Since its release in 2012, Skullgirls has been punching up. The 2D fighting game known for slick animation and tag-team battles inspired by Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is often relegated to sideshow act next to juggernauts like Street Fighter, but nine years later, Skullgirls is stepping into the spotlight with renewed prospects.
The game's journey however has been marred with setbacks. Shortly after release, publisher Autumn Games faced lawsuits over fraud allegations connected to another game, Def Jam Rapstar, which cut off financial support to Skullgirls developer Reverge Labs and forced layoffs across the entire team. The core members reformed as Lab Zero Games in November 2012 and crowdfunded to continue post-release plans, but they hit another problem in distributor Konami, who severed ties and requested Skullgirls be removed from PlayStation and Xbox stores. It was re-released as Skullgirls Encore in 2014 after being pulled, before getting a second wind as Skullgirls 2nd Encore on PS4 and PC.
Fast forward to 2020, and the legacy of Skullgirls was tainted by more upheaval. Lead designer at developer Lab Zero Games, Mike Zaimont, was accused of abusive and inappropriate behaviour by staff, leading to walkouts, unceremonious layoffs and the publisher cutting ties with the studio.
From this implosion however, Skullgirls has bounced back for a new era. In the aftermath, sixteen former Lab Zero Games employees formed new studio Future Club who, alongside Skullgirls Mobile developer Hidden Variable Studios, are working on the game’s first Season Pass nine years later. This started with new fighter Annie in March, with three more characters on the horizon.
Skullgirls has its first Season Pass in 2021 (Picture: Autumn Games)
That isn't the only big ‘first’ for Skullgirls this year. The Skullgirls Championship Series is the game’s first official tournament circuit, boasting a $17,500 prize pool. While the community often hosts weekly and monthly events, this is the first time they have a definitive top tier circuit to determine the best players, in the same vein as Street Fighter’s Capcom Pro Tour.
There’s a sense this spotlight is long overdue. The biggest fighting game tournament, Evo, has consistently snubbed the title from its main line-up. This changed when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, as fighting games and their competitive viability were suddenly reevaluated on netcode strength — pushing Skullgirls to the top while the likes of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate fell from grace. When Evo announced Skullgirls would feature as one of four open tournaments for their online alternative, it was seen as the game’s chance to break through; with sign-up numbers far exceeding rivals Mortal Kombat 11, Killer Instinct and Them’s Fightin’ Herds.
Just as Skullgirls looked to have its moment, Evo Online was cancelled following sexual abuse allegations against the event’s co-founder. The stacking setbacks have become a reoccuring punchline for the community who joke the game is cursed, which has made the Season Pass DLC and tournament circuit announcements even more surprising.
“When Annie was revealed, I didn’t consider the possibility that was going to happen,” Skullgirls pro player Troy “SwiftFox-Dash” Chapa tells GINX Esports TV. “When she came out, I was like, there’s a slim chance maybe they could make more. So the announcement of three new characters, it’s huge. I definitely wasn’t expecting it.”
SwiftFox-Dash has played Skullgirls competitively since it came out. He’s considered one of the best players within the scene, placing second at last year’s Frosty Faustings XIII Online, ahead of Dominique “SonicFox” McLean and behind Jon “dekillsage” Coello.
Since Annie’s announcement he’s noticed an influx of new players online, who he hopes will form new strategies to push the competitive scene forward. With a unified circuit now at their disposal, there’s increased excitement around what this means for competition at the highest level.
“All the big names are coming out to play in Skullgirls Championship Series,” SwiftFox-Dash says. “Every big tournament there’s usually one or two people that don’t show up or are just not free or interested, but the tournament this year it seems like almost everyone in the community is getting involved. Honestly, it’s pretty intense. I look forward to seeing how it goes.”
The Skullgirls Championship Series is organised by production company Estars Studios in conjunction with the developers. The game’s reliable netcode makes a return to LAN tournaments once the pandemic subsides less urgent than other fighting games, but there’s still hope of it expanding into an in-person event.
“We have high hopes for a return to normalcy when COVID ends and we’re keeping that on the table, but as of now we don’t have any plans for in-person [events] because it’s unpredictable to plan,” Bailey McCann, esports manager at Estars Studios, tells GINX Esports TV.
“Since Skullgirls has such a strong online netcode, it works online really well. Our last event, we had people from all over the United States, Canada and Mexico competing, and only a few people got eliminated for connections.
“The biggest challenge is moderating an online event. Because it’s a fighting game, connection is extremely important. So when people come to us with concerns of ‘this person’s internet is poor’, it’s really difficult for us to make the call on the spot. We have to uphold the competitive integrity because if one player is lagging, it ruins the experience for everyone else.”
If Skullgirls can pull off a competitively viable online circuit, something other fighting games have mostly avoided during the pandemic, it could become a big selling point — especially as online events have removed barriers for players who can’t afford travel or tournament fees. The increased pressure on developers however to incorporate rollback netcode, spearheaded by Guilty Gear Strive's release in June, might make major online circuits for fighting games more commonplace sooner than we expect.
It’s unclear if Evo Online will give Skullgirls a shot at this year's event, yet with the Skullgirls Championship Series, the developers have created a spotlight for themselves. After almost a decade of troubled circumstances keeping them below fighting game giants, 2021 looks to be the year Skullgirls finally makes its own luck.
The Skullgirls Championship Series starts with the Spring Blockbuster on Saturday 24th April at 1pm PT/9pm BST, streaming on Twitch.