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The Collusion of Money, Drama, And Pride

With a scene that's bigger than ever, how the fighting game community's biggest organizers are trying to break its players of some bad habits and grow up.

Several important elements of the fighting game community came together last week to announce a sweeping change to many of the most popular tournaments in the scene. Collusion, in this case defined as two or more players agreeing to purposely manipulate a match or intentionally underperform, would no longer be tolerated. Those involved would forfeit prize and title.

EVO has continued to grow, gaining sponsors and thousands of worldwide fans along the way. It is far from its old niche.
EVO has continued to grow, gaining sponsors and thousands of worldwide fans along the way. It is far from its old niche.

“Competitive spirit is the lifeblood of the fighting game community,” announced EVO founder Tom “Inkblot” Cannon on his popular fighting game website Shoryuken. “Unfortunately, this year we have seen a few incidents where players intentionally underperformed, usually in the final matches of a tournament. This behavior is unacceptable, and it must end.”

The Shoryuken element is key to this, as well. If tournaments refuse to adopt the collusion rule, Shoryuken and EventHubs, another popular destination for fighting discussion, have declared they will not cover the tournament in question. The rule change has the backing of many major tournaments already, and common tournament sponsor and accessory maker Mad Catz.

It’s a sweeping change, and one that’s prompted heated discussion from within the community. Cannon was expecting this, but he has good evidence for why everyone should get behind the rule change: EVO has been operating with the very same rule since an incident back in 2004.

EVO 2004 is mostly remembered for Daigo Umehara’s unbelievable full parry of Justin Wong. But it’s also where the finalists in the event’s Soulcalibur II tournament, Rob “RTD” Combs and Marquette “Mick” Yarbrough, were widely believed to have decided their final match wasn't worth playing seriously. Combs and Yarbrough were friends, a common thread during these moments. Coverage of fighting game tournaments wasn't as prevalent in 2004 as it is now, but surprisingly enough, Games Across America (GSN) covered exactly what happened at 50 seconds into the clip below.

"GSN: I hear there was some controversy, they thought maybe you guys were faking it.

Combs: We did pick characters that we were good with, and we played it out.

Yarbrough: We fought, we actually fought. [...] We the most dominant team around, you know? Can’t nobody stop us."

Following this match, EVO instituted the collusion rule now populating to other tournaments. No action was taken against Combs or Yarbrough, however.

“We didn't want to come down on them after the fact because they didn't break any rules, even though they broke the spirit of the tournament,” said Cannon to me recently. “We were like ‘fine, this happened, let's make sure this is never gonna happen again.’ We did that a while ago, and it's worked out great for us.”

Since then, Cannon said EVO has experienced nothing else like what happened at the end of the Soulcalibur 2 tournament. Once players know the rules, he told me, they tend to shape up.

What Cannon and others are hoping to clamp down on can be a little confusing to understand. It’s not about pot splitting, in which several players agree to divvy up the tournament money to one another. Pot splitting is not unique to the fighting game community, and though it impacts the game, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where it could reasonably be eliminated.

“You really can't stop somebody from splitting a pot,” said David “UltraDavid” Graham, a former player, commentator, and, during the day, a lawyer with his own practice. “I think it makes too much economic sense, unless you really think you are, by far, the best player, and you're going to dominate. Or you don't like the player you're playing against. Otherwise, you might as well just split. Why take the risk that you don't earn money?”

“That's [pot splitting is] not the concern at all,” said Cannon. “It's impossible to stop because once the money is in their hands, they could just split it later, if they didn't split it on-site.”

But it’s impossible to talk about the collusion rule without considering pot splitting, either. The two are often but not always linked, as friends or allies decide to divide the tournament money. If one's money is now more or less guaranteed, there's far less incentive to be performing at the top of your game. Pot splitting happens behind-the-scenes, and there’s no way to prove it.

That is, unless you admit you were an active participant.

A snapshot from an old TechTV segment on the B4 tournament in San Jose, California. You might notice a familiar face.
A snapshot from an old TechTV segment on the B4 tournament in San Jose, California. You might notice a familiar face.

“I've witnessed it,” said longtime player Jay “Viscant” Snyder. “Heck, I've taken part in it. We all have. That's how the FGC used to work.”

Snyder was a champion at EVO 2011, taking the ultimate prize for Marvel vs. Capcom 3 with his combination of Albert Wesker, Mike Haggar, and Phoenix. Snyder has been a part of the fighting game community for a long time, and remembers a specific story from more than 10 years ago.

