The Black Roots of the Fighting Game Community
Growing up as a Black kid you eventually realize all spaces aren’t filled with faces like ours. While I didn’t notice it as a child, seeing characters of my color in games like Streets of Rage and Street Fighter 3 were huge for me. I can only imagine the reactions of kids in the opposite situation with esports, where a Black pro player is often an anomaly. Players like Myth in Fortnite or Kodak in Overwatch are exceptions that prove a rule. It isn’t the norm for most esports to feature high level Black players, let alone ones that become the face of the game. This fact throws me back to when I originally found the fighting game community, a competitive gaming space that defies this rule of Black players being thin on the ground.
Here in the NA scene of the competition you find not only that Black players make up a large part of the fighting game community (or FGC) but we have created and cultivated the entire culture and history of the genre. From the heavily Black-inspired lingo of the East Coast scene, to tournament organizers like Bum163, to a wide variety of commentators, leaders, and of course players—the FGC is largely built on the backs of its Black contributors and has been since the old days.
The FCG’s Black roots.
Fighting games have always had a very low (economic) barrier to entry thanks to the usual arcade format. Anyone could walk, bike, catch a train, or get a ride from their parents with a pocket full of quarters and go play. There were no player skill restrictions, no pushback due to your color, and no economic requirements. And that’s a part of the reason that Jonathan “Majin Obama” Metoyer fell in love with it all.
“I’ve been into fighting games since I was really young. But I think the point that really got me hooked was going to Fun Arcade in New Orleans on a throwaway Friday or Saturday night, and seeing 60 or 70 people crammed into like a very small space for Street Fighter 3: Third Strike and Marvel vs Capcom 2 along with the energy of positivity, excitement, community, and competition that filled the room. That kind of stuff was really what got me in.”
This is how Metoyer details his entrance into the FGC, and since then he’s never looked back. After that introduction to the scene Majin Obama became one of the premiere patrons of the scene, donating hundreds in time and money to a community he wants to see grow. Like most of us, he Began as a player, but then diverged as he blossomed into a commentator, leader, and soon ambassador to the FGC. He moved to Japan and became a great link between the Japanese and Western communities. He’s now one of the most successful content creators in the scene—flat out. It's success he's earned by going above and beyond with his videos and streams and by pushing the idea that the FGC deserves more and better content. It’s wild that this all was thanks to a few quarters, a throwaway Friday, and an arcade full of sweaty kids.
This same story is one that many of the Arcade Era players follow—and they were all attracted by that open community aspect. There was no test and no having to make the team. You grabbed your quarters, waited to play, and either won or lost. The mix of these aspects of the arcade experience transformed them into a cultural melting pot that other competitive games couldn’t follow. Whether it’s due to how they’re played and structured, the current online era they’re headlining, or barriers of entry like qualifying for events or having to be sponsored by a team, other scenes just can’t get the grassroots community cultural aspect going like the FGC. A lot of that culture came from the abundance of Black players constantly in attendance that are still around to this very day. And a lot of that diverse presence came from the unique welcome people of color received from arcades and consoles.
“We've always been there for a variety of reasons, both socioeconomic and cultural.” Metoyer states. “There's always been that presence, especially talking about the Americas and the West in general. We can go into how games and the competitive nature of them are a form of escapism. We can go into how they can be a competitive outlet that some people are looking for. The list goes on.”
The list goes back in time too, all the way to the prehistoric age of arcades, where the fighting game community’s grassroots were formed and many of the legends and innovators we celebrate now were born. The lingo, the sounds, the gameplay, and the learning were all set here. And thanks to the easy accessibility and locations of these sacred grounds just about anyone could attend, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, and whatever else someone could bring up. Across the globe, these little spaces were full of players, monitors, and probably a lot of heat both in a competitive and literal sense.
Black FGC pros both create culture and chart paths for newcomers.
The impact of Black players—and Black culture——on the FGC is unquestionable. But the new era, where gaming PCs and consoles are a somewhat affordable norm for plenty of Black players across the world, makes you wonder, “Why are we still so prevalent here but still not in the realm of the tier 1’s like Overwatch or League of Legends?”
