On February 16, Street Fighter V will launch on PlayStation 4 and PC. It will not be launching to Xbox One thanks to an exclusivity deal signed with Sony. And as Capcom director of brand marketing and eSports Matt Dahlgren told GamesIndustry.biz recently, there are a few reasons for that.
Dahlgren called the deal "the largest strategic partnership that fighting games have ever seen," and said it addressed several problems the publisher has had surrounding its fighting games for years.
"Basically every SKU of a game we released had its own segmented community," he said. "No one was really able to play together and online leaderboards were always segmented, so it was very difficult to find out who would be the best online and compare everybody across the board."
"A lot of the other eSports games out there are team-based, and while there's an appeal to those, there's something about having a single champion and having that 1v1 showdown that's just inherently easy for people to understand."
Street Fighter V should alleviate that problem as it's only on two platforms, and gamers on each will be able to play with those on the other. Dahlgren said it will also help salt away problems that stemmed from differences between platforms. For example, the Xbox 360 version of Street Fighter IV had less input lag than the PS3 version. That fraction of a second difference between button press and action on-screen might have been unnoticeable to most casual players, but it was felt by high-level players who know the game down to the last frame of animation.
"There were varying degrees of input lag, so when those players ended up playing each other, it wasn't necessarily on an equal playing field," Dahlgren said. "This time around, by standardizing the platform and making everyone play together, there will be a tournament standard and everyone is on an equal playing field."
Finally, Dahlgren said the deal with Sony will help take Street Fighter to the next level when it comes to eSports. In some ways, it's a wonder it's not there already.
"I think fighting games are one of the purest forms of 1v1 competition," Dahlgren said. "A lot of the other eSports games out there are team-based, and while there's an appeal to those, there's something about having a single champion and having that 1v1 showdown that's just inherently easy for people to understand."
Street Fighter has a competitive gaming legacy longer than League of Legends or DOTA, but isn't mentioned in the same breath as those hits on the eSports scene. In some ways, that legacy might have stymied the franchise's growth in eSports.
"A lot of our community was really built by the fans themselves," Dahlgren said. "Our tournament scene was built by grassroots tournament organizers, really without the help of Capcom throughout the years. And I would say a lot of those fans have been somewhat defensive [about expanding the game's appeal to new audiences]. It hasn't been as inclusive as it could have been. With that said, I do definitely feel a shift in our community. There's always been a talking point with our hardcore fans as to whether or not Street Fighter is an eSport, and what eSports could do for the scene. Could it potentially hurt it? There's been all this controversy behind it."
Even Capcom has shifted stances on how to handle Street Fighter as an eSport.
"In the past, we were actually against partnering up with any sort of corporations or companies out there that were treating eSports more like a business," Dahlgren said. "And that has to do out of respect for some of our long-term tournament organizers... Our fear was that if we go out and partner up with companies concerned more about making a profit off the scene instead of the values that drive the community, then it could end up stomping out all these tournament organizers who are very passionate and have done so much for our franchise."
"In the past, we were actually against partnering up with any sort of corporations or companies out there that were treating eSports more like a business."
So instead of teaming with the MLGs or ESLs of the world, Capcom teamed with Twitch and formed its own Pro Tour in 2014. Local tournament organizers handle the logistics of the shows and retain the rights to their brands, while Capcom provides marketing support and helps with production values.
"I can't say Capcom wouldn't partner up with some of the other, more established eSports leagues out there," Dahlgren said. "I do think there's a way to make both of them exist, but our priority in the beginning was paying homage to our hardcore fans that helped build the scene, protecting them and allowing them to still have the entrepreneurial spirit to grow their own events. That comes first, before partnering with larger organizations."
Just as Capcom's stance toward tournaments has changed to better suit Street Fighter's growth as an eSport, so too has the business model behind the game. The company has clearly looked at the success of many free-to-play eSports favorites and incorporated elements of them (except the whole "free-to-play" thing) into Street Fighter V. Previously, Capcom would release a core Street Fighter game, followed by annual or bi-annual updates with a handful of new fighters and balancing tweaks. Street Fighter V will have no such "Super" versions, with all new content and tweaks made to the game on a rolling basis.
"We are treating the game now more as a platform and a service, and are going to be continually adding new content post-launch," Dahlgren said. "This is the first time we're actually having our own in-game economy and in-game currency. So the more you play the game online, you're going to generate fight money, and then you can use that fight money to earn DLC content post-launch free of charge, which is a first in our franchise. So essentially we're looking at an approach that takes the best of both worlds. It's not too far away from what our players really expect from a SF game, yet we get some of the benefits of continually releasing content post-launch and giving fans more of what they want to increase engagement long-term."
Even if it's not quite free-to-play, Street Fighter V may at least be cheaper to play. Dahlgren said that pricey arcade stick peripherals are not as essential for dedicated players as they might have seemed in the past.
"Since Street Fighter comes from an arcade heritage, a lot of people have this general belief that arcade sticks are the premier way of playing," Dahlgren said. "I think now that the platform choice has moved more towards consoles, pad play has definitely become much more prevalent. I would believe that at launch you're probably going to have more pad players than you actually have stick players. And in the competitive scene, we've seen the rise of a lot of very impressive pad players, which has pretty much shown that Street Fighter is a game that's not necessarily dictated by the controller you play with; it's the strategies and tactics you employ. And both of them are essentially on equal playing ground."