Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2021/ Exploiting the FGC

Exploiting the FGC

FGC stands for the "Fighting Games Community". This self-selected group of gamer enthusiasts play games like Killer Instinct, Street Fighter, Guilty Gear, and Mortal Kombat.

Unsurprisingly, the scene is competitive. In the before times players went to weekly "locals" and several major tournaments. These days almost all tournaments are online. Players gain status in the community by placing well in tournament. Most FGC tournaments are double-elimination, and the culture prizes "top 8" placings, especially for the major tournaments.

Obviously winning a tournament is more prestigious than finishing fifth or seventh, but there are players who win acclaim for second-place finishes (Honeybee at Evo 2017, Wheels in the recent Twitch Rivals tournament) and some are notable for fourth-place finishes (Big D got fourth place at Evo in 2016 and 2018, which was notable because he did not compete in many tournaments in 2018).

Competitive players in the FGC work hard. They put in long hours "labbing" different situations and learning how to react. Many of them put in multiple hours (as in, four to eight hours) of practice every day into their games. Sometimes their hard work and talent pays off. Often it doesn't.

Over the years I have grown to admire many members of the FGC, and I have taken to following the exploits of some players on Twitter. Although following the FGC has wasted a lot of my time and perhaps made me unemployable, it has also been insightful. It is a strange world, because the values of the FGC are alien to me, and often seem downright unethical. The relationships between people, on the other hand, are often fascinating and sometimes genuine.

This blog post is about my disgust: in particular, the ways in which members of the FGC are exploited again and again in pursuit of their dreams. There are things I value about this community but there are also things that disturb me. There are a lot of parallels between how members of the FGC are exploited and how tech companies abuse us on a broader level.

Winner Take All

Often tournaments have prize money associated with them. Sometimes the money comes from entrance fees. Sometimes corporations or rich benefactors either provide the prize money or add to the pool (as a "pot bonus"). Publishers of the most prestigious games will sometimes contribute big pot bonuses for the games they are currently marketing. You will often see the prize pool used to entice players to enter the tournament ("Players compete for a $10000 prize pool!")

The reality is that the vast majority of players will not see any of that money. Payouts generally only go to the top 8 finishers, and even that distribution is frequently heavily biased towards the winner. For example, consider Street Fighter V payouts for Evo 2017, which had a total prize pool of 76,250 USD (which is huge in the fighting game community):

This is pretty typical for a payout structure, but I have seen payouts as high as 60% for the first place finisher. Meanwhile, there were 2625 entrants for this competition. Eight people got some money for placing well in the tournament, and 2617 got nothing. Worse, they got less than nothing: they had to pay entry fees, hotel fees, and money on food. Many players can shell out over $1000 for one tournament weekend, and international players often pay more for long flights.

Now consider the payout. The first place finisher (Tokido, in this case) earned a good chunk of money, but not enough to earn a middle-class living. The second place finisher (Punk) did not even hit the poverty line. If you wanted to make a living off of tournament winnings alone, you have to be a top player for a lot of tournaments, and those tournaments have to pay out significantly. If you look at the lifetime earnings for Street Fighter V players over the five year lifespan of the game, you see the top earner (NuckleDu) has won just shy of $300k, which works out to $60k per year. That is a comfortable middle-class living, but it comes at a high cost -- constant travel, the necessity of winning most tournaments, and endless labbing in the game to become the best in the world. If you are merely very good and not the best in the world, you probably are not making much if anything from tournament payouts.

There are a small handful of people who can live off of tournament winnings, but (as in most sports) there is a power law distribution here. A few people do well, and almost everybody gets nothing. It really is a winner-take-all world. Yet players keep competing and striving to be the best.

Making a Living

If you are not going to make a living by winning tournaments, what are your options? The answer for the vast majority of players is to have another income stream (living at home, working at other jobs, etc). Again, this is not so different from how other athletes live, but clearly those who strive to be the best in the world need time to practice. It is probably not a coincidence that many (although certainly not all) FGC competitive players are in their teens or early 20s, and most retire by age 30. But there are some strategies people use to try and make a living from their craft.


