet the increasing collaboration between the traditional FGC and the Smash community has not resulted in a full integration. For one thing, prominent members of both groups have committed more than enough transgressions – and rank-and-file members of both groups have displayed more than enough toxicity – to tarnish their communities’ reputations. Further, on an organizational level, many mainline FGC events feature Smash either irregularly or not at all, and there are still many Smash events that have no other meaningful FGC representation. At the highest levels of competition, there are precious few top players who cross the gap between Smash and the rest of the FGC. And, as already mentioned above, at a population level there is still relatively little cross-pollination between those inside and those outside the Smash community.

Belonging and Bias

Why do these matching histories matter? Because, as William Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Even today, there are any number of ways in which the Smash community and the rest of the FGC continue to live out their distinct histories. For example, in the Smash community, the period before a match during which the competitors validate their hardware and prepare themselves mentally is known as a “handwarmer.” In the rest of the FGC, it’s a “button check.” Similarly, the main body of the FGC refers to non-tournament matches as “casuals,” whereas they’re known as “friendlies” among Smash players.

Controllers are also mutually exclusive: one and the same joystick or pad can be used to play any number of traditional FGC titles, but the same hardware won’t work for Smash. (Even Hitbox, the unorthodox third-party maker of button-only controllers, has one design that’s meant for Smash and another for the rest of the FGC.) The same goes for consoles: Smash is only playable on Nintendo systems, but no other major fighting games are played on Nintendo consoles.

The aesthetics are markedly different as well. Attack and hit animations in Smash are purposefully cartoonish, whereas most other fighters maintain at least some degree of viscerality or realism. Consider also the post-match screens from Melee (left) and SF2 (right):

The losing character in Smash is not only whole and healthy, they actually applaud the winner. In sharp contrast, the winning character in SF2 openly mocks the losing character, who is visibly battered and often bloody. Moreover, SF2 is hardly the most extreme example. There are far more brutal design choices in Samurai Shodown, Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct, and the like.

Guile adding salt to the injury

These differences may seem shallow and superficial – and, in a sense, they are. Yet because of the way that human beings are put together, this is also precisely why they’re so potent. “The connection people feel to cultural objects that are symbolically theirs, because they were produced from within a world of meaning created by their ancestors – the connection to art through identity – is powerful,” says the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. When we gaze upon an accomplishment belonging to our group (such as, for example, the crowning of a fighting game champion), Appiah says that we feel something like this: “I [may] not have those skills, [but] that potential is also in me.”

This same sense of participating in group achievements can be said for the entire “symbolic sphere of our existence – exemplified by religion and ideology, language and art,” as the sociologist Johann Galtung puts it. Yet Galtung hastens to add that this symbolic sphere acts as a dual guide, forming “sharp and value-loaded dichotomies” between “Self and Other.” The early arcade culture in the FGC is a good example, as early arcades were rife with unique symbols and rituals: the line of quarters placed on an arcade cabinet to represent the upcoming challengers, the fact that the games allowed the winner of a match to continue playing, the ability for the game to switch instantly between one- and two-player modes, the ubiquitous “here comes a new challenger” screens, and so on. Both individually and collectively, these elements served as identity-making cultural touchstones. Smash, by contrast, had none of these things: there were no quarters or cabinets, the game did not enforce a winner-stays-on dynamic, there was no easy way to switch between single- and multiplayer modes, and so on.

Whether they be positive or negative, these powerful emotional connections happen far too quickly to be the result of careful reflection. “We are able to communicate with each other because our knowledge of the world and our use of words are largely shared,” explains Nobel-prize-winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman. “We have,” in other words, “norms for a vast number of categories, and these norms provide the background for the immediate detection of anomalies” – “immediate,” in this case, meaning within two-tenths of a second. This explains why taunting in a fighting game is often effective. By default, the norm is that both players approach one another with the respectful and earnest desire to test their skills against the other. As such, when one of them performs an in-game taunt, the other player immediately senses a violation of a norm and experiences the strong emotional responses that accompany such violations. Notably, this is another area in which Smash and the traditional FGC differ. Taunts have become somewhat normalized within the Smash community, in part by the “taunt to get-bodied” meme, which is a joking acknowledgement of the fact that a taunt in Smash is often immediately followed by the loss of a stock. By contrast, every single taunt in the traditional fighting game remains a major departure from the established norms.

Taunt at your own risk of getting bodied

As proof of the fact that our immediate reactions to such violations are less than rational, consider the work of Dan Ariely, a cognitive psychologist and scholar of business. Ariely has tested various biases empirically in groups and in individuals, including a series of studies that he ran in order to determine “how important [it is] for us to come up with an idea, or at least to feel that it is ours, in order to value it.” These studies found evidence of a cognitive heuristic known as the not-invented-here bias: “The principle,” Ariely explains, “is basically this: ‘If I (or we) didn’t invent it, then it’s not worth much.” (It could equally well be called George Carlin syndrome: “Have you noticed,” the famous comedian once joked, “that their stuff is s**t and your s**t is stuff?”) Crucially, Ariely found that this bias exists even when the “Self” group and the “Other” group arrive at literally the exact same product or idea, as the FGC and the Smash communities have with “casuals” and “friendlies.”

