Most of us will never know the rush of competing on an Olympic field and representing our country alongside the likes of world-class athletes such as Simone Biles, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. But soon, anyone who’s halfway decent at video games will get to experience the next-best thing.
Just ahead of next summer’s 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Intel will host the Intel World Open, an international showcase of top-level talent in two of the most popular multiplayer games around: Street Fighter V and Rocket League. With a total of $500,000 up for grabs across both games, and a series of qualifiers that anyone can enter, the Intel World Open is a chance for gamers of all regions and skill levels to experience the thrill of high-level esports in the same arena that will host the Olympic Games.
At New York Comic Con 2019, I sat down with Street Fighter series producer Yoshinori Ono, as well as Intel’s director of business development for esports and gaming Mark Subotnick, to learn how the Intel World Open came to be. We also discussed what the event could mean for the future of both Street Fighter and esports as a whole.
Bringing Street Fighter to an Olympic stage
“When we knew we were going to be moving into Tokyo 2020, it was clear that we wanted to have a partner that could help us shine a spotlight on the great history that Japan has in gaming,” said Subotnick on how Intel’s partnership with Capcom came about.
“And as soon as we got it cleared that a fighting game was open, we went with the number one fighting game in esports,” he continued. “We're bringing esports to an Olympic audience. We need something that's really accessible and easy to watch, and it’s easy to understand what's going on in Street Fighter.”
Despite the massive global popularity of top esports titles such as League of Legends and Dota 2 (the latter of which netted close to 2 million concurrent viewers during this past summer’s The International 2019 event), the flurry of micro-battles occurring in these complex strategy titles could be confusing for a mainstream audience. Meanwhile, nearly anyone can understand two colorful martial artists trying to knock one another out in Street Fighter, or even two teams of cars playing a game of soccer in the decidedly wackier Rocket League.
Esports for everyone
Capcom is no stranger to esports, having hosted an official tournament circuit for Street Fighter since 2014, dubbed the Capcom Pro Tour. And while most Capcom Pro Tour events take place at open regional tournaments that anyone can enter, they tend to be dominated by a niche, hardcore group of sponsored players who travel the world for their craft.
But since the qualifying rounds for the Intel World Open begin with a series of online tournaments, Ono and his team are hoping that a more casual crowd might be encouraged to both participate in, and spectate, the action. And since the World Open will have national representatives (just like the real Olympics), it could create a unique storyline of viewers rooting for specific regions rather than players.
“A 50-year-old, old-school Street Fighter father figure can actually apply for online competition,” said Ono via a translator. “When he's doing that online qualifier, maybe his son or his family, his parents might be able to actually watch it on the stream.
“And if he makes it to [nationals], then those people who are around him will be interested,” Ono continued.
“Where maybe before I would root for a team or a player, now I'm rooting for a nation, or I'm really excited about a national matchup, said Subotnick. "We're hopeful that's going to bring excitement to it.”
During NYCC 2019, Capcom revealed that the USA will be one of the 12 national teams that will compete in the Intel World Open. According to Capcom, the countries have been preselected by the size of their respective player bases for Street Fighter, as well as each region’s results in recent Pro Tour events.
Online qualifiers for each respective country will kick off in March 2020, as will regional qualifiers for folks who don’t live in the preset qualifying countries. After that, there will be a live qualifier in Katowice, Poland in June, in which the 12 national teams as well as 8 regional teams will duke it out. The top 7 teams will advance to the World Open.
To further drive home the World Open’s theme of accessibility, Subotnick confirmed that online qualifiers will be accessible from both PS4 and PC. However, all matches from the Katowice qualifier on will take place on gaming PCs.
“Even for sports or other video games, there's always some sort of regulation which actually stops the user from joining in them,” said Ono. “So [with] this Intel World Open, anyone can join, it's going to give a chance to all of the users, which is really, really great. Street Fighter has been known for a terminology called ‘World Warriors.’ So, this is a great chance to be a real world warrior by becoming your national representative.”
Because the Intel World Open represents such a major milestone for Street Fighter V, I asked Capcom if there will be any special in-game content or updates to coincide with the event. For starters, Capcom has vowed not to make any major balance changes between the start of the qualifiers and the end of the tournament to maintain a consistent playing field. The developer is also testing the online qualifier system internally, and will soon roll out an open beta to make sure the system is good to go once competition begins in earnest in March 2020.
Of course, with Street Fighter V having first launched in 2016, and the PS5 and Xbox Scarlett on the horizon for late 2020, I couldn’t help but ask how much life is left in Capcom’s flagship fighter, and whether or not we should expect a new title soon.
“Not committing to or mentioning anything specifically, but we do see a lot more potential in Street Fighter V as of right now,” said Ono. “Hardcore people, they [always want something new]. So, I always get some sort of backlash. I do see a lot of potential in this game and who knows? [Our] partnership with Intel with this World Open may open up a new door of Street Fighter V.”
Ono has been at Capcom since the early 90s, working on early arcade titles such as Super Street Fighter II Turbo and Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike before helping usher in the modern fighting game renaissance with 2008’s Street Fighter IV. But the veteran producer says that bringing Street Fighter to the Intel World Open is one of his most significant accomplishments — at least according to his bosses.
“For the first time in his life, in over 20 years of working with Capcom, he was actually called by the owner of the company,” said Ono’s translator.
“He was like, ‘I’m glad we hired you’ (laughs). I was thinking in my [more than 20-year] career at Capcom that I did a lot for this company, but I guess I was wrong,” joked Ono.
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Mike Andronico is Senior Writer at CNNUnderscored. He was formerly Managing Editor at Tom's Guide, where he wrote extensively on gaming, as well as running the show on the news front. When not at work, you can usually catch him playing Street Fighter, devouring Twitch streams and trying to convince people that Hawkeye is the best Avenger.