Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Ace Combat 6 Fly For Freedom Tournament: Analysis and Interview
Updated: Oct 9, 2022
The Ace Combat 6 Fly for Freedom Tournament was the first online multiplayer competition for the Ace Combat series. The event was organized and hosted by GameSpot on their Tournament TV channel with sponsorship from Bandai-Namco. Though the tournament happened over a decade ago, the broadcast has historical and technical value. Some of the complications the first Ace Combat online tournament encountered are similar to those that future titles, including Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, must work with. This analysis, coupled with an interview of the individual that won the tournament, provides a comprehensive understanding.
Format vs. Staff Size
The staff managing the event was made up of: a tournament manager speaking directly to the players and communicating pre-match information, two GameSpot staff members providing commentary, and three representatives from Bandai-Namco Entertainment. One of these reps was Ace Combat 6 Product Manager In Joon Hwang, who provided commentary about the game itself while presenting prizes on behalf of Bandai-Namco. In all, you could technically say the staff was six people in total. The tournament focused on Battle Royale mode with 192 contestants that registered through GameSpot. After preliminary rounds, the field of competition was reduced to 12 players playing three final rounds. Running this tournament using Battle Royale mode was smart for GameSpot at the time. That format allowed a high number of individual contestants to participate with a minimal amount of management from event staff. Tournaments that use team vs. team formats rely on groups of people to coordinate schedules and time zones to gather at the same time. Doing this for tournaments that have many teams multiplies the possibilities of errors that could occur, which in turn puts further stress on a small group of staff members.
Even in 2019 and 2020, a majority of (if not all) official Ace Combat 7 tournaments have been done in Battle Royale. The logistics are just easier to manage.
Broadcast and Information Errors
There's no such thing as perfection, but errors from the GameSpot team and the AC6 product manager did affect the event's overall presentation. The most glaring problems were miscommunications between the broadcasters and the tournament manager. There were times when a room was setup using incorrect match settings. This had to be corrected by all competitors being removed, a new room set up, then all competitors re-invited. These hang-ups pressured commentators to continue finding things to discuss to give cover for the technical issues.
Faux Spectator Mode Woes
Even back in 2007, the problems caused by the lack of a purpose-built spectator mode were forefront. With no reliable way to view the competitors while they fought or after their battle, the second and third Bandai-Namco representatives flew each match as non-combatants. Acknowledging that no spectator mode was available in the game, they acted as camera operators flying near and passing through the battle for the broadcast. This exposed them to the danger of being shot down by competitors.
Surprisingly, this is something that Bandai-Namco and Project Aces has not addressed since then. Despite being released during an age of high profile competitive game play, esports and easily accessible streaming platforms, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown does not have a dedicated spectator mode. While having competitors live stream their footage could be part of a long-term workaround, it's not a solution to something game developers would need to address directly.
Camera Operator Aircraft Selection The camera operators in this event were using Xbox Live Gamer Tags with "gamespot" in their names and flying F-22A Raptors. They most likely selected the F-22A to capitalize on its high speed and excellent maneuverability. But the risk of using one of the highest point valued aircraft is that if it is shot down, it would considerably impact the score results. The cameramen were shot down by contestants because they prioritized recording video over evading incoming missile fire. Using an aircraft with a lower overall point value would have been better, as it would have lessened the amount of points accidentally contributed to the competition.
Contestants Targeting Camera Operators
While not everyone deliberately did this, the broadcast shows that the camera operators were targeted from time to time. There is a discrepancy between accidentally attacked and purposefully targeted. Multi-lock air-to-air missile special weapons attack multiple airborne targets within their range with minimal input from the player. It would take a decent amount of time and effort mid-match to try and avoid firing at a camera aircraft that happens to be within range. Shooting down a non-combatant would be an accident in this situation because the user of the XMA4, XMA6, or XLAA has limited control over who they target. However, as shown in the death screens of the camera operators, they were also targeted by Standard Missiles (MSSL) and Quick Maneuver Air-to-Air Missiles (QAAM). These weapons are launched at a single target per button press. This means that the player using them would need to have a visual confirmation of the name and aircraft of the player they are targeting in their Heads Up Display. A secondary camera view also appears in the top left, showing a closer view of the target with their name.
