What I've learned from a lifetime of getting my ass kicked at Street Fighter

Here's something that bums me out about the state of modern game development: When a big-budget game hits the market these days, it's all but guaranteed to be riddled with bugs and an unreliable, if not outright broken, online experience. Consumers still grovel, but it's almost a guarantee at this point that the cost of admission on day one includes a large heaping of patience — and plenty are willing to pay.

Street Fighter V came out on Tuesday, eight years after Street Fighter IV first hit Japanese arcades. Based on initial reports, I knew I'd be hopping into something of a busted mess on launch week — but by the time Thursday rolled around, I couldn't wait any longer. I bought in.

And honestly? It's been a weird few days for me. It's kinda strange to put it in words, but playing Street Fighter V has been an emotionally complex process. (Doesn't help that I'm getting my ass kicked online, either, but at least that's a familiar feeling.) So what follows is an attempt to figure out what's going on under the hood.

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Here's the thing: I love Street Fighter. I'm not particularly great at it, but I'm fascinated by the depth of its interlocking systems and the mastery demonstrated by its best players.

Like most '90s kids*, I remember seeing Street Fighter II everywhere I looked: pizza parlors, friends' living rooms, Blockbuster rental shelves, video game magazine covers, and scribbled in the margins of my classroom notebooks. It was inescapable, and for good reason — it marked a sea change in mainstream culture. I'm sure this could be debated, but in my mind, Street Fighter II was the first game that brought nuanced head-to-head competition to video games. It was also, in my recollection, the first game that resembled a spectator sport.

Despite being glued to my Super Nintendo for the majority of the 1990s, I never owned Street Fighter II. But I played it every chance I got.

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Street Fighter IV landed on consoles in 2009, and I snatched it up without hesitation. I'd played my fair share of 3D fighting games — series like Dead or Alive and Soul Calibur were my favorites — but this was my first chance to get deep into a Street Fighter game at the same time as everyone else. I figured I'd ride that zeitgeist wherever it took me.

I began playing casually, throwing fireballs like my life depended on it (because it did) and getting beaten down with alarming regularity against online competitors. But I stuck with it, which was unusual for someone like me. 

As a kid, and a teenager, and — okay — even as an adult, I had a bad habit of immediately backing down from a challenge at the slightest hint of not automatically being equipped to surmount it. I was a lucky kid from a privileged background who succeeded in school without a whole lot of effort — which was basically my job, right? — and I was also hypersensitive to criticism. Apply the laws of inertia and it starts to make sense.

No question, Street Fighter pissed me off. There were some days where I could barely land a punch and I'd grow livid at the game, and at myself. But I stuck with it.

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It's weird to write this (it's also weird to be realizing it in this moment) but Street Fighter was a safe space for me to explore defeat and pursue success in the face of massive, daunting obstacles. I began to realize why runners trained their bodies to perfection to beat marathon records: because the pursuit of something greater is a totally different type of satisfaction than the comfort of lazily relying on inherent talent.

In Street Fighter IV I found a rich, layered, nuanced game of observation and precision. Each 60-second round was an entire game of chess, with risky gambits, panicked retreats and jaw-dropping reversals. I stopped counting my losses and started focusing on skills instead. How often did I time my counters correctly? What percent of my ultra combos hit their target? How competently and consistently was I reading my opponent and translating that into the ideal response? It was like learning a language: the nouns and verbs require a fair bit of memorization on their own, but stringing them into sentences — and conversations — takes real dedication. But those moments when you feel fluent in that language are just so enthralling.

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I fell out of Street Fighter IV a couple years after it came out. I'd still fire it up to play a few practice rounds with friends, but those days of persistent matchmaking and constant self-improvement were long gone by then. So I knew going into Street Fighter V that I'd probably be, well, a little rusty.

I was wrong. As it turns out, I was absolute garbage.

I've played about thirty matches online so far, and I've probably only won 20% of them. I figured I'd be facing off a bunch of novices this close to the game's launch, but I clearly miscalculated. People were, with little exception, kicking the shit out of me.

I'll be honest: I've yelled at the screen a few times, mashed buttons and gritted my teeth. But in each defeat I'm learning so much — I'm seeing so many missed opportunities to turn the tide in my favor, and I'm internalizing it.

Learning is all about intention. If you go into something arduous and difficult with a lackadaisical attitude, you might knock out a few easy wins, but you're likely going to walk away bitter and frustrated before too long. On the other hand, if you focus on the climb and you learn to enjoy every chance to add some new tool to your repertoire, you'll be satisfied for a long time.

Street Fighter V is kicking my ass. I'm pretty frustrated while playing it. (And I haven't even talked about the inexcusable dearth of content that the game shipped with at launch.) But I see a long road ahead for me, and I'm beyond excited to start that journey all over again.

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* Please stay tuned for my upcoming article series, "17 Signs You Grew Up in the '90s! (#8 Will Make You Cry Every Time)"