#FightFriday – The Skill Gap: How Is It Defined?

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So, one night I was watching Smug on stream as he relived his glory days in Ultra Street Fighter 4 where, on XBL, he holds the top 7 spots in online ranked. Yes, even to this day. It’s definitely an impressive feat, but there was something he said that made he think. To paraphrase, he spoke on liking USF4 more because people were able to express themselves via combos and that the skill barrier was much higher because those combos were so hard to do in comparison to Street Fighter V. You know, that game everyone plays/hates. Don’t worry. This isn’t some propaganda to get you to like SFV. No, I want to explore something in that statement. Skill and what that means in the current landscape of fighting games.
There is no question that as time went on, fighting games have become easier to play. It was sort of necessary in order to keep the genre alive. It had to become accessible to newcomers because they had to be bought. This is something very often overlooked by the more hardcore crowd. So please understand this: CASUALS ARE IMPORTANT TO FIGHTING GAMES BECAUSE IF NO ONE BUYS THEM, THE SERIES MIGHT NOT COME BACK. Think back to the earlier fighting games. We’ll start with Street Fighter 2. The original Street Fighter 2? Approximately 6 million. Mortal Kombat 2? Approximately 2 million. Tekken 3? 8.5 million. Those were the successful games of the time because casuals loved them and anyone could play them. Then games got…complex. Street Fighter got complicated, crossovers got insane with only the high execution players getting the most out of them, Mortal Kombat got…weird, and so on. That isn’t to call them bad, but they were becoming less accessible with Street Fighter 3 being the hugest offender. Not only did it deviate WAY too far from what people knew Street Fighter to be. 
I know it’s a rough history. Bare with me. I only got so much time here.
I said all that to say this. At the end of the day, casuals are as necessary as the hardcore crowd and neither is more important to the success of a game. We (should) know that. However, in this new era of post SF4 fighting games, it seems to be harder for people to define what “skill” is. There are those who came from the pre-SF4 era who say that SF4 is too easy and creates bad habits such as wake up Shoryukens because the game gives you a “get out of punish” free card in the focus system. There are some people in the anime fighter scene that criticize BlazBlue for being too easy to play after coming from Guilty Gear. King of Fighters….well that game is still hard to most people. 
So if games have gotten easier, then how is skill defined? If these games are easier, then anyone can have it, right? Is it long combos? Being able to exploit the game system? Fundamentals? Could the answer be game specific? I think that may be the best case. Skill is defined on a game to game basis and I think that’s the best case scenario. People who are specialists of their chosen games like to say other games don’t require skill, but that is rather unfair. Each game has their skill barriers and different ways to express skill. Yes, this does include SFV. 
Of all the games out there today, Street Fighter 5 is arguably the most accused of being skill deficient. I will say that it may not require as much skill as other games, but that depends on what you call skill. But let’s not beat that dead horse. Let’s talk Tekken 7 instead. In case you didn’t know, a lot of Tekken loyalists don’t seem happy with how the game is. It isn’t an easy game from the outside looking in, but I’ve read threads of people calling the game “dumbed down” and “awkward”. Perhaps that’s true. I’ve never been good at Tekken. Ever. But Tekken 7? I’m confident in this game. I feel like I can hold my own against 95% of the cast. So is it that the game got dumbed down, or did it get different? And if so, how? How did the skill gap change? What defines the skill gap here? Movement? Combos? All I know is know for sure is that skill must be a factor because if it wasn’t, then everyone would be amazing at it and everyone would be True Tekken Lords by now. 
I suppose the big takeaway from this is simply that high execution barriers and long combos don’t make skill. Skill is something that should be seen from a game by game basis. It’s easy to compare games in the veins of their own series or in their own niches. However, I believe doing so can cause an unfair analysis. If you’re going to call a game “bad” or “good” then it should be bad on its own merits or lack thereof, not because it wasn’t a copy/paste of a previous entry in the series. I especially find this way of thinking absurd from people who feel this way because they’re losing. Instead of blaming the game, perhaps it’d be easier to adopt a different way of playing or thinking for the game you’re playing. 
Here’s to hoping I at least made you think differently about skill and what it means to have it. Or perhaps how to gauge it. What do you think? How do you define skill in fighting games? Let us know in the comments.  

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