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By all conventional logic, the Skullgirls Championship Series should not exist. It’s the first major developer-backed esports circuit for a nearly decade-old niche and indie fighting game. On paper, it doesn’t make any sense. But, in a way, that’s exactly what you’d expect from a game with a history as bizarre as Skullgirls: 2nd Encore.
The Skullgirls Championship Series (SGCS) is a new, year-long tournament circuit where players can compete in several online majors known as Blockbusters. There, they accrue ranking points that qualify them for a final championship event at the end of the year. It’s the standard fare for a fighting game esports circuit in 2021. But, the game that it’s built around makes this even more remarkable.
Throughout its decade of existence, Skullgirls: 2nd Encore has faced more roadblocks, controversies and chaos than any other fighting game. It’s been snubbed at the Evolution Championship Series, rejected by the larger FGC and tossed around between publishers. The game has outlived its original development studios (twice) and yet, somehow, there are still people playing; enough to warrant the creation of a year-long tournament series. Also, there is a new “Season Pass” that will add fresh playable characters for the first time since 2015.
Circumstances outside of the community’s control have repeatedly put Skullgirls on death’s doorstep. But, without fail, it always manages to bounce back stronger than before. And this time is no different. After a grim year that seemed to be the final nail in Skullgirls’ coffin, it’s back in full force. The year 2021 is already shaping up to be its best ever.
Prize money talks
The Skullgirls Championship Series is the brainchild of Estars; the Las Vegas-based esports production studio. This studio is most known for the World Showdown of Esports (WSOE) series of events. However, it has also occasionally dipped into fighting game content — such as titles like Tekken and Soul Calibur. But how did a niche game in a smaller genre end up with its own competitive circuit?
Estars was impressed by Skullgirls’ resurgence and growth. It approached publisher Autumn Games with the idea for a tournament circuit to support the game. The two companies worked together to create the series. They put up a total prize pool of $17,500 for the year.
While that number may seem small for an esports prize, it’s the largest sum of money offered at a competitive Skullgirls event. This shocking amount of funding drew many players in. More than 200 entrants were in the recent Spring Blockbuster Open Qualifier.
As a participant in the tournament, I was impressed with the professionalism that Estars brought to the table. Online tournaments are never flawless. However, in the Open Qualifier, matches flowed quickly with minimal hiccups. Additionally, the organizers handled the crowd quite efficiently, while also running their own broadcast.
The event seemed to be a great success. Many players cited how excited they were for an opportunity to compete in Skullgirls again.
Mobile success spurs new content
There are a variety of factors that came together to ignite the SGCS and the current Skullgirls renaissance. Most notably, the surprising amount of interest in Skullgirls Mobile; the game’s successful mobile spinoff.
A separate indie studio, Hidden Variable, developed Skullgirls Mobile in 2017 as a free-to-play single player action RPG. It has light fighting game elements and reuses assets from the original game.
At that time, this seemed like an odd project. Skullgirls, as a franchise, wasn’t exactly at a high-point. Its developer, Lab Zero, had moved on to other projects. The competitive Skullgirls scene still existed but as a small niche subsection of the Fighting Game Community. And it wasn’t a game made for a competitive audience, which was even more remarkable. The small team at Hidden Variable had much bigger plans for Skullgirls Mobile, though.
Over the next several years, Hidden Variable continued work on Skullgirls Mobile. This was with support from Skullgirls: 2nd Encore developers Lab Zero and publisher/IP owner Autumn Games. The two added more content, modes and key features like online multiplayer. Slowly, Skullgirls Mobile became an attractive title that captured the attention of many. With more than five million lifetime downloads on the Google Play Store alone, Skullgirls Mobile regularly hovers around the top 500 grossing games on both Android and iOS.
Annie: the newest character
The steady success of Skullgirls Mobile gave Hidden Variable the opportunity to start creating new characters in the game. And not just recycled assets. It collaborated with a group of former Lab Zero staff who reformed under the new banner, Future Club, to create its first new character in 2020: Annie. The two studios then began work on porting Annie into Skullgirls: 2nd Encore. This gave way to the idea of creating a new “Season Pass” for 2nd Encore. And, it featured three to four more additional characters.
We're nearing the finish line, but our initial projected release date in May has slipped a bit. We are now projecting a June or possibly July release.
We're sorry for the delay, but we know she's worth the wait!
— Skullgirls (@Skullgirls) May 21, 2021
Annie is the first new Skullgirls character since 2015. Her addition to both Skullgirls titles and the promise of more characters to come reignited the passion of longtime fans. It also brought about some new fans as well.
“I really think the longevity of the game has to do specifically with the mobile game being so well received by the general populace,” said Sheila “DaPurpleSharpie” Moore. She’s a longtime Skullgirls content creator, tournament organizer and community figurehead. “I say that because I ran offline events last year right before quarantine started. We actually had about six or seven [Skullgirls Mobile] players come because they thought it was [for] Skullgirls Mobile; not Skullgirls 2nd Encore.”
