Dragon Ball FighterZ has remained surprisingly popular within the fighting game community since its release back in January 2018, bolstered by a slow but steady stream of content updates and balance patches. Considering it’s four years old as of this year, DBFZ has managed to hold its own alongside heavy-hitters like Street Fighter V and Tekken 7, and it’s even managed to outlive sequels to popular franchises like Samurai Shodown (2019) and Soulcalibur VI which debuted long after DBFZ launched. However, for the first time since Dragon Ball FighterZ was released, casual fans and seasoned pro-players appear to feel ambivalent about the future of the game – due in large part to the release of its newest DLC character, Android 21 (Lab Coat).

Although lengthy content support windows are nothing out of the ordinary for fighting games, the extended, drip-fed nature of Dragon Ball FighterZ’s season passes and system mechanic updates have managed to keep the community alive for four years, long past what many have assumed would be the game’s natural lifespan. Even Nintendo’s flagship fighting game, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, only had three years of support in the form of content updates.

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Yet, this slow, heavily spaced-out approach to content updates may have finally proven to be Dragon Ball FighterZ’s undoing – especially where Lab Coat is concerned. Since her release in February, DBFZ’s average player count on Steam Charts has seen a noticeable dip – dropping by just over 30% from 1,560 concurrent players in the month prior to her release, down to 1,083 in March. A drop in player numbers immediately following a DLC character’s release is to be expected, but when compared to figures from the month prior they are a cause for concern.

Android 21 (Lab Coat) is the obvious culprit for this drop in player retention, and with good reason – the player base, both casual and pro, unanimously agrees she’s too strong. So strong in fact, that many pros believe playing her in serious tournaments feels less like a choice and more like their only option. You either play her and win, or you play against her and lose. But what makes her especially different? Overpowered DLC characters are nothing new for Dragon Ball FighterZ. Bardock, GT Goku, and Ultra Instinct Goku were all characters that at one point in time were considered so strong that playing them felt like a necessity, both online and in the pro scene. I got the chance to sit down with seasoned DBFZ pro Mamba Lamba, one of only four pros hand-selected by Bandai Namco to represent USA East in the official 2022 DBFZ Draft Tournament, and ask him exactly why he thinks Lab Coat is universally despised.

“Personally, Lab Coat 21 has changed the way this game has become, for the worst. The debuff mechanic she has almost invalidates characters in the game while also being a 21 frame command grab with invulnerability so it is not even difficult to land, not to mention it costing just 1 bar.”

This “21 frame command grab” Mamba Lamba refers to is arguably the number one reason many pros find Lab Coat so obnoxious to play against. Not only is the move incredibly fast and difficult to counter, but it also has a unique debuff that permanently nerfs the damage her opponents can do for the entirety of the match. This mechanic is so strong that pro players believe the only way to counter it is by using a Lab Coat of your own – which many in turn argue makes watching the game in tournament play boring, as everyone is forced to use the same character.

“She also has tools most of the cast have but better,” Mamba continued, “with less effort at that. Banning her seems like a stretch but she is definitely a must-pick character for tournaments.”

Those tools include, but are in no way limited to, six low attacks, a command normal overhead, an autocombo that catches backdashes, the fastest beam attack in the game, a barrier that acts as a 4-frame reversal, and an unscaled, frame 1 invulnerable lariat. Her toolkit is so overpowered that the go-to Arc System Works community resource Dustloop specifically states that “there are currently no known weaknesses exclusive to Labcoat.”

Banning a character from use in official tournaments is an extremely rare and always hotly debated topic among fighting game players, especially when tournament winnings are on the line, but Lab Coat’s removal from competitive play has been frequently discussed since her release. Former 1# DBFZ champ and all-around fighting game community legend SonicFox even tweeted a poll asking if the community should ban her, and the community marginally voted in favor of the ban with 51.6% calling for her removal from competitive play.

Several other pros have publicly voiced their concerns over what the character has done to the game, most notably Coach Steve and USA national champ Nitro who have both made it clear they plan to quit playing the game entirely.

“So for me, I think that if a character allows someone that could never beat me to become better than me, then at that point I don’t believe it is a game I want to compete in”, said Nitro when IGN reached out for comment. “…Anyone can win despite their skill level or the amount of practice put in, because Lab Coat 21 plays herself and it’s incredibly hard to be wrong with her.”

Nitro also doesn’t have much hope for balance patches or content updates in the future.

“They’ve gone pretty silent on us for the most part”.

IGN reached out to Bandai Namco to ask if it was planning on further balancing updates, as well as what its thoughts are on the recent #DBFZpatch movement, but as of writing we have yet to receive an official response.

