How Fighting Game Popoffs Work
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The popoff is a sacred moment in fighting games. It is a moment where one player is allowed to stand and proclaim to anyone nearby — the crowd in attendance at the Mandalay Bay, or maybe just your cat in your living room — that you are strong. After untold hours of labbing and losing, you are allowed to feel yourself. And in fighting games, the pot money might not even pay for the plane ticket, so the popoff is the prize.
If you’re not from around here, though, popoffs might just look like people getting really angry about playing a video game. Whenever I see YouTube comments about a popoff there’s always like three people who sound like old white men grimacing about how post-touchdown Rasengans are ruining the NFL: blah blah blah sportsmanship blah blah blah uncivilized blah blah blah lowkey racism.
Here’s the deal: Popoffs have a logic and a rhythm to them. They make sense in context. It may not be for you, and it doesn’t have to be, but if you’re there, you’ll get it, and if you’re not, don’t worry about it.
Fighting games are about tension
A good fighting game match involves a gradual buildup of tension: both players are exchanging blows, feeling each other out, and adapting to each other with higher degrees of finesse and precision (or wild unga swinging) until one player is victorious. This tension is felt both by players, as a stressor that can confound their ability to make smart decisions, and by spectators, as that oh-shit-something-is-about-to-happen feeling that keeps your eyes locked on the screen.
Tension can come from several different sources. Some examples include:
- The players’ previous history — Wolfkrone vs. KBrad, you vs. that online rando who always punches your ticket
- Match stakes — pretty much any game worth at least $20 is generally worthy of tension, though even a dollar is enough to get things going
- Match narrative — unusual character picks or player styles will add tension
- Players’ performance in match itself — comebacks, taunting, stylish combos, etc. all help build tension
- The audience — think American crowds chanting U-S-A, or CORN singing Somebody’s Getting Fucked
- MAHVEL BAYBEE — pretty much everything about Marvel vs. Capcom is just slamming Max Tension at all times
(As an aside, this tension is approximately ten times more potent when experienced in-person, which is why I think it’s worth going to events whenever possible for the Realest Shit.)
Once a match is concluded, all the questions that were asked during the match — “Who’s the better player?” “How do you spell U-S-A again?”, etc. — are answered, the two players shake hands, and the next match gets ready to play, but before that can happen, all that tension needs to go somewhere.
Hence, the popoff.
Think of match tension as potential energy, created by the players and the crowd. All that energy goes into the winner of the match (kind of like Highlander, if you’re here for washed TV references). But it’s too much for the winner to contain, so they have to release it back into the atmosphere as hype, which is then absorbed by everyone else. So, yes, the winning player is going to run around and yell about how good they are, but they’re doing it because they just got infused with a giant fucking spirit bomb of energy from everyone around them.
A crowd loves a good popoff not because it’s mean-spirited, but because it’s the climax of this shared experience that everyone went through together. Indeed, a well-executed popoff is a service to the community; every single person who drowned in pools can watch that popoff and think, someday that’ll be me. And that might just be what gets you into Training Mode for yet another day.
And what about the loser of the match? How are they supposed to feel? Well, here’s the thing — they’re in that same room, feeling that same tension, and when they lost, all of their tension just got absorbed by their opponent. It’s deflating. But in a well-executed popoff, it shouldn’t really hurt any worse than normal. That’s because the popoff is not really about you, unless you made the match about you.
So how do you pop off properly?
Popoffs, Talking Shit, and Reciprocal Escalation
I mentioned earlier that tension comes from multiple sources. Most of these sources are out of the players’ immediate control, but players do have their own vectors for adding tension, either through shit-talking or communicating disrespect in-game with taunts and other creative techniques. Fighting games are a conversation between two players; sometimes the players like to add their own commentary (shoutouts to NorCal own Old Man Tekken Bronson Tran).
Talking shit is essentially one player challenging the other player to increase the tension of the match. Talking shit will not change the size of the prize pool, or the way the match outcome affects the tournament bracket, but make no mistake: beating someone means more if they were talking shit. And so, shit-talking can escalate a match’s tension to the point where a victorious popoff is a reasonable outcome.
This is a simplified example of how shit-talking informs the popoff potential:
- Player 1 talks shit, Player 2 responds with equal amounts of shit-talking back = either player can pop off
- Player 1 talks shit, Player 2 doesn’t talk shit = Player 2 can pop off. If Player 1 pops off they just look like a jerk
- Player 1 talks shit, Player 2 escalates with more intense shit-talking, Player 1 perfects Player 2 to take the set = Player 1 is legally obligated to pop off and spread hype to everyone nearby
As you can see, the hype in this hypothetical match is limited by both players’ willingness to reciprocate and escalate. If one player tries to escalate unilaterally, they just look incredibly wack.
Talking shit is like escalating rounds of betting, except instead of betting money, it’s betting tension (which is then converted into hype at the end of the match). And just like betting, you don’t get the payoff unless you can get the other player to rise to the challenge. So when someone is talking shit to you, they’re basically handing you a coupon for One Free Popoff if you win, and asking you to respond in kind. It’s weirdly nice! If you choose to reciprocate, it demonstrates that you want some fucking hype, and if you don’t, you can just play the game and shake hands when it’s over (or pop off if you won, because fuck it, free popoff.)
Of course, having the greenlight to pop off doesn’t mean you’re clear for anything and everything across the board. A couple tips:
- Steamrolling someone isn’t hype unless the context is hype. Triple perfecting someone in Evo top 8 is hype because both players are good enough to get to top 8. I triple perfected someone in pools at Evo once. It was not hype, and my friends felt bad for cheering for me and stopped after the second one.
