By the final matches of EVO 2023, it was clear that the fighting game community (FGC) was in the middle of an exciting shift. The tournament, which has long been considered the most prestigious in the scene, boasted the highest number of entrants for any competition in genre history. As pointed out multiple times throughout its broadcast, a significant percentage of the people attending were doing so for the first time, with many of them getting into these games during the pandemic. This influx of players has been bolstered by factors such as a steady slate of new titles and drastic improvements to online play over the past few years, but it always feels like the weeks following EVO are a particularly special time.
While some of the Top Six brackets (the sets between the last six competitors left for a specific game) from this year’s tournament were more tepid than usual due to the prevalence of mirror matches (when both players use the same character) and relatively one-sided beatdowns in titles like Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, where the margin of error has become minuscule at top levels of play, things ended with a bang. The final game up was the recently released Street Fighter 6. It was the driver behind the record-high entrant numbers, and its bracket was packed with many of the most winning competitors across different fighting game series. Its last six challengers were known names from the past few decades of Street Fighter, ranging from those who burst onto the scene with Street Fighter V, alongside long-time veterans such as Tokido and Haitani, who dominated in the days of Street Fighter II and Street Fighter III.
(Before I spoil the results, you can check out this final stretch of the tournament here.)
In short, this Top Six lived up to the hype, delivering a string of nailbiters that showcased the best of what the new game has to offer. While it had only been out for a little over two months, the competitors were already capable of absurd feats, and the crowd erupted amidst climactic comebacks. The last two left standing were Saul Leonardo “MenaRD” Mena II, the only person who has won two Capcom Cup titles, and Amjad “AngryBird” Al-Shalabi, a rising star who has already established himself as one of the best Street Fighter 6 players. Their sets were close all the way through. MenaRD switched back and forth between playing as Luke, a powerful all-rounder with inexplicable Popeye arms, and Blanka, an unorthodox and underused character that he previously used to win CEO 2023, the game’s first major. Mena successfully won their first set by a narrow 3-2 margin, but since he had already lost earlier in the tournament and was sent to the Losers Bracket, he had to win an additional first-to-three set against AngryBird to take the event. Mena continued to switch back and forth between his two mains, but AngryBird’s hyper-aggressive playstyle paired perfectly with his character Ken’s strengths, leading to a vortex of pressure and mix-ups. In the end, AngryBird’s barrage of offensive proved too much for Mena, and he was able to clinch his first EVO trophy.
Riding the EVO Energy and Finding a Reason to Play
This year’s EVO ended in the type of electrifying display that can inspire people to dive headfirst into this seemingly imposing genre, and that same sense of awe encouraged me to take the plunge years ago. I’m happy I did because despite playing just about every variety of videogame, fighting games have given me a depth of satisfaction I haven’t found in any other form of digital entertainment. There’s the gratification of finally nailing the technique you’ve been practicing, as what once seemed impossible becomes a reflex. The more you learn, the greater the strategic push and pull comes into focus, but the goofy pleasure of doing some dumb nonsense and it miraculously working never entirely subsides. It all leads to a distinct joy that, at least for me, only comes from digging deeply into a thing and understanding its ins and outs in intimate detail. Hours have melted away as I’ve plucked away at these games. If you’re not careful about your outlook, this investment can make losses sting in a uniquely painful way, but as long as you can put yourself in the right headspace, the delights that come from victory are far richer than the lows of defeat.
If you’re someone who watched EVO and was impressed by what you saw, caught glimpses of these games at a barcade years ago, saw a buddy obsessing over King of Fighters combo trials, or who, through pure cultural osmosis, has absorbed enough to become curious, the good news is that it’s never been easier to get into fighting games. The most obvious reason for this is that after a release drought in the early 2000s, the genre has recovered thanks to the revitalization of old franchises and an infusion of fresh blood. However, it’s not just that there are more things to play. Developers have also made substantial improvements to online functionality and have made conscious design decisions that cater to inexperienced players.