There was a tournament in Phoenix, Arizona during the heyday of Marvel vs. Capcom 2, and a number of San Diego, California-based players were invited. When Snyder and his crew arrived, they discovered Peter “ComboFiend” Rosas and his squad, known as R.U.N., were there, too. Previous tournament results, lingering bad feelings, and webcam girls (“no joke!”) simmered.

“We decided that they weren't going to get a dime out of the tournament,” said Snyder.

During the semi-finals, Long “ShadyK” Tran, Tong "Genghis" Ho, and Snyder were still in the winners bracket, while Rosas had drifted into the losers bracket. Feeling confident, Snyder’s crew decided Snyder would purposely throw matches to place himself in the losers bracket. The plan went off without a hitch, and Snyder managed to deny Rosas from winning anything at all.

“The top three placers were Genghis, myself and ShadyK--in that order,” said Snyder. “We split the money on the spot and didn't really hide what we were doing. It should be noted that this was the last time I'd beat ComboFiend [Rosas] in ANYTHING (Marvel 2, Marvel 3, SF4, 3s, ST, A3, coin flipping, RPS, credit card roulette, Candy Land). Karma is not without a sense of humor.”

Snyder said he was not alone, and this was common practice in the earlier days of the fighting game community, and not necessarily frowned upon.

“That's how things were done,” he said. “People from out of town come to your arcade? They're not winning, we'll protect the house somehow or someway. That's just how it was.”

That was more than a decade ago, though. Much has changed, including Snyder.

“Back then these were 40-man tournaments with no streams, no sponsors and a handful of spectators,” he said. “We want the FGC to be more than that now. We want to be attractive to sponsors. We want our streams to be watched and appreciated. We want people to turn on an FGC stream for the first time and get hooked by the great matches they're seeing, not turned off by players throwing games. Maybe things were OK the way they were back then (they weren't) but we all have to grow up a little. If we truly want the FGC to grow and be on the level of other eSports then we have to clean up our collective act and making a hard and firm stance against collusion, and match fixing is a good start.”

"I've witnessed it. Heck, I've taken part in it. We all have. That's how the FGC used to work. [...] Maybe things were OK the way they were back then (they weren't) but we all have to grow up a little."

What can be reasonably proved is whether or not top-tier players are, for whatever reason, purposely playing terribly.

“The entire point of a tournament is to determine the best player, and mathematically, the only thing a double-elimination tournament format guarantees is the top two players,” said former Capcom strategic marketing director of online and community Seth Killian. “Nobody is forcing you to play your best at all times in your life, but if you show up to a tournament that the organizer and lots of other players have put a lot of resources into, and the whole point of a tournament is to show who is best, then playing by those rules seems pretty straightforward.”

Killian, a longtime member of the fighting game community, was both a known spokesperson and a large internal influence on Capcom’s modern fighting games. He left the company in 2012 to take a lead design role at Sony Santa Monica, but continues to remain close to his roots and applauded the decision to expand EVO's anti-collusion measures to a wider audience.

“This has already been a rule at by far the biggest tournament in the world, for many, many years,” he said. “Anyone can invent all kinds of imaginary situations where it goes bad, is terribly enforced, etc, but instead there's the decade of reality: it works just fine. There has been no "new world order," and there has been no shortage of surprising character picks, counter-picks, etc. Every competitive activity from boxing to football has people making judgment calls, and of course those games would be a mess with terrible officiating too. There's less of this in video games because so many rules are built into code, but where it exists in the FGC it has worked just fine, with lots of truly incredible matches.”

“Just because they pot split doesn't mean they don't have to not play the match seriously,” said Graham. “When I played, I split pots. I did it. But I never gave up the match, you know? I never let my opponent give up the match. I don't think I considered it at the time, actually.”

Again, a big reason the collusion rule has come into vogue in 2013 was a series of closely watched finals matches. Coincidentally, they all involve Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and each had the quality of the fights called into question. These incidents were pointed out and described to me by members in the community.

Back in late March, Loren “Fanatiq” Riley and Christopher “ChrisG” Gonzalez squared off against one another at the Final Round tournament in Atlanta, Georgia. Riley is seen using an unusual set of characters--often a red flag--and intentionally bailing out of combos several times.

In this case, the intention of the player was obvious, and Riley, part of Team AGE, apologized.

