Arc System Works hit one hell of a home run after announcing and then successfully releasing one of the most popular fighting games of this generation: Dragon Ball FighterZ. With the awesome cel-shaded polish of Guilty Gear combined with the ease of access with autocombos, the game immediately hit its stride with the near-perfect balance of accessibility and tactical depth that even old veteran FGC members could appreciate. The game’s success has had its own hiccups, however, but none of them have anything to really do with the gameplay. Instead, it’s a party member not even actively involved with the game itself who is the problem, and it highlights an area in which was always bound to be an issue- the license holder of Dragon Ball is actively keeping the competitive scene from engaging in the product they paid for.
Toei is one of the oldest (and richest) animation-involved companies in all of Japan. It also has a long history of being hyper-protective regarding the intellectual properties it holds on to- particularly Dragon Ball. Akira Toriyama’s ridiculously successful worldwide phenomenon was, for quite a long time, unprecedented, seeing success on a stage that few pieces of media had ever truly achieved. As a medium, Dragon Ball transcended class, being known from the suburbs to the favelas, from the lowest class to richest in multiple countries. The anime is still a cultural mainstay, with over a dozen films and, most recently, Dragon Ball Super being one of the most watched simulcast anime to date (to the point that Crunchyroll servers would frequently crash every time a new episode was uploaded). Despite this long history, Toei has rarely issued the license outside and has an exclusive deal with Bandai Namco regarding game development- one where Toei has some unmeasured amount of executive decision making. The specifics of that authority are still private, but one of the biggest distinctions is clear- Toei has the authority to cancel the appearance of Dragon Ball FighterZ at any event which is not officially sanctioned as part of the DBFZ World Tour (likely being able to manipulate copyright law), and the most recent victim is one of the most known anime fighting game tournaments in the United States, Anime Ascension.
DBFZ is no stranger to cancelled appearances, however, as even on their home turf, EVO Japan got hit with DBFZ needing to be removed from the potential game roster due to Toei’s restrictive licensing practices. Before that, it was Dreamhack Atlanta. Toei also has a history of preventing free screenings of the Dragon Ball Z anime, even when it would seemingly help foster growth in their business, or when the screening has even been legally paid for by an entity (including a Mexican governor who wished to have a public screening of the final two episodes of Super). Why would Toei cancel these appearances? Because Toei expects some type of financial compensation for the use of their license that extends past their official agreement with Bandai Namco, who appears to be bankrolling the “official” appearances for the game’s world tour showcase as part of the licensing agreement with them. Toei appears to have that executive control to make those decisions, and has the potentially legal standpoint to be able to shut down an event who goes against their financial demands. Certain smaller events seem to be able to elude the grasp of Toei, but the larger “unofficial” appearances all seem to meet the same fate- pay up, or DBFZ won’t get shown at your event. It should also be noted that whatever financial demands Toei has been asking for has been met with silence, also likely due to legal reasons. Nobody knows exactly what Toei is charging, but that’s also not the point.
Fighting game tournaments are reliant on unpaid labor. Most tournaments struggle to break even, much less be in a position to make a profit. Anime Ascension itself is a tournament that exists to fill a particular fighting game niche, not to rake in a large dividend of tournament fees and merch sales. EVO Japan is still a new tournament, primarily existing to promote Japan’s new professional esport licenses and build into one of Japan’s premier tournaments rather than make money. Dreamhack Atlanta caters to multiple games- not just fighting games- and its fighting game stage is one of the smaller showings present. In fact, Dreamhack Atlanta offered a pot that likely would have cost the event money rather than make any. These tournaments are held because of the passion of the fighting game community- people willing to put a ton of expense on themselves to showcase their favorite titles and watch the best competitors in the world fight on as large a stage they can provide. For whatever reason, Toei appears to believe there is a financial due owed their way for their game to appear at these grassroots events. Given the company’s history of not really caring whether or not it disrupts exposure for their actively marketed game, it’s unlikely this behavior will stop anytime soon, either. Toei knows that the Dragon Ball franchise is already extremely well known, and seems willing to potentially lose business if they aren’t actively making money on events where their product is being showcased.
This type of mismanagement isn’t uncommon for older Japanese companies. ATLUS made headlines at Persona 5’s release for declaring that the game could not be streamed past a certain date– the date refers to when the story begins to get spoiled, and the main plotline begins to truly flesh itself out. The policy of anti-streaming with Japanese companies at the time wasn’t an uncommon one, but many ATLUS fans still felt betrayed by this policy, wanting to be able to showcase the promise of the game with a potentially new fanbase already reluctant to spend more money on a pretty great year for RPGs. While the company eventually somewhat rescinded this policy for the game (now you can play up to a point where the final act begins), it was widely criticized and considered heavily disappointing to see by many who were anticipating the game eagerly. Many Japanese companies have been slow to adapt to the constantly evolving gaming market, including streaming and community-based online interactions.
However, that also does not mean this behavior is justified. While the practice is common in Japan, it still dives into greed, and demanding grassroots events to pony up with these companies is overreaching. While it also highlights a legal issue revolving around how it’s potentially problematic for companies to rely on licensed products to be made into fighting games, I don’t think that is truly the fundamental issue (outside of the law not catching up to modern technology, which is, itself, an entirely different debate). I think the core problem is that certain companies simply cannot be trusted within the community because of their storied past with IP law. For example, I’m not nearly as worried with ArcSys’ upcoming Granblue Fantasy Versus getting cut off from events because CyGames has an established history of supporting the FGC, including sponsoring Daigo Umehara himself and extending an entire network of contacts in the FGC throughout multiple titles and corporate dealings. The same cannot be said of Toei, who has a history of sending cease & desist orders to anyone they deem unsuitable for whatever reason (as there likely have been multiple reasons in the past). While I understand that Toei wants to prevent any situation similar to the licensing rights to Ultraman (seriously, just delve into that mess if you have a few hours to kill), but banning the game from tournaments because the TOs don’t want to pay large licensing rights is outright excessive.
Where does this leave the competitive scene? Honestly, there is no correct answer there. In my mind, there are two realistic options: the first is to plan to only attend the officially sanctioned events, never expecting to attend another tournament that might feature the game, or to eventually drop the game in a competitive fashion. Neither option is very desirable- doubly so if you happen to love the game and how it plays. There is no escaping the situation, however, and the law favors Toei’s side until the law changes not to, which is unlikely. Copyright law typically favors the corporation, and the only way to challenge that authority is to take Toei to court, which most TOs can’t afford to begin with. Given the “poverty” nature of the FGC, I think it’s a major risk to include this game on an event’s roster if the event hits a certain expected threshold of participants. Does this mean the competitive DBFZ scene is dead? No, not at all. But it certainly makes it overly restricting and inaccessible even to the remaining devout players. After all, Toei has made it clear that it has no qualms about throwing a cease & desist order at any event that fails to comply with whatever demands they make, and when three major events all cancel this particular game’s appearance due to “unforeseen circumstances”… well, I believe that silence speaks volumes.