I had to register my details on the door, a painless experience and free of any cost. I was handed a stack of money and prepared myself to witness the renowned spectacle that has enthralled thousands of people. Sitting up high on my left were the high-rollers, bags of money in hand lauding their success over the less fortunate. To my right was the bull-ring where swathes of people crammed together, each desperate for a win, and each desperate to be heard over the others. The atmosphere is electric.
Staying silent, I watched the crowd jostling. I tried to gain a few tips from the snippets of conversation but it was useless, none of it made sense. In between the crowds two people bounce on the spot as a countdown ticks away. When it reaches zero they will go toe-to-toe in a brutal contest of physical prowess.
The two competitors, a small Asian girl plucked straight from a Japanese animé, the other a large holy man whose robes barely conceal his intimidating physical appearance, looked completely mis-matched. Even though one is half the size of the other it’s fair to acknowledge that I have no idea where to put my money. I’ve been warned that size doesn’t necessarily matter in these bouts and right now there’s no odds, no form guide, and the chatter is about as useful for tips as jelly is for building houses.
One person exclaimed, “Always bet loli!” (An unwelcome slang term for sexually attractive young girls.)
While another immediately responded “Always bet holy!” (Which I assume is deliberate rhyme-play based on the previous comment.)
I decided that my best bet was to keep my money, to watch the fight and see how it unfolds. I told myself that experience is key. As the countdown ticked to zero the combatants prepared to unleash all their fury upon each other.
I was right to be cautious. Despite landing the first hit the larger fighter was rapidly pounded by a flurry of flashing lights and seizure inducing cutaways that deal huge damage. At one point a giant heron fills half the screen landing a mighty peck that hurls the large priest-like man into oblivion.
It had been less than ten seconds and the first round was over.
The crowd buzzed with excitement, eagerly supporting their favourite with a torrent of praise and producing a cacophony of jeers for the other combatant. Some shouts don’t make sense, but then again, I don’t think they’re supposed to.
In the second round the large holy man seemed to have learned his lesson. His stance was defensive. He blocked the mind-blowing dazzling force of his opponent and when an opportunity presented itself hit back with awesome speed.
It’s been another ten seconds and the round-count is 1-1.
It became obvious that the noise emanating from the crowd is pure nonsense. Most aren’t even talking to each other, instead they are simply making obscure statements that go largely ignored.
The next round goes much like the first. I don’t really understand what happened. A rainbow of explosive energy filled the screen and the little girl has beaten the huge thug once more.
The final round is over in less than five seconds. The deadly animé girl hits fast with powerful combos and the muscular monk simply has no response.
My first experience of Salty Bet is over. Just watching has been exhausting.
For those not in the know, Salty Bet is a nearly never-ending twitch stream that allows watchers to bet fake money on bouts between computer-controlled fighters. Some fighters will be instantly familiar like Ryu and Ken from Street Fighter, or Spider-man from the Marvel vs. Capcom fighting games. Some will only be recognisable to the most dedicated fighting-game aficionado, mostly from obscure Japanese games. There’s a fair number of non-fighting-game characters like Sonic the Hedgehog, Brian Griffin and Homer Simpson, not to mention the more bizarre, such as an evil Ronald McDonald, the Google logo, and everybody’s favourite early nineties Caucasian rapper Vanilla Ice.
The reason this trademark-infringing mad phenomenon can exist is MUGEN, a free fighting game engine that allows huge numbers of characters to be plugged in to it’s ever-expanding roster. SaltyBet randomly draws two characters to compete in a first-to-three AI battle that’s shown through Twitch. Viewers are given a small amount of fake money and encouraged to bet on the outcome. The currency in question is ‘Salty Bucks’ and is not accepted as legal tender anywhere.
For a fee Salty-gamblers can become ‘Illuminati’ members, which reveals the career wins and losses of the MUGEN fighters and means that no matter how rubbish their bets are they’ll never have less than $666 salty bucks. By becoming Illuminati players will never have to visit the Salt-mines, a depressing place where you have a pittance to bet with and only a huge against-the-odds win can bring you back to a place where it’s possible to win reasonable money on short odds. Escaping the mine without being Illuminati is not just difficult, it’s almost impossible.
The real question here is “what’s the appeal”. It’s a game in the loosest sense of the word. Players can’t influence the outcomes, they don’t interact with the experience except to gamble meaningless fake money, yet Salty Bet boasts thousands of visitors every week. Perhaps it’s similar to the days when arcades were kings in virtual entertainment and crowds would flock around the fighting game machines just to watch others playing. Perhaps it’s a reflection of something deeper, a representation of what the internet means to most people – a playground where nothing matters and everything is fun.
Salty Bet has been around for a long time now and it’s popularity is as strong as ever, though the future of Salty Bet is uncertain. Salty himself remains an elusive figure, he’s reluctant to reveal his identity, probably because he has profited by infringing on more than 2000 copyrights. Apparently the real financial contributions Salty Bet generates help keep the stream running and will be used to expand the service in the future. One thing that’s for certain is that the thousands of people who continue to come to this virtual arena would be devastated if it, along with all their virtual money, just disappeared one day. Another is that they would delighted if the service expanded.
Whatever the reasons for it’s success and whatever the future holds for this internet wonder it’s well worth looking into for the casual fan of video games, gambling, animé or internet trends. It’s a world where a giant chicken can trade blows with Superman – and that’s a world that’s well worth looking into.
For the record, the chicken won. Never bet Superman.