The Rollback Revolution and the Benefits of Modern Fighting Games
Arguably, the most transformative element of this new generation of games is that “rollback netcode” has become the standard for how the genre handles playing against others remotely, resulting in a far smoother and more consistent experience when battling over the internet. While delay-based netcode freezes the game whenever there is a drop in connectivity so it can receive the players’ latest inputs, rollback makes an assumption about their most recent actions to avoid interrupting things. Most of the time, that guess ends up being right, and it will be impossible to tell that there was a dip in connectivity. If the guess wasn’t correct, it quickly “rolls back” the state of the match to reflect the correct input. Because fighting games are extremely timing-based, reducing these stutters transforms how it feels to play online, increasing the number of people you can play against by making geographical distance and slower connections between players less of a factor. It’s so effective that a lot of weekly tournaments have opted to remain online even after larger events are returning to in-person attendance. Rollback has become the industry standard, and it’s also being retrofitted to plenty of older installments, either officially by developers or through modded emulators.
In addition to rollback being an expectation for this latest wave, many new games also feel designed with newcomers in mind, making it easier to jump in. Some do this by adding improved tutorialization that introduces their core mechanics and communicates why and when you should use these maneuvers. Traditionally, the genre has been fairly miserable at coherently explaining itself in a way laypeople can understand, so it’s nice that recent titles like Mortal Kombat 11 do a much better job of conveying advanced techniques and strategies. Additionally, Street Fighter 6 embeds tips in its single-player World Tour mode, gradually introducing the basics amidst a lengthy action RPG. It also has a well-constructed training mode that exposes frame data and other detailed info that used to be exclusively buried in forum posts.
A more controversial way that some of these games try to appeal to newbies is by simplifying their mechanics. Unsurprisingly, this a point of contention for existing players, some of whom bemoan that recent releases are “dumbed down” and less interesting than older iterations. While a few recent entries reduced their complexity to such a degree that they saw a faster-than-usual drop-off in users, such as DNF Duel, plenty of modern games maintain a generous degree of nuance while potentially lowering the barrier to entry. For instance, Street Fighter 6’s optional Modern control scheme eliminates the need to perform complex inputs, like Z-motions or half circles, which is frequently cited as a stumbling block for beginners. Ideally, these streamlined control options let people get a taste of the good stuff, such as the feeling of countering your opponent’s strategy, so they’re encouraged to keep playing. In an ideal world, these changes create an accessible entry point without removing the additional layers of complexity that give matches variety and dynamism.
The Next Generation of Fighting Games Are Here, and Older Entries Are More Playable Than Ever
In addition to newcomer-friendly design and rollback netcode becoming the industry standard, we’re currently in the middle of a wave of releases, making it a particularly great time to jump in. Before I get into the nitty-gritty details of what’s out there, I should mention that I believe the number one guiding factor in deciding which game to pursue should almost always be the one you think looks cool. Some degree of passion is a big help in clearing the initial hurdles you’re likely to encounter, so whether you were pulled in by Kane Blueriver using Hulk to take down an FGC heel in Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 or the legendary Daigo parry from Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, follow the game that moves you regardless of whether it’s considered “hard” for beginners. The truth is, things will be at least a little difficult no matter which you pick, so you may as well follow whatever inspires you.
That said, if you’re worried about getting rocked so hard that you never want to pick up a fight stick again, picking up a game closer to its release can be beneficial. A title usually has a larger player base with more beginners early in its life cycle, making it easier for newcomers to find those close to their skill level. Again, you can get around this by adjusting your mentality and accepting that you’ll lose more than you win early on, but this is often easier said than done, so I understand the impulse to seek out other fresh players.
To offer a quick and oversimplified survey of the sub-genres that make up the space, there are “traditional” fighters, which tend to focus on deliberate, more ground-based play (Examples: Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Samurai Shodown, Killer Instinct, etc.), “anime fighters” or “air dashers,” which sport anime aesthetics and prioritize aerial mobility (Examples: Guilty Gear, Blazblue, Dragon Ball FighterZ, Melty Blood, etc.), and “3D fighters” which differ from the previously mentioned 2D styles because you can move along the Z axis along with the X and Y (Examples: Tekken, Soul Calibur, Dead or Alive, Virtua Fighter, etc.). There are also other descriptors such as “tag games,” where you create a team of multiple characters that you switch between and can call in for assists, or “hyper fighters,” which are similarly fast-paced to “air dashers” but without that specific universal mobility option (Examples: Marvel vs. Capcom, Skullgirls). Of course, there’s also Super Smash Bros, which is referred to as“platform fighter,” and “arena fighters” like Dragon Ball Z: Budokai, but these are mechanically different enough from the rest of the space that they won’t be covered here (although for the record, I do think they are still fighting games). Any subgenre can be newcomer-friendly depending on the implementation, but it’s good to know what subdivisions are out there because people will frequently find a particular style that speaks to them.
