Ed Boon Talks Esports And The Evolution Of Fighting Games

Wonder Woman and Blue Beetle duking it out in Injustice 2
Wonder Woman and Blue Beetle duking it out in Injustice 2 NetherRealm Studios

Fighting games are a major part of the Esports landscape and their longevity makes them ideal for various leagues and tournaments.

NetherRealm Studios, the team behind the Mortal Kombat and Injustice series, have participated in tournaments for years. Mortal Kombat X featured heavily in the ESL tournaments and there were CW specials about the game. The studio's latest, Injustice 2, which has made a big splash recently, being televised on TBS for the ELEAGUE World Championships.

We’ve been fortunate enough to establish relationships with some of these organizations that are running these [tournaments],” Ed Boon, creative director at NetherRealm told Player.One. “The fact that Injustice is a fighting game, those are a little easier for the viewing audience to know what’s going on, because there are two characters on screen and… basically, whichever depletes the energy meter down wins. As opposed to a MOBA, where there’s a whole bunch of characters and effects going on at once. Fighting games lend themselves to being that little bit more digestible.”

This simplicity is what Boon credits for the rise of fighting games in Esports, likening it to another spectator sport featuring two competitors.

“Fighting games in general, there’s a wide range of complexities, but the simplicity of fighting games I draw parallels to boxing,” Boon said. “There’s two boxers in the ring, and anyone can understand which boxer is winning at certain points based on what you see, based on the punishment being dealt. I think fighting games are kind of similar to that. Now, when it comes to gameplay, I think they range in complexities, but certainly from a spectators’ point of view, they can easily digest the action that’s going on.”

Fighting games weren’t always so simple. Back in the 8-bit days of the 90s, games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter were strictly in 2D. As consoles and games became more advanced, the genre tried to adapt but in the process shut out a portion of its audience.

“From my perspective... there was a period of time where fighting games got too complex. The amount of practice and skill and dexterity that was required too high for the average player. And I think that was part of the reason some people’s interests waned away from them. Around the time of Mortal Kombat 9 and Street Fighter IV, they went back to 2D and became more accessible for players. Those games led the way to a bit of a resurgence.”

NetherRealm has been at the forefront of this fighting game resurgence, beginning with the aforementioned Mortal Kombat 9 in 2011, all the way up to Injustice 2 in 2017.

NetherRealm’s titles have added elements like elaborate story modes and ever-changing single-player that keep players engaged and have become industry standard for the genre.

“We’re very happy with how our games have done and what we’ve done with fighting games,” Boon said. “We’ve introduced things to the fighting game genre that I think made them more mainstream. But at the same time, we’re trying to make our next game better. The combination of chasing what we did and being pleased with how it turned out.”

These industry changes were not easy. Boon pointed out that the shift back to 2D movement was the biggest adjustment they had to make. Once that was decided, the studio began to simplify button inputs and moves so anyone can perform them. Still, Boon knows these changes had to be done carefully, so as to not alienate the hardcore fans.

“There’s always a balance and there’s always new elements we’re trying to introduce or people will feel like they played your game already and it’s just prettier graphics. So we want to change that stuff up as well.”

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