A new Life of Tech


Street Fighter V: victory and diversity in the eSports world final

Street Fighter V Capcom Cup.
Street Fighter V Capcom Cup. An influx of money, and interest from sports channels eager to broadcast the zeitgeist, has brought major money into the scene. Photograph: Robert Paul/Capcom/Robert Paul

The atmosphere in the competitor pen at the 2016 Capcom Cup in Anaheim, California, is weirdly tranquil – despite the stakes. There’s a $230,000 cheque waiting for the winner, $60,000 for the runner-up. The room, snugly closed off from a shanty town of flight cases, stage lights and wires behind the sweeping stage is lined with sofas, on which the eight finalists sit. In 10 minutes they will emerge to a full house of hollers and applause, ready to make their bids in the annual competition to crown the best Street Fighter player in the world.

In the middle of the room, two trestle tables sag under the weight of monitors, on which the finalists are free to warm up their fingers with practice games. There are, however, no preparatory or prayerful rituals going on back here; only the idle swiping of phones. I sink into the couch beside 32-year-old Ricki Ortiz, one of two Americans to reach the finals (the other six competitors all come from Street Fighter’s home of Japan). What does she do to prepare for a major fixture like this, I ask. “Me?” she says. “I had a quick nap.”

Three hours later, Ortiz finds herself in the final two, preparing to compete against young rival Du Dang, who goes by the handle NuckleDu. Dang, 20, has risen quickly through the ranks, competing in Street Fighter IV tournaments with veteran character Guile. Dang is famed for his use of aggressive tactics and in-game taunts to mock opponents; Ortiz is an expert in reading other players and using pinpoint counters. Ortiz has the experience to win, but she’s only seeded 26 in this competition. Currently Dang has the form.

It’s been a two-day tournament of surprises – or, as I hear one audience member describe it in south London patois, of “blow ups all over”. In part, the unexpected results are a function of the game at the centre of it all. Street Fighter V, launched this year, is, most professional players agree, a scrappier, less predictable proposition than its forebears. “It’s a very erratic game,” explains Ortiz. “The tide can turn quickly. It’s hard for players to be consistent, which is good for the crowd because there can be upsets.” By the end of the first day of the two-day tournament, many of the odds-on favourites (most major gambling sites now take bets on video game tournaments like this) have been relegated, including Daigo Umehara, the 35-year-old Japanese Street Fighter doyen.

Street Fighter V Capcom Cup
Audience members at the Street Fighter V Capcom Cup. Photograph: Robert Paul/Robert Paul/Capcom

The excitement isn’t confined to the room. On Twitch, where the entire tournament is broadcast live around the world with accompanying chatter from so-called shoutcasters (a preposterous, redundant neologism for video game commentators derived from their high-decibel, rapid fire crescendos of observation), close to 100,000 people tune in to watch the final. Many of these viewers tap out their own commentary – sarcastic or jubilant remarks and emoji – via an ever-flowing waterfall of text beneath the video stream. Hive mind jokes flare up then expire like fireworks. Each time a British player loses a match the throng, en mass, posts the word “BREXIT!” to mark the departure (by the end of the first day there are no Europeans left in the winner’s bracket). The banter has all the jostle and ribaldry of the football stand. Yet here, it’s accelerated and amplified by technology, as if all 50,000 supporters at Wembley Stadium could be heard speaking at once, with equal volume. It’s exhilarating. It’s exhausting.

It’s also, in many cases, unpleasant. When Ortiz takes to the stage, the chat blackens into a torrent of comments about her appearance; something that none of her male co-competitors suffer. “I hate how the fighting game community treats LGBT people,” writes one viewer. Ortiz may be a veteran champion in the Street Fighter scene but, as a transgender woman, she is a wearied target of harassment. Since 2003, Ortiz has finished seventh or higher 12 times at the world’s biggest fighting game tournament, Evolution Championship Series (or EVO), now held annually in Las Vegas. Even though she races to tonight’s final, for many of the online audience, her expertise is the less important aspect of her identity. “My skill takes a backseat,” Ortiz told a reporter for Playboy last year. “People question my gender identity v me playing the game.”

