Street Fighter X Tekken Screenshot

While the recent announcement of Street Fighter X Tekken was met with applause from legions of dedicated gamers who stuck with the series or many who returned with the revival of Street Fighter 4, as someone who fondly remembers spending countless hours at arcades in the late 1980s and feeding quarters "borrowed" from his mother's purse playing Street Fighter 2, I can't help, but to think somewhat cynically of this new partnership between two classic fighting franchises that in different era of video games didn't need this sort of gimmick to stand out. For me, it highlights how the series and genre no longer hold the iconic status of an entire generation of video games.

Inevitably, there are a multitude of reasons and factors that contributed to the rise and decline of the Street Fighter series from that iconic status, but the one that I find most fascinating relates to its connection to the martial arts and exactly what role did martial arts play in Street Fighter's success. Games that reach a level of mass popularity aren't just technically great games. There are plenty of technically great games that fail to capture the imagination of audiences and fail to make an impression in the marketplace. Games that become über-popular are often ones that tap into a greater collective subconscious and appeal to our most popular fantasies.

Take Grand Theft Auto III (GTA3) for example. Prior to GTA3's release, an entire generation of consumers had been exposed to films and TV shows like The Godfather, Pulp Fiction and The Sopranos that mythologized the behavior of gangsters and made the act of behaving badly look cool. The technical aspects of the game did it no favors. The gameplay of GTA3 was far from polished and the graphics were just plain ugly. What catapulted GTA3 into a cultural phenomenon was in large part because it tapped into our desire to act out those media-fueled criminal fantasies without fear of any legal repercussion.

Street Fighter II also found similar success due to Kung-Fu movies like Enter the Dragon and Blood Sport, which defined the aesthetic for which the game was based on. Such films usually revolve and culminate around some form of a martial arts tournament, but despite its predictability, this formula continually gets rehashed time and time again because as a society we are competitive by nature and value physical superiority. No one cares if you're the best in kickball or hopscotch. The most fundamental way to prove one's superiority over another is by way of a good ass-kicking (martial arts universally representing the highest levels of ass-kickery) and we're willing to pay good money to either participate or witness such contests.

Street Fighter II Screenshot

When Street Fighter II was released in 1991, it was at the time, a near perfect synthesis of what we come to expect from a digital version of Blood Sport. Unlike the original Street Fighter, the cast of playable characters in the sequel was more vibrant and diverse. The action was also faster and more accessible, which meant more people could be their own Frank Dux and test their mettle against everyone in the neighborhood willing to lineup a quarter. Many players accepted this challenge and arcades flourished by devoting a majority of its floor space to the game to meet the demand.

So if Street Fighter II taps into our innate desire to prove our physical superiority, why did subsequent parts fail to achieve the same level of success? That in large part has to do with the changing perception of martial arts in society. We use our perception (not necessarily the practice) of the martial arts as the universally accepted vehicle/platform in which we prove our physical superiority against one another. But in 1993, a real-life PPV martial arts tournament dubbed the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) forever altered our perception of the martial arts.

The once ideal image of Hollywood-stars like Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Segal gave way to the image of an unassuming and scrawny-looking Royce Gracie, who used Brazilian Jiu Jitsu grappling and submission techniques to defeat larger men in the first four UFC tournaments. Those Brazilian Jujitsu techniques served as the foundation for the hybrid fighting techniques that would evolve into what's now known as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Overnight, traditional martial arts schools, that often perpetuated the cinematic stereotypes for profit, were forced to rethink the effectiveness and validity of their combat systems.

Despite rapid growth in popularity and revenue, the UFC and MMA have yet to achieve mainstream recognition, but that hasn't stymied its perception in pop-culture entertainment as the new de facto standard for what we now consider to be the pinnacle of martial arts. When people debate who the strongest and toughest fighter in the world is, no longer are matinee idols like Jackie Chan and Jet Li considered in the running. MMA fighters like Anderson Silva and George St. Pierre are more likely to be considered. In a recent interview on Letterman, even Sylvester Stallone acknowledged that none of the many action stars featured in The Expendables, including Steven Austin, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren and Sly himself, would be no match against the sole MMA practitioner in its cast, a 47 year-old Randy Couture.

