For three days every year, the masters of Street Fighter and Tekken and everything in between converge on Las Vegas. They come from around the world to compete in the Evolution Championship Series (Evo for short), the biggest fighting-game event on the calendar. Eight games will be played, and eight champions will be crowned.
While multi-tournament events like Evo happen all year round in all corners of the globe, none are as big, prestigious, or cutthroat. It doesn’t just take skill and strategy to win an Evo tournament. You’ve got to be able to put it together on the biggest stage of them all, a crucible that has thwarted some of the scene’s most dominant players.
Yes, there’s money and renown—plus the possibility of sponsorship (read: a steady paycheck)—riding on a successful Evo performance, but it’s not all about that, according to David “UltraDavid” Graham, one half of UltraChenTV and a top Street Fighter commentator. “For all these players, all that stuff is nice, but it’s really about the competition,” UltraDavid said. “A lot of these people could be doing whatever they want. They could’ve gone to school and been whatever. Instead they wanted to play games because of that competition. So knowing you’re the best when everybody shows up, which is Evo, is pretty great.”
You don’t need to understand the nuances of fighting games to enjoy watching them. Live commentary from experts like UltraDavid certainly helps to communicate the stories of the competitors and the drama in the matches, but fighting games are self-evident. You can tell who’s in the lead by glancing at the slowly melting health bars of each player. And when one player scores, you know it, both from the flurry of on-screen action and the roar of the raucous live crowd heard over the broadcast.
What I’ve put together here is an in-depth viewer’s guide for Evo novices, breaking down—with the help of a few fighting-game experts—the eight games at the event, including the stories and players you can expect to see if you decide to tune in. (Of course, there are more outstanding players than I could cover here, especially in Street Fighter, Marvel, and Smash Bros.)
Evo is this weekend, July 11 through July 13, and you’ll be able to stream all the action online. (You can find the schedule and links to the pertinent livestreams at Shoryuken.) Sunday, when the top eight players in most of the games square off in their respective finals, will be the biggest day of the year for the fighting-game community. If nothing else, that’s the time to watch.
Double-elimination is the format of choice on the competitive fighting game scene. All games begin in pool play, where a bunch of players are lumped together in big blocks, with the heaviest hitters purposefully spread out among the upstarts. If you lose your first match, you’re not eliminated from the tournament completely: You’re knocked into the “losers’ bracket.” If you lose a match in the losers’ bracket, you’re out. Only two players make it out of each pool: one who remained undefeated in the “winners’ bracket” and one who survived the march through the losers’ side.
Eventually, we’re left with a group of eight players in the “finals”: four who managed to remain in the winners’ bracket and four who enter the last leg of the tournament with one loss to their name. That loss might have come in their first match or their ninth. Either way, they’ve only got one “life” left.
Now, on to the games.
Number of entrants: 1,979
Prize pool: $29,790
What you’ll see: Ultra Street Fighter IV is the fourth revision to Street Fighter IV, the latest entry in Capcom’s formative fighting game series. It was released in June, making this year’s Evo only the third major Ultra tournament. Each revision of the game brings new characters and minor tweaks to existing characters’ moves, and even the smallest of changes can have a huge effect on a player’s strategies, strengths, and weaknesses. With only a month between Ultra’s release and the Evo event, competitors have had very little time to adapt.
“Players who were having success in the previous version of the game are now not so sure that their character can cut it, or maybe there are just better character choices, or maybe there’s a better way to play the game even if you have the same character,” UltraDavid said. “So there’s a lot of not being sure about what to do.”
For spectators, that makes this one of the more exciting Street Fighter tournaments in a long while. Players who were sure bets to make the top eight just a few months ago, like defending Evo champ Xian and the U.K.’s Ryan “The Prodigal Son” Hart, are now struggling with the damage Ultra has done to their characters. Meanwhile, rising players with characters that have been improved, like New York’s Smug, have greater potential.
As the granddaddy of the genre, Street Fighter might be the least flashy of the games at the tournament. That’s not to say it can’t be dramatic, though. It’s more strategic and deliberate than many of its contemporaries, and with its slower pace comes higher, more easily recognizable stakes.
