Last week, the UFC was sold for four billion dollars. That’s the same amount that Star Wars cost Disney. It’s an insane amount of money. When you consider that the Fertitta brothers bought the UFC as a failing enterprise fro two million dollars or so a decade ago, it’s an impressive turnaround.
It wasn’t always this way, however. Back when the UFC looked like it might fold, they did a reality show called The Ultimate Fighter. Due to the fact that reality TV was enjoying a boom period in America, it did well. The finale, where the top two fights were set to face off for a UFC contract, was shown on basic cable—not pay-per-view, as UFC had been in the past. At this point the UFC was a niche product, but this was going to be different. Anyone flicking through cable channels could stumble across this.
The stars aligned and the two lads in the final, Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, beat the hell out of one another for fifteen minutes in what is widely regarded as one of the best fights of all time. Casual viewers called up their friends and told them to watch. Over the course of the three round fight, viewer numbers went up and up. The UFC retained a lot of that viewership, and from that point onwards the company went from strength to strength. Now, it’s four billion dollars strong.
The Street Fighter V top 8 from EVO 2016 this past weekend was broadcast on ESPN 2, a channel that anyone in America can access. This is a channel that bars show on the screens, a channel that is associated with ‘real sports’, like the NBA and NFL. ESPN is part of American TV culture, the first stop when looking for sports on TV. This weekend was a big deal. This was Street Fighter’s coming out party.
It wasn’t looking good as the top 8 began to finalize towards the end of Saturday evening in Las Vegas. Most of the big name Japanese ‘legends’ had been knocked out. Tokido, Momochi, Mago and even Daigo Umehara had fallen. All of the European players had been eliminated. America’s supposed best hope, fighting game all-timer Justin Wong, had also dropped out early. In fact, the only American left in the tournament was Joe ‘L.I. Joe’ Ciaramelli, a player who wasn’t even on the Capcom Pro Tour leaderboard at this point and was about to face off against Kazunoku, the current reigning Capcom Cup winner. The upset, however, was on, and Joe managed to take his place—and the only American—in the top 8. You could hear Capcom and ESPN bosses breathing a sigh of relief.
L.I. Joe was the hero they needed. A well-spoken, intelligent and respectful competitor who clearly has considerable skill, he carries his fightstick in a bright pink backpack as a tribute to his late mother, who sadly died of cancer. ESPN decided to double down on Joe and fly his father in to attend the event. For those in the know, Joe had already far outdone expectations simply by making it to the top 8 alongside these elite players, but for the casual viewer, he couldn’t choke in the first match with all of this hype build up around his appearance. The match was against top Japanese Ken player, Eita.
This was a true test of skill for both competitors, a closely-fought battle where both players looked like they could win it at any point. It went right down to the final set, when Joe managed to pull off the win of his fighting game career on the biggest stage of them all. This is exactly what EVO’s TV debut needed. It was the Bonnar/Griffin of fighting games. It’s hard to imagine anyone watching this broadcast not getting into this fight. Hearing Mike Ross on ESPN shouting “he’s poppin’ off! He’s poppin’ off!” as Joe celebrated his win, the TV broadcast cutting to Joe’s father in the crowd losing his mind—this moment is likely to be remembered as a milestone in the growth of competitive fighting games.
Joe was eliminated by Yukadon in the next round, which knocked a bit of the wind out of the sails of the rest of the event. It wasn’t a wash: he was extremely competitive and delivered another moment that will be remembered for the longest time, when both LI Joe and his father were due to how tense the match had become. Joe’s elimination didn’t matter, however. He’d provided a hero that people both hardcore and casual viewers of the broadcast could get behind and then delivered a post-elimination interview that really put over the remaining competitors as worth sticking around to watch. And they really were—the night continued with some exceptional Street Fighter. Anyone who stuck around to see Infiltration come back from an early setback to defeat Fuudo in the Grand Finals would have had a hard time being unimpressed by the action.
We don’t know the ESPN viewer numbers yet: they could be horrible, for all we know. Even so, Capcom, EVO and ESPN themselves have done everything possible to make this event a success. They had a great commentary and announcer team, the action was exceptional and, in L.I. Joe and Infiltration, the event showcased two players that fans can get behind. This was fighting games Ultimate Fighter finale, and if those numbers turned out to have been strong then it’s going to be interesting to see how many of those viewers stick around.
Dota 2 and League of Legends are huge esports, but Street Fighter has major mainstream crossover potential due to the nature of the game and the fact that Ryu, Ken and pals have been part of pop culture for the longest time. It took the UFC a long time to grow to the point where it could be sold for that insane sum, but the TUF finale was the start. It’s hard to see EVO 2016 as any less of a catalyst.