On Friday night I went to the Gfinity eSports Arena to see a few sets of Street Fighter V, part of Gfinity’s Elite Series.
It’s the first time Gfinity have shown the Fulham arena off since its extensive rework for the Elite Series, and with its flashing lighted tunnel, huge glowing screens and swooping cameras, attending feels like you’re in the middle of a live TV broadcast.
Thing is, with competitors sat back behind these glowing screens, tucked away behind rows of computer banks, watching Street Fighter V at Gfinity’s Elite Series isn’t as exciting as it could be, and it shows that Gfinity’s Elite Series still has a little way to go.
Competitive fighting games are at their best when rivals are sat shoulder to shoulder, the action closer to a 3am after-club beat-em-up session between friends than the sterile atmosphere put into place by Gfinity’s Elite Series with players sat high and dry at the back of the stage, hidden behind commentators and gigantic screens showing the action.
Sat shoulder to shoulder, the player’s personalities can really shine and we can see the magic of long-time rivals ‘popping off’ at each other, an affectionate term for the trash talk and showboating that underpins the fighting game community. Competitors in fighting games are as much the draw as the fighting games themselves, and by shutting them away, they’re robbing the sport of most of that buzz.
See this moment, from fighting game tournament EVO in 2015. A player wins a tough round, stands up to engage with the crowd and celebrate his win, and gets completely battered by his opponent while distracted. Match won, and it was a final eight victory so the free round was no small gift, his opponent stands up himself, and cuts loose in front of the crowd.
These flashes of personality have come to typify competitive fighting games, where they’re done as an act of camaraderie and affection, and Gfinity has locked all of that away by trapping their players not just high up towards the back of the stage, but several metres away from each other.
Similarly, Gfinity’s attempt to make Street Fighter competitors fight in a trio is unusual and confusing and while it’s a conceit that fits with Rocket League and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, here it’s jarring. Street Fighter is a solo sport, and only Gooteks has ever really made a team format work. Here, it just layers confusion over a production that’s already feeling very sterile.
It’s a shame because Gfinity so clearly know what they’re doing, and the production quality is top notch, it’s just that for those in the stadium the event leaves a lot to be desired, action hidden from view by the stage furniture and swooping cameras rolling around the place.
Commentators voices were hard to hear in the stadium, and while segments were being shot in the crowd or backstage, this was hard to hear too. At the front of the stadium, there were three of us whooping and cheering, with everyone else back in the stages. It felt like a half-finished production, something that wasn’t the case for the team
Gfinity’s commitment to several seasons of the Elite Series is unquestioned, I just hope that as part of that commitment they’ll consider reworking how they’re showing Street Fighter V, because the community for fighting games is one of the strongest esports communities in London, but in its current state, it’s hard to recommend to even the die hard fans when they’d be better served watching the action on Twitch.
Next year, they should let players compete front and center in front of the crowd, and if Gfinity are determined to have the trio compete, at least put them in close proximity so we can get to know some of the faces that are throwing down.