Too often I see people dismiss fighting games as merely something some people do to relax and have fun. Of course, playing fighting games like Street Fighter III: 3d Strike and Super Smash Bros. Melee for some casual fun is perfectly fine to do, but they have such potential to be more than just fun to play with friends on the weekends. Competitive 1v1 fighting games like these and more recent examples like Guilty Gear: Strive, Rivals of Aether and Tekken 7 can be rich competitive experiences as well, just as rich as chess, poker or tennis.
In fact, fighting games as a genre exist as sort of synthesis between these three well respected competitive games; They challenge a player’s knowledge of the game and quick thinking skills like chess, challenge a player’s ability to get inside the opponent’s head like poker and challenge a player’s ability to physically execute the required feats like tennis. But even if fighting games test the same skills as these other games, do they test them to the same degree? For the most part, yes.
I’m not going to make the claim that competitive fighting gamers need to be as physically talented as tennis players, but the amount of dexterity required to be good at fighting games is surprisingly high. Professional Super Smash Bros. Melee players can be expected to perform 300+ actions per minute with their hands, where an action here is defined as a button press or a movement of a joystick. A natural result of this is that fighting game players become quite nimble-fingered and coordinated, a useful quality for many other disciplines.
This might be impressive, but personally, I find the mental component of fighting games to be much more inspiring. Unlike in physical sports, the only actions a player can make are the actions allowed by the game. In MMA, I can be penalized for punching my opponent in the back of the head. In Tekken, the game does not allow me to punch my opponent in the back of the head.
This turns the game into a complex math problem: When the Super Smash Bros. Melee character Fox jumps, he has three frames of jumpsquat, and once he’s in the air he can air dodge, directionally air dodge, use one of five aerial attacks or use his doublejump– everytime. This is understood by all involved players, so a situation is created where every time a player acts, the opposite player knows exactly what can be done in response, and must immediately choose the best option and physically execute it. In this way, when Fox jumps, it’s like moving a knight on a chessboard.
This creates a deeply rich bait-and-punish game, a game where players must bait their opponent to choose a bad option and punish them for doing so. In Guilty Gear, if I always block when my opponent jumps at me, they will stop attacking when they jump at me and wait to land back on the ground so they can grab through my block; and therefore won’t be prepared when I start to attack them in the air instead of holding my block. More simply, I bait them to pick a bad option and punish them for it, just the way a poker player baits their opponent into thinking they have a bad hand, and punishes them when the opponent raises.
Getting good at fighting games is like sharpening several knives at once. It helps you develop spatial skills, break down complex situations, learn to think outside the box and more skills like this. All of these are useful skills you can use everyday, and they all arise naturally from playing fighting games a little less casually.
Perhaps most importantly, though, beyond all this complex talk about how worthwhile it is to play fighting games is the simple fact of how worthwhile it is to watch fighting games. Even if you have no desire to spend six hours a day six days a week practicing reverse-aerial-rush-back-airs in Super Smash Bros., learning the basics of a game and watching professionals play it is incredibly entertaining. Professional events are always going on, and after you watch them for a while you start to remember players’ names, rivalries and legacies, and a soap opera more complex than anything on TV shows its face.
Fighting games aren’t simply games, but a whole discipline that deserves more respect and attention. Thankfully, I do see fighting game communities growing every year and receiving more widespread media coverage. It might not be so ridiculous to think that one day parents might encourage their children to play some Street Fighter after they’ve come home from chess club and sports practice.