The Mortal Kombat tournament is one of the core pieces of lore for the storied fighting franchise of the same name, but it becomes a little less weighty and important every time the franchise returns to the concept. The very first Mortal Kombat game explained the basic rules and stipulations of the Mortal Kombat tournament, a high-stakes single elimination tournament that would determine the fate of multiple realms. The rules of Mortal Kombat are relatively simple – two "realms" would send their best fighters to compete in a once-in-a-generation, single-elimination tournament. The winner would be named the Grand Champion and be granted temporary immunity until the next champion was declared. If one realm won 10 consecutive tournaments, it would gain the right to invade the losing realm and merge into their world.
While a fighting tournament isn't exactly a unique concept in fighting games, Mortal Kombat's extraplanar twist certainly added some high stakes. Instead of competing for fame and glory, players were fighting to save Earth. Considering the potential consequences of losing, the tournament even helped justify the brutal Fatalities – what better way to definitively establish a winner than by impaling your opponent on a spike or ripping out their spine and wearing it as a scarf?
However, while the tournament made sense in the first Mortal Kombat game, the concept was only really re-visited a few additional times in the main games. Mortal Kombat II forced a second "early" tournament on Earthrealm to serve as a distraction, while Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance featured a similar tournament under false pretenses. The 2011 Mortal Kombat game revisited the tournaments from the first two games in a rebooted timeline, but the other games have mostly steered clear of the concept to focus on the constantly brewing tension between Earthrealm and the other realms. The Mortal Kombat franchise treats this conflict as a series of schemes, betrayals, and constant manuevers – in that way, the franchise is more akin to Game of Thrones than a mere fighting tournament.
While only a handful of Mortal Kombat games have focused on the Mortal Kombat tournament, it does seem like every single adaptation has fixated on the tournament as a main source of drama. On the one hand, using the tournament to showcase various fights between characters is an easy way to drive the plot and build drama. However, the constant use of the tournament as a framing device makes the Mortal Kombat franchise feel very one-note and stale, especially given that the games have such a deep roster of characters and an impressive mythology. Although the tournament serves as the catalyst for the Mortal Kombat story, it is not nearly as critical to the franchise as the movies and TV shows would have you believe.
The main issue with continuing to fixate on the tournament as a storyline is that it inevitably focuses on the same characters over and over again. While we all want to see Liu Kang and Sonya Blade appear in every iteration of Mortal Kombat, the tournament basically means that we'll never get to see characters from later games – villains like Shinnok or Quan Chi or major supporting characters like Kenshi. Using the tournament as the only driver of the plot also stunts the growth of the characters. Liu Kang, for instance, undergoes major changes outside of the tournament, as does Sonya Blade and Johnny Cage.
If the newest Mortal Kombat movie is successful, let's hope that it pushes the story beyond the initial tournament. There are tons of cool characters within the franchise that could be explored outside of the confines of the tournament, along with entire worlds that don't have any connection to the tournament itself. Moving past the tournament arc would allow the Mortal Kombat franchise to truly grow and establish it as more than a one-off story concept.