“A lot of people questioned whether or not it was thrown or whatever,” he said in a YouTube video. “I intentionally made it very obvious that it was a throw, and it wasn’t, again, an attempt to spit in the face of any organizers or anything like that. It was my own protest, and, obviously, anyone protesting in any kind of circumstance is going to be open to attack, and I understand why certain people were offended. I thought by me playing the match in the way I did, by actually trying to get the hits before deciding to throw the match, I’d give the people what they wanted as far of them seeing the ways to open up Morrigan, the ways to get the hits on ChrisG’s team, the ways to open up ChrisG in general. Unfortunately, by me doing that, once I got the hits, they wanted to see the actual K.O., and that was something I was unwilling to do there. I’ve learned from that mistake, and what I’ve learned is that any circumstances where I feel that I don’t want to play a match, if I feel things are unfair, if I feel the seeding was inappropriate or things of that nature, the obvious best response to that situation is just to withdraw from the tournament.”

Then, in April, there was the Grand Finals at the Texas Showdown event, pitting the ever present Justin Wong against Gonzalez. If you skip to the end, you’ll notice the two are seen picking random characters and generally goofing around, both traits contrary to their known talents.

You don’t have to go far to see diehard fans criticizing the level of play on display.

The need for a stricter set of rules was highlighted just days before the collusion rule expansion was announced. At the Video X Games competition in the Caribbean in late July, ChrisG and Job "Flocker" Figueroa found themselves squaring off. Many observers, including Mad Catz community and sponsorship manager Mark “MarkMan” Julio, criticized the players, accusing them of playing with goofball teams, including the notoriously disdained Phoenix Wright.

In these cases and others, the players largely never admit to collusion, pot splitting, or intentionally screwing up the tournament, but it’s obvious even to laymen. The question facing the community--players, sponsors, organizers, commentators, viewers--is what to do about it. Cannon’s already admitted there’s no way to regulate pot splitting, so what’s happening?

Those in the community favoring the rule change said it was solely about ensuring everyone is having a good time. Some players have criticized the collusion rule as easily exploitable, and as gamers, they’ll easily find a way to break the system. Cannon welcomed these challenges, and compared players looking to sneak a fast one to sports players caught flopping. Flopping is when a player intentionally exaggerates physical contact with another player in hopes of drawing a foul. It’s hard to pull off and the referees don’t always catch it, but someone who’s exceptionally good at flopping is also exceptionally good at making it seem real.

“The rule is really designed to stop the matches at the end of the tournament from becoming a complete joke,” said Cannon. “I'm also equally sure there have probably been times where, late in the tournament, you had two friends playing each other, and in their heart of hearts, they were not playing their absolutely hardest because they know what's going to happen. But they at least played well enough that it was a legitimate match. That's all we're trying to do.”

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More importantly, what Cannon and others hope to clamp down on are shenanigans in the final moments of a tournament, the high-stakes moments that people wait around all day and night for. There was an unspoken commitment to organizers and fans, and now it’s written down and has consequences.

“We’re only going to invoke the rule when there is an obvious flop in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter,” he said.

Cannon acknowledged some legitimate concerns from players. What happens if players want to experiment? What happens if someone is picking a strange lineup to keep cards close to the chest, and not blow a secret technique? What if people just want to have a little bit of fun?

Snyder had a perfect example. At the Oceanside Fight Club tournament in San Diego this past weekend, he was pitted against Connor “PermaVermin” O'Neill, a notoriously difficult player who often employs strange teams. Snyder added Dormammu from Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 to his lineup, a tournament first and an unexpected move. Remember, this would usually constitute a red flag for possible collusion. The commentators were confused during the match, publicly wondering why Snyder went with Dormammu.

“Because I was winning they thought that perhaps I was showing off,” he said. “The ‘c-word’ even got floated out there during the set.”

Since he won all three rounds, though, nothing came of it.

What happened? Snyder showed up early to the tournament, and was playing casually with O'Neill. None of Snyder’s usual tactics were getting him anywhere, so he randomly picked Dormammu. Bingo. O'Neill was thrown off his game, and Snyder kept this in mind for later.

“It's only because I won the set that this pick doesn't look fishy,” said Snyder. “ [...] What if instead of winning 3-0, I lost 3-0? People would be able to point to those mistakes to say that I didn't know what I was doing with that character and that I threw the set. The intent and reason for picking that character and that team would have been the same either way; good results made me look smart whereas bad results would have made me look like a match fixer.”

Even with this in mind, Snyder thinks the rule is right, just one that should be exercised with caution. Good intentions often have unexpected consequences, and you can’t control everything. It is, in the end, subjective.

One possible wrinkle comes from international tournaments, which Cannon and others have less control over. Everyone I spoke to assumed the the world would follow their lead, not wanting to be left behind. One place it won’t have any impact, though, is competitive play in Japan, as there no money prizes for legal reasons.

“The only thing to play for is, in Japan, is for pride,” said Cannon.

If Cannon and others gets their way, that’ll be a big reason the rest of the world plays, too.

Patrick Klepek on Google+