Competing to the rhythm of their own making
From DDR, to Guitar Hero to Osu!, here's how the rhythm community gets down
Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) started out as a rhythm game played in local arcades, from Round 1 in Los Angeles to the SEGA building in Akihabara, Tokyo. Both the east and the west developed their own competitive scenes in isolation.
They never really crossed paths until the 2016 Konami Arcade Championships (KAC), where Konami invited both western and eastern players to compete in an exhibition tournament. The stage was set for a clash that had never been seen before.
Chris “Chris4Life” Chike came to Japan as an unknown competitor from a foreign land and left a champion. He defeated Yoon “FEFEMZ” Sang Yeon in the final, setting off a rivalry that would last the next three years. What he found was not just the thrill of competition, but a sense of connection to players on the other side of the world.
“I for sure thought I could win it,” said Chris4Life in an interview with RedBull in 2019. “I’ve been either the best, or among the best, at DDR for the past few years, so I knew I was capable of doing it. I just had to do it.”
Chris4Life won KAC again in 2017 and took second place in the next two years. Along with him was a group of 25 players that also travelled to Japan each time. The players did not compete, but rather went to explore the uncharted territory of Japan, where DDR was created. Chris4Life’s win left the western players with “a sense of pride” that they never had before. More importantly, it established a global community for DDR that still exists to this day.
Move to the music
The premise of all rhythm games is simple: DDR players use their feet to hit arrows on a plexiglass pad, Guitar hero players hit five different buttons on a plastic guitar and Osu! players use their mouse and keyboard to time clicks on their computer screen. All games share the same focus — staying on beat.
“Your minds and your bodies are synchronized in a way that it gives you a common ground in a way that very few other things can do.” Roger Clark, 15 year DDR veteran and executive producer of Club Fantastic, said.
To Clark, DDR was one of the first esports. He described crowds of people taking turns on a machine during tournaments, towels around their neck, gatorades in hand. He has been running such events for the better part of 15 years and said he has always believed in its potential as an esport.
Even when Konami halted the development of DDR for eight years, community members like Clark helped keep it alive. Booking venues, using trucks to transport almost half a ton DDR cabinets from one place to another. He said the work was difficult and unforgiving, but worth it to keep a community he cared about alive.
“After [the 16th installment in the series], DDR Ace, it became apparent that we had been doing this esports thing without any support from Konami,” Roger said, “and with no one noticing that what we were doing was ahead of the game.”
Leon Brunson, another player, said he loves to compete in DDR, but that’s not what makes the community special to him. When a hurricane hit Leon’s hometown of New Orleans, it ripped through his mother’s home.
He didn’t know to do.
Then, he learned the community had set up GoFundMes to help Leon’s Mother through the worst times., To Leon, this serves as the anecdote he tells to describe the character of the DDR community.
“My family was affected by Hurricane Michael in 2018,” Brunson, who now works as a part time chef, said.”They’re good now, but they had no home for a while”
Selflessness, generosity and competition. These are the pillars that the DDR community stands on, and continues to stand on to this day.
From stomps, to strums
The World Cyber Games in 2009 held one of the closest finishes in rhythm game history. The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center contained 150-or-so fans, all congregated around the battle between two big names in the Guitar Hero community.
Two plastic guitar duelists played Jimi Hendrix’ Purple Haze (Live), hitting every single note. The face off was as close as any could ever be as sweat dripped down both of their faces.
“I lost by eight points,” said Jason “JasonParadise” Kuntz, former three-time Guitar Hero esports champion. “I got up and we hugged, because it wasn’t a rage moment. We still talk about it to this day because, with a double full combo in a tournament with perfect star power, the only thing I could have done better is not drop one 25th of a note.”
Hitting those long notes to replicate the song perfectly was something both real life guitarists and Guitar Hero players always aimed to do.
In the beginning, RedOctane, Activision and Harmonix set out to make a western console version of Konami’s Guitar Freaks arcade game. However, the origins of Guitar Hero esports all point to the classic 1v1 “face off” multiplayer mode introduced in the first game.
