Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite is being left off the main stage at EVO this year. The critical reception has been middling at best, and there are some weird thematic departures that cements the game as this weird sequential half-step before a bolder, more official numbered sequel, (seriously, how are you going to release an MvC game without any X-Men on the roster?) Still though, you've got to feel for guys like Richard Nguyen, who grinded his way to an esports sponsorship from Rise Nation by maining Capcom's latest venture, obviously in hopes of earning a huge payday over the summer. To learn that he won't have a shot at a grand prize at the world's biggest fighting game tournament, in the first year the game is eligible, is jarring to say the least.
"I think Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite not making the EVO lineup will impact the game's current image even worse, but I do think the game will still be relatively popular in the other major tournaments in the year," says Nguyen, who mentions that he found the announcement disappointing, but not necessarily shocking. "The much bigger negative impact that could happen is if Capcom stops further development of DLC characters and patches. If the future comes to that, I believe that there will be a large percentage of current players to fall off."
If you're not familiar with EVO, it's essentially a yearly blowout for the fighting games community in Las Vegas. Top players from around the world book their flights and put up entry fees to fund massive grand prizes for a selection of eight games that are dominating the scene. After dark, they unite in clandestine cash tournaments in hotel lobbies all over the city. There are always a couple mainstays on the schedule: the Street Fighter game de jure is represented, as is the 17-year old Gamecube brawler Super Smash Bros. Melee, but the other slots tend to fluctuate. (For a couple years Pokken Tournament made it on, which is pretty astonishing for an experimental 3D Pokemon fighter.)
Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite's absence marks the first time in eight years a Marvel title won't be getting the red carpet treatment. Tournament organizer Joey "Mr Wizard" Cuellar spoke candidly on the issue during the unveiling livestream, saying simply that he doesn't think the Infinite scene is strong enough. "We've always had to support the games that people actually play," he said.
On a more specific level, you can probably blame the absence on the emergence of Dragon Ball: FigherZ. That feels strange to type. The video game business has produced no shortage of ridiculous, Dragon Ball-themed dogfights over the years, and uniformly, they've all been pretty bad. The most prominent example might be the loosey-goosey Budokai franchise, which sold well, but was dogged with infamous character balance issues. In 2018 that license was turned over to Arc System Works, who's proven over and over again that they're capable of producing a great fighting game with Guilty Gear, BlazBlue, and Persona 4: Arena. With FighterZ, they may have created something that will eat Marvel's lunch.
On a pure mechanical level, FighterZ is a three-on-three tag-based duel packed with assists, fireballs, and a great sense of verticality. This is exactly the DNA of MvC, which first pioneered the art of obscene, screen-filling finishing moves back in the '90s. But FighterZ also comes with the advantage of Arc System Works' best-in-class animation. Goku, Vegeta, and Piccolo have never looked better, and they've doubled down on their excess to make the game feel as close to one of those 20-minute Dragon Ball Z fights as possible. You will throw people through mountains. You will drop planet-sized spirit bombs on top of your fiercest rivals. If you grew up watching the anime, this is the game you've been playing with your action figures for decades. If you didn't, it's still one of the most immediate fighting games on the planet.
"I'm predicting for FighterZ to have tournament popularity rivaling Street Fighter V, the most popular fighting game currently. It's very early, but the game's mechanics seem fun and fast-paced. I'm very hopeful for the game's future in tournaments," says Nguyen, who tells me he plans on picking up FighterZ as the second game he's competitive in. "The only thing that the game is 'missing' is a pro circuit. The announcement of one would be great for its popularity, but I think the game will still be popular without one."
Nguyen is right. FighterZ has been out for barely two weeks, and the real test of an esport's credibility is how well it can sustain itself year after year. Still, there are already some pretty prominent names in the scene throwing their hat in the ring. Justin Wong has been a fighting game pro since the early 2000s, and he's won more EVO titles than anyone else on earth, (most of those coming in Marvel.) He's already announced that he'll be mixing it up in FighterZ come July.
“The scene for that is interesting because it’s everyone; people from the Street Fighter side, anime side, 3D side, Injustice side, etc." says Wong, when I ask him what his feel on the FighterZ professional landscape is right now. "We already have a high grasp on the best characters in the game. I'm not sure [who the best players are,] and I do believe that it could possibly be the same names or completely different in the upcoming months."
Wong, of course, bleeds Marvel vs. Capcom - he's taken home the MvC2 championship in seven different years - and right now he's still optimistic about the future of Infinite. "Last year, [before Infinite was released,] Marvel vs. Capcom 3 made it to EVO through a donation drive. We raised over $70,000, which means we are strong community. Also the Marvel leaders ran a league called the Curleh Circuit which was solely made for the Marvel community by the Marvel community. I’m sure they will do the same or something similar this year as well."
I hope he's right. Marvel is on the Mount Rushmore of fighting games, and it'd be a shame if Capcom managed to bungle themselves into irrelevance. And to be clear, there's also the chance that people fall off of FighterZ once it's held up against more competitive scrutiny. The system is fun, but also fairly straightforward; a lot of quarter-circle motions, auto-combos, and characters that play relatively similar to one another. While I might love that as a plebe, I could understand why a lifer might eventually be turned off. (Wong, for his part, doesn't see that happening. "Landing the max damage and winning at the neutral will not be easy and not anyone can do that.")
Regardless, 2018 is shaping up to be the year of Dragon Ball, which is both wonderful and weird. If this goofy, low-brow anime is shaping up into a global esport, anything is possible.