Photos by Robert Paul

Why Combo Breaker Is the Place to Fall in Love With Fighting Games

We head to the Midwest’s premier fighting game tournament to mingle with faithful fans and fighters.

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Jul 25 2017, 9:00pm

Photos by Robert Paul

It's 10PM, and I'm watching the Tekken 7 Grand Final at Combo Breaker, a fighting game tournament in St. Charles, Illinois. A mass of bodies sways behind me, hundreds of fellow spectators holding their own fightsticks and worn-down controllers. None of those controllers are being put to use right now—the entire event has come to a halt so everyone can watch South Korean teammates JDCR and Saint, both of whom represent the Echo Fox team, play out an epic encounter.

Kim "JDCR" Hyun Jin and Choi "Saint" Jin Woo are familiar with each other—both in terms of being professional acquaintances and in terms of fighting style. How their characters of choice dance and dash about the screen, one cancelling out the other, makes that obvious. When one of the two produces something spectacular, the other responds with something equally miraculous. In the moment there is only these two men, their sticks, and Tekken—everything else is a blur of background noise.

My growing fascination with esports, and their explosive growth in recent years, has brought me from Kansas City to see Combo Breaker, "a melting pot of games and competitors from all different titles under the fighting game genre," as one of its lead organizers, Rick Thiher, explains to me when I speak to him before the event. Fighting games are my point of entry into esports: I mean, I must have watched this video a thousand times.

But fighting games are, of course, just one side of a massively multifaceted esports scene, which is splintered into several assorted genres with a few massive franchises. It's hard to come to grips with it all, as every scene is constantly evolving via sequels and remakes, rebalancing updates, and meta-altering patches.

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For all that fragmentation, though, that the two Tekken 7 finalists represent Echo Fox is in some little way indicative of the profile esports finds itself enjoying today—the team is owned by former NBA player (and sometime actor) Rick Fox. Esports is something that people with no prior interest in video games are keen to invest in.

I arrive at Combo Breaker on its second day, joining a multinational crowd of spectators and competitors who've descended on this St. Charles suburb from as far away as Japan and South Korea. There are domestic attendees, too, who've made the journey from cities such as Los Angeles and New York, from both coasts. The unassuming Mega Center—a plain-looking block of a building backing onto a golf course—wears a banner bearing the tournament's motto: "No Coast, No Kings." The motto is indicative of the individual nature of this particular fighting games community.

"The motto is a play on 'No Gods, no masters,' which was originally a french slogan, 'Ni dieu ni maître,' meaning 'Neither God nor master,'" Thiher explains. "I'm familiar with it thanks to a high-school experience failing to learn French and reading too much Nietzsche."

"The Midwest, culturally, doesn't follow our scene's trends. Dead games live here. Celebrity privilege is ignored." — Rick Thiher

"Combo Breaker is neither a West Coast nor East Coast tournament, and therefore is not seen as the home of the FGC's [Fighting Game Community] more premier players or tournament series," he continues. "We've raised and serve no gods as a region. No kings. The Midwest, culturally, doesn't follow our scene's trends. Dead games live here. Vampire Savior thrives. Skullgirls stands tall. [Guilty Gear] Xrd has found hallowed ground. Celebrity privilege is ignored. No game is guaranteed a time slot and each tournament earns its prestige firstly from its player attendance. We put players before media, the stream, or the games themselves. All in, no masters but the people."

In other words: Whereas many an esports gathering promotes the elite and privileges heavily-sponsored games over fan favorites, Combo Breaker treats every player and game equally. If a game has fans, then it matters. If you can pay a small entry fee, you can challenge those who've become legends in their chosen disciplines. Legends like JDCR and Saint.

Walking into the cavernous convention hall for the first time, I'm greeted by the sound of hundreds of buttons being clicked, in time and out of it, to comprise a kind of plastic symphony. At the convention's head rests a large, neon-tinted stage with a fog machine piping away at the side. A man wearing an orange jersey and a blue fox tail brushes by me—later, I'd see that same man signing autographs and taking selfies with adoring fans.

