Previously, I asked for this subreddit's opinion on the matter. Now I'll put it together with my own results from looking into the issue as a fighting game player.
These are the 3 primary reasons as far as I can tell:
A) They are very expensive
at least as far as dedicated pvp games go. Even if you feel like traditional fighting games might be your schtick, the entry fee can keep you out. Other multiplayer genres have plenty of popular titles for $30 or less, or are straight up f2p, so you definitely think twice about spending $60+ on a fighting game.
Granted, there are a exceptions, like Killer Instinct, Fantasy Strike and Dead or Alive, which offer some form of f2p trial, but this hasn't been enough to push them to a relevant size so far. Indie titles charge less in general of course, but they have their production and marketing limitations. Street Fighter V also went down in price, now only charging newcomers for $30 and it has done reasonably well as one of the 4 biggest traditional fighting games on the market today, although that is still pretty small by the standards of other genres.
Fighting games have traditionally been both very hard to learn and very hard to master. The heavily skill and knowledge based 1v1 gameplay is very intimidating to a lot of potential players, although also part of what attracts the core audience.
Since around 2015, a good number of developers have made a push towards breaking the trend by releasing more fighting games that are easier to play/pick up, to offer more accessible entry points to the genre. Some games did it well (Fantasy Strike, Granblue, etc), but the approach hasn't yielded noteworthy results yet, presumably because points A) and C) still hold those titles back.
This also directly connects to point A), or at least a lot of fighting game players think it works like this: publishers don't take risks, so the game gets sold based on what the expected core audience's size will be, so a few thousand people have to pay enough to make up for all the missing casual players, which supposedly justifies the business practice.
The only fighting games that actually managed to attract larger player numbers are the non-traditional ones with distinctly different gameplay and visuals, primarily Smash Bros and Brawlhalla. Notably, Brawlhalla is also f2p.
C) They lack social media presence
If you followed the recent success story of Among Us, you'll know how big of an influence already popular streamers and content creators are when it comes to the popularity of a game. Livestreams, youtube montage videos and memes can carry a game very far. Fighting games don't have a lot of that type of exposure.
The most viewed content of traditional fighters in recent years was trailers, large scale tournaments (
) and when
played Soulcalibur 6 in 2018, and later again when
played Tekken 7 in 2020. Most fighting games never get that much exposure. Tekken 7 is the most played traditional fighting game today, even though it is one of the most expensive and not exactly easy on newcomers either.
The solutions could be:
either offer more singleplayer/PvE/coop content to make the price tag worth it, or just reduce the price, because the market on online pvp games has been crushed by f2p titles. The community needs to make more well edited content and get more popular streamers on board to spread awareness about the lesser known games. Accessible titles would benefit from this the most, since casual audiences are more likely to try those. Bonus points for good online. The current outlook suggests that taking these steps is inevitable, because even if current devs and publishers don't,
will happily dominate the genre with Project L in their place sooner or later.
Tldr: fighting games are generally overpriced, lack bigger content creators for the most part and their reputation of being too hard gets in the way of the genre's accessible titles. In combination, those things lead to most fighting games looking like a waste of time and money to most people, regardless of the actual gameplay quality.
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