The Oral History of EVO: The Story of the World's Largest Fighting Game Tournament

The Oral History of EVO: The Story of the World's Largest Fighting Game Tournament

The history of the Evolution Championship Series as told by the people who have been there from the beginning.

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EVO 2K2: The second-to-last arcade exclusive EVO.

The Evolution

By 2002, the tournaments had grown to the point that it was officially branded the Evolution Fighting Series. But the tournament was facing new challenges, foremost among them the precipitous decline of the arcade scene.

Joey Cuellar [We changed the name for] a few reasons. The first is that we had moved the tournament to UCLA and it was no longer near a bay. Explaining to other people about B6 and B7 just seems too confusing to people, so a rebranding was the right move.

Tom Cannon: The year before EVO—2001—was a tough one for fighting games. The tournament scene was growing year over year, but arcades all over the U.S. were closing. Even the bigger, more popular arcades were having a tough go.

The writing was on the wall; if we wanted to continue running tournaments, we had to abandon the sinking ship of arcades. We rebranded the tournament to "Evolution" with the mission of preserving the arcade tournament scene.

Doing that meant taking what at the time seemed like drastic measures, like using consoles instead of arcade cabinets, and combining all the different fighting game sub-genres (3D, 2D, Anime-inspired, etc) into one event.

Change is almost always scary, and we definitely got a lot of hate for doing this. That arcade cabinet was sacrosanct, and we were accused to being a dumbed-down, less competitive event. Players told us that if the arcade were going to die, it should just die with dignity rather than be transformed into this console-infected, Frankenstein of an event.

Joey Cuellar: The biggest problem was that the tournament was on archaic arcade machines, which were hard to come by since arcades were going out of business. The ones that were still in business charged ridiculous rates for rentals thus making us put lots of money into places we could be putting it elsewhere.

Tom Cannon: We call it The Dark Ages because the genre had been more or less abandoned by the game makers, but the reality is that EVO grew every single year over that time.

We had two kinds of pains. In the very early days, we had to fix all the problems we caused with our new format. How do you provide stable controllers for players? How do you put Tekken next to Street Fighter without pissing everyone off? This was just a bunch of listening to players, and rapid iteration based on their feedback.

The other problem was dealing with scale. By EVO 2003, we had over 300 players in a tournament. That number is common today, but back then it was the largest fighting game tournament ever. We had to tinker with the tournament format to make sure that players didn't wait too long between their matches, and that there was a compelling reason to stick around after being knocked out.

Comparisons With Tougeki - Super Battle Opera

The year that Battle by the Bay became EVO, Japan got an event of its own: Tougeki - Super Battle Opera, or simply SBO. A single-elimination event with no monetary prize, SBO was hosted by gaming publication Arcadia and took place over several months beginning in April and culminating in a Grand Final event in late Summer. Though prestigious, Tougeki has not been held since 2012.

Joey Cuellar: The culture and the way tournaments are run differ vastly from US and Asia. We wanted to be an open tournament, and [Tougeki] was an invitational tournament and more of an exhibition and a show. We were trying to be the Olympics where we find out who the best in the world is.

Seth Killian: Seeing Tougeki blew me away, and set a very high bar for production. That said, even though EVO and Tougeki were both big fighting game competitions, it always felt like they were aiming at something different. EVO's #1 question was always "what would competitors want?" but Tougeki had much larger obligations to publishers and gaming magazines.

Probably the single clearest instance of this was that Tougeki continued for years to run single elimination brackets. In team tournaments a world-class player might play only a single game before being knocked out permanently-not exactly the greatest chance to shine. Double elimination brackets take more time and effort, which makes it hard to schedule a great stage show like Tougeki had, but they also provide a better chance for amazing players to show their skills, so EVO has supported those from the start. Maintaining that alongside the open format requires a huge amount of effort and is a scheduling nightmare at scale, but it was never even a question for us because it was obviously better for competitors.