Sonic Fox (center) watches CDMani congratulate another competitor at Combo Breaker.

His name is Dominique McLean, but most know him as Sonic Fox. He's a celebrity in the FGC. He took the pro scene by storm when he dominated Injustice and Mortal Kombat X, winning both disciplines at the EVO Championship Series of 2014 and 2015. He also perfectly illustrates the odd melting pot that is the fighting game community. There's no barrier, outfield wall, or security guard to tackle you before you can speak to your favorite player. Fans are players, and players are fans.

"I think, atmospherically, when you go to a football game or a baseball game the atmosphere is energetic but it's not always frenetic," Thiher explains. "You're there specifically to watch something, and your relationship with what you're watching is that you're a viewer. You're a fan of it, so you're trying to be entertained. But when you go to a competitive gaming convention, a lot of the people in the room can be fellow competitors, so they're engaged in a slightly different way."

Fighting games differ from other esports because of how close fans and fellow players get to the action. Most players will never set foot on the main stage, it's reserved for the best of the best. The tournament starts with everybody playing at small tables setup with monitors and cheap foldable chairs you'd find at AA meetings. People crowd players during these lower-level matches, especially if one of them is a star. Watching competitors up-close or commenting on their play mid-match is expected, bad etiquette or not. Personal space doesn't exist, regardless if you're a legend or a scrub. Robert Paul, an esports photographer who's covered more than 75 esports events, has experienced this first-hand.

"[This is] something you don't get to see in a lot other esports. A lot of events are invitational or online qualifiers. But with fighting games, everyone is out there." — Robert Paul

"I went down to New York City for an event there and I realized shortly after I arrived that I was watching a match next to Justin Wong," Paul tells me. "He was just standing and chilling with everybody else. Just hanging out, watching Street Fighter matches. That really struck me. Everybody there is kind of on the same footing, when it comes to how you perform in the game. It's something you don't get to see in a lot other esports. A lot of events are invitational or online qualifiers. But with fighting games, everyone is out there. Everyone starts from the same pools, the same brackets, as anybody else."

Watching Sonic Fox being bombarded with questions and requests for gameplay tips, I am reminded of the schoolyard, swapping secrets and pointers with classmates about Super Smash Brothers for the N64. Of course, what's different here is the hundreds of eyes staring at the competitors as they play—not to mention all the other viewers watching on streams.

Fighting game crowds get rowdy, as I soon learn, though to what extent varies depending on the title. Further flavor is added by the announcers whose background chatter picks apart every move seconds after it's made. The announcer's commentary is played over the venue's PA, so unless you wear headphones, you can hear them talk throughout the whole fight. Add in dramatic lighting, and fans, friends, or even members of your opponent's family chirping you, and you get the most anxiety inducing environment to play a video game in, at least that I've been witness to. Even watching, I almost felt like I needed to pop a Xanax. This is so far away from playing a couple rounds of Street Fighter over a few beers and some light banter.

There is a lot a stake for the high-level competitors; a whole lot of money, specifically. The top prize at this year's Combo Breaker for the recently released Injustice 2 game is $20,000—unsurprisingly, Sonic Fox takes it home. But that's petty cash compared to some other events. At EVO last year, the Killer Instinct pot was $53,000, and Street Fighter V's $100,000. Regardless of the amount, players enter determined to win whatever prize pool money is available in their respective games. But when they fail, which most do, there are other opportunities to make some green.

Related, on Waypoint: The Echo Fox Teamkill in 'Tekken 7' Was One of EVO's Best Moments

Being in the crowd is akin to going to a dog-track. Dollars exchange hands and side betting is rampant. Everything from "Who gets hit first?" to "Will the round timer end on an even number?" is up for wager. And the gamblers are a slice of the diverse fan community, as each game's supporter groups have quite distinct personalities.