“It’s really about controlling little inches of space here and there,” UltraDavid said, “and the fight for little inches of space can be really dramatic. In some matches it means everything. It means a win or a loss almost immediately.”
This battle for inches manifests as a careful dance between the fighters, with each trying to close in on the perfect spacing to seize control of the match given their character’s specific attacks. (This struggle for turf and spacing has become the foundation of just about every fighting game since Street Fighter II.) It’s not uncommon to see tense quiet periods where the fighters stare each other down, scooting back and forth as they search for perfect positioning. Every button-press matters, and attacking at the wrong time is a surefire way to get punished with a beating. It may not have the wild spectacle of something like Marvel Vs. Capcom, but the slower pace ensures that every emotion is laid bare.
Players to watch:
Infiltration, South Korea. Infiltration is the 2012 Evo champion and a dominant force in the world of Street Fighter. His primary character, Akuma, remains as powerful as ever, but Infiltration has become known for pulling out other characters when the time is right. And as UltraDavid noted, he’s good at quickly working out a new release’s nuances. This could give him another leg up in a scene that is still trying to come to grips with Ultra’s specifics.
PR Balrog, Northern California. The great American hope, Eduardo “PR Balrog” Pérez has been one of the most successful U.S. players since breaking onto the scene in 2011. He specializes in Balrog and Evil Ryu, two characters with explosive offense—the latter being one of Ultra’s most threatening cast members—making his matches some of the most exciting.
PR Balrog has developed a friendly rivalry with Infiltration since their meeting at Evo 2013—an incredible set where it took the unorthodox use of Hakan, a character who is almost never seen in top play but is a good counter for Balrog, to cement the Korean phenom’s victory.
Daigo, Japan. Perhaps the most renowned Street Fighter player of all time (and the player behind the most famous fighting game moment of all time, “Evo Moment 37”), “The Beast” has been in hibernation, quietly training and becoming the best Evil Ryu player in Japan, according to UltraDavid. So while he’s been out of the spotlight as of late, you can never count out Daigo Umehara, especially when you consider that he’s never finished out of the top eight for Street Fighter IV at Evo.
Smug, New York. He’s by no means an unknown player, but with Ultra’s improvements to his character of choice—Dudley, a foppish boxer—this year’s Evo is a potential star-making tournament for New York’s Bryant “Smug” Huggins. Dudley’s high-speed, high-damage combos have made Smug a crowd favorite and one of the scene’s rising players. The only thing he lacks, UltraDavid said, is experience on the grandest stage of them all. “Evo’s so gigantically out of scale with the other tournaments,” he said. “There’s a lot more pressure, a lot more money on the line, reputation on the line. I guess we’ll see how he does.”
Prize pool: $10,140
What you’ll see: This will be Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3’s third Evo appearance, and while the game still has a large community of players in the United States, its age is beginning to show, and interest is flagging. Unlike most of the other games at Evo, Marvel doesn’t have much of an international following, so it’s dominated by Americans. Its supporters, though, are some of the most famous, vocal, and dedicated in the broader fighting game community, and the game has been a highlight of many major tournaments, just like its beloved predecessor.
Marvel Vs. Capcom is the opposite of Street Fighter. It is wild, manic spectacle. Each player chooses a team of three characters, and while they face off one-on-one until each team member has been put down, the other two characters can be called in at almost any time to deliver an assist (assuming they’re still alive). That means you can have up to four characters on-screen at any given time, all of them firing off giant fireballs and laser beams. Fighters bounce around the arena with extreme speed, and “super combos” frequently interrupt regular play, their arrival announced by brief cinematic introductions that cut away to a close-up of the fighter before they toss out a screen-filling wall of missiles or something similarly ridiculous.
The mantra for Marvel players has to be “Don’t get hit.” One touch from a top-tier competitor is often all it takes to set a long chain of attacks into motion. We’re talking combos that can cross the 100-hit mark, slowly draining the opponent’s health bar while the victimized player watches and waits for their next opportunity to actually play the game. Characters that pop in for assist attacks aren’t invincible and sometimes get pulled into the carnage, so it’s possible for a player to see two-thirds of a player’s team devastated before they have much of a chance to do anything.
