Characters or tools?

Agoners writer FightingRoadHog had some interesting comments to me recently after we both watched Bonchan return to playing his favourite character, Sagat, in a recent Street Fighter V tournament now that Sagat has been released for the game:

(Aside: some quick replay analysis btw – Looks to me like Sagat can fight ok vs Akuma. Akuma still has many more options though, that Tokido didn’t really bring out in this match, but overall I thought this was Bonchan getting outplayed rather than any matchup problem that caused him to lose this. He made a couple of mistakes that, if he had hit them correctly, he would’ve won.)

What’s interesting to us is how fighting game fans have reacted so overwhelmingly positively to Bonchan going back to playing Sagat and playing what is seen as “his character”. FightingRoadHog noted that the fighting game scene seems to really love this concept of a character loyalist, and he said this was a contrast to other e-sports games, like lane-pushers (MOBAs) and other hero-based games, where characters are typically seen as “tools to be picked up and discarded as the meta dictates, and concepts such as being a loyalist are seen as quaint”, whereas changing characters in the fighting game scene generally is regarded in a negative light even, and can get called things like ‘tier whoring’.

RoadHog also noted that even commentators of other games would refer to heroes as “the X” – eg: ‘The Ana’, ‘The Diablo’ or ‘The Widow’ – implying again that they are things, whereas fighting game commentators refer to the characters as though they are real people, frequently mixing them up with the identity of the actual player.

On a similar theme, I’ve also myself noticed in lane-pushers that players are usually known to specialise in a role rather than an actual character. So you’re not known as a famous ‘Johanna’ player, but instead as the teams ‘Tank’ player.

Let’s not get started on that whole thing too 😉

I thought RoadHog’s thoughts about why this were interesting too. He thinks

…it probably is to do with the fact a FG character isn’t a tool but rather is a bunch of tools, and a player doesn’t really get good with a (non broken) FG character without several hours of practice and competition. So the longer you’ve spent with a character the more authentic an expression of your ability your gameplay is. Hence riding the top tier wave can be seen as an attempt to be dishonest with ones’ expression of one’s true place within the game’s hierarchy of players.

He also thinks this is why, when a players known favourite character isn’t in a game yet – for example, Dudley for Smug, viewers also don’t quite see them in the same light – almost as if they aren’t ‘truly’ playing the game yet.

I think there’s validity to all of his ideas, but I also think a lot has to do with the way character selection works in other games, especially lane-pushers. Due to their (actually rather poor design) ban & draft systems, no player can even guarantee to get to play their favourite or best character in a lane-pusher. For this reason, specialising just doesn’t make much sense at all anyway, so there’s no real way players can do it.

What do you think are the reasons ‘character loyalists’ are seen so positively in fighting games, but don’t really seem to exist in other multi-character e-sports games as much? It would be great to hear some more perspectives in the comments here, or on twitter or facebook!

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