The answer is a virtuous cycle. It’s not just that a lot of Black players showed up to the arcade but that they became leaders of it and shaped the community into a place where people of color want to be.
The Black playerbase has become a great influence that affects and informs the scene on much deeper levels than just gameplay and visuals. The way we talk about our games, how we present them, the energy that we bring has forever put a mark on fighting games and changed the entire community for the better. Simple and ridiculous slang we’ve introduced like “OD,” “Robbery,” “Pringles,” “Bodied,” “Salty,” and even “Scoops Haagen Daz,” play key roles in something this community does better than others: make Black players feel at home.
And of course, there’s still the fact that if you win, you’re in. For some, that’s terrifying, but for a lot of folks in the minority, it’s reassuring.
“People always talk about fighting games being inaccessible,” Metoyer continues. “but the truth of the matter is, if you want to play and are good enough you can just show up to an event, do well, and then like you're kind of in the mix from there.”
It isn’t easy.
The influence of Black culture is a huge reason Black players still find home in the FGC above all other esports. But Metoyer sees another, much stranger contributing factor: Difficulty.
Fighting games are seen as one of the most difficult gaming genres around. It’s a 1v1 competition with no excuse for losing beside the other person being better—a game that pits friends against each other. Couple that with demanding inputs left over from the arcade era, frame-tight combos that vary from character to character, and having to spend literal years of losing to improve and you have a genre that’s nerve-wracking to players other than the most hardcore and headstrong.
But surprisingly, that infamous difficulty might add to the accessibility of the FGC.
“I think when it comes to fighting games it’s because of the way our competition works.” Metoyer says “It's single entry and you can just work your way up without the need to qualify or get in some org or team to have a shot at getting in the world. The core concept is literally, ‘If you can play and are good enough you can just go to this event and win.’ If you do really well, people are going to notice you and talk about you. And in that way, it's really accessible.”
Alexandra “Salt” Rennie adds another, supporting angle to Metoyer’s point. Salt is one of the top Smash Bros Melee competitors in the world—and the second-highest ranking Black player in that scene (at 31st). She also recently came out as transgender which adds another layer to the societal struggles she faces. However, as she sees it, struggle isn’t unfamiliar—or entirely unhelpful—to her. To Salt, Black culture is one that’s been drenched in struggle for decades and that’s one of the reasons fighting games are so accessible to us.
“It's not like it's anything that we're not used to doing right?” Rennie states. “I think the people who struggle the most and who have dealt with the most end up becoming the best. There are so many players I know who’ve had to deal with the worst and all these people ended up getting good. That struggle makes you strong. We already know how to struggle. Yeah, these games are hard, but it ain't nothing new to us.”
However, the struggles within the scene don't just come from the game. Despite being more diverse than other competitive gaming scenes, despite its vast Black history, the community itself has its own issues with inclusivity. This is especially true when it comes to the Black women of the scene—something Taneisha “Professor High Kick” Jane encountered early into her entering the FGC.
Jane joined the FGC in 2017 with Tekken 7 when she competed at the high profile New York weekly tournament, NLBC for her birthday. She fell in love with the community after trying her hand at commentary and realized what an impact she made just by being a Black woman on the mic at a male-dominated event. Since then she’s pushed to create a more welcome environment for women interested in joining the community.
“Most of the spaces within the FGC were made for men,” Taneisha “Professor High Kick” Jane states. “I feel it’s more inclusive to Black men than to any other Black person. Women, let alone Black women, oftentimes aren't seen as equal, so we aren't treated as such. There is a lot of Black representation in the scene, but Black women are still seen as a minority and thus have a much different experience.”
This is a case constantly seen throughout the community where men often downplay the negative experiences of Black women. Those negative experiences reflect in the FGC rankings where Black women, and women competitors, show up in much fewer numbers. Check the FGC rankings for Mortal Kombat 11 and you will see just one woman. (Infinitiii, an exceptional NRS player throughout the history of the developer.) It’s a similar scenario for Tekken 7 with CuddeCore. This isn’t because women lack ambition or interest in competing, but because their voices aren’t amplified like male players, leading to feeling unwelcome in the FGC. You can see even more reflections of this same issue in cases such as that of pro player Chris G stating how, “Black female gamers (among other women) suck,” with little to no blowback until the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020.
