Two years ago I went to my first EVO, which also happened to be my first fighting game major. A combination of social and performance anxiety kept me from entering, but I still managed to have an amazing time checking out booths and watching matches. With the release of Street Fighter V (SFV) in 2016 and the announcement that the Sunday finals were going to be done up big in the Mandalay Bay Arena, I was ready to turn my EVO trip into an annual tradition. My family ended up buying a house instead so it wasn't in the cards, but with pressure from the grandparents to bring our kids to the west coast this summer, we decided to make a go of it this year.
A few things that were on my mind, flying in to Vegas this year. 1) I had never played SFV against someone else in-person before. I didn't even know the process for setting up my button layout. 2) I had never entered a fighting game tournament before, yet somehow found myself entered into SFV. At this point a huge thank-you is owed to suddenblackout, a member of the GBFGC Discord who invited me to run sets in his room Thursday night. His Birdie whomped me a good 40-10 or something like that, but it allowed me to adjust to playing humans offline. Also shoutouts to Discord, the program, for giving the GBFGC members attending EVO a good way to contact each other. Shameless plug: https://discord.gg/nGXFQg2
Friday at show open I did what any self-respecting millenial by way of genX would do and rushed immediately to the EVO merch booth and bought an officially branded spinner. My kids have five spinners between them somehow, but this one is just for me! After that, it was a beeline to Shunao's booth to pick up a FANG charm, and an Alisa one too for good measure, before wandering the floor and figuring out where my pool was going to be. I went and found another GBer, Danggief, and together we sat down to watch suddenblackout's noon pool. His very first match was going to be streamed! There we met another GB player, Donuts, and as a group (alongside thousands of stream monsters) we witnessed the absolute decimation of a poor Mika player at suddenblackout's hands.
At the end of the day suddenblackout went 3-2 in SFV. Later that afternoon Danggief ended up going 2-2. The bracket gods saw fit to throw two poor Karins my way, easily my most experienced matchup thanks to the countless long sets I've played against best duder Technician, so I managed to scrape by with my own 2-2 finish. As a whole we gave better than we took, and thanks to the venue wifi actually not being terrible, Donuts and I managed to periscope almost all of our matches to the folks in Discord. Considering that I expected to go 0-2, I couldn't be happier with my performance, and as much as I hate to admit it, I actually kind of like having to give the thumbs-up before each rematch.
Donuts hung around and watched me make a few more good purchasing decisions, including the first official English translation of the manga about famous player Daigo, a Twintelle keychain, and a Karin charm as thanks for her not letting me go 0-2. I continued the tradition of taking creeper shots of notable community members. Also, during his pool Danggief was interviewed by a camera crew. They asked him hard-hitting questions like what the "E" in E. Honda stands for and how he pronounces "Ryu". So look for that in something somewhere someday?
I left the venue before the King of Fighters XIV top-8 to have dinner with my wife and friends, but did manage to catch most of it on stream. It's no surprise who ended up in the top two spots, but E.T.'s clutch comeback victory over Xiao Hai may have had repercussions for the rest of the tournament. For player that can run as hot and cold as Xiao Hai (some weekends he looks unstoppable and others he's hardly a footnote) he went into this year's EVO with a surprising amount of braggadocio, even going as far as to thank the game's developer SNK for contributing a bonus to the game's prize pool. He incorrectly assumed a bulk of that money would be finding its way into his own wallet.
Letting E.T. rally with his Daimon pick ultimately cost Xiao Hai $7,000, and it's hard to imagine that crushing defeat didn't haunt him for the rest of the tournament. He ultimately finished 25th in SFV, a strong placing but also a far cry from what he's capable of.
Saturday, Donuts played his Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 pool with his point-Nemesis team. He ended up going 1-2, holding his own commendably well against Marlinpie. After that we went to watch the Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2 finals. The developer, Arc System Works, had conscripted a Rachel and an Axl cosplayer to pass out red inflatable thundersticks. You wouldn't think air-filled tubes of plastic would be able to make much noise, but once everyone started banging them together things got loud. Sadly, with no apparent way to deflate them (they were very confusing), I had to leave my pair behind at the end of the night.
The all-Japanese top-8 for Guilty Gear was full of spectacular play that has left me in a real weird headspace regarding the game. For me, watching players excel, particularly with my character of choice, always makes me feel inspired to get better. On the other hand, nothing has changed the fact that years later, I am still fundamentally unequipped to deal with the oppressively offensive tempo of this particular game. In a way, Arc's clinging to the model of forced obsolescence is a blessing. Every time I get the itch to play Leo really poorly, I remember that I can't unless I pay them another $20.
Results-wise, there weren't many surprises, although that did make it a lot easier to root for the underdogs. With the elimination of last year's champion, Machabo, prior to top-8 at the hands of top American player Kid Viper, the smart money was on Omito, last year's second-place finisher, to take it. Tomo put up a valiant effort in grand finals, but through the entire set Omito looked like he was in absolute control. At some point Donuts's friend wandered off and came back with an Uncharted 4PS4 he won entering a raffle on a whim. Donuts and I took advantage of the break before Injustice 2 to buy $11 sandwiches from Subway because Vegas? Then we settled down for one of the bigger upsets of the entire weekend.
