EVO 2013: For The Love Of The Fight, For The Love Of The Hype [Op-Ed]

As those of you who follow fighting games are likely already aware, EVO 2013, the world’s largest fighting game tournament, kicks off this weekend. If you play fighting games competitively, or if you follow fighting games, then you probably already know why this is a big deal.

If you don’t know why this is a big deal, then I’ll try to sum it up: EVO is essentially the World Series of fighting game tournaments. The best of the best from countries all over the world come out to test their mettle against others in a wide variety of fighting games.

If you’re wondering why a video game tournament is something special, even if it is one of the biggest, then allow me to try to explain the appeal of playing fighting games competitively; to explain just how incredibly energetic, and social something like EVO truly is.

Because, really, you can’t simply sum up what EVO is without first taking a look at what makes the games that are played at the tournament something truly special.

In the 90s, fighting games like Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat were huge. Whether you were good at them or not, fighting games had a certain appeal to them; in that era, it was one of the most highly competitive genres in gaming.

What’s more, the games were simply a blast to play with friends and strangers alike. Win or lose, chances were high that you would have a good time – provided the person you’re playing against doesn’t severely outclass you, at least.

While many gamers were content with just being capable of throwing a fireball in Street Fighter 2, others took the game a lot more seriously. At arcades all across the world, communities began to form around these games; tournaments would take place to see who was the best at their game of choice, and it mattered to them. Being good at these games mattered.

The reason it mattered so much, to put it simply, is that the thrill of competition was immensely satisfying. The rivalries, the camaraderie, the hype – all of these things made playing fighting games competitively something truly special. Flying in the face of the gamer stereotype, there weren’t many games back then more social than fighting games.

As arcades in North America and in Europe began to die out with the rapid rise of consoles, fighting games began their fall from the mainstream spotlight. New genres were popping up in the industry, and fighting games were getting to the point where, in some cases, it was too intimidating to learn all of the game’s mechanics for new players. The genre was being left behind.

Fighting games managed to find some level of success on consoles, but it just wasn’t the same.

After years of popularity in arcades, many gamers had moved on. The competitive communities that formed around these games, however, didn’t go away. The fighting game community continued to push on, doing what they love as if nothing had changed.

Because of the passion that existed the fighting game community, tournaments continued on – including the biggest tournament of them all, the EVO Championship Series.

EVO had more humble beginnings, relatively speaking; in 1996, Tom and Tony Cannon of Shoryuken.com fame started a tournament called “Battle By The Bay” in Sunnyvale, California during a time when fighting games still had life left in them yet.

The tournament continued on into 2002, when the name was officially changed to “EVO” and the venue moved over to Las Vegas.

Before long, however, the flow of new fighting games began to decrease rapidly. It eventually got to the point that, year in and year out, EVO attendees would still be playing the same game they had been playing for years. After all of that time spent playing the same games, what kept the scene alive?

Although I’ve (unfortunately) never personally attended EVO, I’ve spoken – and worked with – many people who have. If you were to ask any one of them why they kept coming back to EVO, you’d likely hear the same answers. It was the energy. The thrill of competition. The social aspect.

The hype.

This kind of hype; the famous match between Justin Wong and Daigo Umehara from EVO 2004. Daigo’s character, Ken, was a single hit away from losing the match. Justin made the decision to try and seal the match with Chun-Li’s “super” move, but.. well, see for yourself.

Although this particular match is one that people still reference to this day, it wasn’t the first time something like this had happened, and it most definitely wasn’t the last.

Just when it seemed like the fighting game community was in danger of stagnation, it happened: Capcom announced that after just under a decade, the Street Fighter series would finally be getting a sequel. That sequel, of course, was Street Fighter IV.

Street Fighter IV aimed to bring the series back to the Street Fighter 2 days. There had to be enough depth to satisfy the hardcore fans – to make a game that’s fun to play competitively – but Capcom also wanted it to be accessible enough that anyone could enjoy it.

Well, it worked.

The game received high praise from critics and mainstream gamers alike, and suddenly fighting games were right back in the spotlight. Before long other companies followed suit, resurrecting their own franchises and even introducing new ones. It wasn’t just the release of new games that breathed life into the community, however.

At around the same time, streaming websites such as Ustream and Justin.TV were rapidly gaining popularity, and the community took advantage. Several figures from the community stepped up to the plate and streamed tournaments for those who couldn’t attend – and for those who didn’t even know about fighting game tournaments to begin with – to enjoy.

Even if you weren’t there, you could still feel some of that energy.

When EVO 2009 came around, streaming was beginning to reach a new high, and it’s only grown significantly since then. Thanks to these streams, a whole new audience was able to experience some of the intensity of what it’s like to be at one of these tournaments.

Partly because of this, for the first time in a long time the fighting game community saw a rapid influx of new competitors, and that growth still hasn’t stopped to this day, nor has the audience that consistently tune in to watch tournament streams – to see intense matches like this:

If you’ve never tuned into one of these streams before, and even if you’ve never played a fighting game before, you owe it to yourself to at least experience some of the magic yourself. And, thanks to dedicated streamers like iPlayWinner and Team Sp00ky, you can.

EVO 2013 officially kicks off on Friday, and lasts all the way into Sunday evening. If you’re interested in checking it out, you can find out more information here. To see what games will be shown on the streams and when, you can view the schedule here.

Even if you can only watch it for one day, take some time to check out the finals. I doubt you’ll regret it.

[Image via Kotaku]