DaPurpleSharpie said that these players entered the tournament anyway. And they’re still members of the community to this day.
“I still actively see them in Discord and that’s not a singular story either,” DaPurpleSharpie said. “The story has been repeated by multiple people inside of the community coming from Skullgirls Mobile into Skullgirls 2nd Encore.”
Top Skullgirls competitor and fighting game legend Dominique “SonicFox” McLean said they feel similarly.
“It’s never been seen before but it’s kind of genius, when you think about it,” SonicFox said. “It’s brought so much more new interest and revenue into the game. It’s so cool to see. It’s like the one dream that we thought was like already over years ago is being revitalized.”
The groundswell of a mobile spinoff game bleeding back into its console predecessor is unheard of in the industry. The developers and publisher have been looking to capitalize on the resurgence through multiple avenues.
“Although [the new Season Pass and the SGCS] were devised independently, the timing proved to be fairly serendipitous,” said Hidden Variable Co-founder and Creative Director Charley Price. “Late last year, while Hidden Variable had our heads down working to bring Annie to Mobile and eventually 2nd Encore, Autumn and Estars were already discussing the possibilities of the Championship Series. By the time we made the decision to formally announce our Season 1 Pass in early 2021, much of the groundwork for the SGCS had already been laid.”
Restoring Skullgirls’ future
In addition to all the new content in the game, the Skullgirls Championship Series has given hardcore Skullgirls players yet another reason to revisit the game. The competitive community has seen very few opportunities of this scale dedicated to Skullgirls. It has inspired many longtime or lapsed players to return home.
“It feels cathartic. It’s like a dream come true,” SonicFox said. “I could have never imagined something like this ever happening for Skullgirls but I’m so happy that it is.”
In April of 2021, SonicFox met their longtime rival, Daniel “CloudKing211” Normandia, in the finals of the first SGCS major event. They traded blows in an incredibly close 10-game set. However, in the end, CloudKing211 narrowly took the win over the favored SonicFox.
“It feels like my eight years of beta testing have finally paid off,” Cloudking211 joked after becoming the SGCS Spring Blockbuster champion. “We’ve been playing eight years and now it’s like, ‘season one, we’re starting!’”
Cloudking211 remained humble in victory. He acknowledged the recent influx of players and the necessity to always continue improving.
“There’s so many good players now compared to years ago; you really have to stay at the top of your game if you want to win,” he said. “I would say I’m at the spot I want to be. However, when you think you’re at the top, you have to think you’re at the bottom again. Otherwise, you’ll just stay in a plateau.”
Despite losing the set after an unfortunate dropped combo, SonicFox said the team remains optimistic for the future.
“I can definitely defeat Cloud’s team more effectively,” SonicFox said. “I just have got to train harder. That’s all.”
The Skullgirls legacy lives on
In addition to the competitive platform that the Skullgirls Championship Series has created for the game, Estars is also aiming to help legitimize Skullgirls as a sport. That is, without steering it too far away from its grassroots identity. Estars has managed to successfully blend its high-end esports broadcast style with the organic feel of a Skullgirls community event. This is a rare achievement in the world of fighting games. By collaborating with community figureheads and taking input directly from the playerbase, Estars created a tournament series that feels like a natural evolution for the Skullgirls community — rather than a replacement for it.
“I think esports is a very difficult thing to make work [and] feel genuine,” Kai Kennedy, caster of the Skullgirls Championship Series and voice of the playable character Beowulf, said. “We’ve got a really interesting and actually truly engaged company working with us. Estars is very open to the [community’s] way, and it feels really good to know that the [community’s] identity isn’t being overwritten by a generic esports influencer.”
The growth that Skullgirls: 2nd Encore has experienced — from the success of the SGCS, Skullgirls Mobile and the new Season Pass — proves the game is nothing if not resilient. The folding of Skullgirls developer Lab Zero, in 2020, should have been the final nail in the coffin. But, the game and its community have managed to bounce back from the brink of death stronger than ever once again. In the eyes of its fans and creators, Skullgirls is simply too good to let die and its success in 2021 speaks volumes to that.
“Sometimes you love something and it hurts you by doing it. But, it’s nice to know that fans of Skullgirls don’t have to be hurt by their love of this game,” Kennedy said. “They can actually feel good. That’s what I’m excited about.”
Skullgirls may have only lived with a pixel of health, but a win is a win either way. Sometimes, according to Kennedy, the close wins are even sweeter.
“It’s weird to think of a community as a homogeneous unit. But, in a way, we function as a single body with our hopes and our desires for the game to continue,” Kennedy said. “There is actually a future for a game that seemed so many times like it was going to catch an early grave.”
Daniel J. Collette is a writer, host, and content creator in the esports industry. Formerly with ESPN Esports, Daniel is now a writer/director of video content for the VALORANT Champions Tour as well as a freelance writer/host with Upcomer and a streamer on Twitch. Daniel has covered most major esports in his career, but his primary focuses are fighting games, Smash, VALORANT, and Overwatch.