Playing video games online is a longstanding tradition. From teaming up with random strangers on Call of Duty to visiting your friends’ islands on Animal Crossing, life in virtual games seems tailor-made for the realms of online. But for those involved in fighting games, the shift to online-only because of the pandemic has meant a loss of community.

In the fighting game community (FGC), members gather to watch, play, and organize events—think casual meetups, tournaments, major pro stops—for all sorts of games like Super Smash BrosStreet FighterTekken, and dozens more. “It’s always been more than a game for me,” says Roy “Royale” Chinn, a tournament organizer and competitor who helps run the Houston Fighting Game Scene, an online Facebook community with more than 2,500 members. “It’s like a family. The camaraderie and being able to hang out with people is why I go to these events.”

When the pandemic hit, Covid-19 eliminated in-person events almost instantly, and many members of the Houston FGC have been left trying to figure out their next move. Without traditional locals (what the community calls local meetup events), some players and event organizers have turned to online events and matches to fill the void the coronavirus has created. Services like Discord and different Facebook groups, like Chinn’s Houston Fighting Game Scene, are helping players and organizers keep in touch and find matches. But it’s not the same. “I really miss the friends I’ve made through these events,” Tekken player Luke “Launch” Tran-Nguyen says. “Not all of them have time to play now. I don’t know how they’re really doing. Seeing them often was relieving.”

Without locals and other tournaments, players miss out on finding new rivals, learning strategies from strong players in their area, trash talking with their friends, and just having an excuse to meet up with their friends regularly.

 Online play is also often fraught with connectivity problems. Players and spectators have to deal with potential connection issues; difficulties finding opponents to play with online; and input delay that could lead to dropped combos, which simply don’t exist when your opponent is right beside you. “Virtual events have their limits,” says DeAngelo “AirBrushKing” Ellis, a former tournament organizer and competitor. “Even if the netcode was great, it still wouldn’t be able to compete with offline.”

Aside from losing the camaraderie and electric atmosphere that in-person events garner, organizers have had a harder time making online events financially sustainable. Often, pot bonuses have been a valuable incentive to get players to participate at in-person events, while also helping to pay for staff and other overhead costs. While it is possible to crowdfund cash prizes for online events through certain services, like esports organizer Matcherino, the adoption has been pretty slow across the FGC. Mainly because getting registered with the service and promoting it to attendees and viewers takes time organizers might not have while they manage their lives outside of games. 

Furthermore, it’s been difficult to maintain revenue streams online. No in-person events means no venue fees or tips, says event director Raul “Ram” Martinez, who has previously organized tournaments for Texas Showdown, the largest annual fighting game tournament in the state. Plus, with a pandemic raging, everyone is strapped for cash. “If I put money on the line, people would be more excited,” Chinn says, “but I don’t have money to throw around like that.”

Despite the frustrations, Houston FGC is still showing up week after week to online events, tuning into streams, offering to help run brackets, and do other organizing activities while awaiting the day they can battle in person once more. Organizers have been impressed by the community’s resilience. “These players are going to play,” says Tran-Nguyen. “They still find time to train and focus their energy into playing a video game during this time.”

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