Originally published in The Brooklyn Rail, July/August 2007.
Fingers for Fighting
The Minor Leagues of Professional Video Gaming
NYCLAN Versus Super Bowl Sunday: Fight!
Perfect Legend’s going to win. Everybody says so. 18 years old, a good-looking bespectacled black kid from Ohio, Legend has the heaviest reputation at the NYCLAN Dead or Alive 4 tournament, a professional video game competition.
While the Colts prepare to apply a judicious beat-down to the Bears in Super Bowl XLI, Perfect Legend bunches up his hoodie on a countertop and snuggles down for a little nap. Sweetly sleeping, he belies his ferocity. “Still Raping You 20-0” is one of his online signatures.
Meanwhile Kasumi Chan—a white woman player from Philadelphia—runs the tournament, herding the boys into the bracket, between her own matches. She won’t do so hot today, but when she loses a tight match, one of the kids yells, “That’s all right, Kasumi Chan! You did your best!”
They go by their online handles at these off-line tournaments. Their noms de jeu run from the silly to the absurd to the puzzling. Kasumi Chan took the name of her favorite character in the game; Perfect Legend is just telling everybody who he really is.
NYCLAN—New York City Live Action Network—is a basement gaming lounge, crammed with televisions and plush chairs. The place has two kinds of decoration: industrial graffiti art and a thick beltcourse of comic book pages on the walls. Owners Brian Tang and Kia Song went to Colombia and Harvard, worked on Wall Street, married, and quit their jobs last year to open NYCLAN, a forum for social gaming free from the rampant racism and homophobia of online console gaming. They’re 25 and 26 years old, respectively.
Every detail of the place bespeaks financial-district assiduousness. Outside of a single plasma television, they provide only cathode ray sets, because only this kind of television allows for lagless play. Other high definition TVs have a disparity with the signal coming from game consoles, which can result in a lag of a tenth of a second—death to a professional gamer.
Eighty men and boys and maybe half a dozen women have come to play and watch today, with whites decidedly in the minority. Blacks and Latinos constitute most of the crowd, Asians and whites splitting the remainder evenly. The room looks like the male half of a multicultural utopia. Race is one of the great topics of fighting game conversation. Here’s the sort of back-and-forth you’ll overhear at a Manhattan gaming lounge: “My friend called me racist for saying that if you’re black, you’ve played Marvel Versus Capcom.” “It’s true.” “What? I’m racist or that black people play that game?” “Both!”
Kia Song readily acknowledges the demographics. “Let’s profile them here,” she says. “A lot of them are African-American and Hispanic. And younger. And if you look at the relative income bracket, you’ll find that most are lower-middle to lower-income class.”
Perfect Legend explains that the fighting game community still bears the aspects of its arcade roots, and this may account for the racial disparity between competitors in different genres of video games. First-person shooters and real-time strategy games run best on PCs and second-best on consoles. For kids whose parents can’t afford a home computer or a Playstation, arcades offer the only opportunity for play—and fighters still rule the arcade.
This is the political economy of video games, and it carries over to marketing demographics as well. The Super Bowl commercials these kids are missing weren’t aimed at them anyway.
“Still Raping You Twenty to Nothing”
Tournaments like NYCLAN’s are both the last stand and the best chance for advancement of the fighting game community—the few remaining competitive gamers with a touch of the arcade in them. Caught between their taste for fighting games or ‘fighters,’ the most technically demanding of all video games, and the popularity of shooters, racing, and real-time strategy games, these players bridge the hardcore culture of the nineties’ arcades and the millennial fever of corporate gaming.
Imagine putting a token into a Streetfighter machine and then playing it for millions. That’s the dream. All the usual concomitants of a shift from minor leagues to major are happening here, including attempts to refine the players’ dogtown couth.
Consider their efforts to soften jargon that lands hard on the television ear. In fighter parlance, ‘rape’ means “beat overwhelmingly.” At the NorthEast Championships in Philadelphia last December, Escaping Jail, a congenial guy from Delaware, cheered on his friend, oOEvilOo, in a tight match against the great Justin Wong, by crying out “Rape him, rape him, rape him!” Escaping Jail went on to win the tournament after a few extremely close matches and one total massacre of Kasumi Chan. After her loss to Escaping Jail, Kasumi Chan confided to a friend, “Yeah, he totally raped me.”
There’s an internal effort to eliminate this language. Kasumi Chan has publicly called for the community to clean up its trash talk (including herself), and Escaping Jail has taken to replacing “rape” with “checkmate” as a verbal coup de grace. NYCLAN formally bans abusive language.