Looking at the latest version of Street Fighter (Part IV), the martial arts in that game bares closer resemblance to the hyper-stylized fighting that you might see in the polarizing anime, Dragon Ball Z, rather then something that you might find in the UFC, there is a disconnect between the game and its subject. Street Fighter is ultimately a game about kicking and punching each other in the face and that is the foundation that players are able to relate to. When the game no longer represents the perception of fighting that is expected from players, then the game becomes meaningless as a competitive game of hopscotch.

Competition is a major motivating factor as to why so many people played Street Fighter, but that doesn't explain why Street Fighter II surpassed other two-player competitive games before it. What people compete in is also a large part of the equation that is often overlooked. Gamers need to feel connected to the content and gameplay in order for it to be considered worthwhile. Martial arts are the basis by which these games define their connection and value to the world and our lives. If players no longer feel like they are competing in something that at least resembles martial arts in their mind, then the connection is lost and they'll seek out other games that might satisfy their thirst for meaningful competition.

Would the Street Fighter series have remained consistently popular had it adapted its game mechanics to match the evolution of MMA? This is difficult to say because while UFC and MMA have forever changed our perception of the martial arts, it still hasn't achieved a level of mass acceptance that would result in instant popularity. More realism in fighting games may not be what consumers are craving for as even the latest game based on the UFC, UFC Undisputed 2010, has stumbled a bit in terms of sales. Ultimately the allure of a romanticized version of Blood Sport may have simply passed it's time as the world is now aware of what actual street fighting looks like and we know it doesn't involve fireballs and hurricane kicks.

Chi Kong Lui

Chi Kong Lui

In the 1980s, Chi grew up in small town on the outskirts of New York City called Jackson Heights. Latino actor, John Leguizamo referred to the town as the "melting pot of the world," and while living there, Chi was exposed to many diverse cultures, as well as a bevy of arcade classics such as Pac-Man, Space Ace, Space Harrier and Double Dragon. Chi's love of videogames only seemed to grow as his parents finally caved and bought him an 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (after being the only kid in the block without one). In the 1990s, Chi finagled his way into the prestigious Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts.

Somewhere between all the gaming, Chi some how managed to finish high school and get into the New York Institute of Technology. At the same time, Chi also interned at Virtual Frontiers, an Internet software consultancy where he learned the ways of HTML. Soon after acquiring his BFA, Chi went on to become the lead Web designer of the Anti-Defamation League. During his tenure there, Chi was instrumental in redesigning and relaunching the non-profit organization's Web site.

Today, Chi is the webmaster of the American Red Cross in Greater New York and somehow managed to work through the tragic events of September 11th without losing his sanity. Chi considers GameCritics.com his life's work and continues to be amazed that the web site is still standing after the recent dotcom fallout. It is his dream that GameCritics.com will accomplish two things: 1) Redefine the grammar of videogames much the same way French film critic Andre Bazin did for the art of cinema and 2) bring game criticism to the forefront of mainstream culture much the same way Siskel & Ebert did for film criticism.
Chi Kong Lui

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25 Comments on "Exploring the impact of UFC and MMA on Street Fighter"

