Something interesting is happening in the world of fighting games. There’s a huge shakeup happening, and it’s revolving all around a game you might not expect – Dragon Ball FighterZ. Sure, it’s a great game, with tons of casual appeal, but I don’t think anyone expected a Dragon Ball game to be a headlining game at EVO. But it goes even further than that. Dragon Ball FighterZ isn’t just making waves because it has a bunch of high review scores and it being featured at EVO. It’s also attracting people in a way that a singular fighting game hasn’t in a long time. It’s transcending subgenre barriers, and drawing new people in. It’s almost starting to feel like, depending on things like future support, we could be looking at a new focal point in the genre, not unlike when Street Fighter was new and fresh.
Sure, that’s probably a bit of hyperbole – Street Fighter was something brand new, and the mania following the second game’s release is historic in video games. This situation is a little different. But those differences work for Dragon Ball FighterZ in a lot of ways. The biggest factor of course is the popularity of Dragon Ball itself. Since the 80s, Dragon Ball has been a cultural flashpoint in Japan, and over the following decades became just as huge internationally. Dragon Ball is a legitimate phenomenon on a scale much larger than Street Fighter. But then, why now? Why is this game the one that does it?
That’s an important question, because it’s not like this is the first Dragon Ball game ever. It’s because Dragon Ball videogames have largely been in the “Anime Game” camp. These are games that have mostly just appealed to Dragon Ball fans who were willing to put up with games of wavering quality. But this is, and bear with me for a sec, the first “real” Dragon Ball video game. This is a bonafide fighting game from a bonafide fighting game developer, which has dabbled in anime before but not quite one on this level (Arc System Works did contribute to an earlier Dragon Ball game, but it was a smaller 3DS title).
Leveraging the enduring popularity with a game of high quality was the perfect combination to get people to notice. That’s why the initial reveal hit so hard, that’s why E3 2017 talk was so centered on the game. Our generation grew up with Dragon Ball. Everyone knows what it is, and while not everyone is a fan, everyone is familiar enough to dabble in a major fighting game from a known developer. But, and here’s where we come back around to the beginning, this is where we see the cool thing happening.
Because of Dragon Ball’s ubiquity, combined with Dragon Ball FighterZ’ high quality, the fanbase is melding together from several directions. The userbase for this game isn’t just Dragon Ball kids who played Budokai or whatever back on the PS2. It’s Dragon Ball fans who like fighting games too. It’s people from the Street Fighter, Tekken, BlazBlue, Marvel vs Capcom, Injustice, etc., communities all converging together for this one game. It’s a draw across boundaries that usually don’t cross that often. A recent tournament ended with a top Marvel vs. Capcom player facing off against a top BlazBlue player; this is exciting stuff, especially from an esports perspective. And it’s only drawing more people to the game, along with everyone on the casual side who are continuing to play the game, enjoy it, and spread word of mouth.
We’re seeing, not a new genre, but a new kind of hybrid fanbase evolving out of various groups and cliques that didn’t always mix together. People are dipping their toes in unfamiliar territory because of the combination of quality, familiarity, and hype. The audience for Dragon Ball FighterZ is huge and growing, and the numbers at EVO are going to be huge. It’s going to be bigger than BlazBlue, or Guilty Gear, and it may even rival the likes of Street Fighter, which has a struggling reputation.
We’ll see what happens over the next year or so, but if Bandai Namco and Arc System Works can take advantage of this evolving community and ride the wave, this could be a new fixture in the fighting game community in the years to come.