The classic way to earn money apart from tournament winnings is via "being sponsored". An e-sports team puts you under contract. You wear their jersey when competing and include their teamname in your gamer tag (eg Panda|Punk for Panda Global, one of the more reputable teams). As part of your contract, you often advertise products like energy drinks, gaming chairs, and (in one case) vapes.

Sponsorships are a fraught aspect of the FGC, because most e-sports teams do not have viable business models. Once in a while a rich person will invest in a team (eg Echo Fox). Teams try to solicit money via advertisers (hence, the energy drinks). Many e-sports teams have no business plans and fail quickly. One notable case (Brutal Democracy Gaming) was an outright Ponzi scheme, where lower-tier members paid membership fees that subsidized the top players. Teams come and go all the time.

In order to get sponsored you generally either have to be a top player who places highly in a lot of important tournaments, or a really popular player in social media and/or streaming. If your performance drops or you say something politically incorrect, you can be dropped quickly. Nonetheless, a large number of competitive players dream of being sponsored, and try to do as well as they can to attract sponsorships. A fair number of those players then get burned when the sponsorships go sour.

Say you get sponsored. What do you receive in return? You almost always get a snazzy jersey you are obligated to wear to events. Beyond that? It gets messy. Good sponsors will help you with travel and lodging costs for tournaments, so that you will not be losing (as much) money by going to tournaments. There are a (very) few top sponsors who will pay a monthly stipend. Of course, those sponsors only want top players, and those top players are the ones winning tournaments already. The power law raises its ugly head again: a tiny fraction of the player base gets money (a stipend and tournament winnings) and almost everybody else gets nothing.

Of course, there are lots of sponsors who are not that good. They will give you name recognition and the prestige of being sponsored by somebody, but that's about it. My understanding is that there are a lot of scammers in this field, because players are chasing the dream and predators are eager to exploit them.


Another way to earn money by gaming is via streaming. Twitch (owned by Amazon) is by far the most popular streaming platform, but some content creators also use YouTube (owned by Google, of course).

The idea behind streaming is that you upload realtime video of yourself playing games and interacting with fans, and those fans watch you play in realtime. Fans can become "followers" (which I think does not cost them money?) or "subscribers" (which costs a fee). To get subscribers you must become a Twitch "affiliate", which involves spending a certain amount of time streaming each month, and having a certain number of followers. If you are really popular (over 75 concurrent viewers, streaming at least 12 times a month (!) for at least 25 hours) then you can apply to be a Twitch Partner, which increases your monetization further.

The dream here is to make Twitch Partner and then make a living from subscriptions. How do you become popular on Twitch? Certainly being entertaining is necessary, but it is not enough -- there are thousands and thousands of streamers, and you have to stand out somehow. In the FGC, you usually gain credibility by placing highly in tournaments. Once again, there are power law dynamics at play here: a few people make hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, and most streamers put in hours of effort to make almost nothing. But because we hear about the most popular streamers the most, people think that Twitch is some kind of goldmine.

Twitch is, of course, a goldmine -- for Twitch. Fans offer subscriptions to their favorite streamers to show their appreciation, and Twitch takes a hefty chunk of each subscription: 50% for affiliates, and at least 30% for partners. And, of course, Twitch can change its rules at any time. Recently it started colluding with the RIAA to mute streamers who used copyrighted music in their streams, which was a common practice (gamers would play their games while chilling to their favorite tunes, and now they can't). Twitch also changed their advertisement practices in some unpopular ways, and if I remember correctly, was also prohibiting access to its platform for people who have adblockers installed, even if those adblockers are not activated for the Twitch website. Nice. But gamers stick with Twitch, because there are no good competitors. Whatever competitors exist have small viewerships, and if you want to make a living from streaming network effects matter a lot.

YouTube is the backup plan for many gamers, but it is a poor second. Monetization only happens via ads -- as far as I know, there are no paid subscriptions to individual streamers. Furthermore, YouTube demonetizes videos arbitrarily. The rules are opaque and stupid. The gory cutscenes in Mortal Kombat 11 will get a video demonetized, but changing the colour of the blood from red to green is somehow okay. Furthermore, the blood displayed during regular gameplay can stay red without demonetization. Most of the streamers I am familiar with use Twitch as their main streaming platform, and post edited clips to YouTube for extra income. There are a few streamers (Raptor and X-Azeez from the NRS scene) who (I think) stick to YouTube, but they mostly produce tutorial content, not live gameplay.