As for the specific games, we’re currently in a fertile period, with fresh iterations of Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Tekken either recently released or on the way. This trio tends to sport the highest player counts, and while that shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all for choosing which to pursue, their popularity makes it easier to find matches and go up against others at your skill level.
Street Fighter 6 was released this June to widespread praise, and in some ways, it’s the “obvious” pick for what to start with. It’s had the most positive response I’ve witnessed since starting with the genre a few years ago, with many veterans and fresh players alike singing its praises. I agree with this reception, and between its flexible core systems, visual flair, and excellent online play, it’s inspired me to finally enter online tourneys so I can get obliterated in an entirely new way. As the franchise that essentially created fighting games as we know it, there are traces of the franchise in every other entry in the space, making it a natural place to start.
It also helps that this installment has the most intensive set of single-player options the series has ever seen, with a Yakuza-inspired open-world RPG mode that makes for goofy fun. There’s also the Modern control option, which eases you into things with simpler inputs. And there are still layers of depth for people who want to get into the competitive side of things, with sizable character movesets, a set of systems that allow for dynamic play, and the best implementation of meter I’ve seen in the genre. While it has a slightly “slower” pace compared to air dashers, which may dissuade some, I think it successfully toes the line between frenetic anime-style fighting games and more deliberate titles. While I’m admittedly biased because I jive with its design decisions, I think it’s an excellent place to start.
As for the others in the big three, Mortal Kombat is the highest-selling franchise of the bunch, and its popularity can likely be attributed to having the most to do if you have no interest in competitive play. Their story modes have been the gold standard in the space since the well-delivered martial arts operatics of Mortal Kombat (2011). As previously mentioned, it also comes with the best tutorialization in the genre, teaching the jargon and underlying principles that dictate competitive play. Other boons for beginners are that combos are frequently easier to perform due to loose timing, and the characters are generally straightforward.
Admittedly, the series can be a tad divisive among hardcore FGC heads due to strange balancing decisions, combos that feel rhythmless, and sometimes sluggish movement options. This, combined with its intentionally stilted character animations, which perhaps too faithfully harken back to its roots, has led to these qualities being derisively described as “NetherRealms Studio jank” (this is the team behind these and the Injustice games). But for newer folks, the generous onboarding and plethora of stuff to do besides getting obliterated online can make things very accommodating. The most recent release, Mortal Kombat 11, is often available on sale, and its follow-up, Mortal Kombat 1, is slated for a September 14th release, although we obviously don’t know how it will turn out yet. Overall, if you don’t mind the bucketloads of gore, Mortal Kombat is a solid place for beginners to find their footing thanks to its robust tutorials, relatively straightforward mechanics, and plethora of things to do offline.
Rounding out the other big boys is Tekken, which is the most prominent 3D fighter remaining. I’ll admit that I don’t have a lot of experience with this series (aside from playing as the farting dinosaur in Tekken 3), but it’s readily cited as the epitome of the “easy to pick up, difficult-to-master” maxim due to its relatively straightforward combos and simpler inputs juxtaposed against its technical movement and elaborate defensive knowledge needed at higher levels of play. It also has the added benefit of looking extremely stylish in motion and is frequently described by folks who don’t play fighting games as the standout at tournaments like EVO. While Tekken 7 is known for having very inconsistent online functionality, hopefully, Tekken 8, which is coming out on January 24th of next year, will address this. If you want something visually appealing that’s known for its movement options and flashy play, or if you are drawn to the idea of a 3D fighter, Tekken may be a good choice.