With two ways to identify targets before firing with the aforementioned weapons, it's hard to believe this was done by accident. This shows that some players knowingly fired at the non-combatants in hopes of scoring points to raise their standing within the tournament. GameSpot had a system in place to penalize players that consciously did this, but no penalization was reported during the finals of the event. This analysis is not implying or stating that the final results of the tournament were skewed in any way. But this is a major downside of using an in-game camera operator that must be made known.
Early AC6 Life Cycle
This is not a criticism of the event, but it is something to take note of: the tournament was run very early in Ace Combat 6's lifespan. The game released on October 23rd, 2007 with the tournament itself ending on November 30th, 2007. The type of game play that would be standard from January 2008 onward was somewhat different from what is shown in the broadcast.
For example, the first patch for Ace Combat 6 was not released yet. This is made clear by there not being a crash or out of bounds point penalty that appears in the kill feed, despite competitors crashing during the broadcast. During the early weeks of online game play, some players would frequently crash themselves into the ground when damaged to deny giving their opponents points. They could do this and suffer no consequences. The first AC6 patch introduced a 1000 point deduction for any aircraft that flew out of bounds or crashed. A penalty severe enough to change the outcome of online battles. The patch sharply reduced the frequency of self-crashing tactics.
Furthermore, status boosted or altered aircraft were not as prolific yet. Only AC6 downloadable content pack 01 and pack 02 were available. These packs did not contain aircraft that would completely change the multiplayer dynamic like the F-22A-MOBIUS-, F-15E -CIPHER-, Razgriz aircraft, Idol Master aircraft, and others. Though the Su-33 -IDOLMASTER MIKI HOSHII was available, it did not make a showing in the final rounds of this competition. Unlike the games that would come after it, Ace Combat 6 did not have an aircraft modification system. Status altered aircraft were only accessible through DLC, which gave varying degrees of advantage to those that did own them and changed the general landscape of the game over time.
Interview: TornadoADV, the First Ace Combat Online Tournament Champion
We are presented with a unique opportunity—a competitor level explanation of the event by the individual that won it all. Known by the online handle "TornadoADV", he fought his way through multiple rounds of battle royale to claim victory in the Gamespot Fly for Freedom Ace Combat 6 tournament. Our interview with him primarily focuses on his time within that tournament. Before we delve deeper into your competitive experience, could you introduce yourself? Of course, I'm TornadoADV. My XBL handle was Beta Eagle. Surprising that somebody had already taken my first choice of name back in the early days of the service.
How did you get introduced to the Ace Combat series? It's rather fuzzy now that it's been so long ago, but my first introduction was with the original Air Combat arcade cabinet back in 1993 in an arcade during one of many family trips. Is it true that you've been active within the Ace Combat online community for quite a long time? It's true. I had garnered quite the reputation as a hothead in my early days at AceCombat.net. But even before that, I was an active member of the AC04 community on GameFAQs.com back when it was still an independent website. So since 2001 would be a safe statement. Getting to the tournament, when did you first hear about it? Was it an open sign up, or were there restrictions? I actually first heard of it through the media push that NAMCO-Bandai was doing before the release of Ace Combat 6 to drive up awareness of the game to the North American market. Fly For Freedom was a restricted entry tournament through GameSpot where you had to be an active monthly subscriber to their website to be allowed the chance to sign up. What can you tell us about the general layout of the event? The layout was a typical free-for-all/battle royale engagement, 14 slots for participants, and 2 slots for observers/referees. They went with single elimination where the top four pilots of each match would advance to the next round until 14 pilots were left for the finals (with 2 alternatives for any possible no-shows.) During the lead up to the finals, did you notice any patterns amongst your competitors? Things like aircraft selection, weapons use, or tactics? I think anybody could guess what they would see in a free for all style engagement, especially in Ace Combat 6. It generally consisted only of QAAM capable aircraft of the highest tier (Tier 3), such as the F-22 and Su-47 with a smattering of (Tier 2) Su-33s flying in tight, relatively slow furballs in the center of the map at medium altitude. I didn't see any deviation from that all the way up to the final bracket. Going into the finals, what was your strategy? I think it's important to state for the record that the SAAM [Semi-Acitve Air-to-Air Missile] in Ace Combat 6 was an entirely