Covid and competitive fighting games


It’s been a tough year to be a fighting game fan. 

Needless to say, it’s been a tough year for everyone. No one can predict a worldwide pandemic, however, what this has done in the realm of competitive fighting games has been quite interesting to say the least. For those interested in playing competitively, to the ones organizing tournaments, to those that are just trying to watch hype tournaments, it’s been a rather tumultuous adaptation process. Many organizers and companies have found themselves battling with these pandemic related problems up to this point. These times have made clear the issues with the online portion of many fighting games, as well as exemplifying the great successes in others, but has most of all put a spotlight on what needs to be done to improve. 

It’s safe to say that fighting games had not exactly prepared for a worldwide pandemic. The thing about fighting games is, for the most part, they’re designed primarily to be played offline. Tournaments are incredibly prevalent in fighting games, and many tournaments have been happening for decades, dating back as far as the earliest arcades. When playing video games online became more and more commonplace, online tournaments would come with them, but these were always considered something of an afterthought – never being treated with even a modicum of the seriousness that their offline counterparts garnered. This point of view has remained the case up to this point. There has never been much glory to be had in doing well in an online tournament.

This is due to the fact that fighting games online have, for the longest time, been rather lackluster in the netcode department, and don’t really emulate that offline experience very accurately. It’s incredibly noticeable when inputs feel sluggish, and in an environment where split second reactions play such a big part in the gameplay, it’s hard to argue the case that playing any fighting game online is equal to playing the same game offline. This was considered more forgivable a decade ago, where the technology simply wasn’t there yet, so this meant offline tournaments continued to be viewed as the main events, and this is the mindset that remained – even as the technology for online gaming got better and better over the years.

To briefly go into detail about the kind online technology fighting games use, there are two primary styles of netcode: Delay-based, and rollback. Most of the biggest fighting games to have released are on a delay-based netcode, and delay-based netcode has been what most games have been using since the early days of online fighting games. Rollback netcode has been a part of the conversation relatively recently, and as more and more games start to implement it, rollback is generally agreed upon to be the ideal netcode for fighting games to function under, due to how, in good conditions, good rollback can feel almost identical to offline gameplay.  

When it comes to tournaments, many of even the most popular Indie fighting games, with less exposure in tournaments compared to huge fighting games, rely on good netcode in order to have any hope of a strong playerbase. In a world that isn’t afflicted with a giant pandemic, it can be difficult for indie games to thrive competitively offline. These games have relied on a strong netcode to maintain a good competition accessible to everyone from anywhere in the world. In comparison, this has not been an absolute necessity for the established fighting games from more established gaming corporations, as offline tournaments will thrive for these games. As a result, online, delay-based netcodes in these games have always functioned under the idea that they’re “good enough.” They’re perfectly playable online to a casual audience, and the “hardcore” players will always gravitate to offline anyway.

With a pandemic however, this mindset doesn’t apply anymore. Offline isn’t exactly an option, so offline tournaments have no other option but to shut down – forcing tournament organizers to adapt and try to hold tournaments online. However, this has shown just how unprepared these games were for a fully online tournament experience. Tournaments are constantly held up by a multitude of issues, and these can vary wildly from game to game. The nature of playing these games online is unpredictable, where disconnections are rampant and lag is always a possible factor. Not even the ones broadcasting these events are safe, where at any moment they as spectators can be disconnected from the match. Even the most official tournaments that attempt to be hosted are hindered by these problems. 

This has put indie fighting games that have focused primarily on their games’ online in an interesting spot, as they have shown to have been more prepared for the online tournament realm than many of the major titles. For most of these games, they’re built with the idea that online play will be the primary area of competition. For this reason, when comparing indie games to major games, the indie games’ online tournaments are nearly always run much more smoothly than more major counterparts.

This has lit a noticeable fire under the proverbial behinds of fighting game developers; both major and independent. Namco developed an online patch for their fourth season that improved their netcode, and Arc System Works have just put through a major update for the Steam version of Guilty Gear XX Plus R that has completely revamped the online netcode from delay based to rollback. Games like Them’s Fightin’ Herds and mods like Slippi have had more eyes on them than ever with how successfully their online tournament series have gone, and have set an example of an ideal online experience. With every new fighting game on the horizon, the first thing audiences ask these days is if the online will be up to snuff, and developers are listening. 

While these times have been difficult for fighting games, there is reason to believe that there is a silver lining. Delay-based netcode is beginning to become a thing of the past, as most audiences are considering it an outdated concept. Once this pandemic is over, and offline tournaments can return, they may not be the only place for good fighting game action anymore, as online play gets closer and closer to the offline experience. Fighting games may be having difficulties now, but by the time we’re able to travel for those offline tournaments we missed so much, online tournaments may just have a place alongside them.