Fighting Games For Dummies

Fighting games have a fascinating ecosystem. A massive number of titles have been created, and modifications and advancements have been introduced in various games during the 30-plus years that fighting games have been a part of the gaming world. The following criteria are essential to competition and are true of almost every fighting game:

Two characters appear on the screen, each controlled by a single player. The characters engage in combat based on button presses and joystick inputs, often including complex combinations of buttons and gestures. In-game characters have different moves and attacks, creating variety. Combat takes place on a “stage” or “map” that is a defined space. The edges of that space become important in that a player can be stuck in a corner or, in some more rare cases, can lose by being forced out of a level. A match consists of rounds (typically best of three) with victory coming by bringing the opponent’s health level to zero or by having more remaining health when the round clock expires (in games with timed rounds).


You may have garnered an interest in fighting games after watching a large tournament. Or perhaps your friends have introduced you to playing fighting games and awakened a newfound love or rekindled an old flame of interest. For quite some time, there is a lingering issue that seems to intimidate casual fighting game players from playing the genre consistently, and even walk away from it all together: fighting games are hard. And to that regard… yes they are hard, but it’s more rewarding the longer you practice and play with other people that can teach you a few things. As a casual player, you may have a hard time on deciding where to start, so there are several things you want to keep in mind if you are jumping into the genre.


In the current esports world, you see essentially four types of fighting games:

  • 2-D fighters: Two-dimensional games have characters that appear as pixel sprites or hand-drawn, cartoon-style characters. In this style of fighting game, the characters can move only left, right, up, and down on an x and y axis. Characters can’t move in or out of the frame/screen (because there is no third dimension).

  • 5-D fighters: The graphics of these games are 3-D–rendered but the game still moves on the two-dimensional axis, giving the appearance of 3-D but not actually using a third axis.

  • 3-D fighters: The graphics are three dimensional and the player characters can move on a z axis, crossing each other, moving into and out of the screen, and so on.

  • Platform brawlers: These are 2-D or 2.5-D games in which one of the primary goals is specifically to knock the opponent off a platform or off the screen.

  • Each of the preceding styles of game has at least one popular representative in the fighting-games community, and many have great longevity or are parts of a multi-title series. In fact, at Championship Series (EVO) 2019, the nine-game slate hit on each style relatively evenly with long-time title representation, as shown in the following table.

    Game Style Years in competition
    BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle 2-D Two, with previous BlazBlue title the year prior
    Dragon Ball Fighter Z 2.5-D Two (since release)
    Mortal Kombat 11 2.5-D One (an MK game has appeared at eight of the last nine EVOs)
    Samurai Shodown 2.5-D One (2019)
    Soulcalibur VI 3-D One (five other years feature an SC game)
    Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition 2.5-D Four (an SF game has been a part of every EVO)
    Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Platform brawler One (an SSB game has appeared at nine EVOs, including the last six)
    Tekken 7 3-D Four ( a Tekken game has appeared at all but one EVO since 2003)
    Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late[st] 2-D One (considered a surprise tournament pick)

    2D fighters

    To state it as simply as possible, a 2-D fighting game has two-dimensional graphics and moves on a two-dimensional axis. This relationship is shown in the following figure, which is the start of a match in BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle. Almost every 2-D fighter exists on a stage that works like a cartoon’s background. The player characters can move left and right through the stage, but at some point on each side, the stage ends. This boundary means that a character can be pushed up against a sort of invisible wall that is formed by the edge of the stage. Many fighting-game purists favor 2-D fighters. In terms of gameplay, the two-dimensional play axis is still maintained by many fighting games, but keeping the older-looking, two-dimensional graphics lends a certain charm. It also results in sprite-based animations that opponents can read and anticipate in ways that that they can’t do sometimes with the motions of a 3-D model. More important, those sprite-based animations have to finish before new ones can start, meaning that a move that has a long animation has to happen and end before more actions can be input and completed, at least in most cases. This might seem like an unnecessary or minor detail to the casual player, but for pros, it can be the difference between perfectly blocking a powerful attack or taking a match-ending assault to the face. 2-D fighters also represent the origin point of the fighting game genre. Karate Champ was a 2-D fighter, as was Street Fighter (and Street Fighter II). In that sense, all fighting games that exist now borrow from the 2-D style and mechanics, and in fact a number of fighting-game innovations happened first in 2-D.

