Far away from the stadiums full of lights, roaring audiences, and sponsored teams of the ever-growing eSports spectacle are enthusiasts gathering amongst themselves for underground fight clubs. Gathered in whatever spaces they can secure for the afternoon, fighters step up to make a name and become local legends. The road to worldwide championship is long and arduous, but it begins with whispered tales of legendary fighting feats in the local halls.
Red Bull, a long time sponsor of eSports, has begun to turn their attention towards the underground tournaments of local competitive gamers with its Proving Ground series of tournaments across the United States and Canada. Instead of slapping their name on massive multimedia events that draw hundreds of thousands of audience members, they’re providing opportunities for the up-and-comers in the fighting game community. It’s exciting to see such a behemoth of a company giving back to the community in a way that has the potential to shape the future of competitive gaming.
As the name, Proving Ground, suggests, Red Bull has their eyes on the players that show promise in local fights. The Red Bull representatives that I spoke to unanimously voiced a strong desire to ultimately send many of the hometown heroes to the big leagues, so to speak.
But Red Bull is not creating these communities overnight. Rather, they are providing funding and personnel to fighting game communities that already exist. In that way, what I witnessed at the third of four Seattle Battle Operas wasn’t strictly a Red Bull-sponsored event in its infancy, but actually a culmination of many years’ work and dedication by the Seattle-based fighting game community.
Much of the blood, sweat, and tears belong to one Denniz Bengisoy, who spent most of the event with his clipboard and computer, making sure that the tournament of well over 100 competitive fighters was going smoothly. Though he and his team were constantly making adjustments to the tournament to account for last minute changes and additions, he was very friendly and gracious enough to sit down with me and explain how this event came to be.
Denniz, pronounced “Dennis”, started hosting fighting game tournaments in 2011, but his origins into the fighting scene couldn’t be any humbler. He recalled that the first tournament he hosted, a Mortal Kombat tournament at a local LAN center called GameClucks, was only attended by himself and his friend, whom he had collaborated with to set it up. Disappointed, the two of them sat amongst empty chairs waiting for anyone to show up, but no one came.
Finally, the owner, Chris Anderson, wandered over to their station, curious as to why the area was so quiet. Denniz explained their situation, and Chris smiled and refunded their money. He encouraged them to consistently keep coming back, week after week, and to not be discouraged by their lack of immediate success.
Over the following weeks, Denniz and Chris worked together to create an inviting environment for players to come and compete, and, slowly, players began to take notice. Before long, Denniz was managing tournaments made up of a healthy-sized group of players. They even managed to catch the attention of some of the Seattle “old guard”; local legends of the Seattle fighting game scene who had stopped or lessened their playing over the years.
In that time, Denniz has increased the visibility of his group by volunteering for Northwest Majors and Magic: The Gathering tournaments. These opportunities have also taught him about many important aspects of managing his own community and tournaments. Denniz said that this was one of the best ways to grow the community. If he shows interest and takes part in other communities’ events, they are more likely to take an interest in his.
Over time, Denniz and his hard-working support team have created an active and diverse community that gives the Seattle fighting game elite a venue to test their meddle against one another and gives newcomers a place where they can be trained and mentored by more experienced players.
Denniz also decried the loss of local hubs of game activity. The decrease in arcades and the move from local to online multiplayer have made real-life meeting-places and gaming communities rare. This is compounded in the fighting game community by the globalization of EVO and other prestigious fighting game tournaments. The scale and scope of these events takes the attention away from West Coast/East Coast rivalries, and smaller rivalries between towns which, to a degree, anonymizes the actual, real-world locations each player represents.
Provided location, community, and consistency, though, Denniz has found that players are itching to get involved in local communities once again, and the developments in the fighting game genre are continuing to give his group a steady boost of new talent.
The release of Street Fighter V, which is in many ways more forgiving and kinder to beginners than Street Fighter IV before it, has brought with it many new players curious to learn the ropes from the “09ers” (those who’ve been playing Street Fighter IV since its launch in 2009). To a lesser extent, new Mortal Kombat, Guilty Gear, Skullgirls, and Killer Instinct releases also bring waves of new competitors. Even Super Smash Bros. games, Denniz says, bring new blood into tournaments about four or five years after their release, once those players start getting curious about more mainline fighting games.
That diversity in game preference was immediately visible when players started filtering into the room. Though the formal tournament consisted of Guilty Gear Xrd -Revelator- and Street Fighter V, practice screens across the room were alight with Skullgirls, Killer Instinct, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and more.
Though Denniz doesn’t play as much as he used to, his competitive nature makes him a great event manager. He states that he “wants to see [his] friends lose” because losing means learning. Losing means being challenged. Losing means being bested by the beginners that they trained months ago. And losing makes the victories even sweeter when the odds are overcome.
With the funding and support of Red Bull, Denniz Bengisoy and his community have turned their passion into something grander than they could have imagined on their own. Though Seattle hasn’t yet made a splash in the world-class competitive Street Fighter scene, Denniz hopes that his community, bolstered by each other’s support, will rise to that ultimate challenge.
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