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Chi Kong Lui
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Chi Kong Lui
6 years 1 month ago
[quote=Li-Ion] I think you are writing from a very US-centered perspective here. The term ‘international’ doesn’t just mean Alabama AND Kentucky ;-)[/quote] This is a fair criticism. I don’t deny that its a very US-centric perspective. Some of my statements will not apply to every like Docbrown and you, but that’s the limitation when discussing broad topics. In my defense, this is a blog/rant and I didn’t have the wherewithal to qualify all of my statements. [quote=Li-Ion]In Europe, nobody knows Chuck Liddell. People who are into martial arts know that MMA exists, but that’s about it. I had a discussion… Read more »
Li-Ion
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Li-Ion
6 years 1 month ago
Lolwut? Seriously, the Captcha is getting ridicilous: I just had A-lambda-H-theta-H … how am I supposed to type in lambda (capital lambda that is) and theta with a normal US-International keyboard layout? After 4 times reloading I finally got no greek letters. However, I had something that resembled what birds leave behind on the windscreen of a car… (why do we need captcha anyway, since the postings have to be approved by a moderator now?) [quote=Chi Kong Lui]Our generation grew up wanting to be Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. Kung fu stars aren’t really around anymore. Donnie Yen and Tony… Read more »
crackajack
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crackajack
6 years 1 month ago
[quote=Chi Kong Lui]Prior to 1993, the general public didn’t know what real fighting was.[/quote] The general public won’t know more about how professional fighting looks also not in the near future. Only real figthing, average joe style, the common knowledge everyone might have. MMA will hardly be ever in mass market media, movies, because part of it, the rolling around the floor part, is rather awkward, so it will be Kickboxing and something like that in movies. Figthing fans did always know how fights looked like in the specific class? 1993? then UFC was founded. As above mentioned Pankration is… Read more »
Chi Kong Lui
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Chi Kong Lui
6 years 1 month ago
[quote=crackajack]Where did SF claim to be “Real Street Fighting”? It was a name like Mortal Kombat or Killer Instinct. SF did it to place their fights in streets or actually anywhere and MK and KI tried to be the rougher SFs.[/quote] Prior to 1993, the general public didn’t know what real fighting was. I’m surprised that you don’t think there is any cultural relevance to the title “Street Fighter”. I think the problem I didn’t anticipate with my blog post is how the SF game and title is so ingrained in the gamer lexicon that to gamers, SF is actually… Read more »
Chi Kong Lui
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Chi Kong Lui
6 years 1 month ago
[quote=Li-Ion]You could ask the same question about Guitar Hero. The plastic guitar doesn’t have much in common with playing a real guitar. Despite this it was a huge success, because it made Joe Average feel like a rockstar. A new wave of music games is about to come out, which are more realistic. I doubt it will repeat the success of the first couple of Guitar Heroes and Rock Band, since the majority of players doesn’t need/want a intricate simulation of the real deal. I think Street Fighter 2 was just the right game at the right time. Going head… Read more »
crackajack
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crackajack
6 years 1 month ago
[quote=Chi Kong Lui]I would if Starcraft 2 was called “Real WarCraft 2” (…) Let’s not forget that the concept of “Street Fighter” is based on a martial arts trope that is reinforced by the characters who are suppose to be practitioners.[/quote] Where did SF claim to be “Real Street Fighting”? It was a name like Mortal Kombat or Killer Instinct. SF did it to place their fights in streets or actually anywhere and MK and KI tried to be the rougher SFs. SF had the same idea as later had the american UFC or netherland Free Fight guys by revitalizing… Read more »
Li-Ion
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Li-Ion
6 years 1 month ago
[quote=Chi Kong Lui]I would if Starcraft 2 was called “Real WarCraft 2” and if Mario was based on gymnastics. Let’s not forget that the concept of “Street Fighter” is based on a martial arts trope that is reinforced by the characters who are suppose to be practitioners.[/quote] It’s still Street Fighter and not Real Fighter 😉 I’d say Mario bases as much on real gymnastics as SF does on real fighting. I think nobody playing any SF really believed that practitioners of Karate can hurl fireballs. Ok, maybe 2 or 3 dudes, but not the majority. [quote]I don’t think there… Read more »
Chi Kong Lui
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Chi Kong Lui
6 years 1 month ago
[quote=Li-Ion]Just heard the podcast… I guess I’m a bit late to the party 😉 [quote]If players no longer feel like they are competing in something that at least resembles martial arts in their mind, then the connection is lost and they’ll seek out other games that might satisfy their thirst for meaningful competition.[/quote] Would you then also argue that Starcraft 2 is meaningless, because it doesn’t resemble real warfare? That Mario is meaningless, because it doesn’t resemble olympic gymnastics?[/quote] I would if Starcraft 2 was called “Real WarCraft 2” and if Mario was based on gymnastics. Let’s not forget that… Read more »
Chi Kong Lui
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Chi Kong Lui
6 years 1 month ago
[quote=crackajack][quote]there is a disconnect between the game and its subject… the game no longer represents the perception of fighting…[/quote] Don’t agree with this. I never thought of SF of anything else than a street fighting game, following Capcoms definition of what (virtual) street fighting looks like. Its subject was itself, only a game. Rocky never showed real boxing, neither did Punch Out. Did anyone connect those together or think of it as the way boxing looks like? WWF was a funny show but it was only a show, similar to Bud Spencer movies. Why should i connect SF with Bloodsport… Read more »
Li-Ion
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Li-Ion
6 years 1 month ago
Just heard the podcast… I guess I’m a bit late to the party 😉 [quote]If players no longer feel like they are competing in something that at least resembles martial arts in their mind, then the connection is lost and they’ll seek out other games that might satisfy their thirst for meaningful competition.[/quote] Would you then also argue that Starcraft 2 is meaningless, because it doesn’t resemble real warfare? That Mario is meaningless, because it doesn’t resemble olympic gymnastics? Of course there are people who appreciate a more realistic martial arts game, but I think the majority of gamers couldn’t… Read more »
crackajack
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crackajack
6 years 1 month ago
[quote]there is a disconnect between the game and its subject… the game no longer represents the perception of fighting…[/quote] Don’t agree with this. I never thought of SF of anything else than a street fighting game, following Capcoms definition of what (virtual) street fighting looks like. Its subject was itself, only a game. Rocky never showed real boxing, neither did Punch Out. Did anyone connect those together or think of it as the way boxing looks like? WWF was a funny show but it was only a show, similar to Bud Spencer movies. Why should i connect SF with Bloodsport… Read more »
Matthew K
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6 years 1 month ago

