It seems clear that fighting games have been stuffing more and more playable characters into their rosters. But how exactly has roster size changed over time? And how has selling characters as DLC changed things?
Game Inclusion Criteria
I started with the list of games on wikipedia’s list of fighting games, not including the wrestling or sports games. This was gathered in early 2022, and no 2022 games were included. To be included, games had to include multiple chooseable characters that have distinct non-cosmetic characteristics. Those characters must be able to fight other chooseable characters, rather than generic enemies like a beat ’em up. Games could be traditional 2D fighters, arena fighters, anime fighters, platform fighters or anything else commonly referred to as a fighting game.
Only one version of a game is counted, the one with the largest roster. If multiple versions have the same character count the earliest one is counted. For example, although there are many versions of Street Fighter 2, only the 2017 Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers was counted because it had the largest roster.
Noncommercial games were not included.
The total number of games included was 615.
This project is not meant as any kind of comprehensive look at all fighting games, just as many as I could reasonably find good information on quickly. Most of the games I was unable to include were Japanese exclusive, very old, not a fighting game according to the definition I am using, or defunct online-only browser and mobile games.
Character Inclusion Criteria
Characters that need to be unlocked or require a code to access count, but characters that require a cheat device, such as a Game Shark, do not. Non-chooseable boss or other characters do not count even if you can play against them. Characters that are not chooseable on a character select screen but appear as part of a special move and disappear quickly (often called assist characters) are not counted. Alternate costumes that play identically to a base character, even if they are chooseable on a character select screen, do not count. Characters given away as free DLC are still counted as DLC.
Number of Fighting Games by Year
There’s a big gap between 1985’s Galactic Warriors and 1989’s Spitting Image. I’m sure there were more fighting games released in between those two, but it’s hard to find information on games that old. The green bars represent years in which DLC characters were being sold, the first of which was Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds among the games included in this study.
Total Number of Fighting Game Characters by Year
Average Fighting Game Roster Size by Year
Roster sizes have generally been growing over time, but recent years seem to stick to the high 20s, with some notable exceptions.
The largest roster on record is Tobal 2’s 200, which is the reason 1997 sticks out. That’s more than double #2: Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3 which had 98. Four early games had roster sizes of 3. The most common roster size was 8.
Average Fighting Game Base Roster Size by Year
The years prior to DLC characters being introduced are of course the same as the previous graph. Roster size isn’t effected very much until 2018 when DLC characters start making up a larger chunk of characters.
Average Size of DLC Rosters in Fighting Games by Year
Since fewer fighting games have been made over time and not all of them have DLC characters, some of these years have small sample sizes, causing the averages to bounce around a lot.
The largest DLC roster was in BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle, with 33.
Average Percent of Fighting Game Roster That is Comprised of DLC Characters
So how much of a fighting game roster is comprised of DLC characters? Overall, the maximum seen was 34% of the characters in a given year but is generally around 20%. Just among the fighting games that have DLC characters it can be almost half and is typically around 30%.
Average Percent of Fighting Games with DLC Characters
The overall number of fighting games that have DLC characters has generally been going up, though only one of the four 2020 games had character DLC.