Street Fighter fans assume the role of the loud jocks—here, at any rate. Each combo is greeted with the type of roar usually reserved for touchdowns, and they aren't afraid to tell you when you're being bodied. The Mortal Kombat crowd is a more contemplative and quiet group, ironically not in keeping with the in-your-face aesthetic of the game. There's little trash-talk and only masterful combos and juggles merit anything more than polite clapping. The game's signature feature, the fatality, is skipped for competition play—you already beat your opponent, no need to decapitate their character, too. Each group has its own unique chants and traditions. During the Tekken 7 finals, fans mimic the juggles with their own groans and grunts. However, no other group has as many traditions and quirks as the Skullgirls fanbase.

"If we were at home, I'd have just switched controllers. At home, I'd run through you." — A competitor gets salty at Combo Breaker

Released in 2015, Skullgirls 2nd Edition is a fast 2D fighting game that's based around a group of female fighters with special powers. This is its second year on the fighting game tour, with Combo Breaker being one of the few events where it's played on the main stage. At other events, Skullgirls is shoved into smaller rooms, or left out entirely. But game has an obsessively loyal following, which turns out for Combo Breaker. Fans wave signs, shout taunts, and even fling a few lightsabers in the air (one of which almost gives me a buzz cut). Someone in front obstructs my view with a large, homemade Magic: The Gathering card—the in-joke or community reference is lost on me, but points for effort.

"For whatever reason, the Midwest is very into Skullgirls. It's just sort of the highlight event for them," Paul tells me.

"Each [fan group] can be looked at as its own niche, with its own follow throughs," Thiher explains. "A big contemporary one for Street Fighter V right now is the character Karin. After her critical art, she has a laugh that she makes. When that laugh happens at most events, you're going to have the entire crowd replicating that laugh. For something like Mortal Kombat X, or even Tekken 7 too, you have characters that have juggle-based combos. So, they're going to keep hitting somebody in the air and you'll wind up with good chunks of the crowd chanting along with that going 'oof,' 'oof,' 'yo,' 'oof,' and just kind of making noises akin to the sound effects of the game."

Saint takes a moment to focus.

These raised emotions trickle into competitions. Big stage stars are typically reserved. Pro gamers like Saint and JDCR are the poster boys for this; they are capable of turning into robots when they need to, programmed to enter precise combos and execute exciting juggles. However, the lower you go in the tournament, the less composed things become. "Saltiness"—as in salty tears—is rampant. Complaints of lag, "cheap" or "unfair" characters, and outright cheating are trotted out. I witness one competitor complaining to a tournament official that his controller's left bumper isn't working.

"If we were at home, I'd have just switched controllers. At home, I'd run through you," he argues.

The complaint is no different to a basketball player shouting at a referee over a hard foul. It's a carefully crafted performance, complete with arm flailing, a temper tantrum, and a demonstration of the guilty button's "stickiness." It's well acted, but doesn't work. Like most, he'll go home empty handed.

There are no kings in this sport, just fans, on stage and off.

Watching competitor after competitor play, the diversity within the community is also striking. A lot of esports scenes in North America tend to be dominated by young white men, but that's not the case at Combo Breaker. The fans are a true amalgam of genders, races, and abilities, with energetic discussions and arguments conducted in English, Spanish, Japanese and Korean. Though these fans come from drastically different worlds, the language of fighting-game hype is universal.

Most inspiring (and frankly badass) out of all the competitors was Dayton Jones, better known as UAWheels. Jones has Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2 (SMA), causing him to require wheelchair assistance. In Killer Instinct, his main game, he's a combo master whose only limitation is how good his opponent is. Watching him feels like being in Rocky, cheering on a scrappy underdog who's proving everyone wrong.

Even Thiher, a professional who's been to countless events and spends most of Combo Breaker running around ensuring everything is going smoothly, stops to watch Wheels in the KI finals. He gloriously loses all sense of objectivity and joins the fans in their fervor. Wheels ultimately finishes in second place, but at the trophy ceremony he receives a louder round of applause than the champion.

Like Combo Breaker's motto, there are no kings in this sport, just fans, on stage and off. By the event's end, I grasp what's causing the people around me to cheer and wilt with every moment. During the Tekken 7 finals, I die with the crowd after each round, questioning how the match could get any better.

And when the round timer hits zero, and the match ends, I realize I'm not an observer anymore. I'm a fan.

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