A few weeks ago, I wrote about the fiasco at the Dota 2 Shanghai Major involving James “GD” Harding. In that article, I argued that competitive gaming can provide a lively, intense environment without making a portion of their potential audience uncomfortable. I offhandedly linked to a video of fighting game personality Mike Ross doing tournament commentary as an example of moments that are intense without being offensive.
If only I’d watched Capcom Pro Talk, Ross’ latest endeavor in the scene, back then. It would have been the best answer to the question “what should an esports shows be like?”
On its face, Pro Talk has Ross and co-host Ari “fLoE” Weintraub talking about recent event in the fighting game scene, playing the latest Street Fighter game with fans, and taking questions from the online audience. It’s not too different from what Ross has done in the past; he plays online against the world in the Youtube series Excellent Adventures and hosted the short-lived Mike Ross’ Neighborhood. The main differences between Pro Talk and his past work is that it’s live, that it’s ostensibly a series of trailers for Street Fighter V (on Capcom’s official fighting game channel, each episode begins with an ESRB logo), and that fans have a chance to win a Twitch Turbo subscription if they can beat Ross or Weintraub in a two-out-of-three set (which happens more often than you might think).
The show is less about format than execution, though, and Pro Talk has found a way to blend the homegrown nature of fighting game communities, the rowdiness of competitive gaming, and the presentability of esports into one great hour of entertainment.
Only recently did the show get a proper studio set up. It used to take place in sound stages that were more found than created, but even now, the show has a low-budget air: the set consists of a backdrop, two chairs, a game console, and two controllers. The mysterious Adam, the man running the stream and audio balance, chimes in every once in a while. Whenever something confrontational happens, Ross questions whether the show will get canceled. The question-and-answer segment is almost always a joke; by the time they get around to it, everyone online is just teasing Ross about whatever’s happened on the show, making good questions hard to come by. The show embraces its ramshackle production values– which should suit fighting game fans, who often see themselves as more authentic than other esports communities, just fine.
The show isn’t afraid to indulge in competitive gaming’s tendencies to be petty and rowdy, either. Guests are usually high-level players, but they’re also Ross and Weintraub’s friends. This gives it the “friends shooting the shit” feel we see so often on gaming talk shows. Ross and Weintraub also have a strong rapport, freely giving each other guff for their performance against online players. They act more like a bickering married couple than frat boys, though, and the ways they (and guests) poke at each other comes off as jovial rather than juvenile.
The pokes and prods also lead to spontaneous grudge matches. During one episode, the discussion rolls around to the question of “who sucks” in Street Fighter V. Eventually, after a few matches online, guest Kenneth “K-Brad” Bradley tells Ross he sucks. Ross immediately picks up an arcade stick that appears out of seemingly nowhere, exits the online lobby they’d set up (denying future challengers their shot at a Turbo subscription), and challenges Bradley to a match. Ross wins, giving Bradley the most eviscerating dressing down he’s likely to ever get.
That moment is great for a number of reasons. For one, it channels the “hype” of fighting game communities, that powerful feeling of letting it all out of you when you win or see someone win. There’s Weintraub, whose agape mouth acts as a surrogate for the audience.
But best of all, Ross is able to let loose a barrage of insults at Bradley without ever going for any slurs or harsh language. He doesn’t offend, but the audience still ends up feeling like Weintraub: in shock. And as shocked as we might be by the outburst, we know that these people are all friends.
Pro Talk isn’t immediately appealing to newcomers. You do need to watch a few fighting game tournaments– and get a feel for the vibe of those tournaments– to truly appreciate it. But it’s still a pretty easy-to-watch show. For one, Street Fighter is among the simplest competitive games to watch; you don’t have to learn an entirely new visual language just to understand what’s happening on-screen, like you would in a game like Dota 2 or League of Legends. Anyone can understand the visual of one extremely muscular man punching another, which makes the central conceit of the show (watching a fighting game) approachable.
Occasionally, Ross and Weintraub will wander off on tangents and tell stories from the years past. For example Ross recently told the story of how he defeated one of the founders of the EVO fighting game tournament, Joey “Mr. Wizard” Cuellar, 100 times in a row at Super Street Fighter II: Turbo one afternoon. Cuellar then challenges Ross to a single “Championship of the World” match, wins once, then refuses to ever play Ross again. Is the story true? Who cares; these fun tangents should resonate with anyone who’s played a competitive game with friends.
That’s what makes Pro Talk fun, but also that ability to switch from hot-blooded intensity to laid-back reminiscence is also what makes it important. It perfectly encapsulates what makes the Street Fighter and the people who play it appealing without embracing the darker aspects of competitive gaming many people see as inseparable.
When you’re watching Ross go off on someone, silently fuming while staring at a friend, or telling stories about his gaming past, you’re too busy going along for the ride to notice what isn’t happening: the rampant misogyny, childish abrasiveness and attempts to be “edgy” we typically see from players and commentators in other games. And by making you forget those seedier parts exist, it reveals them as unnecessary. When it’s at its most awkward, it’s not because someone said something that might truly offend someone else or use a group of a people as a punchline. It’s because someone’s being more direct than you’d expect them to be.
Capcom-backed affair or not, esports needs something like this. If you think someone might be interested in watching people play competitive games, you can show them Pro Talk without much reservation. You don’t have to qualify it by saying “I know some of the things they say are messed up, but…” You can share your passion without worrying about how the people who best represent it might make you look.
It matters on a wider level, too. As names as big as Red Bull, Yahoo, and ESPN finally start taking esports seriously, having examples of how competitive games can matter without their excessive baggage could go a long way towards making their scenes grow. If these scenes are going to grow past their adolescence, they’re going to need positive examples of how to act in public and with friends. Younger fans, especially, tend to emulate what they see high-level players do, so for Ross (who currently sits at around 64,000 twitter followers) to provide that positive example is a big deal. You might call toning down the aggression, slurs, and offensive language “selling out,” but Pro Talk proves you can be inclusive and retain most of what makes a community irreplaceable. That’s what an esports show should be like.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who’s pretty sure he’s on that list of people who suck at Street Fighter V. He’s written for ZAM, Paste, and several others. You can follow him on Twitter.