If you’re drawn to fast-paced action that incorporates anime aesthetics, air-dashers, like Arc System Work’s output, may make sense. While one of their latest releases, Guilty Gear: Strive, has been disavowed by some due to its simplified move sets compared to previous entries and its slower air dash speed, these changes arguably make it easier to get into than its predecessors, which seems reflected in its general popularity and high player count. Like much of Arc System Works’ recent work, Strive is among the prettiest fighting games ever made, has a wonderfully silly rock opera soundtrack, and its characters’ mechanics are unique enough that they almost feel ripped out of different series. This one was many newcomers’ starting point, including multiple top competitors, and I think there’s a reason for that. For those who want something that shares a little more in common with the mechanics that air dashers are traditionally known for, such as very long combos and blinding mobility, the studio’s Dragon Ball: FighterZ is another solid starting point thanks to its straightforward control scheme and incredible translation of its source material’s freneticism. Unfortunately, it currently lacks rollback, but its developers promise this will be added in a future patch.
And if you don’t care about playing a game that’s come out recently, other air dashers like Blazblue: Central Fiction, Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2, Guilty Gear XX Accent Core +R, and Persona 4 Arena Ultimax all have decently active communities on Steam and have been retrofitted with rollback netcode. These entries, especially the first three, are known for being more mechanically intensive than recent iterations in the space and are also celebrated as some of the best this style has to offer. That said, their smaller player counts mean it could be challenging to find other beginners unless you seek them out on newcomer-oriented Discord channels.
A large number of classics have also been given rollback on the software client and emulator Fightcade. One of the most popular is Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, which is frequently considered one of the best fighting games of all time, thanks to its dynamic mechanics (like parry) and gorgeous pixel art. It held the community together during the dark years following the death of arcades and birthed many of the scene’s most legendary moments. Other popular choices on Fightcade are King of Fighters 2002, Vampire Saviors, and Super Street Fighter II Turbo, the final version of the game that essentially birthed the genre. While one would assume these are all entirely impenetrable due to their age, execution difficulty, and the skill of those still playing, I was surprised to find there was a decent number of other new players checking them out for the first time when I jumped into 3rd Strike earlier this year. These titles aren’t nearly as daunting as one would think and can be another valid place to start. This isn’t everything out there by a long shot, and between well-received latest installments in long-running franchises like King of Fighters XV, indies such as Them’s Fightin’ Herds, and freeware like Ultra Fight Da Kyanta 2 or Idol Showdown, there’s a bounty to choose from.
There are also more newcomer-centric games on the way. Grandblue Fantasy Versus: Rising is coming out in November, and its predecessor used simplified inputs to get fans of this gacha series into the space. Similarly, Project L, which is set in the League of Legends universe, looms large on the horizon. It’s a free-to-play title, and its developers claim it will appeal to both neophytes and veterans alike by utilizing easier inputs and fluid movement. Pro players who’ve gotten hands-on time seem quite positive about its early builds, but it always takes a lot of play time to tell how things will fully shake out, and it also probably won’t be released for a while. Regardless, this is all to say whether you want to dive into the genre’s past or ride the hype of a new release, there is much to choose from.
There Are Tons of Fan-Made Resources With New Players In Mind
While tutorials have improved across the board, the best way to “get good” at the genre still involves some degree of looking outside the games for tips. Thankfully, the FGC is full of people who love to break these titles down to their component parts, documenting every detail and strategy. Between wikis, YouTube tutorials, and Discord channels, there is an abundance of educational materials available. While I understand wading into this sea of info can be a big ask, once you get used to looking things up, you’ll find guides that convey everything from the underlying principles of the genre, to specific techniques that help you learn your character. Here are a few valuable materials to get started:
How to get started with Fighting Games and have a Nice Time, by Polygon: This video guide from Polygon is the perfect place to begin if you have even a cursory interest in the genre, as it breaks down logistical concerns, like choosing a controller or game, the basic steps you should take to improve, and addresses the mental battle, including finding motivation or confronting the anxiety that can come from playing against others online.
The Fighting Game Glossary by Infil: To outsiders, a conversation between FGC veterans may seem like a steady stream of nonsense words. Luckily, this glossary is the perfect place to look up fighting game specific terms.
Watch this 1 Daigo match to learn 14 Fighting Game fundamentals, by jmcrofts: Jmcrofts is an excellent FGC YouTuber thanks to his wealth of knowledge and positive demeanor. Here, he analyzes a 2-minute game between Daigo Umehara and Kun “Xian” Ho in Street Fighter 4 to review a couple of the underlying principles common across the genre. For me, things clicked more into place once I started to understand the basic phases of a match, and this video demonstrates these in action.