Tom Cannon: We definitely admired Tougeki in many ways, but we had a different mission. Tougeki was an exclusive invitational for the very best players. EVO is an open tournament. It's critical that we remain an open event to anyone who wants to compete, regardless of skill level. 99.9% of our tournament players don't have a great shot at winning. They play to challenge themselves against the field, and to be part of something.

And this goes all the way back to arcade culture. The arcade machines were public. Anyone could step up to play.

Seth Killian: The open bracket is at the heart of EVO and its mission to preserve the slightly unpredictable magic of arcades. Invitational events, exhibitions, etc. can provide some fantastic matches and showcases for top talents, but there's a thrill in the idea that the biggest event in the world is open to any contender. At EVO, both the spectators and competitors understand that anything can happen, and usually does. The thrill of shocking upsets, or an unknown player making their name (like Red Bull's Snake Eyez, who went from obscurity to EVO champion in his first appearance) are what makes all the logistical challenges of running the world's largest open bracket worth the pain. The achievement of winning an EVO is also undeniable. You didn't just beat a small handful of pre-selected set of superstars, you faced all comers-from foreigners, to crazies, to weird character specialists, you stood up to the test of whatever the world could throw at you.

EVO Moment 37 or "The Daigo Parry" is one of the best-known moments in EVO history. In the famous video, Daigo Umehara is shown parrying an entire super attack from Chun-Li to avoid fatal damage, then retaliating with a super of his own. "To be honest, it's really hard to grasp what really happened and why people loved it so much," Umehara said years later. "One of the reasons it was well-received was, back then that particular block-and-parry technique was not known, and it was the first time for the world to see it. EVO Moment 37 has since been memoralized in articles, videos, and histories of its own. Someone even wrote a book about it. The beast is unleashed, indeed.

Tom Cannon: Initially [we didn't feel like ambassadors to the genre]. Then the Daigo Parry happened in 2004. Until that moment, all our efforts were internally focused. We were running an event for ourselves and members of our tribe. The Daigo parry was definitely a "wow" moment, where we realized the power of these games and the players who play.

So our approach now is certainly to shine a light on what we think is truly special about these players, why they play, and the depth of investment that they have to each other and to the game. But we want to do it organically, and not in a chest-thumpy way.

Daigo Umehara: I felt lucky to have been able to create such an entertaining moment in 2004, and I was very thankful for that. In 2009, I returned to EVO for the first time in several years. I was very happy to be there and trying to soak up everything to enjoy it. I felt really lucky to have won that year and the following year in 2010. But come 2011, three consecutive year winning was said to be an EVO record, I did feel a pressure.

Joey Cuellar We were just trying to create something special for fighting game fans around the world. There were still other tournaments around the country that were trying to do the same, so it helped that we also ran the hub of all the fighting games,

"Change is almost always scary, and we definitely got a lot of hate for doing this. That arcade cabinet was sacrosanct, and we were accused to being a dumbed-down, less competitive event."

Seth Killian: Ambassadors come from a place that people already recognize as significant. When we started in the 90s, nobody really thought fighting games were significant—more like a piece of fondly remembered arcade nostalgia.

So I definitely never thought of it as being an ambassador—I just knew from personal experience that there was magic in Street Fighter, both as a game, and how it connected strangers together. I believed in that in my bones, and the steady growth of EVO and the FGC was confirmation to me that I wasn't crazy—other people felt it too. I basically couldn't shut up about it, and would talk to anyone who would listen.

A lot of my initial involvement with EVO was just an effort to show that-to capture not just the game footage of amazing matches, but to capture the people there. The bonds between them, their competitive passion, and how their in-game moves were mirrored by the way they acted as people outside of the game. There are lots of world-class game players, but I'd never experienced a game that so closely married a player's personality to their in-game moves. The greatest Ryu player? Turns out that guy is a lot like Ryu in real life! That was what made fighters so special to me, and I was super passionate about telling anyone who would listen how special that was, and how much the human element adds to how you understand what's happening on screen. It's not just "setting up a human story"-with fighters, your human story is a big part the story of the strategic choices you're going to make in the game. No other game has connected those two things so closely for me.

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