But you can never completely count someone out. Marvel comebacks are not uncommon, but they are exhilarating. Seeing a player who’s down to their final character somehow tear their way through an opponent’s full three-member crew is about as good as it gets, the fighting game equivalent of a walk-off home run with the batter down two strikes and two outs.
Players to watch:
NY ChrisG, Southern California (by way of New York). Christopher Gonzalez has been running wild through the Marvel 3 competitive scene since 2012, when he began using a team built around the characters Morrigan and Dr. Doom. When these two get up a head of steam, they fill the screen with projectiles, turning the game into something akin to a savage “bullet hell” shooter for the opposing player. This powerful onslaught, coupled with Gonzalez’s strong fundamental skills, have led him to first-place finishes at just about every major Marvel tournament in the country—except Evo.
Justin Wong, Southern California. Also a top Street Fighter player, JWong is a Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 legend, and his success has continued into the Marvel 3 era. He plays with a team led by the vicious combination of Wolverine and Storm. And lurking in the back is the team’s anchor, Akuma, a character Wong has used to mount countless clutch comebacks. Just ask ChrisG, who was the victim of a JWong miracle run in 2013:
ApologyMan, Northern California. There are a handful of characters that show up constantly in top-level Marvel 3 play (Dr. Doom, Vergil, Zero, Magneto), so crowds go wild for lesser-seen fighters. ApologyMan has made a name for himself by using Firebrand (one of those awful red gargoyle things from the classic Capcom game Ghouls ’N Ghosts), and while the character employs the same repetitive yet highly effective combos as someone like Zero, Firebrand’s shenanigans have been a breath of fresh air.
Prize pool: $9,700
What you’ll see: Nintendo’s all-star brawl might be nearly 13 years old, but its community has never been more alive. Last year, Smash fans raised almost $100,000 for breast cancer research to cement Melee’s spot on the Evo roster, and the live broadcast of its finals broke online viewership records for the tournament—all of which almost never happened, as Nintendo initially denied them the rights to stream its game. Since then, the scene has grown and enjoyed renewed interest, including from Nintendo itself, which hosted an invitational tournament at E3 for its upcoming Smash Bros. on Wii U. “It’s great to be back, and it’s great to be back with Nintendo’s blessing this time,” said Wynton “Prog” Smith, a Melee commentator (or as he prefers, “storyteller”) and part of the Melee It On Me podcast. “I’m ready for a hell of a show.”
That show is going to be very different from the Smash Bros. that you might know. In competitive play, competitors can’t use items, and they only battle on six of the game’s 29 stages. Players frequently employ arcane techniques and hundreds of button presses per minute to move faster and perform more precisely than anyone at Nintendo ever imagined when creating the game. But top-level Smash Bros. demands perfection, and if you screw up once, not only can your opponent capitalize, but you also might just cost yourself the match.
Unlike every other game at Evo, there are no health bars that tick down with each blow until one fighter is knocked out. Instead, a player loses a life if their character is knocked off the stage or too far beyond the edges of the screen. The more blows you’ve suffered, the farther your character gets tossed with each hit. The first to lose all four lives loses the match.
There’s a built-in drama to that structure. Every time a player is flung from the safety of the arena, they have to struggle to make it back, often barely having enough juice in the tank to grab the tip of the stage with the skin of their fingers. Even if they can reach it, the aggressor is often waiting for them, ready to swat them away or spike them into the void at the bottom of the screen.
Modern Melee is dominated by a group of players known as “The Big Five.” There’s California’s MaNg0, the defending Evo champion. PPMD (formerly Dr. PeePee, but you can see why he changed it) is from North Carolina and spent most of 2014 without losing a single set. Sweden’s Armada took some time off after Evo 2013, but he’s back, and his Peach is looking as strong as ever. Mew2King is a legendary player from New Jersey known for his mastery of several characters. And finally there’s Hungrybox, a player from Florida who specializes in Jigglypuff.
When members of the Big Five lose, the loss almost always comes to another Big Fiver, and when they clash, it’s always a barnburner. But there are a handful of players just outside their elite ranks waiting to take them down.
Players to watch (who aren’t in The Big Five):
Leffen, Sweden. If there were one player nipping at the heels of The Big Five most vigorously, it would be Leffen. On his way to tying for fifth place at the MLG Anaheim tournament, Leffen handed PPMD his first loss of the year. “A lot of people would rank him at number six in the world,” Prog said.