SuperCombo Wiki and Dustloop Wiki: Here are some examples of wikis with a wealth of knowledge for their chosen games. SuperCombo focuses on Street Fighter and older titles, while Dustloop is generally for Arc System Work’s output, such as Guilty Gear. These wikis frequently collect overviews on character-specific strategies, frame data, combos, and counterplay.
Discord: Discord has become an essential source for fighting game info, and nearly every game has a dedicated server where users pin relevant resources and discuss strategies for their characters. Most even have a channel where you can post replays and get tips from others.
Fighting Games Can Be for Everyone
More so than nearly any other genre, I hear people describe fighting games as impenetrable or that a nebulous pre-ordained quality determines if you are good or bad at them. In reality, no one picks these games up and immediately becomes indomitable. Daigo couldn’t perform his famous parry in 3rd Strike without practice, Justin Wong had to learn how to psychologically crush his opponents in neutral, and even Dominique “SonicFox” McLean, who is known for picking up new titles extremely quickly, has honed their abilities through fighting in hundreds of tournaments against the best competitors in the world.
This isn’t to say that everyone learns at the same speed or that some don’t have advantages such as quicker reaction times or pre-existing experience with competitive games. But, compared to many other esports, where people age out in their early twenties because sharp response times are required for top-level play, fighting games have a dramatically broader age range. Daigo is 42 years old, but a few days ago, he claimed the top spot on Street Fighter 6’s online leaderboard and still does well in stacked tournaments. The final eight competitors in EVO’s Street Fighter 6 bracket, which again was the largest of all time, included four players in their late thirties. That number might be even larger if it was more financially viable to be a high-level competitor in the genre, like in professional sports. A significant number of older players (relatively speaking) are doing well because these games are less about raw reactions and more about knowledge and practice.
My point is that for many of us, the single most significant factor in becoming better at fighting games is having sufficient interest in doing so. Granted, this process is complicated by factors such as needing to learn how to learn, the difficulty of checking our ego, and of course, the numerous responsibilities of day-to-day life. But I honestly believe that nearly everyone can improve at these games if given the time and the right tools to do so. Does that mean you’ll be the next EVO champion? Probably not. However, even if you’re not likely to become the best player on the planet, the process of getting better at the genre can bring a form of satisfaction that I’ve personally never experienced with any other type of videogame, something that’s more similar to learning an instrument or any other endeavor that requires ample time and energy. The payoff is an experience that delivers a uniquely rewarding confluence of strategy, execution, and the stylish aesthetics of martial arts films. Fighting games inspire enough passion that they’ve created one of the only gaming communities dedicated to an entire genre instead of just a specific series.
I won’t dismiss that the first steps can be daunting or mislead that the FGC is a halcyon utopia. Toxicity, sexism, and internet assholery are very much here, particularly when interacting with anonymous people online. However, the genre sports a competitive scene that is one of the most ethnically diverse in the gaming sphere and is generally quite inclusive. The games themselves are also getting better at less aggressively catering to the male gaze (although there’s still a lot of room for improvement here), and titles like Guilty Gear Strive or Grand Blue Fantasy Versus have generally respectful representations of queer characters. Street Fighter 6 overhauled its accessibility features compared to previous installments, meaning many folks with disabilities can more easily enjoy the action.
Getting into the genre has generally been about whether your desire to learn exceeds the barriers to entry, and in the modern era, these hurdles have gotten a bit lower. Perhaps the single most significant change is that improvements in online functionality have made it far more viable to play over the internet, making it so that in-person competition isn’t a must (although you should still check out your local scene if you can). Additionally, between the barrage of new stuff and the increasing availability of older entries, you will most likely be able to find something that speaks to you. These games are increasingly designed with beginners in mind, manifesting in alternate control schemes and improved tutorials that let people get closer to the satisfying mind games at their core. If you’ve had the itch but have been afraid of taking the first steps, you should know that it’s never been a better time to get into fighting games.
Elijah Gonzalez is an assistant TV Editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to watching the latest anime, he also loves film, videogames, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.