    Seeing 2-D go 2.5-D with Samurai Shodown

    In 2019, SNK released an updated 2.5-D version of its 1993 hit Samurai Shodown (or Samurai Spirits in its native country of Japan). The original game was 2-D with pixel-art sprites, as you can see in the following figure. Mechanically, the game features fighters who almost all brandish weapons, primarily swords, and fight by charging forward and falling back in a 2-D side-scrolling environment. One of the worst possible things that can happen to a player is to be forced to the edge of the screen and up against the edge, which works like a wall. A player stuck there can be “juggled” by repeated attacks, with the edge of the screen allowing the opponent to essentially bounce the other player. The 2019 release of Samurai Shodown features 3-D graphics. That is, essentially, the only major difference in the two versions of the game. Other updates have occurred, of course — the game can be played online and will provide for downloadable characters and post-release balance that didn’t exist for the original — but the major update made the graphics and player models appear in a 3-D art style, as shown. The combat itself still happens on a two-dimensional plane moving left and right, and many of the characters have the same basic look and move sets. The merger of 2-D gameplay with 3-D art is the hallmark of a 2.5-D game. The major advantages of 2.5-D are all about visuals. 3-D models take longer to create, but more parts can be reused and animations can be shared across multiple models. In the old 2-D sprite design style, a new sprite had to be created for each character and each potential motion. 3-D art also allows for higher resolutions and more realistic characters; sprite animation of photographs remains choppy and unnatural looking. In terms of gameplay mechanics, 2-D and 2.5-D are remarkably similar.

    Stepping forward with the 3-D fighter

    With the advent of 3-D game art and 3-D rendering, many games began allowing three-dimensional movement, with characters moving into and out of the screen. Remember that 3-D in a game is not the same as a 3-D movie or picture. The third axis in these games doesn’t literally jump out of the screen. But the presence of a third axis does mean that actions can happen in directions other than left and right and up and down. The first 3-D fighter was Sega’s Virtua Fighter (VF), which released in arcades in 1993 and later on the Sega Saturn console. The series was revolutionary in that it allowed for the characters to move at all manner of angles across a fighting arena that allowed the player to spin 360 degrees to view the entire space. Many versions of VF came about, and the series extended to a fifth installment with several mini-updates along the way. Though rarely seen in competitive play now, VF even had its day at EVO in the mid- to late 2000s.

    Knocking people off the platform (brawler)

    The final type of fighting game comes with a little bit of controversy. Among diehard fighting-game fans, the titles that fit the classification of platform brawler would not be considered fighting games. Their audiences and competitive player bases would disagree, however, and EVO has recognized Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. (SSB) — the game that created the genre — for years. What makes games like the SSB series different from other fighting games is that in addition to doing damage to each other, characters can win by knocking their opponent off the various platforms, or areas where players can stand, on the screen. These work in essence the same way a platform works in a game like Super Mario Brothers, in which missing a jump or being knocked off means that a player character falls to its death. Although the SSB series is by far the most popular platform brawler, a free-to-play game called Brawlhalla has formed a rather large audience as well, particularly with fan-favorite events that include World Wrestling Entertainment superstars in the game, as shown. (WWE Women’s Champion Becky Lynch knocks an opponent off the platform in Brawlhalla for PlayStation 4.)

    Esports: The Major Fighting Games

    Unlike some other esports genres that have relatively few titles, the fighting-game genre includes literally hundreds of titles. Not all of them see regular competition in the esports world, though in the most technical sense, any fighting game could be an esport. This section takes a look at the big names so that you know what to expect if you want to dive into the most popular esports fighting-game titles.

    Taking it to the street (SF V)

    The longest running and arguably most successful fighting-game series is Capcom’s Street Fighter (SF) series. Although the original SF didn’t make quite the major splash that the sequel did, every version of the game from 1992’s SF II forward has been a mainstay in fighting-game competition and was once the quarter-gulping center point of many arcades across the world. The current competition edition of SF is SF V: Arcade Edition, and it features nearly 40 fighters including downloadable content. It has been a featured game at EVO and other major tournaments since its launch in 2016. An updated edition called SF V: Championship Edition added a 40th character when it was released on February 14, 2020. It is expected to become the competition standard, though it’s too early to know for certain. SF V is a 2.5-D fighting game with a deep combo system and a series of regular characters like Ryu, Chun-Li, and Akuma. It is a console-exclusive title for the PlayStation 4 but also appears on Windows PC.