Hax, New York. Hax is ranked as the second-best smasher in the tri-state area, right behind Mew2King. “He’s putting everything together now, it feels like,” Prog said. “He’s had his ‘breakout tournament’ time and time again, but to break in and take a huge event from the top five—a lot of people are expecting it to happen eventually, and he really wants it.”
Axe, Arizona. Axe uses Pikachu and has taken the iconic rodent to new heights, beating two members of The Big Five at MLG Anaheim. “Axe flies under everyone’s radar because he’s consistently good,” Prog said. “You always know he’s going to be in the picture, but you forget to mention him because you know he’s always going to be there.”
Prize pool: $30,080 (plus an extra $5,000 for the winner)
What you’ll see: One of the biggest surprises in the weeks leading up to Evo was the announcement that Arc System Works, the developer of BlazBlue, and Aksys Games, the game’s American publisher, were donating a combined $25,000 to the Evo prize pool—plus an additional $5,000 prize for the first-place finisher. The companies’ support makes this BlazBlue prize pot one of the biggest ever for a fighting game—an even bigger purse than the one for Ultra Street Fighter IV at this year’s Evo (which got a $10,000 bump from Capcom) even though Ultra has nearly four times the number of entrants.
BlazBlue is what some people would call an “anime fighter,” a label Josh “Jyosua” Moore, a BlazBlue player, livestreamer, and community figure, admits is something of a misnomer. The term came about because BlazBlue and other Arc System Works-developed fighters, like the Guilty Gear series, have a visual style that hews more closely to modern Japanese anime than something like Street Fighter, Jyosua said, but it also reflects the speed and mobility of the characters, who spend a lot more time dashing around in the air than most games. You could say the same thing about Marvel 3, though, which is similarly aeronautic but doesn’t fall under the “anime” moniker.
If we’re using the Street Fighter to Marvel craziness scale, with Street Fighter being the most sedate and Marvel being absolute lunacy, BlazBlue hits a nice balance right in the middle. It’s more kinetic than Street Fighter because of its additional mobility, meaning you’ll see lots of dashing around and aggressors chasing down opponents in the air. It’s nowhere near as crazy as Marvel, though, so it makes for less of an assault to the senses for viewers.
Players to watch:
Lord Knight, New Jersey. Another dominant player who has yet to capture Evo gold, Lord Knight sits atop the American BlazBlue scene. “He has won plenty of other tournaments, but at Evo, he always places second,” Jyosua said.
Dogura, Japan. One of the best Japanese BlazBlue players (and a Street Fighter veteran to boot), Dogura could very well be a destructive force. According to Jyosua, Dogura’s character of choice—the burly bruiser Azrael—was made more powerful in a recent update to the game, giving Dogura even more of an edge. “I expect him to just destroy people,” he said.
Pops, Illinois. Pops made a big splash at the Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament where he edged out Banana Ken to take first place. He specializes in an underused character named Platinum, a magical little girl who uses some tricky moves. “He’s a really good player, and you can see that in his play,” Jyosua said, “but I feel like the community wasn’t really ready for Platinum either.” The competition’s unfamiliarity with Platinum’s gimmicks is a huge advantage for Pops.
Prize pool: $13,380
What you’ll see: It’s unlikely that anyone would have predicted the success of Microsoft’s Killer Instinct reboot as a tournament game at this time last year. But Instinct was a pleasant surprise and has been picked up by some of the country’s top players. Its competitive community is lively, but its growth is stifled by the amount of money it takes to get into the game. (An Xbox One costs at least $400, the game is $20, and if you want to by an arcade-style joystick for it, that’s another $200.)
Killer Instinct is all about the combos. Each character has a number of combo-starting moves that, if they land, lead into extended beatdowns. But unlike Marvel, where the victim of a combo is little more than a glorified hacky sack, being caught in a Killer Instinct combo is the start of a little game within the game. If you can predict—or guess—which kind of attack the aggressor is about to hit you with and press the corresponding button, you’ll break the combo, a lifesaving maneuver that’s heralded by a shout from the game’s over-enthusiastic announcer: “C-C-C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER!” Of course, the attacker can always use a “counter breaker” to counter a combo breaker and continue their assault—a rare and risky maneuver that’s powerful when it lands. And no, you can’t counter the counter of a combo breaker.