Ortiz’s skill is, nevertheless, self-evident. By 9:30pm, she has beaten last year’s winner, Ryota “Kazunoko” Inoue, without losing a bout to make this an all-American final. She learned to play Street Fighter as an eight-year-old, when her father, a metal worker from California would take her and her cousin to a local amusement arcade. An interest in the game soon blossomed into an obsession. Ortiz would compete at the arcades after school each day. She entered and won her first Street Fighter tournament at 13. “It was unheard of for a kid my age to have thousands of dollars, she told me. “Kids just didn’t have that kind of money, especially in the early 2000s.”

A growing concern

Those prize pots have grown drastically in recent years in the nascent world of eSports. An influx of advertising dollars, and interest from sports channels eager to broadcast the zeitgeist, has brought major money into the scene. Coca-Cola, Nissan, Red Bull and Intel are all inveterate sponsors on the scene, targeting the huge crowds that follow titles like League of Legends, Dota 2 and Starcraft 2 (one that game’s best players, Sasha Hostyn, is also a transgender woman). Compared to those heavy hitters, Street Fighter is something of a middleweight. Earlier this year at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles, a crowd of 20,000 gathered to watch the 2016 championship final of League of Legends, the widest played video game in the world. The winners of that event, the drearily named SK Telecom (the team is backed by the South Korean wireless telecommunications operator) took home a $2m purse.


Conference studies security threats posed by consumer drones

Experts at Countering Drones event assess the risks to airports and prisons posed by growth of high-powered, affordable models

Consumer drone in flight
The growth of consumer drones is ‘a real threat to public safety’, the Prison Officers Association says. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Security officials, police and legal experts from around the world are gathered in London for a global conference on tackling the threats posed to prisons, airports, nuclear facilities and other infrastructure by consumer drones.

The Countering Drones conference, which organisers describe as the first of its kind, reflects concerns that increasingly high-powered and affordable models of drones are posing new and wide-ranging security challenges for police and other protection forces.

Nearly 80% of people surveyed by Defence IQ, the conference organisers, said they believed a major security incident involving drones in civilian airspace was strongly likely or almost certain to happen in the next five years.

In some areas, such as at airports and in prisons, drones are already causing widespread disruption, but the conference also highlights areas such as at sporting events and seaports, where threats posed by unmanned aircraft are still emerging.

The conference is sponsored by defence companies Thales and Rheinmetall with tickets starting at £599 a head. A programme advertises sessions by officials from the US, UK, France, Israel, Switzerland and Germany, among others, and offers intriguing hints as to the solutions being considered – one session by a Canadian researcher is titled “Can we just shoot them down?”

Reports of near-misses between drones and commercial aircraft have risen sharply: four serious incidents were reported in July alone, with unmanned aircraft spotted as close as five metres from passenger jets taking off or landing.

It is often unclear whether close calls are due to naive drone pilots or potentially malicious actors, said Steve Landells, safety officer at the British Airline Pilots Association.

“Whether that person’s deliberately flying a drone around an airport to stop all traffic to disrupt things or because they just want some pretty pictures, the end result from an aviation point of view is roughly the same,” he said, warning that their presence dangerously distracts pilots during takeoff and landing phases.

“As a pilot you’re coming into land, you’ve got 200 tonnes of metal and human beings behind you and you’re trying to put an aircraft down on an area the size of a couple of tennis courts at 150mph. The last thing you really need to be doing is having a sudden shock … that’s the danger the drones pose,” Landells said.

Lawyers at the conference were scheduled to discuss whether airports and civil aviation authorities are at risk of being sued if a drone strike leads to an air accident, while officials from Los Angeles, Berlin and Budapest airports will discuss the potential prevention measures they could take.

There has also been a steep increase in the past three years of reports of small drones being used to smuggle drugs and other contraband equipment into prisons. The commissioner of Canada’s correctional service, Don Head, is in London to discuss the “menace” posed by drones to prisons at the conference.

“This is a problem that’s growing on a daily basis and it’s a problem that needs to be eradicated,” said Glyn Travis, spokesman for the Prison Officers Association, adding that it posed “a real threat to security and public safety”.

Travis said: “We have asked the Ministry of Justice and National Offender Management Service what they are doing to try and combat this, and we are still waiting for a solution that will prevent the use of drones in prison and stop the use of them to smuggle equipment in. It’s a real problem. We haven’t seen anything that’s being done to stop it.”

