Post-Mortem on Championship Gaming Series
The rise and fall of the Championship Gaming Series provides plenty of fodder for those interested in figuring out games’ place in society. The demise of the largest, most high-profile attempt yet at establishing a professional gaming league settled one matter. While debates continue over whether games belong under the rubric of art or if they can play a role in education, the question of whether they can serve as a spectator sport seems resolved: No – or at least not yet.

The CGS phenomenon also bequeaths us a wealth of material on other, thornier, more specific issues. Foremost among these is the question of how games correlate with race. I’m talking straightforward demographics: Why do games have racially segregated fanbases, and what effect do these divides have?

During the 2008 season, six North American CGS teams fielded a total of 60 players, each of whom competed in one of four games. Among these games was Tecmo’s Dead or Alive 4, the latest installment of Tomonobu Itagaki’s notorious fighter. CGS divided DOA competition into men’s and women’s leagues, the only game to receive such treatment. Each team included two DOA players, one man, one woman. Here’s where demographic differences become very visible. Of the 60 competitors in CGS’ American league,13 were people of color. Six of them played Dead or Alive.

The Homogeneity of Dead or Alive
The concentration of minority players in DOA competition is even more striking when you look at the men’s side. Six men constituted the league: four black, one Latino, one white. The fighting game community, on the whole, regards Dead or Alive with scorn. They see its mechanics as unsophisticated. Yet, aside from all the women, DOA‘s fanbase exhibits the same demographic trends as the wider community.

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Go to any of the dozens of fighter tournaments held every year across the U.S., and you’ll find, arguably, the most sophisticated gameplay on the planet. You’ll also find whites decidedly in the minority. How the majority breaks down depends on location. In rough terms, Asians dominate the West Coast; blacks and Latinos dominate the East.

What’s the deal?

The Three Theories
Fighting game competitors tend to explain this situation in one of three ways – by arcades, by characters or by culture. Bryan Dawson wrote the Prima guide for Dead or Alive 4 and covered Dead or Alive competitions for CGS. Dawson links race to class to understand the dominance of minorities at fighting games. “It’s just a lot easier for that demographic to get their hands on a fighting game,” he says.

He’s talking about material wealth. Dawson points to one of the other marquis games of CGS, Counter-Strike. To become an expert player of that game, he says, you need not only a PC that can run the game smoothly, but one that can be dedicated to Counter-Strike for significant stretches of time. A kid who aspires to a career of playing PC shooters would do well to have a high-end PC of his own. That’s a rare thing in poorer minority communities.

If you can’t afford a PC or even a console, you can get your game on at an arcade – and fighters still dominate the arcade. Fighters remain prominent in this venue for a number of reasons, but one of the most important is their quick turnover rate. Matches go by quickly. Head-to-head play generates a lot of heat, a lot of trash-talking. Dawson explains that, with fighters, “in just a few minutes, it’s taken care of.”

Turnover also pertains to fighters on consoles, because, where money is tight, only one kid in a circle of friends may have an Xbox. Fighters provide a great way to satisfy a roomful of players, because they keep the controller moving, whereas turns at other games that offer player vs. player competition can outlast the patience of those waiting in line.

“I know a lot of people get together in houses to play Madden,” says Dawson, referring to EA’s wildly successful football game franchise, “but then you need four or five setups – otherwise people are just hanging around.” For the neighborhood console, fighting games make a lot of sense.

The Chinatown Example
In areas with high-density, low-income populations, this theory seems to bear out. New York’s Chinatown has a large number of impoverished households, despite a high median income, because of its underground economy. Over on Elizabeth Street, you’ll find J&L Game Trading, a well-known game store. I went in and asked what PC games they had in stock. “Hmm,” said the clerk. “I think we have one …” He searched under the counter, and it turns out he was right. They had one PC game: Quake II. Chinatown’s pretty much a console-only district. It also boasts one of the last big arcades in the city, Chinatown Fair.

Justin Wong, one of the top fighting game players of all time, cut his teeth at Chinatown Fair, and his much lamented inability to reap riches from his skill is emblematic of the fighter community’s fiscal woes. A couple of years ago, I asked Jonathan Lugo, who runs a number of fighter tournaments in New York, about the economics of professional play. He put it like this: “Look at Justin Wong. He’s one of the five best players in the world, and he lives in his grandfather’s basement. He should be living in a mansion!” said Lugo. “Or at least an apartment.”

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Money Isn’t Everything
Lugo used to work at Web2Zone, a gaming lounge and cyber-café in Manhattan. I caught up with him again this winter. These days, he sets up fighting game tournaments at colleges in the city. He agrees with Dawson that money plays a vital role in determining who becomes a professional player at what sort of game. In addition to the arcade argument, he also points to the fact that many fighting game tournaments feature old games, which are even cheaper to come by than Dead or Alive 4.

