It goes without saying that the Street Fighter franchise has an extremely rich history. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that gamers of all kinds have had some kind of run-in with the franchise in its 32 years of existence. While the series fosters an extremely dedicated competitive scene, even casual fans of the series still have a deep love for it all of these years later. I personally fall into that latter category, I wish I could say that I was privy to the original Street Fighter when it dropped, but my first encounter with it wouldn’t be until years later when I first visited Kawasaki Warehouse and played on their original machine. I can say at the very least that I’ve floated in the hardcore circle from as far back as the release of Street Fighter II in arcades when I first encountered it at a bowling alley in Cleveland, Ohio as a kid.
Even back then the energy surrounding the game was infectious. Any time I would encounter a cabinet anywhere there would be a coin line of challengers just ready to go. This is what drew me in originally, I had never seen a game before that drew so much buzz. After watching people play for a while I started to understand why; it was a completely new style of game. One on one matches, unique characters with a variety of abilities that are activated by different button combinations, and (although it would speed up even more in the future) the action was fast-paced and exciting. I was too young to really understand the hardcore competitive side of things, but some of the more active arcade spots in my area held tournaments for the game and I made friends with some local players through those events. I never got particularly good at the game myself, but I loved the community surrounding it and that really informed my connection to arcades as a whole throughout my adolescence.
Street Fighter remained a constant in my life even though I wasn’t particularly good at it. Prior to the release of Street Fighter II on home consoles the only game in the franchise I had at home was Street Fighter 2010 for the NES, and the experience just didn’t compare. The console release of Street Fighter II for Super Nintendo & Sega Genesis created a level of rivalry between me & my cousins that other games never did though, and I found myself playing with friends from school at that point too, friends who I didn’t have a history of playing video games within general. It became another kind of connection amongst the people I spent the most time with due to the one-on-one nature of the game and everyone’s desire to best each other. I’m not a particularly competitive person by nature, but I definitely got caught up in the excitement.
Each subsequent release of the title from Champion Edition to Super Turbo was an event in and of itself at the arcades in my area. The scene would wax & wane based on the cycle of releases, but I always saw the same faces even among new players whenever a new entry would drop. There would always be rumors about what to expect in the new versions, many of which were global in nature and have become the stuff of legends ever since. One constant in the local arcades though was speculation about when Street Fighter III would come out. After each new update to Street Fighter II there would be some kind of rumor about the next one being the elusive number 3.
Of course, that wasn’t the reality of the situation, the Alpha series snuck in there first. When the previews started coming in all of the gaming magazines it was clear that this was something new and different. I was completely blown away by how cool everything looked, from the promotional art to the in-game graphics, it was very clearly an evolution for the franchise. Although around this time though my personal tastes started to change a fair bit, I still spectated whenever an event was going on locally. I never really played the Alpha series itself too seriously. The home version for PlayStation was in the rotation whenever friends would get together to play games, but I didn’t circle the competitive community as much anymore. This could have had to do with several arcades closing up in my area, or the transition to 3D graphics for other games, but I never really thought about it much. Even still, whenever a new edition of the game was released I would always pick it up because it was something that all of my friends were familiar with. Even the Street Fighter: The Movie fighting game for Sega Saturn, I never skipped any entry that made its way to home consoles.
The next couple of years in the arcades are a bit foggy to me. The thing that stands out most in my memory was going to a movie theater one day and seeing a generic arcade cabinet with art reminiscent of Street Fighter and the word “THREE” on the marquee. My first thought was that it was some sort of knock-off, but no, there it was the actual Street Fighter III. I hadn’t been paying attention to the series, and in that time the game my friends and I always speculated about was finally a reality. I gave it a few tries out of curiosity and was surprised by what was practically an entirely new roster of characters, I picked Ryu because he was the only one I had any real familiarity with. Once again the art style impressed the hell out of me, and the new mechanics were super interesting even though I didn’t have a strong understanding of how they worked.
Not too long after that encounter, I fell hard into the rhythm game genre after importing a few titles for PlayStation. After a couple of years of playing those games at home, I found myself patronizing arcades again on a weekly basis thanks to a local mall arcade getting a DDR machine. This local arcade also happened to have a Street Fighter III 3rd Strike machine, and in between rounds of stepping on plastic arrows, my friends and I would dump tokens into that machine. Street Fighter had grabbed my interest once again, and while I still didn’t become a competition level player I fell in love with the game. When the Dreamcast version was released it was a definite pick up for me and many of my friends, and thanks to Sega’s rather competent arcade stick for the console the gameplay experience didn’t lessen in any significant way.
