The Australian fighting game scene is nothing without its community. (Photo: CouchWarriors)

CouchWarriors and Events Engine's Daniel Chlebowczyk takes us through how the fighting game community banded together to bring BANC to life.

The Australian fighting game community would be nothing without just that; the community.

They’re the driving force behind the continued growth of esports in the country. Without them regularly attending events and tournaments, the scene would stagnate entirely.

In Australia especially, where fighting game esports is still adapting from grassroots to a ‘pro-am’ level, getting those numbers in through the doors is more important than ever. Not just for competitors, but for volunteers, media, and organisers as well.

CouchWarriors, Australia’s largest fighting games esports organisation, was founded off the back of passionate university students 15 years ago. It’s that some passion and love for competing that keeps both the organisation and the players coming back year on year.

For CouchWarriors committee member and strategy manager Daniel Chlebowczyk then, postponing Melbourne’s largest fighting game event Battle Arena Melbourne for the second year in a row was a decision made with the community in mind first and foremost.

This was in spite of the fact that BAM 12, which was supposed to be held in 2020, is now set to be a 2022 event.

“We’d already 95% chosen to postpone [this year] just around the slow change in restrictions in Victoria, out of lockdown,” Chlebowczyk told The Inner Sanctum.

“Then as that was happening that same week, New South Wales started to become a hotspot and so on. You look at the eastern seaboard and people can’t travel, and you think ‘well, it can’t be a national event’.

“That sort of reinforced it… community is one of the key elements of the decision. If the community can’t get together, why are we doing it, and what can we do instead?

“It’s the same reason when we say we’ll do an alternative event for the people who are in Victoria, including some people that have already travelled from other states and are housing with friends.

“At the same time, the reason why we said ‘let’s do this alternative event,’ as we’re [Victorians] coming out of restrictions, at least for the people that can make it let’s do something.”

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Battle Arena NightClub – the alternative event – managed to go off without a hitch, attracting 242 attendees across 11 games to the Inflation Entertainment Complex. Chlebowczyk himself was even crowned the Dead or Alive 6 champion on the evening!

It was a difficult decision to make, however, given the circumstances of the decision to postpone last year. COVID was rampant in Victoria, and there was no feasible way to make the event safe for spectators and attendees.

After so much growth, there was every chance that interest would wane in the tournament, and the scene in general, after another cancellation.

Having run, managed and attended tournaments for over 10 years, Chlebowczyk believes that the scene has overcome similar challenges before, and come out better for it.

“I think every scene goes through cycles,” he explained.

Smash was going through a bit of a lull before 2014, and we saw the Wii U release. That was when we’d done a lot of work in organising and bringing people together in the scene underneath the CouchWarriors banner.

“That’s why we’re able to build to a bigger BAM, and why the CouchWarriors group, as a community platform for the FGC in Australia, is quite strong. That inclusivity piece and that ‘let’s all get together’ piece is also part of the move upward in terms of numbers. It’s a managed and it’s also a chaos thing.

“You’ll see the same thing [with] Tekken, it was the second biggest game behind Smash Ultimate at 2019 BAM.

“That was a Tekken World Tour, we had about 30 different international players just for Tekken out of 80 or so total international players. We’ve got a lot of interstate players, 200-300 I would say, out of those 800 players. With that, you look at Tekken and you think ‘wow, that’s actually going really strong.’

“Last time we ran, 2019… the key stat is we had over 1000 competitors. Over and above that [there’s] spectators and media and other ticket types that adds up to around 1500 tickets, or four and a half thousand for foot traffic over the weekend.

“That’s about the size of the event in a normal year now. It’s been consistently growing over time, and 1000 unique competitors is the biggest it’s ever got.”

Creating a new event from scratch

Cancelling two weeks before the planned date of BANC, the organisers had to move fast.

For an event of this size, this was an unusually short turnaround period, Chlebowczyk explains. BAM, as a yearly event, normally goes through months and months of planning.

An initial plan to partner up with Justin Tate, manager of In The Zone Gaming, to create a dual event had to be scrapped when space requirements were no longer viable due to restrictions.

“We didn’t want to [cancel], we wanted to run again because it’s all about consistency and having something to serve the community,” Chlebowczyk said.

“Giving people that celebration event that they love, the whole community gets behind it. There was a lot of incentives to try and do it anyway, and it was just like ‘what’s the path?’

“We worked out that we could do it [BAM], we did and we pitched it for the later date, the July date, which is what would have been the [July 10/11] weekend.

“That was all looking quite good, but [with] the second lockdown this year through the month of May, coming to the rationale of changing things was really supressing momentum in terms of ticketing.”

The new venue, Inflation Night Club, was surprisingly not the first time the gaming scene had ventured out after dark.

“It was brewing for quite a while [the venue]. We need quite a bit of space, and we’ve done a lot of different types of executions.

“Going back, CouchWarriors, back in the Street Fighter IV era did an event at the Hi-Fi Bar in the CBD of Melbourne early on. It’s not 100% new.

“What kind of touched on this… we have connections into other parts of the gaming scene, and the people who run the Glitch gaming bar night have crossover with our team.”

Jason O’Callaghan, executive producer of New Game Plus, was able to swing in and help save the event, organising broadcasting and gaming equipment on short notice for BANC.

It’s these connections, Chlebowczyk says, that help unite the Melbourne fighting game scene. Even within the business side of operations, the community is supportive to the nth degree, willing to help out and lend of a hand at a moment’s notice.

Throughout the logistical “nightmare”, Melbourne’s fighting game community banded together as it always does to ride out the lows in hope of finding the highs out the other side.

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