“Being a woman is going to be a different experience from being a man. Now mesh that with being a Black woman and being in a male-dominated space.” Jane says. “The results can oftentimes be negative. We don’t always get treated fairly, we are often seen as objects, or looked at negatively because of the negative stereotypes that are often thrown onto us. And the same goes for Black players and other Black community members with alternate lifestyles.”
Metoyer shares this sentiment and, like much of the community, looks towards a future where we are a lot better. An ideal FGC that truly reflects that diverse outlook that the wider esports world sees in it.
“Although I think we are a lot better than some of our peers and other scenes in terms of representation and stuff like that, that doesn't mean that we're not without problems.” Majin Obama says to me. “What can we do to get better? I think number one is be a little bit more empathetic. And I think we have to look inward with regards to some attitudes and just the way we carry ourselves sometimes as a whole. Not everything from the old era necessarily needs to be preserved. We can look back on it objectively now and say like, ‘Alright, this was good, but this wasn’t so good.’ And I think traditionally, fighting games have been good about that.”
“I think focusing more on that kind of energy where people are propped up on merits regardless of whatever biases or whatever groups you come from and then also trying to be more empathetic to people who are treated unfairly is the route we have to go. We need to support voices that represent that. For example, we have a lot of really strong Black women in our scene. Something I really like is seeing voices from that usually unrepresented group being amplified rather than suppressed. [...] Bringing that empathy, looking at the people who bring really strong value to our community, and propping them up based [on] nothing more than them doing good shit will bring us a long way and truly make our community live up to that outer perception of Black inclusion and diversity.”
Inspiring the community is a path towards a more inclusive community
There are tons of stories that follow Metoyer’s example and show how amplified voices can inspire more inclusion throughout the community. One is from Taneisha Jane herself.
“I’ve heard stories of how I have inspired some that have seen my commentary at NLBC (a popular local weekly tournament series in New York) and many of the ladies in “Ladies Night!”—The women’s competitive gaming community that I founded in 2017 as a safe space for many of the women who wanted to be more active but were held back by various issues. [They] make it their mission to tell me how much I’ve helped them.” Jane notes. “They say I’ve given them a space to gain the confidence to branch out and find their path in the professional gaming space. That always warms my heart. That’s what makes me stay.”
Salt shares a similar story, where she was both inspired by a trans woman competitor herself, and how simply being there can inspire a wealth of new players to show up. Magi was Melee’s first transgender top 50 player and has been on the climb ever since. Magi sits currently at 25th in the rankings, making her someone that Salt aspires to in multiple senses of the word.
“There aren’t many Black players, let alone transgender Black players like myself, at the highest level of Smash,” Rennie says. “I followed this same story when I got into the scene and saw Magi placing well and winning matches. Seeing someone like that in the spotlight or being a really good player that people loved and respected and wanted to see, I was like, ‘Oh, I could do that.’ And now I guess the same impact that she had on me is the same that she and I have on other people.”
While the fighting game community has its fair share of growing pains and internal struggles, those pains and struggles aren’t for nothing. They are often a sign that the community has people in it who want to keep pushing to open the FGC up to as many people as possible. These growing pains are ones that some other esports and gaming spaces lack, simply because they refuse to grow.
The FGC is one of the only esport and gaming communities largely built by Black players and community leaders, and while not perfect, those same backs are still working to bring it as close to that as possible. The efforts of people like Jonathan “Majin Obama” Metoyer, Taneisha “Professor High Kick” Jane, and Alexandra “Salt” Rennie are true testaments to that. And them simply being there speaks volumes to any Black—or whatever other color or gender—onlooker that’s tuning into a stream or showing up to a tourney. In their presence, that onlooker can find a story of, “Wow, I could do that too.”