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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The Move to Vegas

In 2005, EVO officially moved to Las Vegas, where it remains to this day.

Peter Rosas: I think EVO started marching in size towards the Japanese events when it first moved to Las Vegas. Even though the first few events were in Henderson, not necessarily in Las Vegas proper, the event started feeling bigger than just a tournament as there were other things to do afterwards. The one year where I thought, "Oh, this is becoming big" was when Toyota and MLG partnered up with EVO, and it started feeling a little more like a convention.

Joey Cuellar: One of the key aspects of getting a venue is selling hotel rooms. When you have a lot of people based in California and they let all their friends stay over, it doesn't do wonders for us in terms of securing a location. Vegas is also a great tourist spot, so you can bring the family and friends and have a great weekend and kind of mix in a fighting game tournament.

Tom Cannon: EVO is a three day event, which is a big bite out of someone's schedule. Vegas is a great spot for us because it's a vacation destination. We see a lot of players come with their families, enjoy the event in the day, then enjoy the Vegas nightlife afterwards.

John Choi: I used to help out the Cannons with EVO in the early years and at some point became the ambassador for Japanese players. I coordinated their visit to the U.S. for EVO and had to borrow my sister's minivan to pick up players from the airport. Then I had to drive all of them around and host them during the tournament weekend. I recall being so exhausted during one of the EVOs down in SoCal that I drove the Japanese players to Magic Mountain to show them around but had no energy. So I just parked the van and slept in it for hours while they enjoyed the park. Then I woke up to drive them to dinner and back to the hotel. Once EVO got to Vegas all of this went away as they could get around with taxis and be self-sufficient.

Joey Cuellar: In 2006 and 2007 we did five events per year: EVO North, South, East and West, and the finale in Las Vegas. This is when we had Toyota as a title sponsor and we traveled the country with many events.

Tom Cannon: It was a lot like PAX is today. We had EVO East, EVO West which were designed to be smaller regional events for folks who maybe couldn't make the investment to travel to Vegas in the summer. What we found was that while we could run effective tournaments, the smaller, regional events lost the unique feeling of EVO being a global gathering of fighting game fans. So we abandoned the circuit idea, but going through that really helped cement EVO's identity as an event where you can come and meet all kinds of new people, but know that everyone shares the same quicky obsession with these games.

Game Changers

Super Street Fighter II Turbo and Street Fighter III: Third Strike dominated the lineup at EVO for a long time. But as these classics grew older, the organizers began to face a new problem: how do you keep the event fresh?

Joey Cuellar: EVO ran the same games basically from 2002 – 2008. It became very stale and people wanted more. There is only so many times you can see who the best in the world at Third Strike is before you are bored. Rotating out games keeps everything fresh.

Tom Cannon: When thinking about the EVO roster, we're trying to balance what games are players most interested in playing competitively this year, and how can we best represent the diversity of all the games in the fighting game genre. [Super Turbo] and Third Strike came along in a time where industry investment in fighting games was sort of at a low point. We call this time "The Dark Ages" now. It was a time where there just weren't a lot of fighting games being made. So we saw a lot of continued engagement with the last of the SFII games (ST), and the last of the SF3 style of games (Third Strike).

John Choi: For EVO to stay current and relevant, it should be showcasing the newest and most popular fighters. Old games were good but they had their time. If the scene is to grow and invite more participants, it must constantly refresh the lineup and cater to the popular trend. I do however wish for a lineup in which the newest fighters are showcased but one classic title is also thrown into the mix to show some history and nostalgia. This goes on today as side events by the various communities but it would be nice to see it as a mainstream lineup.

Seth Killian: In a lot of ways, EVO is simple: it's a kind of weekend-long kumite to see who is the strongest. Given the limitations of a one-weekend format, and the growth of the community overall, the shifts in games are meant to reflect the shifting interests and focus of the various fighting communities. If a smaller scene has pulled itself together and has a lot of passion, EVO tries to recognize that as well as accommodating the most popular games. Even as some older games move out of official EVO rotation, there are efforts made to let those communities create their own competitions at EVO as side tournaments. Size of the community, game quality, and the passion and efforts of particular communities to grow themselves.

Peter Rosas: Although I may miss some games (Capcom vs SNK 2 is my favorite), I totally understand that games come and go. As time goes on, the player base for games decline. That holds true for any game, but I feel fighters get hit the hardest as they take quite and investment to become good at. As EVO is about figuring out who's the best at the most relevant fighting games, it makes sense for games to be rotated out.

There's also logistics to take into account. Having a tournament for a game that may have 50 participants takes a bit of effort to organize (consoles, sign ups, brackets) and may not be worth it versus the same labor that could go to a game that gets 200 participants.

I'd say the thing that's saddest when a game gets dropped is that it sometimes results in friends who only play that game to no longer showing up. Since I played so many games, I got to interact with a lot of players from different sub-communities (each game has their own player base) and have met some really cool people that way. Unfortunately, once their game was no longer featured, their passion to continue playing would disappear and so would they.

Daigo Umehara: So many players enter the tournament at EVO. Logistically speaking, it'll be extremely inefficient to try to bring all the titles including side tournament of legacy games to the main stage. I agree with EVO to focus on the most popular games of the time, which tend to be the newest installation. Those legacy titles have maintained amazing popularity in the community, but still, compared to the new ones, the population is marginal. What I would suggest however is to treat those community led side tournaments as also official EVO tournaments.