“I’ve always found the most interesting thing to be not what you can do when you’re playing by yourself under optimal conditions,” JasonParadise said, ”but how you do when you’re under pressure against somebody else with only one try.”
With the 1v1s growing to competitive fruition, the pressure and strategies players faced became more extensive. Going from facing off against someone online with little worries about your surroundings to being in a convention, beside them and knowing they could lose was a big change. JasonParadise said that such an environment often required a different approach.
“I purposely didn’t like putting my name out there as I’ve dealt with an anxiety disorder my whole life,” JasonParadise said. “But strategically, if I was going into a tournament playing against other people, I wanted them to not know what I was good at.”
While Jason waged as many battles as he could, as time went by, there were less and less competitions for Guitar Hero. The series eventually stopped development and players had to find other ways to keep the community alive.
The age of Osu! And the rise of custom games
As rhythm games evolved, players began to move from the arcade to the home PC. With this evolution came Osu! — a program created by Dean “Peppy” Herbert as a new age rhythm game. Osu! combines all the ways players can play rhythm games and puts it in one program that anyone can download and play. There were elements of Guitar Hero and DDR mixed with Osu!’s own mouse and keyboard based beats.
What made Osu! legendary in the rhythm game space was the addition of the beat editor, which allows players to create their own beats for others to play. Any Osu! beat can be uploaded to the Osu website and downloaded by any player. As of 2021, the game has 15 million registered users and a large streaming community.
Other games have also made the move to the home PC. Guitar Hero and DDR both have created their own fan-made programs that allow for custom beats — Clone Hero and In the Groove.
The barrier for difficulty was no longer dictated by the developers, but by the players and their custom beats. As a result, players started pushing the limits of what was previously possible. Clone Hero’s Soulless 4 in particular is notorious for its difficulty. While the song dropped in 2015, DarklyInDarkness became the first to full clear it in 2019.
While some songs are original, others are simply custom beats made with popular, licensed music. But as more and more players decided to stream their gameplay, the more DMCA strikes became an issue. Anytime a licensed song is played on a stream, there is a chance the VOD will get muted, at best, or earn the channel a strike at the worst. It makes content creation in the rhythm gaming space extremely difficult.
“There have been a few Osu! streamers that have moved away from streaming Osu! particularly because of the fear that their channel will be taken away,” said Sammi “HkttyCatz” Chow, a popular Osu! streamer. “Streaming is basically their only income, and if that’s gone, everything is gone.”
JasonParadise also brought up the bipartisan bill that targets “criminal streaming services.” While the bill’s author, Sen. Thom Tills (R-NC), reassured the public that the law is narrowly tailored so streamers aren’t affected, some are still concerned about where such legislation could lead.
“Let’s say Twitch does not work out a licensing thing, I guess that means Twitch is a criminal service,” said JasonParadise. “It would still affect every creator on [Twitch].”
While the DMCA claims are a stopgap for growth of rhythm games, communities have once again rallied to find workarounds. Osu!’s developer team has made strides at creating original, licensed music by working with specific artists. Osu! developers have been consistently releasing 3-4 sets of tracks every month in order to increase the pool of unlicensed music.
Clark’s Club Fantastic is another excellent example. It is an entirely new program that aims to make DDR as accessible as possible to stream and learn. Every song in the game has been professionally mixed and produced by commissioned artists. Club Fantastic holds the licenses to all of the music on the program and freely allows players to stream without any risk of DMCA strikes.
“We want to give people a really cool product for free, just based on the distilled good will of the dance game community” Said Clark.
Considering the average life cycle of competitive video games, rhythm games should have all but faded into the void. The developers of some of these games have given up on them, yet the community continues to push forward.
It’s members remain. The connections remain.
There may still be a lot of work to do before becoming a more widely known esport, but the community remains steadfast in the face of the challenges ahead of them.