Players to watch:
Justin Wong, Southern California. Mr. Wong makes an appearance once again. He’s far and away the favorite to win the tournament, having taken either first or second place in nearly every major Killer Instinct tourney since the game’s release. He plays with Sabrewulf, a frenzied lycanthrope that’s generally considered to be the best character in the game.
Grimmmz, Northern California. Grimmmz is slowly but surely making a name for himself. Unlike other top players, he doesn’t yet have the means to travel the country and compete, but he’s won two of the three large California tourneys that he’s entered, holding Justin Wong to a second-place finish at the NorCal Regionals. “He would be my number two, right after JWong,” said Reepal “Rip” Parbhoo, a Killer Instinct and Tekken commentator and the editor of Level Up Your Game.
Rico Suave, New York. One of the East Coast’s top players, Rico Suave has been turning in high Killer Instinct finishes in every tournament he enters. He uses Thunder, a burly Native American grappler. Rico Suave has one weakness, however, and that would be…
CD Jr., New York. …his fellow New Yorker and another top Instinct competitor. CD Jr. has taken down Rico in commanding fashion during a couple of high-profile East Coast tournaments. Specializing in the high-flying spider-lady Sadira, CD Jr. is another one of the few players to come out ahead of Justin Wong in tournament play.
Prize pool: $3,110
What you’ll see: Injustice is a DC Comics fighting game from NetherRealm Studios—the team behind 2011’s Mortal Kombat—that pits the brand’s iconic characters against one another. (There are some not-so-iconic characters in there, too—Sinestro, anyone?) Of all the games at Evo, it’s the most similar to Street Fighter’s methodical pace. But the fighters aren’t just martial artists. They’re superheroes and villains, with all the marvelous special abilities are intact. Amid the whizzing bullets and furious fisticuffs are bits of quick, wacky action, like Martian Manhunter teleporting into uppercuts mid-combo or Catwoman zipping claws-first across the screen.
What sets Injustice apart, especially for viewers, is its use of short cinematic interludes. There are ways to trigger long transitional scenes in each level, like kicking your opponent through the Bat Cave’s computer and watching them pinball around its walls until they land in a new part of the stage—where the fight picks right back up again. There’s also a “wager” system where players secretly bet a portion of their resources and don’t find out the winner until after the dust settles from a dramatic superpowered collision. Plus, the fighters all have unique, ridiculous super-attacks—like The Flash winding up a punch by running around the planet or Superman uppercutting his victims into outer space before sending them flying back to Earth’s surface.
Players to watch:
Emperor Theo, Southern California. “He’s the best player,” said UltraDavid, who commentates on and plays Injustice. “He plays the best character. He’s put a stranglehold on competitive Injustice right now.” Unfortunately for us, that best character is Aquaman, whose keep-away style of play is a little boring. But as UltraDavid noted, when you have a player dominating like Theo is, it puts the onus on the rest of the community to develop new ideas and top players to overthrow the king.
Jupiter, New Jersey. Jupiter, who plays Martian Manhunter, might be the biggest threat to Theo. “When they play, it can go either way,” UltraDavid said, “and I don’t really feel that way about anybody else.” Jupiter came close to beating Theo at the recent Major League Gaming tournament in Anaheim, but Theo took their match and eventually the whole thing.
Sonic Fox, Delaware. This 16-year-old wunderkind has developed Batgirl into a lethal combo machine and used her offensive prowess to reach the top eight in many recent major Injustice tournaments, including a first-place finish at CEO in Orlando. His inexperience does show up in his performance, UltraDavid notes, but he’s been improving, and once he gets Batgirl going, it can be hard to make the pain stop.
Prize pool: $7,570
What you’ll see: When the lineup of games for Evo 2014 was first announced, Tekken Tag Tournament 2, the latest in Namco’s long-running 3D martial arts series, did not make the cut. Mark “MarkMan” Julio, an old school Tekken player and an employee of perennial tournament sponsor Mad Catz, talked to some folks at both Namco and Evo and got the game added to the roster, along with a $5,000-pot bonus from the publisher.
