Through the Looking Glass

Through the Looking Glass
Fei Long and Justin Wong

Pat Miller | 13 Mar 2007 08:03
Through the Looking Glass - RSS 2.0

Watch this video.

I was there, three years ago, when that video happened. It happened at Cal Poly Pomona, as part of Evolution 2004, the biggest fighting game tournament in the United States. I was eating a Famous Star from Carl's Jr. at the time.

The match would later become legendary, immortalized on YouTube and occasionally parodied: Justin Wong, an American player known best for winning four consecutive national championships from 2001-2005 in Marvel vs. Capcom 2, was pitted against Daigo Umehara, arguably Japan's greatest Street Fighter player, in the tournament semifinals for Street Fighter III: Third Strike. Watching Daigo coolly parry Justin's 15-hit super combo and retaliate with his own counter to win the round with zero life remaining ... well, you just had to have been there.

But being in that crowd was a funny thing. Somehow, the crowd always knew who it was rooting for, and, more curiously, why. I knew, too, as part of the crowd, but I couldn't quite articulate it. Sometimes it made sense to root for Justin, sometimes it didn't. Of course, the crowd loves upsets, underdogs and spectacular combos. But how did we always know who to cheer for? And how did race tell us who to cheer for?

Maybe we should rewind a bit.

Street Fighter II was widely credited with providing a much-needed shot in the arm to the arcade game scene back in the early 1990s. The graphics were awesome, and the head-to-head gameplay hadn't quite caught on full force until then. But, perhaps more significantly, Street Fighter II demanded a social experience. In order to get better, you had to play against someone else, and - unlike Xbox Live - you had to play with someone who was actually standing right next to you. It caused communities of players to form around local arcade machines, and those communities would interact with communities around other arcade machines and have tournaments, and so on.

This, by itself, isn't notably different from any other game. There are competitive communities around pretty much any game out there, from Gears of War to Scrabble. But what is notable about Street Fighter II is, unlike Gears of War, the only thing it takes to enter SF2 community is the willingness to put up a quarter, wait your turn and get your ass beat. Unlike computers or videogame consoles, which require a comparably massive outlay of cash to start playing, the barrier to entry for Street Fighter II is simply $0.25. And since it's hardly a secret that people of color in the United States, generally speaking, tend to be less economically well-off than white Americans, the average Street Fighter II gaming environment tended to be a few shades darker than, say, the equivalent computer gaming circles of the time.

This legacy has stuck with Street Fighter II. Evolution attendance seemed to be roughly equal parts white, black, yellow, brown and so on. Since these communities are built around physical locations, Street Fighter II players become accustomed to building class and race into their common-sense knowledge. Like Evolution, tournaments that we held at the UC Berkeley arcade were attended by all kinds of people, but it was a fair bet that most of the college-age Asian and white people either came from UC Berkeley or another nearby school; black players mostly came from Oaktree Arcade, located in downtown Oakland, which is predominantly black; older Asian players mostly came from Sunnyvale Golfland, located in the South Bay Area; and so on. In this way, race held certain implications within the Street Fighter II community.

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