Have you ever attended a national fighting game tournament?
If you said "no", that's not surprising - it's pretty difficult to organize something of that sort here, given the size and scope of the United States. While the Cannons (of Shoryuken.com and Evo fame) have certainly made progress towards the goal of uniting fighting fans across the US in a single competition, Japan's fighting game tournament scene holds events on the scale of Evolution several times a year. Seeing as how the arcade scene in Japan is both healthier and better connected, and the country itself considerably smaller, it's no surprise that their tournaments can draw the best from all over the country - and even beyond - to watch and participate.
These tournaments also tend to be funded and organized by well-known entities - either the companies themselves or firms like Enterbrain, publishers of Arcadia magazine - while most Western competitions are held on a more private basis. There are exceptions to this rule, of course - many arcades will host major tournaments on their own dollar - but the level of corporate participation in Japan in these activities often makes for one-of-a-kind fighting extravaganzas.
Perhaps one of the best examples of these sponsored tournaments are Sega's frequent Virtua Fighter 4 national tournaments. About 1 or 2 of these are held yearly, with one generally being single-player and another with teams. While in Japan, I was able to attend this show - and I'm going to give you an inside look at what these tournaments are like.
First, allow me to explain the structure of this tournament. The tournament begins at the base-level of local arcades. You pay a small, flat fee - generally 100 yen - to enter the VF tourney at the local game center. Eventually, someone wins, and that person's name is given to Sega. These local winners then go to the playoffs at the area's primary Sega arcade, as Sega owns and operates many, many arcades across the country of Japan (arcades which make them a handy sum of money, may I add). These local winners square off against each other in single-elimination format until only one reigns supreme. The winner of this regional competition is then alloted a slot in the final tournament - against anywhere from 30 to 60 other regional winners. The final tournament is generally a lavish affair, with several hundred VF junkies attending to watch the Big Name Players duke it out for the crown.
The finals Were held on October 11, 2004, in none other than the lobby of Sega Building #1. Upon entering, you could see a mass of people huddled around a group of about 5 Versus City cabinets, obviously all getting in a few rounds of practice before the main event. To the far right of the entrance, near the doors to the main competition hall, was a row of PS2s and widescreen TVs demoing the soon-to-be-released PS2 version of VF2, which were also full of gamers eager to relive the past.
At around the stroke of noon, those in the hall soon exited into the main room for the fierce competition to get into the final slot. Four different dual-machine setups were going at once, with a projection above each displaying the match being held. While rather distracting for those of us who wanted to watch two rounds that were happening simulataneously, the setup did keep things flowing quickly and smoothly. This may have been the first truly international Sega-sponsored VF tournament, as US players AdamYuki and KTallguy both entered the fray, along with the well-known Korean masters, ShinZ and POS Akira. In a landmark upset, however, both of the Koreans were narrowly defeated in the first set, and neither of the US players progressed past the second.
After about an hour and a half, the field had been narrowed down to eight players, and it was then that the focus shifted to the center stage, where the matches would be played out upon the gigantic projection screen for all of us to enjoy.
One thing that sets these sort of events apart from their American counterpart is the fact that there will always be running commentary provided during play, much like a sporting event. (If you attended Evolution 2K3 and watched the VF4 event, you may remember the amusing color commentary provided by Yamagishi-san of Beat Tribe fame.) Besides the two MCs (and a Kage cosplayer) on stage, and to a left was a table with four certified VF experts giving match commentary. It looked not unlike something you'd see on ESPN.