This article is part of our Beyond the Game series.
The Evolution Series, better known as EVO, celebrated its 15th year as the world's most popular fighting game tournament last weekend at the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino in Las Vegas. As Street Fighter commentator James Chen suggested, it's not just the biggest fighting game tournament, it's the biggest gaming tournament in the world. Being that it's so important, it should come as no surprise that the hype, production value and impact of EVO increases every single year.
Let's take a look at five things that set EVO apart from other tournaments
Excellent attendance and viewer numbers
Though some traditionalists still argue that the fighting game community (FGC) is a completely separate industry than esports, all the components are there. For starters, there are sponsored circuits and leagues. Esports come in all shapes and sizes, but one of the most exciting aspects of fighting games today has been the introduction of pro circuits such as the Capcom Pro Tour for Street Fighter, and the Injustice 2 Pro Series. EVO is the biggest stop on all of these circuits, usually yielding one of the biggest cash payouts of the year on top of sizeable international ranking points for the season.
Needless to say, a tournament of this size brings in some of the most impressive live attendance and stream viewer numbers in all of esports. If the thousands of competitors and fans in attendance at EVO aren't enough evidence, over 110,000 people tuned in for the Street Fighter V stream that started immediately after the Game of Thrones premiere. Let's not forget all of the exhibitors and vendors that set up shop at EVO every single year as well. It's truly a remarkable accomplishment for esports and gaming that such a grassroots scene has exploded into what we see today.
So exactly how big have fighting games gotten? This year, the Street Fighter V finals were once again broadcast on ESPN2 for the second year in a row after bringing in around 201,000 viewers in 2016. For an esport to be that big, there has to be a non-endemic audience tuning in. An even more impressive note is that the Smash 4 finals were broadcast for the first time on Disney XD. The next generation of esports consumer will grow up with competitive gaming being in the spotlight.
It's where you go to make a name for yourself
The big three summer tournaments for the FGC are Combo Breaker, CEO and EVO. You can look at them as consecutive steps to FGC stardom, with a top-eight placement at EVO being the ultimate goal for all professional fighting game players. If you can upset some of the biggest names in the business at EVO, you're going to turn a lot of heads. A prime example from this year was the performance given by Japan's Naoki "Moke" Nakayama in Street Fighter V. He was virtually unknown, only having done well in a couple of recent online tournaments. Through the perfect mix of lack of player knowledge and raw skill, Moke's Rashid flew through the pools with relative ease, making it all the way to the top-eight where he was shut down by Hiromiki "Itabashi" Kumada's overwhelming Zangief. If Moke ever registers for another event, you can be sure that people will be studying his streamed matches from EVO 2017.
Another surprise performance was put in by Tim "HoneyBee" Commandeur in the Injustice 2 tournament. Though he's no slouch in his own right, his Flash and Aquaman pulled off some massive upsets as he made his grand final run, including his victory over fan favorite Dominique "Sonic Fox" McLean's Red Hood. He finished second after falling to Ryan "Dragon" Walker's Aquaman, but he put himself and Flash on the Injustice 2 map.
The FGC has great commentators
One aspect of esports that often goes underappreciated is the presence of knowledgeable, entertaining commentators. They help guide the audience through the action, explaining complicated tactics and situations all while staying excited, and maybe adding in some humor to keep things light. The FGC has some of the most seasoned, hilarious commentators in all of esports, with personalities like James Chen, Bryant "Kitana Prime" Benzing, Michael "IFC Yipes" Mendoza and Eli Curry dissecting all the action while never being shy about their personal love of fighting games.
Since EVO is sometimes the only chance everyone has to get together, it's often emotional for various reasons. For example, this year marked the last Marvel vs. Capcom 3 tournament to be held at EVO, and it was voted to make a final appearance by the players. Yipes couldn't find enough words to explain how much that meant to him, and how amazing it was that a game as old as MvC 3 was having a major tournament at the biggest FGC gathering on the planet.
Veteran Street Fighter commentator, James Chen, is often prone to getting emotional on stage, and this year was no different. When 18-year-old Victor "Punk" Woodley was defeated by Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi in the Street Fighter V grand final, he broke down on stage with tears of frustration. Chen has been a vocal fan of Punk's for some time, and seeing that brought him to tears as well. He said, "EVO is Love. You take the L, turn it around and run it back," going on to tell Punk to keep training and look at this as a victory. Indeed, Tokido himself has had numerous heart-breaking defeats on the big EVO stage, so perseverance and hard work pay off.
Player narratives woven from rivalries
Street Fighter legend and host of the Southern California Wednesday Night Fight series Alex Valle is always discussing the importance of finding your local scene and building rivalries. He says that rivalries are one of the only things that make fighting game players want to improve, and he would know, still being in a decades-long rivalry with Japanese Street Fighter god, Daigo Umehara.
At EVO 2017, the big rivalry that commentators and fans were talking about came from the Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament. The top four composed of players who have seen plenty of each other over the years, both as doubles teammates and singles challengers. Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman, Adam "Armada" Lindgren, Joseph "Mango" Marquez and Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma are four of the best Smash players on the planet, and they've all won EVO or Genesis in the past.
Jigglypuff specialist, HungryBox, really took it to his long-time doubles teammate, Mew2King, in the losers' semis, eating away at his stocks for a fast 2-0 victory, eliminating him from the tournament. Mango was able to redeem his previous tournament losses to HungryBox, however, showing everyone how punishing his Star Fox can be in a 3-2 win. The grand final came down to two past EVO champions who know each other inside and out: Mango and Armada. Armada is one of the only Smash players Mango doesn't have a positive win ratio against, and the pattern would repeat itself at EVO 2017, with Sweden's best Peach player defeating Southern California's best Star Fox player.
Esports narratives are important if the scene wants to live. Players need to write their stories to stay relevant, and EVO is a great place to do that.
EVO puts the "C" in FGC
Ever since Street Fighter 2, the FGC has prided itself on being insular and promoting from within. There was a time when only local tournaments in arcades existed, offering small prize pots that largely came in from the players and venues themselves. Today, EVO stands as a beacon for everything the FGC has worked for over the years. It represents the best in the fighting game community, and, again, it's one of the only tournaments in the world where you can be sure to see all the familiar faces.
Social media has also done a lot to help build the community. EVO organizer, Joey Cuellar, often posts news and polls on Twitter to get a better feel for what the community wants to see at the next EVO. If players need help with a certain match, they often ask if anyone's up for practice sets in public forums.
From start to finish, EVO is about community first. Though there might be favorites to win, everyone is free to compete. If you don't want to compete, you can still take pictures with your favorite players and cheer them on from the crowd. Capcom and other developers love getting in on the fun as well, often exhibiting early releases of games for everyone to try. As time goes on, EVO will continue to widen its reach to include anyone who wants to enter its doors.