From Niche to Thriving: The Fighting Game Renaissance

Femi Famutimi, a Street Fighter specialist and journalist at fighting game hub DashFight, writes for Esports Insider to discuss the renewed optimism surrounding fighting games going into 2024.

Dashfight FGC
Image credit: DashFight

The history of fighting games is a long and colourful one, as a result, the genre has endured for over 30 years till this very day. The phrase ‘fighting game renaissance’ has been bandied about quite a bit, but I should preface this by saying that fighting games will probably never hit mainstream popularity in the way they did when they were first introduced. 

Today, Street Fighter 6, Mortal Kombat 1 and Tekken 8 are believed to be the games leading the charge for a brave new world for fighting games. Street Fighter 6 has been attracting encouraging numbers with an average of 20,000 players on Steam (which doesn’t count console players), and its sales aren’t doing too badly either, selling over two million copies as of October and being the highest-selling game on Steam in Japan back in September. Mortal Kombat 1 is also thriving as it is believed the game has already sold over 3m copies so far. 

This resurgence can be attributed to a variety of reasons, which we will be talking about here. But first, to appreciate the path fighting games are on, we must examine what made them such a novelty in the first place. 

Starting with a Bang

Fighting games have been around since the 1970s but really started hitting the mainstream in the late 80s and early 90s. It is impossible to talk about the rise of fighting games without mentioning Capcom’s seminal work— Street Fighter II. It is here that I think we can extrapolate some of the reasons why fighting games were mainstream at the time as opposed to other games. In a broad sense, fighting games were popular because they were doing things that weren’t common at the time. 

Using Street Fighter II as an example, the game led to a fair few ‘firsts’ in the gaming scene. For one, it changed the way people played as Street Fighter can be credited with forcing the need for a 6-button controller which wasn’t the norm before Street Fighter hit the arcades and later, home consoles. 

It also had gorgeous graphics compared to what was available at the time. While Street Fighter II was not the first game to use 16-bit graphics (that was Hang-On), it pushed what graphics could do at the time. The same can be said for Mortal Kombat which came out in 1992 and was using what was then some pretty advanced technology. 

The diverse cast and competitive nature of these fighting games were a great boost for the genre in the 90s and, in an era when storytelling was nowhere as important as it is now, many of the things fighting games brought to the table made them mainstream successes. 

This led to movie adaptations which, while not the pinnacle of filmmaking (the 1994 Street Fighter movie script was written in under 24 hours), did lead to recognition. Street Fighter was a global phenomenon and it paved the way for more fighting games and a stay of execution on arcades which experienced a second wave of popularity in the early/mid 90s. 

But, after reaching a crest, there was an inevitable decline.

Fighting Game Community
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The Dark Ages

The Dark Ages is also a term you might have heard relating to fighting games. To understand why the recent fascination with fighting games is so exciting, it is necessary to understand why things went so bad. 

By the late 90s and early 2000s, fighting game fatigue was beginning to set in. Games weren’t selling as well, releases weren’t great, and more modern games were leaving the fighting genre behind. One of the biggest contributors to the decline of fighting games was the death of the arcade. This is a topic that has been covered to death, but suffice to say, fighting games and arcades thrived on one thing — community. With this gone, fighting games were almost done away with. 

There was a resurgence in 2009 with the release of Street Fighter IV, but in hindsight, it simply took fighting games from a state of death to survival. I would argue that fighting games never really left the dark ages, but simply lowered expectations, and an acceptance of the label of ‘niche’ made things a lot more bearable for the community and those who loved the genre. 

It’s interesting to note that a lot of the things that caused the fighting game dark ages were the very things that had brought fighting games to the fore. It seems the problem was an unwillingness to innovate and do something different. The graphics of fighting games, which had been a strength, were suddenly paling in comparison to what some other titles were doing. Making matters worse, the landscape of online video games gripped the world and fighting games were left behind.

Fighting games were the original esports, and to see them left behind by newer titles stung — but there is some hope as the latest iterations of the legendary titles and the rise of some games that were considered niche are providing concrete hope for the fighting game community (FGC).

Fighting Game symbolism
Image credit: Shutterstock

Are Fighting Games Great Again?

Well, were fighting games ever not great? The medium has always held a special place in the hearts of millions of fans all around the world. The fighting games that have come out in recent years have been much vaunted with Guilty Gear -STRIVE- and Street Fighter 6 in particular getting praise for excellent online capabilities. 

I guess the real question is: why are fighting games great again? The thing is, it seems fighting games’ biggest problem was that at some point, it accepted its place as a small corner of the gaming market and tried to lean into that. That’s the only thing that makes sense as a lot of the decisions around the making of fighting games still anticipated a close-knit community that would come and play games at the local in-person tournaments and make something of a splash at Evo. 

Fighting games continued to use outdated netcode, tried to be more tailored towards esports, and looked to appease their hardcore audience. But then something happened that, while tragic, caused gains that we are perhaps benefitting from today: we were hit by a pandemic.

Many detailed articles have been written on the cataclysmic effects of this global phenomenon on humanity. But for fighting games, it might have been a wake-up call. Suddenly, even the numbers at Evo, CEO, Combo Breaker, and other beloved tournaments that kept fighting games relevant, were gone. Events were cancelled, people were stuck at home, and with poor netcode, folks just weren’t playing fighting games as much. 

But in the midst of that, fighting games decided to change things up and fix the issues that had plagued them for years. Chief among them was the netcode and it was a pleasant surprise when Capcom announced that Street Fighter 6 would be running on rollback netcode from the get-go. For the uninitiated, rollback netcode is a communication system for online gaming. It is especially useful in fighting games which rely on quick reflexes and can move at breakneck speed. Rollback netcode predicts what a player is going to do and presents that action to the opponent allowing for a smoother gameplay experience.

People were rightly excited about Street Fighter 6 as it provided the best things of the early days; familiar characters and impressive music mixed with some innovations like single-player content, which until then was only really being done by Mortal Kombat (it’s no surprise that there is a huge casual audience around it) and more accessibility than any Street Fighter game has had till date. 

Another reason fighting games are making a comeback is the lowered bar of entry. This might be controversial, but the fighting game community prides itself in its high skill ceiling meaning that to hone skill in fighting games takes dedication. So, any attempt to water things down is seen as unpopular. Street Fighter 6 made the decision to introduce Modern controls and Dynamic controls to make the game easier for less skilled individuals to get into. While very unpopular in some sections, it has without a doubt caused more people to at least want to pick up a fighting game. 

The fighting game renaissance is reflected in the numbers. Evo recorded a record number of attendees in 2023 with many of them being first-timers. Netcode is great, Mortal Kombat 1 has already won an award and Tekken 8 is looking so good. With the promise of video game giant Riot Games making its own fighting game, the future looks nothing but bright for the fighting game community. 

DashFight is an esports media company focused on the fighting game community. Founded three years ago, DashFight’s coverage of 15 major fighting games is read by more than four million readers yearly.

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