Street Fighter IV.

The New Challengers

The release of Street Fighter IV in 2009 brought with it a dramatic surge in interest in the fighting game genre. EVO soon experienced a massive rise in entrants, setting the stage for a new phase of its existence as a tournament.

Tom Cannon: The good news is that we were able to see the tsunami coming, because tournament attendance was up across the board for the events leading up to EVO. So we had a pretty good read on the number of players to expect, and were able to make sure that we staffed accordingly.

Joey Cuellar: [The difference] was very evident. The older players have grudges and don't shake hands before and after matches and generally don't talk to enemies. The new players always remained friendly and hugged and shook hands after matches and that rubbed off the wrong way on some of the participants. The new crowd was often referred to as "soft" and that's the way things were.

Tom Cannon: Online, there actually was an initial divide between new and old players. The old-timers coined the term"09er" for new players that started playing in 2009, after the release of SF4. Now it's morphed into almost a term of endearment, like "little brother," but back then it definitely was not a compliment.

Thankfully, that feeling was massively diminished at live events, including EVO. Playing in-person creates a level playing field and common ground. Players (even 09ers!) get respect for throwing their hat in the ring and competing.

Seth Killian: Although 2009 was probably the biggest year in terms of percentage growth, EVO had grown every single year since its start. It's also always had a history of including new games since the "B-series" days-before EVO was called EVO. When [Marvel vs. Capcom] was added, people flipped out that a game with only 4 attack buttons and chain combos would be considered alongside Street Fighter. The same arguments came up when Tekken was added, and new versions of the same complaints and worries crop up every single year. It's a tough balancing act to serve the interests of multiple groups, but those growing pains have been a constant from the start. I always felt that pain was worth the effort-if you truly love fighters and the FGC, it's exciting to see new people falling in love with the experience. The event, like the players and the games, evolves.

Daigo Umehara: The more members join, the more opponents to play, the more fun there will be. I think most of the old timers felt that way, too. Overall skill level of the community also has improved. That's all welcoming. The old timers may be "hardcore" as some feel because we all went through [the] Dark Ages, but after all, new players who come to EVO are all passionate about fighting games. There is no reason not to embrace them.

Peter Rosas: When it came to the spectators, that was odd at first. As I mentioned before, tournaments used to strictly consist of nothing but players, so meeting those that just wanted to take pictures or shake hands but not play against me was an entirely new experience. At first I felt a bit uncomfortable by their presence, but that's just because it was so novel. Over the years following however, it became the norm.

John Choi: I could not believe the massive turnout at EVO for SF4. Old school players like me were struggling for years to keep a niche game alive, so the idea of SF becoming big and mainstream was a foreign concept. The massive turnout at EVO took me for a big surprise and I welcomed the change with open arms. But like any grassroots event turning big time, there was definitely some opposition from OGs. The sentiment continues today with the hot FGC and eSports discussion.

Capcom's Involvement Grows

Seth Killian: I retired from my formal EVO duties as I started working at Capcom. Tony and Joey were logistical powerhouses, Tom made EVO a great show, and I focused on highlighting the players that made the competition so special. When I left, that focus remained a core part of EVO's priorities, and I saw the opportunity at Capcom as a platform to do that same kind of thing, but louder—broadcasting the gospel about the magic of fighting games, with an even bigger megaphone to get the word out.

Old school players like me were struggling for years to keep a niche game alive that the idea of SF becoming big and mainstream was a foreign concept.

Joey Cuellar: It was becoming clear that this was changing from a hobby to a profession and we needed someone full time to handle the day to day operations of EVO. I took on this role and this let Tom and Tony Cannon remain working at their real job and help EVO whenever they had free time. Often May and June are crunch times and everyone puts in a crazy amount of work to make sure we are ready to go in July.

Tom Cannon: As the years have gone by, Joey has really stepped up to the plate and been more involved. He drove us to move to Vegas, which has been great for the event. At this point, Tony and I are definitely still involved, but Joey's the guy who's doing the heavy lifting in managing the event and making it happen.

And yeah, we have really brought in a ton of outside help as the event has scaled up. The best part about that is being able to rely on businesses that have grown out of the FGC. GamingGenerations does an awesome job with our hardware and merch needs. 10/0 handles all of our media production, including the stream. We couldn't do it without strong partnerships like these.

Joey Cuellar: Seth had been hitting up Capcom at E3 ever since 2000 for support and I think in 2006 they sent us some Alpha 3 swag for the first time ever (Alpha 3 sweatshirt and some comic books). After Capcom saw how big the event had grown after 2007, Seth had arranged for SFIV arcade boards to be playable at EVO in 2008 which was really cool.

Things really changed for the better in 2008, with the imminent release of Street Fighter IV. That was when Capcom started to deeply engage with FGC events, as a way of showcasing and getting feedback on their upcoming games. Over time we've seen the other game developers follow suit.

I think this works best where there's clear communication between the game devs and their most passionate fans. Even when we're maybe a little critical and demanding, we only want these guys to succeed and continue making fantastic games. As a player and fan of these games, there's really no substitute for seeing a Producer or Game Director get up in front of players and speak to them directly.

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