What does balance mean for a fighting game's competitive viability?

Can poor balance break a fighting game, or does the secret behind the competitive spirit lie somewhere else?

Posted by Nicholas 'MajinTenshinhan' Taylor • November 5, 2017 at 7:31 p.m. PST

Whenever a new fighting game comes out, one of the most common questions I hear from friends, especially ones who don't play fighting games seriously, is "how's the balance"?

Although balance is obviously a big deal for any type of competitive game, fighting games being no exception, it always surprises me when I get asked this.

It's no secret amongst fighting game aficionados that a game's balance is core to what characters to pick, what strategies to use, and everything in-between. But does a game being balanced mean the game is good?

It's a loaded question, to be sure. There are tons of factors that affect whether a game is considered good or not, and even then, what's considered good might not align with everyone's personal taste.

In this article, I'm going to try and break down what balance really means for a game's competitive viabiltiy and why people have gotten so focused on balance in particular.

Although being able to make a living off of competitive gaming is fairly new, especially for fighting games, competitive scenes have been around for a long time. Ever since Street Fighter 2 hit the arcades back in 1991, tournaments and competitions have been held in fighting games across the globe.

Back in those times, a game couldn't be modified easily, and required a heavy investment that dwarfs any budget needed for a balance patch in today's online-heavy climate.

Because of this, what you saw was what you got, and many of the Capcom classics that are hailed as some of the best fighting games of all time - Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Capcom vs. SNK 2 - are also generally agreed to not have particularly good balance.

Even on the console side, this was commonplace. In Super Smash Bros. Melee, which has a bigger tournament scene than ever 16 years after its original release, it's very rare to see more than perhaps 10 characters in a Top 64, even though the game boasts a roster of 26 playable fighters.

No matter your game of choice, this was a harsh environment that drilled one thing into most player's minds - play to win, or go home.

Once this happened, people began making a science out of matchups. They'd compare characters against eachother, and put together math to form tier lists which showed which characters had more favorable matchups than others, and vice versa, and basically ranking all the characters in the game next to eachother.

"Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 was a rarity in the modern fighting game landscape, in that Capcom could not patch the game due to their contract with Marvel having expired, so in a way it lived as an old-school game in a modern climate, with the same philosophy - what you see is what you get. "

It functioned as something of a guiding light to help players out with what characters to respectively pick or avoid, what matchups you might want a counterpick for and what characters might become common to fight against in tournaments due to their relative strength.

This is where we hit the next snag, though - games develop over time. Even if the developer can't patch the game, fighting games tend to have a lot of depth to them because of the variety of moves for each character, how they interact with eachother and dreaded bugs that the developers had not foreseen.

This meant that discoveries could turn tier lists on their head entirely, given time, leading to drastically different tier lists in a game's early days compared to 10 years down the line.

Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 was a rarity in the modern fighting game landscape, in that Capcom could not patch the game due to their contract with Marvel having expired, so in a way it lived as an old-school game in a modern climate, with the same philosophy - what you see is what you get. Therefore, it's a fitting example to illustrate just how different tiers can look with a few years between them.

Here at EventHubs, we've had community-voted tiers for a long time. Back in 2012, we had visitors vote for their opinions on characters in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and we have tiers voted on in 2017 as well. You can see compare the two right below.


Click image for tier list comparison

You can see that some characters remain in pretty much exact the same position as before - Zero is still considered amazing, and Hsien-Ko is still considered very weak. But conversely, you can also see some characters falling far or rising high, such as Wesker dropping over 10 spots, and Firebrand rising from a mediocre B rating to #14 on the list.

With tier lists being a thing, and also their everchanging nature being acknowledged, it's pretty clear that balance isn't a constant.

Being outraged about a character within 6 months of a game or new balance patch's release can easily make you look foolish in retrospect, but that doesn't mean there aren't legitimately unbalanced games. As mentioned earlier, most beloved old fighters are inherently unbalanced, but those games also hold some of the most passionate fans.

"The one constant that will always remain true is that no matter how poor the balance may be, if the system is sound and the game is fun, players will find a way to make it work competitively..."

Whenever I have a discussion with people about Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike, it's common to be told "the balance in that game is so bad", as if that somehow invalidates how beloved and competitively loaded the game's history is. Here's the thing - a game being imbalanced doesn't necessarily mean that it can't be competitive.

Throughout this article, I've made a point about balance being fluid when new tech is discovered, and that it's never a static thing. This is also true of the metagame itself.

When I started playing Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike, I was taught that there are 8 characters to choose - Chun-Li, Yun, Ken, Dudley, Makoto, Akuma, Urien and Yang - if you want to have a realistic shot of winning.

Of course, this isn't an iron-clad truth by any means, but the metagame when the game was at its peak popularity centered mostly around these characters, because they could realistically battle eachother without delving into overly lopsided matchups. This is supported by looking at EVO results throughout the years.

Although these 8 characters aren't the only ones who show up, it's rare to see any character outside of them pop up, with the obvious outlier being KSK's godly Alex which got top 8 three years in a row.

Developers should always do their best to make a balanced fighting game, but above all, they should make a fun fighting game. Another thing that people rarely talk about when it comes to balance is that an overly well-balanced game can turn stagnant and boring.

Look no further than Yoshinori Ono himself, who claimed to deliberately have made Yun overpowered in Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition to help build community spirit after Super Street Fighter 4 had tight-knit balance. I'm not sure I agree with Ono's approach there, but he clearly saw reason in doing this.

What I want to point out with all of this is that, obviously, the weight of balance for a fighting game's competitive viability varies from person to person. But the one constant that will always remain true is that no matter how poor the balance may be, if the system is sound and the game is fun, players will find a way to make it work competitively, even if you have to artifically cut two thirds of the roster out.

Although this article focused mostly on balance and a concept and only briefly touched upon tiers, there will be a followup talking in-depth about tiers and how to read them, hopefully giving further insight to players as to how tiers should be used when analyzing a game. Please look forward to it.

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