Opinion: In the era of esports, Evo is still grassroots

by | Mar 4, 2019, 6:00AM PDT

Well, that title may not be wholly accurate – there’s still a lot of money being thrown around – but I’ll explain what I mean as I continue. (Also, there’s only so much one can explain in the title of an article while remaining succinct anyway.)

The following is an op-ed by Nathan Dhami, a student journalist for UCI Esports.

On Tuesday, February 26th, Joey “Mr. Wizard” Cuellar and Mark “MarkMan” Julio revealed the Evolution Championship Series title lineup live on twitch.tv/evo from the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Also known more colloquially as Evo, the largest fighting game tournament in the world will be held this year at the Mandalay Bay venue from August 2nd to the 4th. There were nine fighting games announced for the main stage lineup this year– the maximum number of titles that can be afforded to run at an Evo event, due to expenses and logistics and such. The full roster, in order of announcement, is as follows:

Tekken 7 (T7)
Street Figher V Arcade Edition (SFVAE)
BlazBlue CrossTag Battle (BBTAG)
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (SSBU)
Dragon Ball FighterZ (DBFZ)
Soul Calibur 6 (SC6)
Mortal Kombat 11 (MK11)
Samurai Shodown (Samsho)
Under Night In-birth Exe:late [st] (UNIST)

Las Vegas is about to E-X-P-L-O-D-E with this stacked roster of Evo titles.

Anyone who follows Evo will recognize that only four of these titles are returning titles from last year’s Evo 2018. T7 at Evo is the next stop for players throwing down in the Tekken World Tour, an official circuit being run by Bandai Namco (Bamco.) Likewise, SFVAE at Evo is being run as an official Capcom Cup event, and BBTAG is a part of the Arc System Works (ASW) official ArcRevo World Tour circuit. [There will also be side events for Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2 (GGXrd) and BlazBlue Central Fiction (BBCF) at Evo, also being sponsored by the ArcRevo World Tour.] DBFZ is also making its triumphant return after breaking entrant and viewer records at Evo 2018– with over 2500 players, it was the first time a non-Street Fighter title had more entrants than the main Street Fighter title being run at Evo. Meanwhile, SSBU replaces Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (Smash 4) as the latest entry in the Smash franchise, and MK11 likewise replaces Injustice 2 (I2) as the newest NetherRealm Studios (NRS) title. SC6, Samsho, and UNIST are completely new to the Evo roster, with GGXrd and Super Smash Bros. Melee being dropped from the event.

I don’t want to make any snap judgments, but I also feel like it’s safe to say that, beyond the readers of my articles on the UCI Smash scene, a lot of the folks following what we’ve been putting out for UCI Esports mainly follow PC titles, like League of Legends and Overwatch. This isn’t the fault of the reader, of course, since UCI Esports prides itself on its scholarship teams, especially considering our League team’s historic win in the 2018 Collegiate League of Legends Championship, and our Overwatch team’s dominance at events such as the California Collegiate Clash. Having said that, this likely means that most readers are unaware of the history of the fighting game community (hereafter FGC) and its role in the esports community. Beyond that, the history of Evo is also likely lost on the reader base, so the significance of the event and these titles may be difficult to understand.

Street Fighter II launched in arcades as the first real competitive fighting game in 1992. Evo began as a small, forty-man Street Fighter tournament in Sunnyvale, California called Battle of the Bay, four years after SFII made its debut. SF was the first game of its kind where players would compete head-to-head, rather than competing for a high score or completion. Ever since then, fighting games have been a largely grassroots endeavor– that is, events have been almost entirely ran by player support rather than being funded or organized by developers or sponsors. While that has shifted in recent years (Capcom Cup, esports organizations like EchoFox sponsoring players,) for the most part these events are still community efforts. Games like Smash, for instance, have very little developer support for major tournaments in the way of prize pools and official events, although Nintendo will promote events on their media channels and provide infrastructure such as actual hardware.

So, why is this important? Why does it matter that fighting games are grassroots efforts, unlike games like League where the developers themselves have a major hand in how the game is run and played at a professional competitive level?