Ever since he entered the scene, competing primarily in games developed by NetherRealm Studios, SonicFox has been the player to beat. This EVO, however, his decision to play a character that is more fun and cool than actually strong came back to bite him. On paper, Red Hood seems like the prototypical SonicFox character, strong pressure, devilish mixups, and lots of style. Plus he's a gun ninja. Unfortunately, he also lacks the damage output of the higher-tier character which the results bore out, with SonicFox going out 0-2 in top-8. The real darling of the night was HoneyBee with his unexpected second-place finish using Flash, another character generally regarded as weak. Every time he initiated one of the Flash's massive combos, the audience would start shouting in time with every blow. Although it was Dragon that won, it was Honeybee that won the hearts of everyone in the audience.
After that it was time to for me to duck out on the Super Smash Bros. Melee top-8 because my wife had scored us tickets to watch Penn & Teller that night. Despite a majority of Penn & Teller's act having already been given away across various seasons of "Fool Us", their personalities and their craft kept me engaged throughout the performance. But what impressed me most of all at the end of the night was their consummate professionalism as entertainers, as they stood in the lobby after the show to say hi and sign autographs and take selfies with the audience. My wife was very excited to hear Teller actually speak.
The four gods of Melee finished in 1st-4th place this EVO so it was business as usual on that front.
I ended up getting out of bed at 7AM on finals day to take a shower, finish packing so my wife could check us out, and get to the arena in time for 7:45AM Marvel. As one of the people who donated to make sure the game would get a proper conclusion this year, I dressed for the occasion. Of course the arena was mostly empty, but there were still enough people to make some noise as matches started.
It's a bittersweet thing. Marvel is often decried by outsiders as an incomprehensible mess marred with broken gameplay and imbalanced characters, and ever since Flocker's win in 2012, the run-up to EVO has been met with proclamations of the "death of Marvel." Despite all this, the game has persevered. Over its seven years Marvel has consistently pulled in solid entry number and high viewership, with the continued discovery of new techniques and playstyles staving off any sense of stagnation. With RyanLV's unorthodox Chun-Li/Morrigan/Phoenix team beating out last year's champion, ChrisG, in the grand finals, it was as good a sendoff as the game could have hoped for. Seven EVOs with seven different champions and a surprising amount of character diversity. It's the end of an era, but I think I'm ready for Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite (MvCI) to shake things up.
With MvCI out in September, they had the game's producer, Combofiend, play a quick exhibition against 2012's champion, Filipino Champ. In actuality, it was an excuse to reveal Vampire Savior'sJedah as a member of the game's cast. It's was a strange plan for a reveal. With Filipino Champ's extremely limited time with the game, it was hardly a showcase of high-level play. And despite his best efforts, Combofiend wasn't able to highlight this new take on Jedah anywhere near as well as a proper trailer could. Still, as a legacy pull he was a strong choice and the crowd got appropriately hype for it.
I haven't played much BlazBlue since 2012 when Arc wanted me to buy the game's fourth iteration in four years with only one new character to show for it. It was nice to see old standbys like Carl and Rachel and Arakune, slightly adjusted but looking as powerful as ever. As someone who tends to prefer a more ranged playstyle, it was also a thrill to see what characters like Mu and Nine are capable of in the hands of true masters. The Jin player, Fenrich, impressed everyone with his impeccable defense, but you can't win just by blocking. Instead it was Ryusei's Carl that eventually took it in an intense, back-and-forth grand finals, with the crowd at his back thanks to his adorable mugging in-between rounds. For a region that is generally known for the stoicism of its players, he shone out as the competitor that seemed to be having the time of his life on stage.
Arc had a few announcements too, with a samurai cat coming to BlazBlue and also a crazy looking new crossover game featuring characters from four different series including the debut fighting game appearance of characters from RWBY, an anime web-series with a very devoted following if the surprised cheering that filled that arena is anything to go by. None of that matters, of course, because immediately after that Arika revealed some new info about Fighting Layer EX (working title). I won't belabor the point, but several people's Skullodreams came true on that Sunday. Not only is the game confirmed to be in development for release, Arika officially added Skullomania to the roster, with a little bonus Darun Mister on the side.
As the stage was being set for Tekken 7 (T7), I had a little time to think about my strained feelings about this particular game. Every time T7's game director Katsuhiro Harada was asked about the two-year wait for the console release a game that was already tournament-ready, he took the opportunity to throw direct and indirect shade at SFV for its poor launch. Proudly showcasing his "Don't ask me for shit" t-shirt, he would insist they were taking their time to make sure the game came out right. Even if his casual put-downs were intended as friendly ribbing between developers, that didn't stop the community a large from seizing on every chance to bash on SFV some more.