3rd Strike remained a regular fixture amongst me and my friends in the Midwest for several years and maintained a strong competitive scene where I was, but in 2004 I moved from the Midwest to Southern California and it felt like I was starting things all over again with the franchise. The difference this time around though was that Street Fighter had an incredibly active scene of players in California for so many years, and while I was far more focused on the rhythm gaming scene and definitely more integrated into that community, many players that I knew were also fighting game fans. I regularly visited a Japanese style arcade in Rowland Heights, CA called Arcade Infinity after moving due to their game selection, and although it wasn’t always busy there was still a very regular crowd of 3rd Strike & Super Turbo players at the arcade on weekends.
Arcade Infinity was considered something of a mecca to many arcade fans in the US because they always seemed to get Japanese titles in before anyone else, and during my time in California while they were still in operation I had become very involved with the community there. Being an arcade machine collector and enthusiast, I volunteered time there fixing cabinets and trying to promote the business. This led to my introduction to many people in the Southern California fighting game community over time. When Street Fighter IV was released to arcades that community absolutely exploded, the arcade was packed every day once again and the competitive scene seemed to kick things up to a whole new level.
At the time Arcade Infinity only had a couple of cabinets running for the title, head to head style. The boom in new players caused them to go out on a limb and eventually have multiple setups running in the arcade at one time, all of which were constantly in use. They even created a pair of showcase cabinets which were the spot where all of the highest-level players would congregate and became the main attraction during the regular tournaments that would start kicking up. The advent of the internet in the time between the last release and Street Fighter IV obviously had an impact as well, as it allowed for a whole new level of organization for the community. Players were once again traveling for tournaments and flagship events like EVO in Las Vegas and had to keep up with the incredible pace at which new blood was coming into the scene. From my perspective, it was one of the most exciting times for fighting games ever even as a spectator.
Around this time “e-sports” also started becoming a rather hot-button topic in the gaming space with teams and organizations popping up, and massive tournaments for the biggest PC games at the time. I remember there was a bit of a rift within the fighting game community in the US because of this. You had a lot of players who wanted to see the games advance into a more professional level in the same way, but with that came rules of conduct and other regulations that could change the spirit of the competitive scene. I remember friends on both sides of the coin venting about the issue, but in the end, it was kind of an unnecessary argument. The tournaments kept getting bigger, and the community as a whole evolved along with them.
Street Fighter IV also caused a dramatic shift in what platforms players supported. Arcades had always been a pretty central space for these games and a way for the community around them to come together, but with Xbox Live & PlayStation Network connecting people all over the world within their own homes, the dynamic started shifting as the console editions were released. When Super Street Fighter IV was released for home consoles before the arcade version there was a lot of uncertainty about what was going to happen to that aspect of the competitive scene. Of course, arcades had been in a decline for years so this was just natural progression at work, but it was also an unfortunate occurrence since they had always been such a strong staple for bringing the community together. In light of this, many arcades changed their strategy up and became more of a congregating space for console tournaments and weekly match-ups than just strictly an arcade. The community was clearly rather intent on maintaining the face-to-face element that made competition so exciting.
Around this time is where my journey as a Street Fighter player winded down. Life catches up with everyone at some point, and I just didn’t have the time to commit to the arcade scene along with everything else I had going on. Thankfully streaming had become a developed and major part of the gaming community, so the weekly events and regular tournament series were still in my reach. Following along with the release of Street Fighter V, the character releases, the ever-changing nature of the competitive scene was still accessible to me without being able to put hours into the game itself. Tuning in every year to EVO has become a ritual of sorts, and following along with the Capcom Pro Tour and Capcom Cup events have become something of a past-time. I’ve never been the type to really watch sports or keep up with competitions, but the excitement and fast-paced nature of the Street Fighter franchise has always been something that has grabbed my attention, even if just in pockets of time. As a casual fan of the franchise for close to 30 years now, it’s beyond exciting to see where the future of Street Fighter is heading and the competitive scene for the game along with it.