- Popoffs are about how good you are, not how bad the other player is. In general, “I’m so nice” is better than “You’re so wack”. After all, if the other player is bad, your victory doesn’t really mean much.
- It’s not personal unless someone made it personal. Don’t make it personal, no one wants to see that.
- As a corollary to the above: threats and fucked up racist/etc. shit is bad, it makes it personal, and the adults in the room have to take your shit seriously, which probably means banning you from the tournament.
- The one time you can make it personal is if you’re calling someone else out. If you win and want to take the opportunity to tell someone you’re coming for them next, that is hype as fuck.
- Crew rules: The presence of a crew is a notable exception case for popoffs. In general, assume that if each player has a crew, popoffs are expected; if one player has a crew and the other doesn’t, only the player without a crew is good to pop off. That’s because if you pop off on someone after beating them while they’re surrounded by your homies, it looks real tacky and might make the other person feel unsafe. On the other hand, if you pop off on someone after beating them in front of their homies, all of them just have to hold that shit. (Proper etiquette for the crew is to murmur in understated appreciation whether their homie wins or loses, unless said homie is an underdog in the match, in which case wilding out is expected.)
Case studies in popoffs
Now that the theory is out of the way, let’s close this essay out with some examples of excellent popoffs in fighting game history.
ChaosNightWolf beats MegamanDS to make it into top 8 for Evo
Stakes: Top 8 at Evo is a big deal.
Style: While winning by time over isn’t the most exciting thing in the world, “Thank God for the Machine” is an instant classic line, as is “Gimme that sour energy.” Also, turning down the salty runback money match offer is perfect.
Substance: Pretty classy overall. CNW is feeling himself and paying tribute to his Sentinel.
Hype Rating: B+. This match is not the most hype thing to ever happen at Evo, but CNW delivered an honest popoff that added to the overall hype. Textbook quality popoff, here.
SmoothViper calls out Neo after winning Battle of the Strongest 2
Stakes: SmoothViper (East Coast) just won an intense MvC2 round robin tournament that had become something of an underground sensation during its runtime, winning a $7800 crowdfunded prize pool. Neo, a West Coast player with a notable history for talking shit and playing in high-stakes money matches, had previously tweeted about how he was abstaining from MvC2 to focus on not-gaming stuff but said “I’ll let you guys know if I decide to make yet another coffin for another east coast body.”
Style: I suspect lots of folks unused to MvC2 will probably read remarkably high amounts of aggression into this but it’s Not That Serious. “Neo, when your bitch ass is ready, come see me, pussy” sounds like a lot to some folks, but it’s much tamer than pretty much anything that shows up on @ScrubQuotesX on a regular basis. And if you consider that Neo managed to fire shots at the East Coast (EC/WC rivalry runs deep in MvC2) while turning down an invitation to play, and then you consider that SmoothViper just spent the last eight hours drinking tequila and winning $7800 for being good at a fighting game that came out almost twenty years ago, it’s easy to see how “Hey man, I’d like to play you whenever you have the time to get back into the game” could come out like this.
Substance: Excellent popoff, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and sets up a future storyline. The WWE couldn’t have written a better one.
Hype Rating: A-. The Spirit of Marvel was with us all that night, and even though MvC2 doesn’t have a real tournament circuit, this popoff was a pretty great way to close out the night and leave me looking forward to future MvC2 events.
Jay “Viscant” Snyder sons LowTierGod so hard it ends up on WorldStarHipHop
Stakes: LTG is a recurring jerk who shows up on event streams now and then; Viscant is a fighting game player from Back In The Day who peaked winning Evo 2011 in MvC3. As part of a local SoCal showmatch series, the two were pitted each other in a grudge match.
Style: Shoutouts to Viscant for bringing some dramatic flair to the mic, but it went on just a little too long. His lines were good enough that my guess is he was writing his post-match popoff in his head on the drive up from San Diego. (He’s a really good writer!)
Substance: LTG is a living, walking case study in bad shit-talk; he will threaten, make things personal, and isn’t particularly witty or clever, and then when it’s over he’ll back out with “Hey, that was all just in the game”, so really the only hype he brings is in watching him lose. Viscant absorbed all the shit, bodied LTG in a game he doesn’t even play that much, and then reflected all the personal shit back at LTG. Frankly, LTG had already escalated things past the point of good taste (it’s what he does) so I think Viscant worked very well with what he had.
Hype Rating: A. A skinny nerd looking like he got off work from Target to beat up and dress down a well-muscled man was so vicious it ended up on a website that is known for hosting street fight videos. Considering no one had any reason to care about this match until it happened, I think it’s fair to say this is a legendary popoff.
Stakes: This was to make it into Winners Finals in Guilty Gear at Evo 2015. The stakes don’t get much higher than that. Also, Woshige is the battle planner on Street Fighter V, and it’s pretty cool to work on one fighting game and make Evo Top 8 at another.
Style: The victory lap is classic, but you should make sure you actually won first. Also, Woshige is classy in his self-inflicted defeat.
Substance: Ogawa mimicking the victory lap and fist pump, followed by a bunch of awkward high fives with the crowd, was a solid non-verbal popoff.
Hype Rating: S+. Without the popoff, no one would have ever remembered this match except for a few Guilty Gear diehards. With the popoff, Guilty Gear ended up making it onto ESPN’s SportsCenter. Woshige died on his own sword so that we all could share in the hype. Praise Be.