This week the justice secretary, Liz Truss, was mocked for suggesting that the barking of guard dogs was deterring drones at Pentonville prison.

The conference programme also hints at less frequently reported threats: one session examines how to protect civil nuclear sites against drone attack and surveillance, while a US official is scheduled to deliver a briefing on how drones are being used to spy on seaports, as well as for smuggling.

Another session examines threats to sporting events, including consideration of whether in future stadia will need to be designed with advanced anti-drone “detect and destroy” technologies.

The rapid growth of consumer drones had taken officials by surprise and had left the authorities scrambling to catch up with basic measures such as ensuring drones are registered, said Landells. “I don’t think anyone anticipated the massive growth … that they’d be selling tens of thousands of drones every year,” he said.


The 10 best video games of 2016

Uncharted 4’s action man Nathan Drake.

1 Uncharted 4
(Naughty Dog; PlayStation 4)

In some ways, the fourth title in Naughty Dog’s wildly successful action adventure series looks like the archetypal join-the-dots sequel. We’re still following roguish Nathan Drake as he scours the planet for ancient artefacts. We’re still solving simple environmental puzzles and shooting the bad guys. And the script still plunders just about every cliche it can from the Indiana Jones films.

But that’s only part of the story. This wonderfully entertaining game is effectively about marriage – or, more accurately, the things we have to learn about ourselves to maintain long-term relationships. Nathan lies to his partner Elena and leans heavily on his friend Sully, but has to learn to be less selfish and irresponsible – a lesson made all the more urgent and poignant by the arrival of his troubled brother, Sam. That a big popcorn blockbuster is exploring these themes so engagingly and movingly is a testament to how this medium has matured over the last five years.

Meanwhile, we also get everything we want from a lavish big-budget game: astonishing visuals, imaginative locations and some truly thrilling set pieces – the Madagascan marketplace scene is a classic. Even if you don’t fall for the love story, you’ll fall for the well-paced, well-engineered action – and if the ending doesn’t get you right in the gut, you’re not human. Read the review.

Walk … Pokémon Go.
You can’t leave that Clefairy there … Pokémon Go. Photograph: Frances Mao/AAP

2 Pokémon Go
(Niantic Inc; 3DS, iOS, Android)

Sure, many players tired of this slight, stripped-down Pokémon adventure after the first glorious fortnight. But its brilliance lay in how it used augmented reality and location-based technology to captivate not just early-adopter geeks, but whole families. Wandering through towns and parks looking for Jigglypuffs and Caterpies, meeting other players and exchanging tips, proved one of the highlights of the summer. For many of us still, no walk is complete without it. Read more.

3 Firewatch
(Campo Santo; PC, PS4, Xbox One)

Personal discovery … Firewatch. Photograph: Publicity image

With beautiful visuals and a haunting story of personal discovery, Firewatch was one of the year’s most fascinating experimental titles. Lead character Henry has escaped a difficult life to watch for fires in the Wyoming wilderness, but while he’s investigating odd events in the woods, the real focus of the narrative is his relationship with radio operator Delilah. Using the conventions of an open-world adventure, developer Campo Santo produces something much more haunting, unusual and important. Read the review.

4 Inside
(Playdead; PC, PS4, Xbox One)

Inside game
Thoughtful … Inside. Photograph: Playdead Games

Danish developer Playdead attracted massive critical acclaim in 2010 for its moody, monochrome adventure Limbo. This spiritual successor is, if anything, even more sombre and impressive, set in a dark, Orwellian dystopia where people are mere cogs in an unknowable machine – that is, until one small boy makes a dramatic bid for escape. Employing the mechanics of a 2D platformer, Inside is something much more profound, offering a thoughtful fable as well as a diverting challenge. Read the review.

5 Stardew Valley
(ConcernedApe; PC)

Stardew Valley
Whimsy … Stardew Valley. Photograph: Chucklefish

Part farming sim, part role-playing adventure, Stardew Valley was the surprise indie hit of the year, offering charm, wit and a beautiful little world. Created by lone coder Eric Barone, it’s an exploration of, and alternative to, the Harvest Moon series, allowing the player free rein to set up a farm, pursue relationships, and take on quests as the seasons pass in a flood of colour and whimsy. Tech Weekly podcast discusses Stardew Valley.