How Street Fighter 4 is like Poker

After the recent EVO tournament, it got me to thinking about how similar Street Fighter 4 is to the game of poker. If you’ve ever been into poker or even watched the World Series of Poker on ESPN, you’ll see what I mean. Here are just a few observations I’ve made…some obvious, some (hopefully) not.

Mind games are a big part of the game.

In poker, you can learn all about the strength of hands, pot odds, betting position, and how to play it by the book. In Street Fighter 4, you can analyze frame data, learn combos, find rankings/tier listings, and watch replays.

But in the end, it comes down to playing the man. It’s about making the other guy fold when he has you beat, or giving him a false sense of confidence when really, he’s walking into certain defeat. It’s about giving your opponent the impression that his strategy is full-proof, only to punish him painfully at the most (in)opportune time. It’s all about being unpredictable and rattling the other guy to the point where all his pre-game knowledge seems to go out the window. Heck, Justin Wong almost beat Daigo while playing a character he admittedly didn’t know very well or practice much. I doubt he was thinking about frame data while he was missing combos, but still giving Daigo all he could handle.

The head knowledge definitely comes in handy, don’t get me wrong. I’m just saying it’s about how you actually use what you know.

Luck is required to make it through.

Back in the day before poker got huge-which I attribute largely to the movie Rounders, by the way-the pros seemed to have a death grip in big tournaments. This led to the argument that skill ultimately triumphs. But eventually, more and more amateurs started flooding the scene, and soon, seeing pros make it to the final table became a rare sight. It went from “Tiger versus the field” (Tiger Woods representing the top professionals in poker) to anyone’s game. Why did this happen? Because even if there is skill involved, a bad beat or a lucky draw could win over the correct play. While this used to happen in isolated incidents when the pool was small, it became commonplace by the time the good players became the small minority.

The same thing is happening in the Street Fighter scene, although it hasn’t quite reached the level of mass randomness that poker has. Perhaps it never will, because arguably (and in my mind quite certainly), Street Fighter has a much smaller luck component. But the recent EVO tournament showed that upsets are bound to happen as the pool of competitors grows. You will have some random amateurs beating old legends (see Wildcard vs. SoCal) because they bring a level of unpredictability and unrefined playing to the mix. It’s growing harder to consistently beat everyone else, mainly because the console release of Street Fighter 4 has allowed so many new people to join in on the fun. That brings me to the next point…

Online vs. primarily offline players.

For months from 2008 to early 2009, the only way to play and compete in SF4 was to find an arcade that had the game and a consistent group of people who were willing to play. Around the U.S., these hotspots were few and far between. These offline arcade players consider themselves to be the purists, and they argue that no one can reach an elite level without following the scene locally.

Enter the console masses in February 2009. Xbox 360 and PS3 owners joined in on the fray, and a multitude of old-school gamers who had moved on after the SF2 glory days found themselves drawn back in. With constant access to competition online-without paying a dollar per play-these players embarked on a furious catch-up mission to one day overtake the arcade purists.

By July 2009, the gap has already narrowed considerably. The pros who once scoffed at console players are now acknowledging that there is an undeniable impact, whether due to skill or sheer numbers. In the months and years to come, it’s not a stretch to think that we’ll be seeing the first non-arcade-pro EVO winner … just as poker saw random online gamblers take over the main event.

Yes, there is something to be said for competing face to face with someone. Playing poker at a live table is different than clicking on a computer screen. Dealing with the hype and pressure of playing in front of people at an arcade is different than beating anonymous players at home on your TV. But the constant availability, variety, and cheapness ($) of it seems to make up the difference over time.

Underground to the mainstream.

This is probably obvious at this point, but yea. Street Fighter 4 has converted into the mainstream-without a doubt, it is exponentially more popular than its predecessor, Third Strike. Rather than a few hardcore purists playing at great expense and exclusivity (due to the near-extinction of local arcades), anyone can play and compete. If you have hundreds of thousands of people trying to improve, chances are, they will eventually overtake the hundreds of purists. The purists realize this also and largely complement their arcade playing with console, online competition. The grand finals EVO stream reached a viewership of 500,000 people despite being shown at a late hour in most parts of the world.

Just as poker went from dark, smoke-filled places to regular people’s homes and screens, Street Fighter has made its way from Japan to a few local arcades to countless consoles around the world.

Now, let’s see if we can keep this thing going. And like Mike Ross said, let’s please take things like the Spelling Bee off of ESPN and show people the exciting world of Street Fighter competition. We know that at least half a million would tune in for sure, while the rest of the world might soon find interest also.