Perhaps you remember the Evo Championship Series 2011 fighting game tournament. It was a week ago!
It's a venue for the hardest of the hardcore, people who travel from around the world to compete. That's not me. As a resident Las Vegan, Evo was only a twenty-minute drive away. Though I had no inclination or ability to compete, Evo as a spectacle is one of the most exciting and interesting things I've ever seen. I hope this following transcript, expanded from notes I took throughout the event, can communicate some of the intangible oomph that made it so memorable.
There's a tremendous sense of energy when you first enter that packed arena. Seeing the size of it brought this huge, unexpected smile to my face that I could not get rid of. It's much bigger than you think. Hundreds and hundreds of people, all toting arcade sticks under their arms. You see streams of them from the start of the long walk from the casino entrance to the convention hall, but this is the ocean all streams lead to.
Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition tournament matches are being displayed before a crowd of hundreds in lines of hotel chairs. This is the difference between watching streaming coverage and being there: the cheering of hundreds of people. This is the first time in my life I've felt professional gaming is an actual sport.
Tables covered in flat-screen monitors, all surrounded by gamers with arcade sticks in their laps. Save for a rogue Dreamcast Tony Hawk player, they're all fighting games. Capcom's huge booth lets people wait in long, poorly-regulated lines to play Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Street Fighter X Tekken, and Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition. A longer line goes to Namco's booth, where they've brought Tekken Tag Tournament 2 machines. Skullgirls is in the far corner, looking a bit paltry. The UFC Undisputed 3 guys seem out of their element here.
I go to the Ultimate MvC3 panel. I won't lie: I expected a string of pedantic questions about specific, minute gameplay changes. I'm pleasantly surprised by the well thought-out questions about the creators' design philosophies. These are passionate, intelligent people who treat their fighting games as seriously as one might any other sport. An interesting question about nerfing is raised; in rebalancing the game, can the designers leave the powerful characters alone and just give the weaker characters more tools? Apparently it's impossible to just make characters stronger, the equations embedded in the fabric of the engine demand that characters lose as well. Also, Captain America will now be able to double jump. The crowd cheers. Good for him?
I strike up a conversation with a guy who drove thirteen hours here to compete. He got into fighting games seriously through GGPO in 2006, and is eagerly looking forward to online Street Fighter III. I feel out of place in this crowd, as a guy who owns a few dozen fighting games but has never cracked intermediate in any of them. All the “casual” stations are bring your own stick, making me ineligible. I'm sure I wouldn't stand much of a fighting chance anyway.
A commissions corner has samples of art, notably a series of male Street Fighters as women. The girl versions of the boy Street Fighter characters are waaaay sluttier than the girl versions of the girl Street Fighter characters. For example, girl Balrog is not wearing a shirt, despite the fact that boy Balrog does. Also, girl Balrog isn't black for some reason.
There's a guy dressed as Guy. I guess that makes sense.
Four panels in a row, and none as substantive question-wise as the UMvC3 panel. As the day goes on, I begin to realize that the panels are kind of a waste of time unless you want something signed. Also, that there's always four panelists but only three microphones.
The King of Fighters XIII panel makes note, strenuously and frequently, of the new game's improved net code. In one of the questions about roster selection, the panelists note that it takes a single designer a year to complete a single character, which is incredible. I get to play it a bit, and the graphics have a really beautiful, understated sense to them. There's one stage set in some little hole-in-the-wall martial arts academy with light filtering in through the dirty display window that had me transfixed. The panel has a raffle, too, which is A-OK in my book. I get a poster.
Next, the Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition panel. The game is well and truly explored at this point, so the panel is completely about latency and extra features. Neo_G, one of the original designers of Third Strike, is on the panel, but he isn't asked a single question. All the players want to know about are tiny (though I wouldn't say unimportant) details about the new version. All they care about is the pure act of playing. I get the feeling that they would play fighting games in which the characters were gray blocks on a gray background if it had gameplay where it counted. Aesthetics, history, design philosophy, anecdotes mean nothing in the SF3 panel save for how they affect the physical rules of the game's universe. None of this is a criticism, I just found it to be a striking example of the competitive mindset. They hand out free posters. I get Neo_G to sign mine. He seems cool; I mean, he helped invent 3rd Strike, which is a pretty boss game, so…
Are fighting games getting too insular? I get a shmup kind of vibe from the crowd, the hardest of the hardcore. Can designers improve on the likes of 3rd Strike? Do they try? Would they ever just wade in and make a 4th Explosion or something from scratch? Are they chained down by their own success? Are we all too entrenched? Or am I just going crazy?
Back in the main conference hall, you can get things signed by Daigo. Ah… kay. For some reason I just don't see the appeal. Perhaps I don't see pro gaming completely as a sport.