Marvel vs. Capcom 2, now nearly a decade old, is a big draw on the American fighting game circuit, and Lugo cites it as evidence. “Let’s face facts,” he says. “Most people who play it are from the hood.”

He means “hood” in all of its connotations, because Lugo wants to explain why fighting games, rather than just any old cheap game, have such appeal in the inner city. He sees a correlation between the environment in which people live and the games they want to play. Or, to be more specific, he finds that a player’s neighborhood shapes his gaming desires.

“Why do people buy Halo 3?” he asks. “Because they want to be the hero, to be the one who leads the team … they buy Guitar Hero because they want to play guitar but they’re not talented enough.”

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“Why do people play Street Fighter? Because they want to fight people; they want to beat people up.”

Lugo’s simply saying that the suburban white boys who dominate Halo competitions grow up with a different experience of violence than the inner-city African Americans, Asians, and Latinos who dominate fighters. “They’re trying to find something that reminds them of their lives,” he says of the latter. Lugo thinks that fighting games give these kids a feeling of control over violence – a feeling that eludes them in their daily lives.

Who Plays the Black Guy?
But this argument only goes so far. For one thing, it’s not the case that minority players of fighting games necessarily come from poor backgrounds – or urban ones. Nor do they necessarily grow up in the arcades. Jeremy “Black Mamba” Florence, who won the first Dead or Alive world championship in CGS, started out primarily as an online player.

This is where the character explanation comes in. When I asked Michelle Pleet, one of the women players of DOA at CGS, how she would explain the demographics of her colleagues, she said, “I think it has a lot to do with the game itself.” Fighting games often have huge rosters of playable characters, and these characters tend to be racially diverse. “Shooters don’t have that variety,” she said.

Pleet is extending an argument commonly made by women who play Dead or Alive. Despite the game’s investment in top-of-the-line breast physics – and infamous “bounce” settings – DOA has always enjoyed popularity with women and girls. “DOA somehow finds a way to attract men and not be offensive to women at the same time,” she said. Pleet and a number of her peers find the strength of the ladies of Dead or Alive appealing. She imagines that the racially diverse cast of DOA – and of fighting games more broadly – may do the same for minority players.

Fighting game line-ups do tend to have a rainbow coalition look, and there’s a clear logic to this casting. Fighters try to include as many different fighting styles as possible, and an easy way to visually communicate that a character employs a certain style is to give him a race typically associated with it. Thus, you get black boxers, Chinese kung fu fighters, Japanese sumo wrestlers and so on.

Of course, these conventional associations between race and fighting style have never been stringently applied. Dead or Alive features a brother and sister pair of black Americans, Zack and Lisa. He practices Muay Thai, while she does lucha libre.

But the point remains that Dead or Alive offers as much racial diversity as fighting games do in general. Dawson agrees that fighters feature more varied casts than other genres, but doesn’t think that minorities play them for this reason. Players choose characters for the gameplay advantages they provide, he observes, not according to race.

Lugo agrees, saying that players don’t often talk about the race of a character as a draw. “I wanted to play Marvel vs. Capcom because of Spider-Man,” he says. “Eventually I found out that Spider-Man’s a shitty character, but that’s why I started playing it.”

Still, Pleet isn’t saying that being drawn to certain characters means you have to play as them. Though Dead or Alive‘s juicy chicks interest her, she plays as Gen Fu, a dried-up old Chinese guy.

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Kids of the New Arcade
The closest we can come to unifying these theories is to say that the arcade fighting game community replicated itself in the tournament circuit.. While the racial diversity found in the games themselves may attract minority players, the demographics of the competitors almost certainly does. As with so many other phenomena in American racial life, this one may be self-reinforcing.

Not too many people discuss race in the fighting game community. “It’s still really taboo,” says Lugo. He thinks this taboo may stem from an unwillingness to confront the idea that the broader gaming audience lacks an interest in fighting game competition because of the race of the competitors. I’d argue that this taboo also exists among the community of people who cover games for much the same reason.

How you decide to approach game journalism implies the demographics of the people you’ll report on. If you talk about games as works of art in themselves, like film or literature, then you’ll talk to and praise the work of game developers. If you argue that the unique excellence of games lies in their interactivity – if you think of them as performance – then you’ll take an interest in people who play them at a very high level.

These two groups exhibit clear differences in class and race. Talking to a pro gamer is very different from talking to a programmer. So how do you decide which one to talk to? It’s one thing for a white game journalist to sit at home and type up his reviews; it’s another entirely for him to walk his ass into a Smash Bros. tournament. It’s intimidating to take on the role of minority. This kind of reporting lies outside the comfort zone of most gaming media.

Self-segregation begets self-segregation. It is the cause and the effect of the strange racial dynamics of fighting games.

Ray Huling is a freelance journalist living in Boston.

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