    Fighting with Capcom vs. [Everyone]

    Not a company to sit back and enjoy the success of a single title, Capcom created a number of other fighting games to complement SF. Some of the Capcom vs. titles were crossovers with other game companies like SNK, which created games like King of Fighters and Samurai Shodown. Entries in the series pitted fighters from various games. At times, games in the Vs series include characters from non fighting games as well. The series blossomed into a true esports hit when Capcom started to cross over with the Marvel comics universe. The first of these games was X-Men vs. Street Fighter, a 1996 arcade release, and it later spawned the popular Marvel vs. Capcom series, which has spanned four entries to date. The most recent game in the series, Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite, was released in 2017. Although Marvel vs. Capcom wasn’t featured at EVO in 2019, it is still a game with a healthy competition base.

    Killing it with Mortal Kombat

    Often thought of as “the other” major fighting-game series, Mortal Kombat has been around since 1992, sharing arcades and consoles with SF as the other heavy hitter. Known for being far more bloody than other fighting games, one of MK’s signature features is the ability to finish an opponent with a brutal move at the end of the match that would all but certainly kill the opponent. Such moves, which often have complicated combo inputs required to execute, are called fatalities. MK attempted to use photo-realistic sprites, which in the original games looked quirky and rough but worked. The style morphed over time into a 3-D photo-realistic take on fantasy characters. The series dabbled with full 3-D combat, but returned to 2.5-D for the last several releases. The current game in the series, MK11, was so highly anticipated that it was announced for EVO 2019 before it had been released. Originally owned by Midway, the MK team eventually spun out from the bankruptcy and closure of Midway Games, and NetherRealm is now owned by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. MK appears on Xbox One, PS4, Switch, PC, and mobile. MK isn’t as fast-paced as SF, and at times the combat is all about punishing an opponent for leaving himself open to a particularly strong attack. The series is dominated by a recurrent set of ninja characters including Scorpion and Sub Zero, two of the most famous fighting-game characters of all time. You can see those two characters squaring here.

    Tipping the scales with Injustice

    Just as Capcom partnered with Marvel comics, so Midway partnered with the other comic book giant, DC. Initially following the Capcom format, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe released in 2008. Although the game didn’t fare poorly, it was not embraced by the community because DC wouldn’t license its characters to be killed, and without the signature fatality moves, MK fans didn’t feel that the game was truly MK. Even though MK vs. DC wasn’t a huge esports hit, the idea of a fighting game with DC heavy hitters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman still struck the MK team as a viable competitor to the Capcom vs. series. The answer to making the game work was removing MK and the need for fatalities. The resulting game was Injustice: Gods Among Us. Based in an alternative universe in which Superman is evil, Injustice featured some of DC’s most popular characters along with the mechanics that fans loved from MK. In the place of fatalities, the Injustice series includes supermoves, which are short cinematic moves that do heavy damage and feature the character’s superpowers. Watching the Flash run someone through time into the past and bounce the character off a dinosaur, or watching Batman call in his Batmobile or Batwing, gave the series something to replace the gory fatality finishes from MK. The current game in the series, Injustice 2, is still frequently played in competition. The art style and animations are based heavily on MK, making the play style familiar to MK players, but there is an obvious appeal to being able to play as a character like Batman.

    Fighting in three dimensions with Tekken

    In the “Stepping forward with the 3-D fighter” section, earlier in this chapter, I mention Virtua Fighter. Although Sega’s VF created the foundation for the 3-D fighting game, the Tekken series took the concept and fashioned it into a massive arcade and console success. First released to arcades in 1994, Bandai Namco’s Tekken began a long lineage of games based on hand-to-hand combat and a slower, less jumping-based fighting style. Tekken has been so successful that it has released nine installments (the seven Tekken titles and two in the series called Tekken Tag Tournament) and has presented versions of its game on arcade cabinets, Android, Game Boy Advance, iOS, Windows, PlayStations 1–4, the PlayStation Portable, Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, and Xbox 360/Xbox One. The Tekken series has also been an EVO mainstay. The current title, Tekken 7, includes a roster of 52 fighters, including guests like Street Fighter’s Akuma, and Negan from The Walking Dead (shown in the following figure). Because Tekken 7 is the premiere 3-D fighter, you can easily find tournament play for the game on every level, from local to international events. One of the most dramatic shifts to Tekken from the 2.5-D fighting games mentioned previously is that in SF, MK, and similar games, jumping is frequently used to cover space, whether to create separation or to close in on a target. In Tekken, jumping is rarely the right choice, and the more realistic gravity aspect of game physics results in jumps that cover a relatively small amount of space, leaving a player open to multiple attacks. This situation can frustrate new players who are familiar with other fighting games as they attempt to use their preexisting skills within the Tekken system.

    For a guide on how to watch and play fighting games, click this link.