Then T7 came out and, frankly, the game was a bit of a mess. Between the paltry single-player offerings, the absurdly long wait times in between online matches, a ranked mode that ends with scores of 1-1, and having absolutely nothing in the game that teaches you any of its mechanics, it seems like Harada was all talk. Which would be fine if he hadn't spent the past year-and-a-half shoveling coal into the engine of the Capcom-hate-train. I will say that the core gameplay is still strong. Tekken hasn't really changed much since 1996 and, to nobody's surprise, the two favorites JDCR and Saint faced off in grand finals.
There was a gameplay trailer of Trunks for Dragon Ball FighterZ and a reveal of Geese for T7. I don't have any affinity for these characters, but the person behind Geese's trailer certainly knew what his fans wanted, providing them with an extended montage of him performing his trademark counter against a wide variety of the cast, accompanied by his classic cry of "Predictable!" that the people around me barked in unison. With two boss characters from different fighting game series making an appearance in T7, I'm curious who the final guest character is going to be.
I took the Smash Bros. 4 top-8 as a chance to grab some dinner and charge my phone. There has always been a divide between the Smash Melee audience and the broader fighting game community, and Smash 4 hasn't done much to bridge that gap. A massive queue had formed at the entrance to the arena, with ushers scrambling to scan-in the people coming to watch Smash and scan-out the people like me taking advantage of the "3-hour break". On my way out of the venue I ran into Tony Cannon, one of EVO's founders and also one of the developers of GGPO, the gold-standard in video game netcode. I thanked him for the event and he let me take a picture of him before he was hijacked by another fan. I politely took my leave as the fan started lecturing Tony on why he shouldn't have included Smash 4 as part of Sunday's lineup. Sorry Tony.
I managed to make it back to the venue in time to catch the last two sets of top-8, with back-to-back comebacks from Bayonetta player Salem to ultimately upset ZeRo, the odds-on favorite who has won almost as many Smash 4 tournaments as he has entered. It may have been the biggest upset of the entire weekend, and I'm glad I got to see it in person.
Before starting the top-8, Capcom producer Yoshinori Ono had a trailer for the upcoming downloadable character, Abigail. They were in a tough spot, given the strength of the reveals that had come from the other developers. Abigail is out now, and having had a chance to play as him, he is incredibly fun and full of small touches that showcase his goofy personality. Whomever was responsible for cutting together his trailer decided to make it as dry as possible, unfortunately, and the reactions from the audience at EVO largely consisted of exclamations of "What?" and "What!!??!!?"
He's great. Everyone should try him.
Last year, at its first EVO, Street Fighter V didn't have the best showing. The play was incredibly strong, and the narrative of the "lone American" LI Joe in top-8 caught a lot of people's attention, but with only 5 characters used across 8 players many people started questioning the balance and longevity of the game. This year was a complete reversal, with 9 unique characters played over dozens of intensely close games. Each player had a compelling storyline going into top-8, but none moreso than American player Punk and Japanese player Tokido.
Punk is an incredibly young 18 and has experienced a meteoric rise in 2017 as the player to beat in SFV. He has several first-place finishes in this year's Capcom Pro Tour, putting him comfortably at the top of the global leaderboard. On his road to the grand finals, Punk dominated his opponents, going 24-0 in games including a 2-0 win over Tokido during the semifinals. Tokido, on the other hand, is a member of the old guard. At the age of 32, he has been playing fighting games longer than Punk has been alive and has attended American tournaments competing in various fighting games for over 15 years. Since his 2007 win in Super Turbo, Tokido has been struggling to earn his third Evolution title, and two very close calls against players Filipino Champ and Itabashi Zangief in top-8 almost kept him from reaching the grand finals of his 16th EVO.
Coming from the losers bracket, Tokido had the tougher row to hoe. He needed to beat Punk in two best-of-five sets whereas Punk only needed one set to seal his victory. Everyone was wondering, would Punk accomplish what no American could do throughout Street Fighter IV's lifespan and take 1st at EVO, solidifying his position as the best SFV player in the world? Or would Tokido, one of the hardest working, most dedicated fighting game players out there finally grasp that brass ring he had been chasing for a decade? Punk had the swagger of youth on his side and what the community affectionately refers to as "young man reactions." Tokido had the passion and the experience earned over countless appearances on the biggest stages in competitive fighting games.
In the end, experience won out. When it mattered most, Tokido stayed on top of his game, making correct read after correct read and executing his gameplan perfectly. Punk's clean and focused play finally began to crack, and with his family in the crowd and the expectations of America weighing on his back he finally crumbled, losing to Tokido with a final score of 1-6. For Tokido it was a victory well deserved, well earned, and long overdue. For Punk it was a heartbreaking defeat.
There's a special magic to an event like EVO. It doesn't matter if you're a top player or a random scrub, at the end of the day we're all just players and competitors and fans of fighting games. We don't need to play the same game or speak the same language because we share something beyond language, the appreciation of flawless execution and amazing reads and absolute dunkings and miraculous comebacks. We yell and cheer and jump out of our seats because we all know a secret and we're just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. Tokido himself said it best as we closed out the night.
"Fighting games [are] something so great."
You're all free now.