Why wasn’t it selected in the first place? “I think Tekken has been kind of on the decline in the last couple of years,” said Rip, a Tekken commentator. He blames the dip in the Tekken community in part on the complexity and inaccessibility of Tag Tournament 2, which has a cast of 59 characters. And as Rip noted, there’s somewhere around 100 individual attacks per character, and since this is a tag-team game, players will have to be thinking about a combined 200 different moves, in addition to the possible tactics their opponent will employ.
Complicating matters is Tekken’s addition of a third dimension to the combat. Players of Evo’s other games only need to worry about left, right, up, and down. In Tekken, fighters can simply sidestep attacks or roll around on the ground after they’ve been downed. Controlling space and moving around in that space is everything, and if you can force your opponent to whiff with an attack, they’re probably about to enter a world of hurt. Positioning is very important as well, as pinning your opponent against a wall and bouncing them off of it can create long, damaging combos with the potential to end a round in seconds—because unlike Marvel 3 where every combatant on a team has to go down to net a win, a round ends when any character is knocked out.
Players from Asia—especially Japan and Korea—have long dominated the Tekken scene, but none of the Korean Tekken masters are making it out to this year’s Evo. According to Rip, this opens up the field a bit and gives a better change to some older American champions, like Fab and Kor, who faced off in the finals for Tekken 6 at Evo 2011. There are at least four Japanese players entering, however, so the Americans might “have their work cut out for them,” Rip said.
Players to watch:
Bronson Tran, Northern California. A longtime Tekken series favorite and two-time national champion, Bronson took second place at last year’s Evo, losing to Knee from South Korea. He’s had a lot of tournament success but has never clinched an Evo win. “In my opinion, he’s the best in the country,” Rip said, “and if he plays the way he can play, he should win the tournament. But will he? I have no idea.”
Anakin, Atlanta. Another one of America’s best players, Anakin rules East Coast Tekken, but according to Rip, he’s never competed in an Evo before. Should he and Tran meet in the tournament, Rip says, expect a fantastic set.
Prize pool: $3,190
What you’ll see: Like Marvel 3, King Of Fighters XIII is a three-on-three game, but the matches are strictly one-on-one, lasting until one player has defeated each of the opposing team members in separate bouts. And like in BlazBlue, characters have a lot of movement options—like sprinting and four different jumps of various heights and distances. “Because of the options in the game, it’s very, very tense,” said Desmond “Desmond Delaghetto” Hollins, a King Of Fighters player and an administrator of the KOF community site Dream Cancel. “Things just happen so fast and damage can be dealt so quickly.”
To borrow a metaphor from Wyton “Prog” Smith, KOF13 matches are sort of like soccer. There are quiet periods where fighters size each other up and land glancing blows until finally someone connects. In this case, a “goal” would be a long combo with the attacker juggling the recipient through the air and across the stage. These unpredictable explosions of offense, full of fire, lightning and acrobatics, make KOF one of the most exciting games to watch, even for an uninitiated spectator.
KOF royalty Romance, Reynald, and Bala will not be competing in this year’s Evo. With them out of the picture, fresher faces stand to steal the spotlight, which is an exciting prospect, Delaghetto said.
Players to watch:
Tokido, Japan. “A lot of people think he’s the best fighting game player of all time,” UltraDavid said. Part of what makes someone a contender for that crown is the ability to get the job done in multiple games, and Tokido—also expected to make a run at the Ultra title this weekend—has done that for years. While he’s not known for KOF play, he has been improving: Earlier this year, he won the Id Global Tournament, one of the most competitive KOF events of the year.
MadKOF, South Korea. One of the few longtime KOF favorites who has entered this year’s tournament, MadKOF won Evo 2012 and came in third at Evo 2013, ahead of Tokido, but behind…
Hee San Woo, Japan. …the eventual runner-up who lost to Reynald in a heart-stopping set:
Luis Cha, Southern California. A consistent top-four finisher in many recent tournaments, including CEO and Southern California Regionals, Luis Cha employs a simple but aggressive style and “a lot of mind games,” according to Delaghetto, who added, “His play style is deep, but it isn’t flashy. He should do very well.”