The Half-Truth about Tier Lists in Fighting Games

There was a time when Street Fighter V fans didn’t like Abigail that much. When his trailer dropped during EVO last year, there was an immediate dislike for the character as he just looked incredibly weird. He was a hulking brute who reached almost to the top of the screen. His special attacks look rather silly and his intro, where he would sound like a little kid and make car noises as he entered the field of battle, added to how stupid he looked. It looked like people were going to avoid using him as he just didn’t seem like that great of an addition to the game.

Fast forward to a year and¬†Abigail is probably the most feared characters in the Street Fighter V roster as of now. There has been a lot of tech that has been discovered for the former Mad Gear boss and he’s been wrecking terror in Street Fighter V both in the online world and in tournaments. Most pros who used to use Zangief have abandoned him and switched to Abigail. Well, that’s to be expected as, in the minds of most players, Abigail ranks incredibly high in Street Fighter V’s tier list right now… which is weird because, in the fighting game community, there’s a long standing belief that tier lists don’t really exist. In a sense, that’s correct as there is no real scientific basis for tier lists and they’re mostly subjective. I personally don’t believe that there is a standard tier list that fits everybody but I do believe that there is definitely some truth to them.

For those not in the know, tier lists is ranking of all the characters in a fighting game’s roster. It’s usually based on a hypothetical matchup between two equally skilled players and their theoretical win-loss rate against all the characters. This was the “old” way of generating tier lists it seems. Now, you can see fighting game community members, both in the casual sense and the pro players, generate tier lists based on other factors. These include how much easier a player can control the pace of the match, the level of ease they can make a comeback and easy it is to execute high damage combos. Street Fighter V’s top tier characters, such as the aforementioned Abigail and other characters like Rashid and Guile do tick off most of the boxes that makes a character rank high up in the tier lists.

The biggest argument against tier lists is, if they were real, this would mean that the characters who are usually on the bottom tiers wouldn’t be able to win. A character’s win-loss record per player will always differ from one another. Most people think that Juri is a low tier character in Street Fighter V. Yet we see players like Infiltration rock out the Juri flag now and then with great success. Last year, Infiltration used Juri to take out an entire Rashid army in Manila Cup and he managed to emerge victorious against all of them.

This is precisely why I don’t believe in a general tier list for fighting games. However, there is definitely some truth to tier lists in all fighting games. Despite companies like Capcom trying to balance out the characters to make all of them viable against one another, there will always be stronger and weaker characters in the roster. In the worst case, there are even going to be totally broken characters.

The best example I can think of doesn’t come from a Capcom franchise but one from Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. It has one of the more hardcore fighting game communities out there and the very first Super Smash Bros. is still being played in tournaments even since it launched. Despite having one of the largest rosters in any fighting game series, the roster was generally balanced until Super Smash Bros. Brawl and the arrival of Meta Knight. While I’m a total noob in the realm of Super Smash Bros., I do see the reasons why Meta Knight was the undisputed king of the tier list in the game. He had fast hitting moves and deceptively long reaching attacks, allowing him to string together attacks in quick succession. Meta Knight also has a gliding ability and can float around the screen without having to stay on a platform for a good while. As the Super Smash Bros. games focus on weakening your target before booting them off the play field, these two abilities alone made him extremely powerful. As those issues and other factors made the character incredibly strong against the rest of the cast, Meta Knight was eventually banned from most tournaments.¬†That’s an extreme case, of course. But it does demonstrate that tier lists do exist.

Generally, what makes a character “top tier” is the number of effective abilities they have in their toolbox. Meta Knight has more tools than other characters in Smash Bros. Brawl. This meant he had counters to the strengths of his opponents and was able to cover up his weaknesses better than others. While Abigail and Rashid do have different styles, they do have incredibly effective attacks and abilities that cover up their weaknesses. For example, Abigail is huge, making him a big target. His jump is also rather low, so it’s more difficult for him to jump over projectiles or even cross up his opponent. Abigail can cover up these weaknesses as he has a parry to nullify jumping attacks, most of his normals have good range and it’s actually harder for opponents to react to his jumping attacks since he’s so low to the ground. He also has the highest amount of health in the game and he deals incredibly huge damage easily. Essentially, make a couple of mistakes against Abigail and you’re going to be on the losing end of the match.

Now, take a character like my main character, Vega. The claw wielding Spanish ninja is usually considered to be on the lower end of the tier list. His combos don’t inflict that much damage, his anti-air game is less than favorable and he doesn’t have an invincible attack that can allow him to get out of pressure. Even his claw, the thing that you would think would give him excellent range against most opponents, is not that effective as Capcom saw fit to limit the claw’s range with all his attacks. He does have some strengths, though. His movement speed is really good and he does have a stance change that can be used to mix up his opponent. But comparing Vega’s tools to Abigail, you can definitely see that Vega comes up with the short stick on this. Even I have to acknowledge that Abigail outclasses Vega on paper.

Guess he forgot to sharpen the tips this morning.

Here’s the rub, though: I’m not really all that scared of facing off against someone using Abigail. He still a terror but I have an easier time controlling the space against him than other grapplers. He may have good pokes but Vega can still outclass him in that department with some of his normals. No, I’m more afraid of going against Rashid. The Arabian jetsetter can pour on the pressure easily with all of this blockstrings and speed. He has really safe pokes, his level of mobility is incredible and his special attacks enables Rashid to push his opponent to the corner quickly as well. So, in my tier list, I would put Rashid on a higher level than Abigail.

But that’s just my own take on the general meta of Street Fighter V as it stands right now. This can change in the future when someone finds some new tech with Vega, which totally changes everything and makes him much more powerful in the eyes of the fighting game community. This could also happen for other bottom tier characters sometime along the road. The opposite can happen as well, when somebody discovers some foolproof way or, at least, an effective strategy against the moves that top tier characters abuse to win. Who knows?

This is why I say that, while the idea of a general, all encompassing tier list is rubbish, everyone has their own personal tier list. There isn’t a tier list that will fit for each and every player, which is why even the pros disagree who belongs in the top tier and the bottom tier. We all feel that some characters are better than others and we all feel that some of them have too many weaknesses to overcome the rest of the cast. There are going to be some characters where you have to do too much work to just get decent damage and some who can simply dominate space against their opponents.

So there is some truth with the tier list “myth” because everyone has their own version of them. There is no universal tier list as everyone will have different ideas and impressions regarding who’s better than who or which character has the best toolset that can counter what the rest of the roster can do. But here’s the thing: as the tier list in your mind is based on your own biases, you can definitely change it if you really get good fighting against every character. If you know how to exploit each and every other characters’ weaknesses while covering up your own, even the bottom tier main character you main can seem like a totally top tier character.

Technically, the tier list is all in your mind. But if you really get good, then tier lists truly won’t matter.

What’s your thoughts on tier lists in fighting games? Let me know in the comments section below!

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