While all esports have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s perhaps easiest to sympathise with the fighting game community. In games reliant on split-second responses and frame data specifics, the shift to online tournaments has dampened the competitive viability of nearly all top-tier events — even as more titles adopt rollback netcode to smoothen the online experience.
The creation of a new LAN tournament from WePlay Esports, then, comes as a hopeful return to normality. After taking their first steps into FGC events with WePlay Dragon Temple in December last year, the WePlay Ultimate Fighting League (WUFL) saw top players across Mortal Kombat, Tekken 7 and Soulcalibur VI fly to their custom arena in Kyiv, Ukraine for $50,000 prize pools.
The inaugural season faced some setbacks, with no audience in attendance and travel restrictions preventing top players from certain countries competing. It's clear this is only the beginning of WUFL's potential however, with professional boxers Oleksandr Uksyk and Vasyl Lomachenko recently announced as partners for season two.
So what’s next? We speak with WePlay Esports general producer and chief visionary officer, Maksym Bilonogov, about their future FGC plans.
Maksym Bilonogov is a general producer at WePlay Esports (Picture: WePlay Esports)
Are you happy with how WePlay Ultimate Fighting League went in its first season? Did you implement everything your team planned?
Yes, quite happy, as it seems that the audience enjoyed both the competition and the show created around it. It’s a pity that the tournament was held without spectators in the arena, but this is the reality now — health and safety above all else.
We are happy that, despite all the pandemic-related difficulties and restrictions, we managed to successfully hold competitions in three disciplines, to organise the Ultimate Boxing Night together with our partners from USYK-17 Promotions, and to give our viewers a spectacular fighting game show.
This has been an invitational tournament so it’s largely dependent on what players can or cannot travel over, are you considering making future seasons open to all or having qualifiers?
Yes, absolutely. Our company is building a global esports ecosystem with fighting games as one of its cornerstones. Players of all skill levels will be able to compete and grow in it, getting both practice and exposure. There will be multiple recurring event circuits that will eventually lead to the WePlay Ultimate Fighting League. Of course, there will also be space for traditional qualifiers as well — for players who aren’t interested in the daily and weekly events.
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Woahhzz won the Soulcalibur VI event (Picture: WePlay Esports)
I’m not saying that we’ll be able to roll everything out by the next WUFL season, but we’re already working towards it. Things like the WePlay Compete app and the Ultimate Weekend Brawl event held together with our partners from DashFight are all a part of the ecosystem we are building up.
Will the games featured in WUFL rotate on a season-by-season basis?
We are open to expanding the pool of titles for our tournaments. You will find out the list of games for the second season along with its dates, so stay tuned for the announcements.
Is this planned as a yearly tournament, or could we see season two sooner than that?
There are a total of three league seasons planned for 2021. We have just completed the first season and will soon start working on the next one, together with our partners world cruiserweight boxing champion Oleksandr Usyk and professional boxer, world champion in three weight categories, two-time Olympic champion Vasyl Lomachenko. Unfortunately, I can’t give you more details now due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
Currently, bringing over fifty players and talents to one city safely, which happened during the WUFL S1, is a logistical and legal feat by itself. That’s why we are treading carefully and announcing one season at a time and only once we are absolutely sure we can do the event on the announced dates.
It’s rare to see the FGC given an arena stage like this, do you think there’s a reason why they often aren’t given a bigger platform?
The FGC scene has always been grassroots and centred around offline events more than most other esports scenes. We intend to keep it that way while showing how entertaining these games are to the general audience.
A couple of years from now, watching esports in a bar or during a night with friends will be as common as watching boxing or football. When that happens, the FGC will be the biggest winner, because it doesn’t take much time or effort to understand a fighting game. You just have to look at the screen, see two characters and their respective health bars, choose the side, and begin rooting for them. By the time the first round ends, you’re already emotionally engaged.
How has it been devising this first season without having to consider audience attendance? Did it change how you approached the event?
When there are no fans in the stands during the tournament, it greatly affects the overall vibe in the arena. The players feel it too. It helps some of them, but as to others, on the contrary, it prevents them from opening up. We are looking forward to the day when it is safe to hold public events again. However, we are making every effort so the broadcast viewers do not have time to get bored and start thinking that "it’s not the same without a live audience".
Anything you’ve learned while creating this first season you’re hoping to apply to the next?
As the tournament progressed, we came up with new ideas for how else we could surprise our audience, so stay tuned!
WePlay Ultimate Fighting League is set to return later this year.