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Why Does S Come Before A in Video Game Rankings?

Once confined to fighting game communities and action titles, the concept of tier lists has at this point achieved meme status. You’ve probably seen one online in the past week, whether it’s ranking Street Fighter characters, Pokemon Sword and Shield creatures, or even cereal. Rankings and tier lists are part of The Discourse now. Starting at the bottom with D, E, or F, things are ranked via letter grade. But instead of ending with A, the top rank is, for some reason, commonly referred to as the S tier. Gamers tend to take this as given, but it’s weird, right? Why does S come before A?

Given the fact that the rest of the tier list seems to follow the grading conventions most English-language-speakers grew up with, shouldn’t the top tier be the A tier, or maybe even the A-Plus tier? Where did the S tier come from? And also, what does the S in S tier even stand for in the first place? How can I get Mad Online at people who disrespect Honey Bunches of Oats by putting it in the C-tier of cereals without truly understanding the nature of the S tier, the place the cereal belongs?

There are a ton of forum threads across the internet speculating on the term’s origins and what the S is meant to stand for. None can really come to an agreement about what the S actually stands for — though “special” and “super” almost always emerge as frontrunners — but one theme that frequently pops up is the S rank’s ties to the Japanese schooling system.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Back To School

Multiple online sources confirm that in Japan, many post-secondary schools use a 5-scale grading system, where a failing grade is anything below 60%, a C grade is given for anything between 60% and 69%, a B grade is given for anything between 70% and 79%, and an A is given for anything between 80% and 89%. Anything above that can be classified as either an A+ grade or an S grade depending on the school’s grading system. But this doesn’t confirm that this is where the S grade originated, nor does it really explain what the S actually stands for, in games or otherwise. 

To help me out, I spoke to Matthew Hegstrom, who currently teaches in Tsu, the capital of Mie Prefecture in Japan. He was able to confirm to me firsthand that the S grade is used in post-secondary schooling, though when Matthew brought the concept up to his colleagues, they mentioned that they had “never thought about it” before. At least on some level, the S grade has been ingrained into Japanese culture — or at least Japanese academia — to the point where it’s second nature, kind of like how we don’t really think about the grading system in the United States jumping from D right to F.

More importantly, however, Matthew told me that academia isn’t the only place that the S grade is found. At live events, tickets are separated by price and quality into B seats, A seats, and S seats. It’s used for cars as well, with the S rank going to the most expensive, high-quality vehicles. According to Matthew, “[…I]t’s Japanese culture. They use these rankings for many things. It’s very common. So, to say [the S-grade or S-rank] originates from school rankings is maybe only partially true, but definitely valid.”

In other words, because the S rank is so ingrained into Japanese culture, it’s almost impossible to track how it worked its way into video games in any kind of straightforward way. Instead, we must try to track down exactly how the rank got so ubiquitous in the first place.

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Cereal Tier List

A Brief History Lesson

According to an incredibly well-sourced blog post (in Japanese, but parseable using Google Translate) the S grade or something like it came to prominence in Japan in the early 1900s. Around that time, services like advertising and rail travel, as well as products like liquor and theatre tickets were being separated by grade or quality. Back then, the highest grade for products or services like these was “special.” Per the post, the first time “special” was used to denote this superior quality comes from a French document relating to horse breeding from 1897 that was translated into Japanese so that government officials could read it. Seven years later, “special” was used in the advertising industry to refer to the most visible, valuable ad space on the page of a magazine or newspaper. From there, the dominoes started to fall, with accommodations at dining halls, hot springs, and trains offering a luxurious “special” tier of service for those who could afford it. 

This trend continued through the years and expanded, from product-related classifications like a “special” highest-quality sake to letter grades in Japanese schools. At the same time, as can be seen in that Led Zeppelin ticket above, “special” was shortened to “S” for convenience’s sake when it was applied to products and services.

Because of its ubiquity, the actual meaning of the S grade got a little bit muddy. As it is used in the Japanese schooling system, the S that overachieving students receive stands for “Shū,” the Japanese word for “exemplary.” Meanwhile, in the early 1980s, a new grade for cycling races in Japan was introduced on top of the A class races. These S class races were reserved for top athletes, who were referred to as “Star class” because of the stars on their uniforms. A few years later, manga (most notably the Yu Yu Hakusho and Naruto series) started using the S rank to refer to particularly dangerous or powerful beings. 

By the 90s, the S rank had been fully integrated into Japanese culture, although the word “special” was still used as an advertising tool to refer to items that were supposed to be of superior quality, like Fatal Fury Special, the updated and improved remake of Fatal Fury 2.


Becoming A Household Name

Despite its ubiquity in Japan, it took a long time for the S rank to circulate around the world. According to a list on Giant Bomb, the first western-produced games to use the S rank came out in 2007, an unlikely trio consisting of The Red Star (a Playstation 2 game based on a graphic novel,) osu! (a fan-created game that allows people to create their own custom Elite Beat Agents stages,) and Spongebob Squarepants: Atlantis Squarepantis. 

Although developers from outside Japan may have been reluctant to include the S rank in their games, the concept was already recognizable to western audiences thanks in part to its inclusion in hyper-popular arcade games like House of the Dead and Dance Dance Revolution. We were primed.

By now, the S tier has become vital to video games, and esports especially, as character rosters expand and developers try their best to keep their games at least relatively balanced. Every character-based competitive game out there goes through dozens (if not hundreds, in the case of long-active games) of patches meant to flatten the balance curve, making low-tier characters more powerful and nerfing characters in the S tier. Just look at what happened to Bayonetta between Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The S tier, and people’s perceptions of what or who belongs there, has become integral to our understanding of what competitive gaming is.

The key thing here is that on some level, it doesn’t really matter what the S in S tier stands for because it’s built its own definition through common usage and context. The S in S tier might have historically stood for “special,” but that’s not really helpful in defining the term since it also stood for a lot of other stuff as well. I mean, I don’t know what the A in A tier stands for, but I know what an A grade means. Given all this, defining the S tier by what the S actually stands for might be interesting historically, but doesn’t really help us understand the term any more than a common-usage explanation that defines the S tier as “the place Honey Bunches of Oats belongs in a ranking of cereals, because it is the best one.”

This tracks for tiers above the S tier as well. Hegstrom noted to me that the SS (for Super Special or Superior) rank is becoming more common in schools not as a codified grade to give students, but as a rank to give students who excel at learning games. Even if students don’t know what the initials stand for, there’s a cultural knowledge there that defines the grade as hyper-exceptional. And I mean, when that SS rank shows up in Devil May Cry, you don’t need the game to tell you that you’re being Super Stylish, you already know.

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