One of the Subtle Successes of Combo Breaker

Note: Originally uploaded on Red Bull. Post has been slightly altered from original upload.

Combo Breaker may be one of the biggest FGC tournaments of the year, but part of what makes it a success comes from something much less visible.

This past Memorial Day weekend, the FGC was once again enthralled by Combo Breaker. The event manages to consistently be one of the best fighting game events of the year, with a grassroots nature that somehow meshes perfectly with its premier esports stage. Many players had the most fun time they’ll have all year, and that is amazing enough by itself.

This year’s Combo Breaker seems to have amazingly managed to blow it’s prior years out of the water.. The event itself has upscaled a bit, with an entire extra ballroom to play with (which was used for panels, additional arcade setups, BYOC casuals, and even card games), and the widespread appeal is obvious even outside of FGC circles. Gaming outlets have been singing its near-universal praises, from sites such as Kotaku, Yahoo Esports, and even ESPN.

Part of Combo Breaker’s success comes from their willingness to appeal to more than just the core audience of dedicated tournament players. The convention feeling at the event is one obvious example of this, but more was happening this year. We’ll get into why the openness of the event and games like Super Street Fighter II Turbo helped make the event stand out.

Spectator’s Paradise

The ComboBreaker crowd soaks up the attention.

Outside of the high production values and extra pains taken to satisfy the hardcore fighting game fan, Combo Breaker did a lot to make sure the average nerd was taken care of. The first sign of that was no charge for spectator badges, which was carried over from the event’s 2016 run. Anyone could show up regardless of interest in the tournaments and walk around, enjoying arcade machines, casual setups, art, friends, high-level matchups, and whatever else they came for.

While it seems like an obvious choice, Combo Breaker’s decision here is far from the norm. The fighting game community can be insular at times, with some community members only thinking about players currently in the scene or people trying to get into the scene. So, when free spectator passes were announced, most people thought of how this would affect the community in general. Community members that didn’t compete are benefited, family members and significant others are benefited, but this openness served as more than just a bonus nicety for the in-crowd.

There were people this past Memorial Day weekend who experienced the FGC for the first time, people who lived in the area and just heard about the event by chance. Some of the attendees were simply Uber and Lyft drivers who heard about Combo Breaker during rides. People ranging from restaurant workers to store clerks experienced part of the event from interacting with players, and some portion of them took the time to come see for themselves what the hype was about.

While these interactions and interests from the outside world are commonplace at any major gaming event, the free spectator passes allowed that interest to convert into actual participants effortlessly. So, while the bigger attractions of Combo Breaker tend to hog the spotlight, it’s important to take the time to appreciate the subtle attributes to the event’s overall success.

Generations past and present

Fans enjoy games at the Combo Breaker tournament.

One big benefit when considering the spectating newcomer was the inclusion of games the average person would be able to enjoy. One such game that had a lot of interest this year was Super Street Fighter II Turbo, which many of today’s working class adults played during the golden age of arcades.

At Combo Breaker, the Super Turbo station saw constant traffic through the weekend. The seats to play were often filled even outside of its tournament, with players lined up waiting to play behind them. Many of these people wouldn’t consider themselves fighting game players, or even FGC members. Some simply came in out of curiosity.

Paying attention to these external players that participated was enlightening. Some hadn’t played since they were children, yet instinctively remembered the thrill of the fight. Some would naturally take stances at the machines, getting so lost in the fight that it was easy to see the pure child-like passion they had left over from years past. Both their face and the battle stance they took at the cabinet betrayed the sheer joy they experienced in their matches.

Some of these adult players didn’t attend alone, either. Some brought their children, taking advantage of the free spectator passes. It was something special to see; father and son sitting side by side on a Super Turbo machine, or to catch the look of surprise and admiration a son had seeing his father taking on an external challenger. Seeing generations come together through Combo Breaker and Super Turbo was amazing, and it’s easy to see how such interactions are helping stoke the passions of the next generation of potential FGC competitors.

Opening the door

Combo Breaker offers both new games and old favorite

The Super Turbo event at Combo Breaker was much more than a lure for new attendees, of course. The event attracted over 100 traditional FGC entrants — impressive for a 20+ year old game. Top 8 was a great display of skill which featured a nice mix of characters, and top-notch commentary. This was all broadcasted on the biggest screen in the ballroom, with commentary broadcasting across the entire stage.

This treatment was the same as the other main games at the event, but it held a special importance to some of those free spectator pass attendees. For some, like the fathers and sons who attended, this moment opened eyes as to just how spectacular the world of competitive fighters could be. For others who rediscovered their childhood passions, this moment served as validation and encouragement to keep that fire alive, and to attend more events in the future.

With all this said, it may seem like a no brainer that every event should just have free spectator passes. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as it sounds. These events are expensive to run, and running events without the help of spectator fees has the potential to do more harm than good when a tournament’s financial stability is on the line.

Rick Thiher’s Combo Breaker is a pretty special event, and accomplishes many things that work well. Free spectator passes are nice, but they come at a cost for the organisers that have to be made up elsewhere. For Combo Breaker specifically, Gaming Generations graciously offered to offset the losses in an attempt to help grow the scene as a whole.

With the need of finding money elsewhere, it may be unlikely to see a similar free spectator pass set up anywhere but Combo Breaker. There may come a time where benevolent investors could contribute more often to ensuring spectating is free, but as it is now it’s a rare treat that should be preserved whenever possible.

Taking some time

Combo Breaker was nice, for many reasons. As far as what has been talked about here, free spectator passes at such a large-scale event will likely be limited to very few events over the year, but that’s okay. Something about this experience being unique to Combo Breaker made it feel more special.

Most of the year the community focuses on itself, pushing its competition and level of exposure further and further. This is where the community as a whole is, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s still nice to sit back every once in awhile and take in subtler aspects of what makes events great, and Combo Breaker has plenty of them.