I get a free “I Love Tekken” t-shirt at the Namco panel; now I feel like I fit in better with the crowds in their myriad cool gaming shirts. The two sizes available are large and extra large. Katsuhiro Harada, game director and producer of the Tekken series since the beginning, is one of the panelists. He begins the panel by showing off some NSFW Tekken character statues, asks for pictures of good cosplayers to be posted to his Twitter, and eludes to certain private uses of the character model viewer in an upcoming console release. Outside of the saucy talk, it's mostly more technical questions. The guy next to me, JOP, is apparently some kind of Tekken Tag god. Nearly everybody goes by their handle here. It's a bit off-putting.
The fourth and final panel and I am starting to lose it; the human body was not designed to sit in hotel chairs as long as I have today. It's Street Fighter X Tekken, and one of the panelists is Yoshiro Ono, who even I recognize as the guy who give fighting games a huge shot in the arm with Street Fighter IV. Neat! He's energetic and enthusiastic, but again, it's mostly system talk. He begins with a mention of a final rebalancing of Arcade Edition. Rad. Then SF X Tekken system stuff. Really, there wasn't much to it, save for confirmation of Kuma's inclusion (“He's back. Back from the wild.”) and hinting that you might be able to play with four human players, which would kick ten kinds of ass. I walked away thinking that this was nothing that I wouldn't see summed up in a short list of blog posts, but Wikipedia had still not been updated as of the following day.
There are huge lines in the booths; there's really not enough time between panels to wait for a match in one of the new games on display, but I'm worried it wouldn't be worth it regardless. I fear I'd get wrecked in twenty seconds; it's a weird fear, being that it's just a video game, but it kept me out of the lines most of the weekend. The machines are one a “winner stays, loser [goes to the end of the line]” system, setting up a sorrowful incentive not to mess around with new characters you're completely unfamiliar with. I see a lot of Ryu/Ken teams in SF X Tekken, for instance, though maybe to hardcore players the subtle differences in new versions of Ryu and Ken are a candy-coated wonderland.
At this point I go home before I die on my feet. A meal and a shower and I come back to pick up my brother and catch the last 30 minutes of the MvC3 semifinals. Which turns out to be more like two and a half hours. I am not complaining.
It. Is. Insane. I'd thought the crowd might have thinned out by that time, but it was more jam-packed than I'd yet seen it. Hundreds and hundreds of people cheering and shouting and counting the hits on She-Hulk's super. Totally incredible. And the play… MvC3 is truly an amazing game. Freakishly long combos, characters jumping around like ticks, amazing comebacks… Justin Wong brings back Akuma with a jab's worth of health to kill half a team. Wow. Just, wow. These people are crazy. I do lose a little respect for Dark Phoenix players.
There's brisk betting in the rows ahead of me. There's no rhyme or reason to it, no odds, the play is moving too fast and the crowd is too loud for anything beyond the very basic. A guy loses a hundred dollars on a single match.
“If you're a fan of fighting games in any way, this is the place to be.”
I decided today that I was Evoed out, that I'd seen everything. I begin watching the Mortal Kombat finals online, but get bored and stop pretty quickly. There's absolutely no comparison to being there. Well, my day starts going downhill, and my evening looks nothing but dull, so I decide to head back after dinner and catch the Street Fighter IV finals. I am so glad I did.
For the third time, the scale of the event boggles me. The crowd is now standing room only and encroaching well into where the booths used to be in the back of the room. I wish my brother, who'd been there all day, had told me to bring a lawn chair. It is nuts. There's not even much in the way of good places to sit on the floor.. I consider leaving lest my legs cramp up. I am so glad I didn't. The moral is: go to Evo, and don't leave.
Yoshiro Ono comes on stage and leads the crowd in a collective shoryuken, before the start of the main event. Last of the day. Street Fighter, man. It's the sun around which the fighting game universe revolves.
The gameplay is wonderful to watch. I feel like the observers in the background of the stage, the bystanders watching two guys so good at fighting that they're shooting fire from their fingertips. I don't know much about the competitive scene or high-level play, but I know who Daigo is, and I know that Seth shouldn't be able to perfect him. Nearly every match goes to the final round, and there are plenty of comebacks from the end of the lifebar. This is competition. I have new respect for the designers of fighting games, and any competitive game, in general. At this level the games are full-on sports. In some respects, game designers are continually making new products as legitimate as football or baseball or chess.
I strike up a conversation with a guy, Glee*, who notices my taking notes. I tell him about Bitmob. Now I have to write this article.
If you get a chance to go to Evo, or any kind of e-sports tournament on a similar scale, absolutely go. Especially if you were never a fan of competition streamed online. Being there, with the big screens, the bass, the oohs, ahhs, claps, standing ovations, chants, cheers… It's like pro wrestling. It's a completely different side of versus mode, and it's terrific. Every gamer should give it a shot.
Thanks to photographer Kara Leung, from whose gallery I stole nearly every picture
*Sorry if I misspelled, or mispronounced, or completely got your name wrong over the din. I really am. But if you're reading this, yeah, I was the really tall guy taking notes.