Fighting in the time of COVID: the problems of online play and how both the community has adapted

This is the second of a two-part feature on the state of the local fighting game community (or FGC). You can read the first installment here. Do you want us to cover other gaming communities? Email us at hello@variablemag.com.

These days, online play is a must for any multiplayer game, let alone one with esports potential, to thrive. But fighting games have always been lacking in this regard, even before the pandemic hit.

Most esports genres started out with online play in mind. Early on, the developers behind these games had already been factoring online lag. But fighting games started out in arcades, where lag was never a factor.

For better or worse, fighting games continued to be developed with offline play in mind. On one hand, this allowed the genre to develop into the fast-paced, exciting esport we see today. On the other, it meant that the developers didn’t really figure out how to translate this high-speed gameplay into online.

The reality of network lag

Playing any game over the internet will always add some amount of lag, or network delay, into the mix. When a player presses a button, that input is sent over the internet to their opponent. After that, the player’s computer or console still has to wait for a reply from the opponent to confirm that the input was received. It’s only after this that the player’s on-screen character can move.

This process of sending and then waiting to receive data can take a while—up to over a hundred or more milliseconds. But the speed at which fighting games run means that a player’s openings to get a move in can be as small as 17 milliseconds—one frame of game animation at the 60 frames-per-second that these games are run at.

The amount of delay that online play adds makes getting fighting games to run online quite challenging. On top of this is the fact that that delay changes over the course of a match depending on the state of a player’s connection.

Of course, developers have created novel methods of dealing with lag for fighting games over the years. These use simple predictive algorithms to run players’ inputs without having to wait for a reply from an opponent. At the same time, these also come with the ability to roll back the state of the game should both players’ instances become desynced, hence the general name “rollback netcode.”

But rollback netcode’s adoption has been slow—Bandai Namco only added it to Tekken 7 in a patch last year. Other big games such as DragonBall FighterZ still lack it.

Going grassroots to create spaces for play

Faced with a lack of decent online play, the local fighting game community turned to hosting local grassroots events.

For the organizers of these events, doing so allows them to share their passion for the genre while helping the community grow.

“It’s because I want to help to grow the community by helping in organizing events and to know more of the people who play fighting games other than the games I regularly play,” explains JM “OTK|CrowKuchiki” de Guia, a grassroots tournament organizer and streamer who runs the OtaKultura streams on Facebook.

De Guia also states that these small, grassroots events are also a way of getting more players to try their hand at competing—an important factor for any game or genre that wants to become an esport.

GamePad Master’s Kevin “RakEnRoL” Mando concurs, adding that these events are a great way to show how tournaments can be enjoyable.

“I’ve always wanted to share the things that I love to other people,” he says. “If I’m enjoying something; I’m pretty sure they’d do too. I also try to tweak some of the events depending on the trend and how people might like it, and I think it’s a good mix of fun and competitive while still being open to newbies.”

COVID-19 is pushing games online

But COVID-19 has put a damper on these. Players have had to rethink how they’re approach to fighting games due to the quarantines. For some, this has included the painful decision to drop their game of choice and switch to one with better online play.

“For some games with good netcode yes it can be a temporary substitute,” says de Guia on whether online is viable for competition. “But for some games online is really not a good substitute for competition.

With this in mind, it’s understandable that these players are skeptical of online as a viable alternative to offline competition. At least based on the games we have now.

“Fighting games that we have now are meant to be played offline and at the arcades,” explains Mando. “While there have improvements in playing it online and it is definitely possible; I don’t think that we could get the same feel of offline gameplay without any delay anytime soon.”

Fight for the future of online fighting

The key then, would be for more developers to start integrating better online play in upcoming fighting games—a direction the genre does seem to be heading in. Some companies, such as Capcom (Street Fighter) and NetherRealm (Mortal Kombat) have already implemented rollback netcode into their games, with Bandai Namco following suit.

More recently, Arc System Works announced that it would be adding it to the upcoming Guilty Gear Strive. ArcSys had long resisted adding rollback to its flagship franchise before finally changing their mind. In addition, it partnered with a group of fans to add rollback to the classic Guilty Gear XX Accent Core +R on Steam.

SNK has also added it to its older games as well (with the help of Code Mystics). The implementation it has done on Samurai Shodown 5 Special and The King of Fighters 2002 Unlimited Match are considered to be some of the best around. That said the company has yet to say whether it’ll do the same for its upcoming The King of Fighters XV—though fans have been vocal about wanting it, pointing to how bad online play effectively killed 2019’s Samurai Shodown when the pandemic hit.

Should more developers focus on improving their fighting games’ online play, then the fighting games may be better able to weather situations like the pandemic that force people to play online.

Whether or not the community fully migrates online, however, is another question.

“I think online is a step there for the future of the FGC,” says de Guia. “But it is not a good substitute for a competitive environment.”

“I still do think offline events are still the best environment for competitive gaming.”

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Franz Co

managing editor | addicted to RGB | plays too many fighting games

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