different beast then what it has become in later installments. Besides mobility easily eclipsing what the QAAM was capable of, you could "unlock" your target after you launched by changing targets and moving your radar illumination circle off your intended foe without the SAAM going dumb/non-guiding, removing the missile warning they would normally get. Once the SAAM got close enough and without having to "re-box" them, you could sweep your HUD circle back onto them at the last moment, the SAAM would pull a literal 90 degree turn instantaneously towards them with no warning and blow them out of the sky. It makes what Rage and Scream do in Ace Combat 7 during Anchorhead Raid look minor league in comparison. This allows you to do the most important thing in a free for all situation, managing your "threat". I was already in a Super Hornet, so I had a head start there. I was a relatively slow, Tier 1 multirole that couldn't carry QAAMs. I was also using the Scarface Squadron DLC skin which boosted my defense up to [A-10] Thunderbolt II levels. So to everybody else, I was a low threat, low point, high defense aircraft flying around the edges of the furball, something they'd have to spend a lot of effort to destroy for almost no gain while exposing themselves to others in the primary engagement zone. The only times I was ever bothered in the finals were by people who had just spawned in and were already on their way to the big fight in the middle of the map. Do you have any specific memories from the combat in the finals? Not really, to use an internet meme, "It was Tuesday" to me. I had an effective and battle-tested plan that allowed me to sail to a crushing first-place finish in every engagement from the first prelims all the way up to the last map of the finals. That's not to say that the other pilots in the tourney weren't skilled, but in a battle royale tournament, you can't afford to get bogged down going after the strongest foe on the field. I simply singled out the weakest pilots in each match and focused on them, only aiming at others if they provided an easier target at the time my SAAMs had reloaded. Once the final results were in, a Team Battle was played between the top three competitors against two Bandai-Namco representatives and In Joon Hwang, the Product Manager for Ace Combat 6. Were you able to strategize with your fellow competitors before the battle? I couldn't say that I did as I was not using my head-set at the time, plus given the map (Stage 5/Team Battle) that was selected, strategy didn't extend further then filling the airspace of the opposing aircraft with as many missiles as possible. Hence my change from a F/A-18F with SAAMs to a F-15E with XMA6s. Given the results, I think my team did pretty well. The prizes you received from Gamespot were a $600.00 USD Best Buy gift certificate and a DLC Pack 00 download code for AC6. How was the rare DLC pack? I think that getting to enjoy the plane of the game's aces in the livery of the series's most influential Ace (and his greatest foe) in HD graphics really took it to the next level for a diehard aficionado like me. Even if they didn't change the Strike Eagle's stats from their base settings, you could feel the relation that AC6 was AC04, but brought forth into the HD age of gaming.
Before AC6, competition within the Ace Combat community was primarily offline or "Legacy" competition. How do you think the inclusion of online multiplayer affected the established community at that time? I actually think as far as offline/single player competitions went, it actually increased interest in them because Project ACES has always endorsed online leaderboards for their online capable games (until AC7 for some strange reason.), and you could see them updated in real-time. (assuming the player in question connected to the internet every once and awhile.) Once you get people in through the door of pure top score for missions, you can expand from there by doing aircraft or weapon restriction based competitions, etc. Since 2007 online multiplayer has been included with the mainline Ace Combat releases in 2011, 2014, and 2019. What are your thoughts on how multiplayer has changed? My personal thoughts are that multiplayer is multiplayer no matter what game or genre you're in, people will always go for the quickest and easiest way to win. It's up to the individual to bring style and personality to the proceedings outside of flying a black and red Raptor that's spewing QAAMs into the air like Strangereal's most aggressive Raytheon salesman or abusing other quirks in a game's design. Those are the ones that make a game's online sphere seem alive rather than airborne [Call of Duty]. Thank you for this interview!
Reccommended Tornado ADV links: F-4E Phantom II Ace playthrough of AC7, all S-Rank
About the Interviewer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. A lifelong aviation enthusiast with a special interest in flight simulators and games. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating aviation related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He continues to explore past and present flight games and sims with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. | Twitter | Discord: RibbonBlue#8870 |