There has been plenty of discourse about the nature of sponsored ads in Street Fighter 5 across the internet lately. Almost hourly, there are new takes on what it means for Capcom and Street Fighter 5 to be including ad-based content in a game that isn’t free-to-play (referred to as F2P), and what it means for players to deal with injected sponsored content in their paid-for experience. Eurogamer highlighted a series of arguments on two major camps of the spectrum- those “against” the ads and those “for” the ads (though, honestly, most of the “for” arguments appear to be less in favor of the ads being put in and more apathetic about their inclusion). One of the main reasons why I write this particular post, however, was watching and listening to Joe Munday discuss it on r/SF Radio, and reading his tweets about the issue. It got me thinking deeply about the subject, and… my conclusions arrived at a different space I had initially perceived them to come to. Admittedly, I was initially leaning slightly more to the “it’s a reality of the game industry we live in” argument of the issue. As I thought more on the notion, I stopped and thought about the nature of advertising itself.
Since this is being written before the ads inclusion, it will naturally only mark my thoughts pre-implementation, and the easiest way to start is by including the most superficial and shallow complaint- the costumes just look ugly. The mock-ups Capcom provided are absolutely hideous, riddling each character’s outfit with completely out-of-character ad space that is just a pure blemish on the eyes.
With that out of the way, let’s move on to less superficial reasoning. One of the first and most obvious complaints (not related to how ugly the costumes are) is that players paid money for this game. Street Fighter 5 is not F2P, even if there are promotions where the game is temporarily free. The point is that the player has already paid a premium to enter the experience, and that gateway should not also include further subjection to ad space for anything unrelated to the core experience. Even if it’s temporary, why is it acceptable at all for a premium priced title to utilize F2P elements at the expense of the consumer? Even if a new player downloaded this game during one of the free periods, the game itself will cease to be free after the trial period and there are consumers who have already paid for the experience to not include these ads. Street Fighter 5 is not a F2P experience, and should be utilizing techniques of F2P games.
Some players are pointing out that the ability to turn off the ads makes them non-intrusive, but there’s an issue with this- it’s not that you can’t turn off the ads that’s the problem, it’s that you’re actively being incentivized to leave the ads on. Not to mention, the rate of fight money being earned simply returns to what the rate was before it was nerfed two years ago. Capcom had already allowed players to make this amount of fight money before, and there is an even bigger issue of having too much stuff to spend fight money on in this title- even worse than two years ago.
Capcom’s decision to bloat its own game with a ton of stages, costumes, colors, and now loot boxes (aka “Fighter’s Chance”) is not a decision that is made without deliberation and careful consideration. Many of these additions can be bought with real world money or the in-game currency, with the likely hope that so many things to buy coerces more casual players or players with less time to spend real world money instead of in-game currency. Now that sponsored ads are becoming a reality, there is a link established that many people appear to forget: Fighter’s Chance rewards.
When the feature was first implemented, many players correctly called the randomized reward mechanism what it is- loot boxes that use in-game currency. At the time, many wrote off it being a problem because it only used in-game currency rather than real world money, but now that sponsored ads can (and likely will) appear, there is a tangible connection to the fight money rewarded in-game and thus impacting the economy for Fighter’s Chance. Now that people will be getting more fight money, there is a larger incentive to spend on Fighter’s Chance rewards- particularly since there are exclusive rewards to that system. The overall impact of that tangible connection can be debated, but there is a real world connection now that was not there previously. I haven’t seen this connection discussed much, maybe because it’s not perceived as one that is as important as other core issues, but it is a factor nonetheless, and it reflects how the fight money reward impacts the economy that Capcom has spent years establishing. Critics like Jim Sterling have detailed extensively how there are life impacts of gambling mechanisms in video games, as well as potential legal issues that can stem from the inclusion of loot boxes, and while Capcom may be able to avoid direct legal issues (since the player is not technically the payee of the real world money value of Fighter’s Chance rewards), there is definitely a moral stance that can be taken on the measure in this regard.
So, why is sponsored ads in a paid experience potentially such an issue? Well, advertising is an inherent attempt to persuade people to purchase specific products, and these products are not part of the game’s universe, nor are they relevant to the game’s topics or themes. Modern day advertising’s goal is less to convince people to purchase their specific good, as we have been in the age of the internet for over 30 years already, and instead to convince consumers to engage with their specific product. Red Bull has had a longstanding connection to the esports scene, and has already seen a large connection with the fighting game scene. This has both positives and negatives to discuss, but I’m not going to discuss those in this particular post. Instead, I want to discuss why this impacts the experience and why it’s a problem that it’s being implemented in a paid title.
The customer, in this instance, paid a premium to play Street Fighter 5. That premium should guarantee the absence of adverts unrelated to the experience, since the F2P model employs ads to offset the cost of the fact that the player may or may not be paying to engage in the experience. That premium price has already been paid in Street Fighter 5’s case. There is nothing that guarantees sponsorship money reaches the pockets of players in Capcom’s Pro Tour, or players that win majors or premier events, and there is no genuine way to verify that this sponsorship money would reach players in the first place, anyway, unless sponsors gave money directly to players. By design, advertising is meant to influence a consumer’s decision, often in a way that is not directly manipulative or deceptive, but persuasive. In this instance, the mental connection to Street Fighter 5 and having Capcom’s endorsement is the link sponsors likely seek when putting ads on character costumes and displaying them in the game’s stages. It is not an endorsement, but rather seeking to influence the engagement of the player- that when the player may think of Street Fighter 5, a link may be established to a product they have seen in the game. Nothing is guaranteed in advertising, but the entire point of it is to influence your decision making in some capacity.
A common fallacy is to assume that if one player is not affected by this change, that it should be just as easy for others to not be affected, either. This is the same defense that those who defend loot boxes use, because they are not the target audience. I’m not usually someone to say “think of the children”, but the target demographic for these ads is likely children and young adults. This game is not rated “M”, and it’s not restricted at all to any age demographic- if you can use a controller, you can play Street Fighter 5, and Capcom should not be subjecting potentially vulnerable individuals to targeted advertising of any kind.
At the end of the day, Capcom is going to decide how to run their business, but those business decisions should not be void of criticism from consumers. Questionable decisions by executives at Capcom should not simply be overlooked because “this is just how business goes”, nor should we, as a community, ignore the impacts on those who are not the measure of being “us”. By including paid content in its game, Capcom has now added a real world monetary value to its in-game currency- intentionally or otherwise- and we should, as a community, examine that relationship with care and scrutiny. A very long conversation with seriousness needs to take place about this, because I personally found the idea of ads in a paid experience more reprehensible the more I seriously thought about it.