This neatly ties Appiah, Galtung, and Kahneman together, and it also helps to explain why surface-level cultural differences have made such a large difference in the way that the Smash community and the broader FGC perceive one another. As we’ve seen, the two communities grew out of histories that diverged just enough to create superficially distinct norms. Because of these superficial differences, large swaths of both groups characterized one another as anomalous – that is, as valueless (or, at least, less valuable) Others. Thus, even though it’s nearly impossible to find any deeply substantive differences between the two groups, we’ve arrived at a point where the mainline FGC and the Smash community have both developed their own identities and then used those identities to fortify the line that keeps them at arms’ length from one another.

Hidden Similarities

But what about the games themselves? Here again, the surface differences conceal many more underlying similarities than a casual observer might guess. In Smash, players block by pressing a button rather than by holding back on the joystick – which, as it happens, has been true in the Mortal Kombat and SoulCalibur franchises since day one. The stock system in Smash is also not entirely new or unique: similar systems were used in Killer Instinct (starting in 1994), Darkstalkers 3 (1997), and Injustice (starting in 2013).

Smash games feature stages that are not only visually different but also functionally different, which sets them apart from many other fighters – but which, at the same time, puts them right alongside venerable franchises like Tekken and Dead or Alive. Directional Influence, the defensive mechanic by which Smash players can escape combos and survive heavy hits, was also not original or unique to Smash. It was one of the less-known features in 1998’s SoulCalibur, a strategy guide for which called it “aerobatics” and promised that it would allow players to avoid “an infinite combo or an instant ring out.”

Smash may have had some inspiration from this innovative fighter

Speaking of ring-outs, Smash is not entirely unique there, either. Virtua Fighter and the SoulCalibur series (among others) were experimenting with ring-outs long before Smash came onto the scene. Yes, Smash reversed the focus of those games so that damage was only a means towards sending the opposing character to the blast zone (i.e., achieving a ring-out), but such reversals and shifts in emphasis are ubiquitous in the FGC. Most Street Fighter games prioritize grounded play over aerial attacks, but many anime titles reverse those priorities. Games like Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 heavily emphasize long combos over isolated hits, whereas games like the new Samurai Shodown do precisely the opposite. In short, although the blast-zone system is by far the most significant mechanical innovation in Smash, even it is not the radical departure that some make it out to be.

Thus, as in the social and aesthetic realms, Smash and the rest of the FGC share far more in terms of gameplay than they differ in that respect. Of course, this is not to say that Smash is interchangeable with any other fighting game series or that there are no differences at all. It’s simply to say that Smash is a shining example of the FGC’s natural diversity, not an alien presence that has somehow infiltrated the FGC. Public spats between the two may sometimes make it seem otherwise, but, when closely examined, those disagreements call to mind the famous Emo Philips joke about religion:

Rather than using our few small differences as an excuse to push one another around, surely it would be better to lift each other up on the basis of the many important things we have in common.

Hands Across the FGC

Social divisions are notoriously difficult to heal. Yet differences can be overcome and change can happen. Think back to the arguments that were made against the use of consoles at Evo 2004. Nowadays, such contentions seem absurd: console competition is normal for us now, and we know that it would be outrageous to demand that major tournaments rent, maintain, transport, and operate hundreds of full-size arcade cabinets. This cultural shift towards accepting console hardware shows that it’s entirely possible for us to close the remaining rifts between the Smash community and the broader FGC.

In part this can be achieved by modeling openness and cooperation. Inter-community wariness can also be overcome by creating neutral ground on which everyone can safely meet, which Tommy Ingersoll of Toledo, Ohio does by running low-stakes mystery-game tournaments that are free to enter. These and other techniques take time and effort, but they help to make the FGC a more dynamic and more uplifting place.

The temptation to tear others down is strong. As social animals, we seek continuity and familiarity, and we’re quick to seize on any slight departure from the norms we know. Reaching across these norms, as the Smash community and the broader FGC have done, causes discomfort and uneasiness. Yet despite these obstacles, both groups have been strengthened by their growing partnership, and they will be strengthened even further as their relationship becomes less tentative and more trusting. With any luck it won’t be long before the artificial boundaries between the two have been erased and we all celebrate one another and enjoy fighting games together.

Eli Horowitz (@BODIEDnovel) is a writer, fighting game fanatic, and software professional who lives in Pittsburgh. He would like to thank @Toomnyusernae, @KenstarFGC, @KoolOriBro, and @bmiller483 for their contributions to this article.

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