Making money via Twitch and YouTube is easier than making money by winning tournaments, but it is still a precarious life. You have to stream consistently, and often you have to stream popular games even if you do not enjoy playing them that much. If you take a break, your subscriber counts plummet and so does your income. Overall, streamer fanbases seem more loyal (and thus dependable) than tournament sponsors, but this is not saying much.

Twitch does not care, of course. It is making bank from streamers overall, and it does not care much whether your particular stream does well or not, so long as those viewers are staying on Twitch and watching something. The platform gets rich on the backs of those doing the work.

Training Sessions

Some gamers have incorporated training sessions into their income streams. Sometimes this is done via Patreon, where patrons get exclusive access to training time with the gamer. There are other training specific platforms as well. The idea is that aspiring FGC players can become better at the game by studying with the "pros".

I think this is not an awful business model, but again it is only open to top players who already have name recognition.

The Whim of the Platforms

Beyond Twitch and YouTube, there are other big entities in the FGC, and sure enough they betray players regularly too.

Nintendo and Smash

Somehow, Super Smash Bros Melee has become a staple game in the FGC. It was released in 2001 for the Nintendo GameCube, and remains popular despite several sequels being released.

Nintendo knows that Melee (as people in the community often call it) is popular, but they are not very supportive of their fans. In fact, they recently sabotaged the community. Some FGC Smash enthusiasts produced a modification of the game called Slippi, which allowed the game to run well over the Internet. Smashers loved Slippi. Nintendo did not, and they sent cease and desist letters to to a tournament that was going to use the mod in its tournament.

This was an awful thing to do, and it is not the only case where Nintendo has acted in tone deaf ways towards its community. Melee players live in a strange world where their game of choice is in limbo. The community keeps the game alive, but has no power to improve the game officially, which means that Nintendo can arbitrarily shut things down.

Game Churn

The power of the game development studios extends well beyond Nintendo, of course. Like other games, fighting games go through a lifecycle:

For almost all games (Smash Bros Melee excepted) the hype follows the latest game, and tournament scenes for older games in the series shrink dramatically, with little to no prize money. The top players migrate to the latest game of the series, and only hardcore enthusiasts (who usually declare their disdain for the latest game) play the old one. In the Netherrealms Studio (NRS) world, such people are called "necros". Some of these necros (notably a prodigy by the name of NinjaKilla212) become top players themselves, and necros discover a lot of strategies ("tech") that was unknown during the game's lifetime. Few people care, however -- players chase the latest releases from the studios, and the studios would not have it any other way. The consumerist churn keeps money in the game studio's pockets. This means top players are continually having to learn new games (some of which they don't enjoy), or they have to retire from the scene. It is tough to make any kind of living playing an older game you love. Once again, the players lose and the game studios win.

This is not surprising, of course. Games are not hobbies. They are consumer goods, and game studios have a vested interest in churning out new product that consumers will purchase.

Who Profits?

Video games are big business, and some e-sports such as League of Legends and Fortnite are bigger than mainstream sports. But just as with mainstream sports, the players ("athletes") are often the losers. The vast majority of players lose money chasing their dreams, and even most top players can earn only a few years of income before moving to something else. But there are a lot of entities making good money off those dreams:

Who doesn't profit?

This is kind of the story of the Internet. Big corporate players benefit a lot. A tiny fraction of players make some money. Almost everybody else -- in particular those aspects of the FGC that build community -- lose out. But that is not the story you see on the surface. The story you see is that these monopolistic platforms "democratize access, so anybody can succeed". That is demonstrably false. Succeeding on these platforms is winning the lottery. Hard work is insufficient -- you have to get lucky, have superhuman skills, or both. But as long as we believe the narrative that "anybody can make it big", the monopolistic entities will continue to profit.

Here's the thing: to the extent that the fighting game scene is meaningful, it is because of the community. I fell into the FGC because of the community much more than because of the games. I have not even liked the NRS offerings since Mortal Kombat X, but I do like the community, so I continue to follow it. When these players have retired from the competitive scene, it is the community that keeps them together through good times and bad. But as with so many things in capitalism, those who do the most important work are rewarded the least.