A weekend at the Evo fighting game championships

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on July 25, 2013

On July 9th, just days before the start of the world’s largest fighting game tournament, a call came down from Nintendo, stating that the organizers did not have broadcast rights to stream Super Smash Bros Melee, a recent tournament addition as a result of a fan-funded charity drive. While thousands of attendees spectate at the event itself, most viewers, including the majority of those who’d donated to see Super Smash Bros Melee join the mix, would watch the matches from home via live online video that in previous years had surpassed over a hundred thousand concurrent viewers.

The announcement added to the pre-show chaos as organizers struggled to reschedule events, removing Super Smash Bros Melee from the streaming lineup and shifting start times of others in order to fill the gap. Enthusiast sites caught on to the news immediately, and players and fans went ballistic, further cementing the view of a doddering and out of touch Nintendo of America.

Less than three hours after the announcement, Nintendo, responding to the sudden and intense negative pressure, rescinded their decision. The original schedule and lineup returned, and everyone involved breathed a sigh of relief. The streams were safe and the game was on.

This week’s column: Evolution Championship Series!


“Ooh, the RJ!” she beams, impressed by the business cards we’d just handed her.

“Kind of. Citylife, actually. Same parent company.”

“Oh. Well, here you go.”

It’s Friday, day one of the Evolution Championship Series (known as Evo), and Bally’s Las Vegas is already humming with players in Evo t-shirts lugging about personalized arcade-style joysticks, readying for upcoming matches, discussing strategy and brackets and contenders.

Press badges in hand, we walk through the crowded entry hall and into the half-full Indie Game Dev panel, where four successful independent developers are discussing the process of creating, funding, and marketing their titles in front of a small crowd of eager video game enthusiasts and a handful of established industry folk.

While Evo has always been about fighting games and a passionate community of players, 2012 saw the introduction of the Indie Showcase, a small section of the conference hall set aside to showcase standouts from the independent game development scene. Divekick, one of the seven featured 2012 Showcase titles, was popular enough last year to warrant its own streamed tournament this time around (alongside fan favorite Skullgirls), and the 2013 Indie Showcase, organized by Capy Games’ Nathan Vella (Critter Crunch, Sword and Sworcery), was awarded a larger and more prominent space (and more games) among the vendor and publisher booths of the exhibit area, providing a temporary oasis from the intensity of battle on glowing screens peppered throughout the hall.

Organized by brothers Tom and Tony Cannon via Usenet in 1996, the Battle by the Bay (also known as B3) was a 64-competitor Street Fighter II tournament held at Golfland in Sunnyvale, California. The largest such gathering of fighting game players at the time, the turnout and popularity of B3 led to successive tournaments around the country, and in 2002, with the addition of co-founders Seth Killian and Joey Cuellar, the tournament was reborn as Evolution.

As Evolution grew in size and prestige, players from around the globe were drawn to the event, and publishers and sponsors began to take notice, leading to an even more spectacular presentation and the recognition of international fighting game stars such as Japan’s Daigo Umehara and the United States’ Justin Wong.

Three years later, having outgrown the college ballrooms and arcades of past years, Evo relocated to Las Vegas, Nevada, where the tournament continues to be held.

It’s Sunday night and we’re watching the Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 finals, clutching smuggled beers and cheering at the massive projection screens above with the rest of the audience as Justin Wong and Angelic, nebulous hunched figures in the distance from our seats near the back of the hall, duke it out in the X-Men’s Danger Room.

To the unfamiliar eye, Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 is chaos, super kinetic boxing with more colors and less sweat and grimacing, flashes and beams and movement everywhere as Marvel comic heroes and classic video game characters leap in and out of play, throwing punches and projectiles. It’s hypnotic, and one can’t help but be drawn in by the fervor of the crowd.

While I’m partial to Angelic’s underdog rise and his fielding of Shuma-Gorath, a Cthulhu-like space octopus from the Marvel universe and a rare sight in top levels of play, Justin Wong’s game is on key and he wins the set 3-1, sending Angelic to third place and securing his own spot in the Grand Finals.

Evo 2013 shattered previous records, hosting 3538 competitors and over 30,000 matches over its three day span. 1.7 million viewers tuned in to the online streams over the course of the weekend, and Super Smash Bro Melee, the Nintendo game that came close to being removed from Evo entirely, drew in an astounding 134,000 concurrent viewers, even more than Super Street Fighter 4 AE, the headliner of the tournament.

If it’s been years since you last placed a quarter on the marquee of a Street Fighter II arcade cabinet, if you’ve never seen a fighting game match with commentary, or if this is all new to you and you simply want to see what the kids are doing these days, head over to evo.shoryuken.com and watch a highlight match or two. And remember, unlike many pro-level tournaments, Evo is open, meaning that anyone can sign up and compete. It’s never too late to pick up a joystick and start playing.

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