I still disagree with aspects of the post, but I can more clearly see where you’re coming from. I can appreciate you backtracking on the “irrelevant” part, which, for better or worse, is what I and others picked up on. Thanks for revisiting and revising.

Cybrmynd
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Cybrmynd
6 years 1 month ago
I don’t think anyone’s saying that Martial Art flicks were the basis for SFII’s popularity. There were many reasons why SFII was such a cultural phenomenon. The zeitgeist of the time, was just one factor. However, that factor has not translated well into the 21st century. It’s as if people could no longer suspend their disbelief, and a progressive change started to occur (I don’t think this applies only to movies, but to practitioners as well) Therefore this would put new Street Fighter titles outside the realm of trends happening today. Because of this, Street Fighter IV might be a… Read more »
Dennis
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Dennis
6 years 1 month ago
I can’t say that I agree with the premise of this article. I don’t think Street Fighter achieved its success by tapping into some cultural zeitgeist surrounding kung-fu flicks. I speak as a 30-something gamer who spent a lot of time at the arcade on his lunch breaks, and, for me, the rise and fall (and subsequent resurrection) of Street Fighter had to do with completely different factors. First, the death of the arcade had something to do with my loss of interest in Street Fighter. Playing a game like Street Fighter II in the arcade was a social event;… Read more »
joe
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joe
6 years 1 month ago
[quote=Chi Kong Lui]I disagree that fighting in movies has become more acrobatic. Most of the fighting techniques that you see in popular movies like Dark Knight and Jason Bourne are rooted military combat systems[/quote] Are grappling/punching even in the same genre as fighting games? Older fighting games did not mature into modern day combat, because they are just separate things (or so it seems to me). Street fighter in particular, was/is a very specific product, with ridged definitions. Forget about adapting to a new era. People are counting frames with that franchise. Im no expert, but the only discussions I… Read more »
Chi Kong Lui
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Chi Kong Lui
6 years 2 months ago
[quote=Sparky Clarkson]I’m a bit confused by your thesis. You point, correctly I think, to the idea that the popular imagination on many subjects is informed by the movies’ take on them, and that this affects the kinds of games that we are given. While I agree that movie fighting has changed since the time of Street Fighter II, I don’t really see how it’s changed to be more like MMA.[/quote] One of the biggest misconceptions about what I’ve written is that I implying that MMA has taken over all video games and movies. At two points in the article, I… Read more »
Sparky Clarkson
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Sparky Clarkson
6 years 2 months ago
I’m a bit confused by your thesis. You point, correctly I think, to the idea that the popular imagination on many subjects is informed by the movies’ take on them, and that this affects the kinds of games that we are given. While I agree that movie fighting has changed since the time of Street Fighter II, I don’t really see how it’s changed to be more like MMA. I’m hardly a connoisseur, but the few UFC and other MMA fights I’ve seen were relatively measured affairs, as you might expect from guys who actually know how to fight and… Read more »
Chi Kong Lui
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Chi Kong Lui
6 years 2 months ago
[quote=Cybrmynd]You could take it even further and present how martial arts is portrayed in recent cinema, for example, The Bourne Series, the recent James Bond and the new Batman films, and even someone like Tony Jaa. They add to the current phase of perceived martial arts, as in up-close fighting instead of the old, flashy cliche-ridden fighting.[/quote] Good point on recent martial arts in movies. People forget that prior to UFC in 1993, people had no concept of what “real” fighting looked like (even martial artists who rarely practice sparring). People honestly thought guys like Jackie Chan and Steven Segal… Read more »
DocBrown
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6 years 2 months ago
I’m glad that I was able to read a more fleshed out version of your argument Chi. I understand your premise, but I think you’re unwarrantably extrapolating a particular opinion into a broad generalization. If there’s one thing that’s always irked the hell out of me about games writing, it’s the frequent assumption made by journalists that everyone plays games for the same reason. Allow an example: I’ve heard many podcasts/blogs claim that people play RPGs for their stories/narratives, which leads to a criticism of games such as Dragon Quest IX, Oblivion, etc. where the story is not THE main… Read more »
Chi Kong Lui
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Chi Kong Lui
6 years 2 months ago
Hey everyone, the point of this blog post was to be reflective of a different time in video games and to consider what the possible impact of UFC/MMA might have had on games like Street Fighter 2. In my haste to express those thoughts, I made generalizations about the Street Fighter series and callously used the word “irrelevant” without context to the point of distraction from my main premise. So in response to some of the unexpected feedback I’ve been getting, I made some changes to the post so it more accurately reflects the tone and ideas of what I… Read more »
Cybrmynd
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Cybrmynd
6 years 2 months ago
You could take it even further and present how martial arts is portrayed in recent cinema, for example, The Bourne Series, the recent James Bond and the new Batman films, and even someone like Tony Jaa. They add to the current phase of perceived martial arts, as in up-close fighting instead of the old, flashy cliche-ridden fighting. As a game, Street Fighter II was revolutionary. I’d bet however the public became attracted to the game cause of its similarity to other media, during the height of the 80’s and 90’s martial arts craze. It’s difficult for me to deny how… Read more »
Leopold
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Leopold
6 years 2 months ago
I’ll contend that the Street Fighter series has always had more in common with Dragon Ball Z than with Bloodsport, or even actual martial arts. It is, foremost, a Japanese game series with sensibilities that are much closer to shonen fighting manga than any of the western movies you mentioned. I lived in Japan during the era that Street Fighter II was released, which also happened to be when Dragon Ball Z was at the peak of its popularity. And like the many derivative games that Street Fighter II inspired, you couldn’t crack open a comic magazine or turn on… Read more »
abfackeln
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abfackeln
6 years 2 months ago