Last Thursday, February 28th, TAG @ UCI ran another weekly Ultimate tournament. There were fifty players total and I was planning on participating as well, but for one reason or another I was feeling unwell. I grabbed In-N-Out at UTC and went home, instead opting to practice Ultimate while watching the stream. At some point in the night, while waiting for the next match, the stream commentators began talking about the Evo announcement. There were a few off-handed remarks about their surprise about certain titles being included. “Samurai Shodown? What even is that game?” They seemed to be shocked that Melee in particular got cut from the roster to make room for either Samsho or UNIST’s inclusion.

It’s almost like they’ve never been hit by an OHKO in an old-school fighter before. (CW blood)

They weren’t alone — Melee players from all walks of life made their discontent for Evo’s decision to cut their game widely known on social media. There were accusations of Samsho and UNIST being included due to their developers buying their way into Evo, at the expense of Melee’s community. Furthermore, there was also shock that Evo would cut a title from their roster that brought in over a thousand entrants last year (and thus made the Evo organizers a lot of money through entrant and venue fees.)

It’s important to understand, first of all, that the developers of Samsho and UNIST, SNK and French Bread respectively, don’t have the same weight to throw around as major fighting game developers like Capcom and Bamco. While SNK has had a history of developing polished fighting games, like their King of Fighters series, and are well known for their characters’ inclusion in titles like Capcom vs. SNK, the company remains a small but loved developer amongst other giants in the same industry. On the other hand, French Bread is a studio roughly equivalent to what the West might call an indie game developer, and UNIST may not have found the success it had if it hadn’t been published by ASW, a studio that likewise hasn’t had the same buying power as Capcom.

Spike speaks for both SNK and French Bread. (Cowboy Bebop, dir. Shinichiro Watanabe)

So how did they make it into Evo? Melee players and fans who recognize the twenty-year-old title as a prominent esport were baffled by this, even though the answer was right under their noses. Whether this confusion is due to an insular mindset- an inability to think outside of the context of their home game – or simply a lack of knowledge of the history of these titles, I wouldn’t personally be able to tell you, although I feel like it’s a mix of both.

Simply put, Samsho and UNIST earned a spot on the Evo main stage not through the power of their developer’s money, but through the power of their player base’s love for the games. Jason Moses wrote an article way back in 2014 on the significance of Samurai Shodown V Special for Shoryuken.com (SRK is incidentally the main organization responsible for Evo) that explains the passion that players have for lesser-known, niche titles better than I ever could. The inclusion of the latest Samsho title at Evo 2019 marks five years since Moses’s article, and six years since an SNK title has been on the Evo main stage (the game in question would be King of Fighters XIII at Evo 2013.) Anyone plugged in deep enough to the Twitter FGC can also tell you that players have been devotedly promoting UNIST since its US launch on PlayStation platforms last February. In spite of French Bread’s limited resources, the developer has managed to create what is arguably one of the most polished and technically precise 2D fighting games of its generation. Players posting to the #UNI_ST hashtag are discovering long, flashy combos, experimental mix-up situations, and unique character technology that make the game exciting and compelling to watch at a competitive level.

It’s interesting to point out that while Melee players express their discontent with their game being cut for titles that they believe don’t deserve a spot at Evo, Guilty Gear players are more than happy to pass on the torch of ‘technical, flashy anime fighter’ to their little brother UNIST. (That is, if the memes generated after the Evo lineup reveal are anything to go by.)

While Evo has grown larger and larger every year, from forty entrants in 1996 to tens of thousands in 2018, and as developers and sponsors have been jumping into the new era of esports, the brand and the tournament is still about the community first and foremost. UNIST and Samsho are in the same position now that Melee was in 2013 where it got crowdfunded into an Evo main stage spot through passionate player support. On a larger scale, only three of the nine main titles at Evo are being organized as part of a developer-supported circuit. As the FGC continues to grow, it stands apart from other esports communities as the games are played in spite of the low stakes relative to PC esports with six or seven figures in prize pools and circuits with major production value. As Melee departs the Evo roster, it will find a home at other events, whether they’re held in hotel ballrooms or a college student’s apartment. Meanwhile, games like UNIST are finally gaining recognition, allowing them to leave these humble venues and possibly ascend to greater heights.

Perhaps UNIST will be able to break free of the shackles of its ancestor, Melty Blood Actress Again. (“The Melee players can’t shower because we’re busy playing Melty!”)

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Nathan Dhami

Nathan Dhami is a fourth-year English major at UC Irvine. When he's not writing for class, the UCI Esports content team, or other publications, he's practicing fighting game combos.