There’s been little headway on the rape front, however, perhaps because of another oddity of video game tournaments: there’s not the slightest chance of a fight at these nearly all-male events. In fighting games, two players compete against each other through characters proficient in various styles of martial arts. These avatars suffer and deliver beatings until submission, unconsciousness, or fantastically bloody death. The exaggerated violence of fighters abuts a total passivity among the competitors. The atmosphere of brutality serves only to pressure players into sharpening their skills.
And everything comes down to skill. These kids beat their machines for hours every day, producing an astonishing bundle of hand-eye coordination and tactical thinking. Once they’ve powered up their abilities, they meet in these tournaments, where trash-talk piles on slow fingers.
Kasumi Chan Rapes Me on Live
After a quick phone call to get my gamertag, my personal identification for Xbox’s online service, Kasumi Chan sent me an invitation to meet her at a Dead or Alive ‘lobby.’ She’s in Philadelphia; I’m in Brooklyn; the lobby’s in cyberspace. Within moments, Kasumi Chan’s voice comes in over my headset, which is plugged into my controller, and we pick our characters.
“Most people are not as interested in video games as they think they are,” says Kasumi Chan, as she repeatedly busts my face. Looking at my stats afterwards, I see that I’ve garnered a 26.6% winning percentage, with a three-match winning streak I hit when Kasumi Chan was explaining the defensive techniques of fuzzy-guarding and Korean back-dashing. She didn’t even use her best character, Kasumi the shinobi: she whipped Ryu Hayabusa, my modern super-ninja, with Helena, a depressive French opera singer.
Tall, full-figured, with red hair, and glasses, Kasumi Chan is a member of PMS clan, a network and marketing organization of some 500 women gamers nationwide. PMS found Kasumi Chan at the Computer Games Invitational in 2005. CGI wanted a few girls in every clan, and Morris Hunter, one of the administrators of DOACentral, the major Dead or Alive competitors’ website, recommended her to PMS. She took second-place at the tournament, a high ranking for a woman. PMS has sponsored her ever since.
When I ask for her professional assessment of my skills, she says, “You seem like an intelligent button masher”—both a compliment and the worst of all possible estimations. ‘Button masher’ means either “someone who bangs away at the controls randomly” or “a game with such arbitrary controls that button-mashing play actually works”.
DOA has two levels of gameplay. I know some moves, but I don’t really know when to use them. This puts me in the first level: pick-up-and-play. Dead or Alive appeals to casual players because it employs a relatively intuitive system. Pushing up on the joystick and pressing the kick button results in a high kick in-game. Every character has dozens of such permutations. Transcribed in charts for players to study, these inputs can look as unintelligible and daunting as a Satriani solo.
Indeed, Kasumi Chan used to play guitar before she took up gaming professionally, and she likens the gamepad to the fretboard. It takes endless practice with a character “to get the moves into your muscle memory,” she says, but this exercise gives the player a full variety of options in any given encounter. Recognizing the move appropriate to the situation or creating a situation appropriate to a move is key. It amounts to playing chess with a saxophone and lots of punching. This is the second level of fighting games. “You have to think really fucking fast,” says Escaping Jail. “I don’t mean to curse.”
Dead or Alive and Peace and Harmony
Dead or Alive has long had a bad reputation. The game caused a commotion when it first appeared, not just because it featured sexy women characters, but because it introduced “breast physics” into 3D gaming. The boys went nuts.
It turned out that women liked the game, too. Out of fighters, “DOA has the biggest female gaming population”, says Kasumi Chan. “It’s easy to pick up, it’s pretty, and it has strong female characters…They’re like beautiful, big-breasted females, but they’re also strong.”
This last quality speaks to Kasumi Chan’s experience as a woman in a man’s game. “Guys don’t seem to understand that there’s another whole responsibility to being a female gamer,” she says. In order to move forward, a woman player has to showcase her femininity. Winning isn’t enough: a woman who won would be so un-female, that her victory wouldn’t stand as a representative accomplishment, says Kasumi Chan. Winning as a feminine, marketable woman is the real achievement.
Because of this mainstream pressure, Kasumi Chan distrusts the development of the fighting game circuit into a major gaming league, the Super-Bowling of fighting game competition. The change could ruin the scene, she says. Already, “they’re butchering the rules for TV.” The most telegenic and marketable players will get the invite to compete, not the most highly-skilled ones. Of course, Kasumi Chan is one of these telegenic types. When she describes the paradoxes of Dead or Alive competition, she’s also describing herself.
Nonetheless, she and her peers are grooming themselves for entry into the big leagues. For years, they’ve been maintaining their community with tiny payouts in drab venues, huddling together online, trading the secret moves they’ve discovered, biding time until the day when audiences will finally recognize which players constitute the elite of the elite. These kids know they have the choicest skills, that they play the toughest games. So, in basement lounges and hotel ballrooms, they play and they wait.