I think this is more of a rant on why Street Fighter is irrelevant to you. It certainly isn’t irrelevant to gamers.

Street Fighter 4 sold 3.15 million copies were as UFC 09 sold 3.46 million units. That is not that big of a difference.

Super SF 4 sold 1.15 million copies compared to UFC’s 1.13 million.

http://www.vgchartz.com/game.php?id=41760

http://www.vgchartz.com/worldtotals.php?name=street%20fighter

Kind of ironic since earlier today a whole bunch of guys in my office were talking about how much hey like SF 4 and are planning a tournament in our office.

Matthew K
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6 years 2 months ago
When have people ever, ever, ever turned to Street Fighter II for realism? “If players no longer feel like they are competing in something that at least resembles martial arts in their mind, then the connection is lost and they’ll seek out other games that might satisfy their thirst for meaningful competition.” So in your mind, the series has striven to reflect real-life martial arts competitions with its emphasis on fireballs, stretchy limbs, giant Brazilian dog-men, and flying megalomaniacs? Street Fighter and real life are about as relevant to one another as UFC is to boxing, or a sport in… Read more »
n0wak
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6 years 2 months ago
Is Burnout irrelevant in the age of Gran Turismo? I mean, who’d want to do some crazy drifting and crashing when you could be worrying about properly tuning your spark-plug and sticking to proper racing lines? Would Split/Second have achieved the kind of sales of Forza if it incorporated hyper-realistic tire modeling? This whole argument seems to hinge on the fact that we play these games, be it Street Fighter of UFC, for external reasons. We play these because action stars are in vogue and because MMA is popular and what not. This might be the case for a licensed… Read more »
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