On Friday, July 15th, over 15,000 fighting game players will arrive at the Las Vegas Convention Center to make their mark on history. They’re there to compete in The Evolution Championship Series, which pretty much everyone refers to as just "Evo." As the day unfolds, most of them will be eliminated.
By Sunday, the top eight players in Street Fighter V, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator, Mortal Kombat X and Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 will play in front of an enormous audience at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. The stadium will resound with the cheers from the crowd, drowning out most of the game audio and letting even the most casual of viewers know when something big just went down. The tournament will be livestreamed on Twitch, and the Street Fighter V finals will be broadcast on ESPN, putting a pressure on the highest-level players few will ever know.
But for all the superficial similarities this year’s Evo has to other esports events, the vibe is totally different. "What makes Evo unique is our emphasis on preserving the arcade culture, which is rooted in open competition," says Tom Cannon, Evo’s co-founder. "It's just an entirely different feel when you have thousands of players all competing for the same prize. We don't have the same separation between 'pros' and ‘players’ that you'll find in other kinds of esports."
Between Friday and Sunday, those who’ve been eliminated can play dozens of older fighting games on antique CRT monitors, meet up with friends they know mostly online, and gorge on overpriced Vegas food. They can walk right up to where two professionally-sponsored players are duking it out and holler at them like they would at an arcade.
Part of what makes Evo appealing to the average spectator is that they don’t need to study a Wikipedia article just to understand what’s happening on-screen. "The action in most fighting games is completely approachable and understandable," says Cannon. "Both of the competitors and the folks watching all experience the game through the same screen."
Compared to shooters like Counter-Strike, where the action is conveyed through a single player’s perspective or from a number of disembodied third-person camera angles, fighting games are easier to watch and harder to look away from. You just can’t help but get wrapped up in the drama these games create. Even if you don’t understand the underlying logic behind every move, watching two larger-than-life figures dance back and forth until someone chances a swing, misses, and gets punished for their mistake with a killing blow is gripping on a primordial level. Fighting games can be as exhilarating as any spectator sport, and Evo weekend is the best time to watch.
Why is Evo such a big deal?
Founded in 1996 under the name "Battle By the Bay," Evo is one of the longest-running fighting tournaments in the world. It garners more competitors, spectators, and livestream viewers than any other fighting game event.
But it didn’t start out that way. The first Battle By the Bay took place in the Sunnyvale Golfland Arcade, bringing together 64 players from California, the Midwest and Canada, along with what Cannon describes as "four crazy guys from Kuwait." With the help of his twin brother Tony, he organized the event through UseNet newsgroups, which were for the Internet of the Nineties what forums are today. "Players with internet access learned about the tournament, and they told the local players in their area."
Most of Evo’s 15,000 attendees are competing in one tournament or another, but know they probably won’t make it out of the initial qualifying rounds. Still, they come to witness incredible moments, like Evo Moment #37 from 2004, in which virtuoso player Daigo Umehara parried an entire super attack and mounted a comeback with barely a sliver of health (see our story below) – the Street Fighter equivalent of Reggie Miller's eight points in nine seconds. They come to watch underdogs come out of nowhere to make a run against top players, like Abdullatif "Latif" Alhmili did in 2011, upsetting big names like Umehara and Lee "Poongko" Chung Gon and taking home second. They come to meet celebrity fighting game fans and competitors like Jamie Lee Curtis, whose love for Street Fighter is well-documented. Mostly, though, they come to have fun playing fighting games with their friends, surrounded by people who share their passion.
Is this esports?
Yes, but don’t let the fighting game community hear you say it. While its basic premise isn’t too different from, say, League of Legends' glitzy LCS tournament, Evo has managed to stay true to its roots throughout its long history, and the crowd is more diverse than you’d expect to see at a gaming event as a result. In fact, according to Cannon, players from 72 countries will compete at the event. According to Riot Games designer and fighting game scholar Patrick Miller, that diversity is intrinsic to the culture of fighting games. "There are largely people of color playing fighting games," says Miller. "People of color kind of came together to architect a lot of the institutions that the fighting game community now relies on."
For years, Cannon and his crew had to wrestle with how to grow the tournament while staying true to that culture. The first tournament held under the Evo banner in 2002 was also the first held outside of an arcade, and the transition wasn’t smooth. "The unfortunate fact was that arcades were closing around the country, and we either had to move the event of out of arcades or die," says Cannon. A few players understood that the switch needed to happen, but several diehards didn’t want to lose that connection to the history of their favorite games. "It took a lot of conversations with players and experimentation on equipment and tournament formats to win the players' trust... the move was painful, but it's enabled us to grow the scene far beyond what we could in arcades."
How do I watch?
The tournament will be streamed on Evo's Twitch channel and a few others. Check out the full schedule here. Last year, the main channel broadcast finals from previous years in the days leading up to the event, which was a great way to see what you can expect on July 14. You can also pay $12 dollars to watch a premium stream of the event.
What games will I get to watch this year?
This year’s lineup official lineup is Street Fighter V, Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator, Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Mortal Kombat X, Killer Instinct, Tekken 7: Fated Retribution, and Pokken Tournament.
Someone just got bodied on the salty runback after eating a Happy Birthday. What?
Like most gaming subcultures, the fighting game scene likes its jargon. Several terms are adopted from other cultures, plenty have risen to the level of casual internet parlance, and you can figure out a lot of them from context. If you're puzzled by the more obscure terms, TV Tropes has a great glossary. Some new terms are made up on the spot, so there’s a chance no one will know what they mean at first.
Will I be lost if I don't study those terms?
A bit, maybe, but it doesn't matter. It might take a little while to get up to speed on the memes, slang, and personalities, but part of what makes Evo great is that, like the games it hosts, you can appreciate it on multiple levels. You can enjoy it as a fighting game connoisseur, and stand in awe at the skill level of the best players in the world. You can enjoy it as a member of a diverse community who’ve fought to keep things on their terms and take pride in what you’ve helped build. Or, if you happen to be in Vegas on July 15th, you can enjoy it as a casual fan, and take in the spectacle of people from all over the world competing at a video game.