Indeed, this frustration with the lack of communication regarding DBFZ’s future may be contributing more toward the game’s decline than Lab Coat. Following SonicFox’s poll on Twitter, FGC commentator and DBFZ ambassador Damascus addressed Dragon Ball FighterZ’s future on Twitch. “The actual problem of the moment is not Android 21 Lab Coat being broken” he stated, “…it’s Arc System Works and Bandai being silent.”

Damascus even suggested the community try to get #DBFZpatch trending in a bid to get any crumb of feedback from the development team regarding a desperately requested balance patch. “They don’t even have to say anything… just say ‘we’re working on something’ and we’re done.”

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It’s no surprise that this breakdown in communication between the community and Bandai Namco has left many pros feeling left in the lurch, a feeling HookGangGod, the pro player that beat former champion SonicFox at the Summit of Power tournament back in 2018, seemed to share in our interview.

“The motivation of the players is a lot lower because we have no idea if another patch is coming. If this is the final product I can understand why Nitro and Steve don’t really wanna play anymore.

“If we knew definitely that something was coming I feel like they would have higher hopes and motivation for the future of the game… the lack of communication really is the saddest part about the game currently.“

The last time any official information regarding the game was released was at the tail end of the Battle Hour stream in February, during which Bandai Namco vaguely hinted that they were “considering… a variety of events inside and outside of the game.” Android 21 (Lab Coat) was then added to the game five days later, and both Bandai and Arc System Works have since remained tight-lipped on DBFZ’s future ever since.

Without any official tournament support planned, it has been left to community figureheads like Damascus and Bum163 to keep the pro-scene alive by organising tournies of their own – the latter of whom managed to pull in almost 10,000 viewers during his Bum’s Birthday Bash event (more commonly known as House of Chaos) earlier this month. Whilst some might see this as a sign that DBFZ is coming to its natural conclusion, Hook sees this as an opportunity for the community to take the lead.

“[DBFZ] is one of the best selling DBZ games, so I have some hope but at the same time it deff feels like this is the end.

“I love DBFZ so much that I’ll continue to play it and support it. Overall the community might really have to ban Lab Coat to see the morale go up for the players. Only the future can tell.”

In contrast, Mamba Lamba believes the impassioned response from Dragon Ball FighterZ’s hardcore fanbase is a sign that developer support for the game might not completely fizzle out.

“I genuinely thought the game was done until I saw how much support DBFZ had during the Battle Hour… I have a lot of faith in this game getting more content, just not yet.

“With the [Dragon Ball Super] manga yet to be adapted and the next movie Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero dropping soon, there’s definitely room for more characters/stages/etc… If this game were to get ROLLBACK netcode then a character balance patch, the player base will be at an all-time high.”

Rollback netcode is one of the most frequently requested additions to Dragon Ball FighterZ, something developer Arc System Works have very recently become adept at using in their latest games. In simple terms, rollback netcode allows fighting games to offset spikes in input lag when played online. This is extremely important when fighting games require you to defend against a variety of offensive options that have millisecond-long start-up frames, or when you’re trying to pull off combos that require tight, precise links.

Bandai Namco producer Tomoko Hiroki did address this issue last year, stating that “it’s currently difficult for us to improve [Dragon Ball FighterZ’s] netcode, but we would like to do our best to provide a place where everyone can have fun and fight as much as possible.” However, in a later interview with senior ArcSys staff members Takeshi Yamanaka and Akira Katano it was specified that “[Arc System Works] are not publishing either of those titles, so we have no say on the matter. But on a purely technical side, is it feasible? Yes, it is.”

Arc System Works started implementing rollback netcode into all of their modern fighting games when development began on Guilty Gear Strive in 2021. In fact, Arc System Works retroactively added rollback netcode to their game BlazBlue: Central Fiction earlier this year, and plan to do so again this summer in the freshly re-released Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. Considering its comments on the matter, paired with how comfortable it’s become at utilizing rollback netcode, it is unusual that Arc System Works has been unable to officially add it to Dragon Ball FighterZ.

So, everything considered, is Dragon Ball FighterZ dying? Depending on who you ask, the chance of an official response to the current state of the DBFZ meta varies somewhere between hopeless and ever-so-faintly possible. Yet, as remarked by both Hook and Damascus, a formal acknowledgment from Bandai that support for the game has come to end would give the community the go-ahead to assess the state of DBFZ on their own terms.

Whilst it might seem like a grim conclusion, the death of support in the form of an end to content updates would allow players to take matters into their own hands – which may indeed mean banning Android 21 (Lab Coat) from competitive play altogether. However, it seems that until either Bandai Namco or Arc System Works formally addresses the community’s concerns, Dragon Ball FighterZ will continue to exist in a state of limbo – a game teetering on the edge of death, whilst simultaneously waiting to begin anew.

Lewis Parker has been a freelance gaming writer for over five years. He’s forever cursed to be too good at fighting games to play with friends, but not good enough to play in tournaments.

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