Evolution, or Evo, is an annual fighting game tournament held in Las Vegas. It’s sort of like the Super Bowl or Stanley Cup finals of fighting games, except instead of a selection of teams competing, every single fighting game player who flies out to Vegas is taking a shot at the grand prize. During the event, on-stream commentators continuously referred to the tournament as a mountain, and compared victory to scaling it. You don’t just have to beat the best at Evo, you have to beat everyone.

Evo’s traditional games are Capcom fighters. The Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom series make annual appearances, but other games shift in and out of the roster. SNK’s King of Fighters games, Namco-Bandai’s Tekken series, and this year, even Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. Melee made its first appearance since 2007 as an official tournament game.

But that’s not really what Evo is about. No, Evo’s about something bigger. Well, a few things that are bigger. Evo 2013 had three matches in three games that perfectly exemplified was Evo is really about, and here they are.

Justin Wong vs. Chris G

"Going into Evo 2013, there was one name on everyone’s hitlist: Christopher “NY Chris G” Gonzalez."

I don’t really love sporting events. I’ve never been a big fan of sports, I don’t have much national pride, and think it’s sort of silly to cheer for a team because they have the name of my city on the back of their shirts. What I can get behind is a story, a rivalry, a heel and a face.

In baseball, everyone hates the New York Yankees. In hockey, Toronto and Ottawa have a long history of rivalry. In basketball, the Miami Heat might as well be the Yankees at this point. Going into Evo 2013's Marvel vs. Capcom 3 tournament, there was one name on everyone’s hitlist: Christopher “NY Chris G” Gonzalez.

Chris G plays Morrigan/Dr. Doom/Vergil, a team focused on covering the screen in Morrigan’s fireballs and Doom’s missles, juggling players between them, or just chipping away at them until they die. It’s a slightly boring strategy to watch in action, but it’s by far the most dominant team in the history of the game. Not only that, but he has a bit of an emotional streak. Chris lashed out at Evo founder Joey Cuellar over twitter a few weeks ago, referring to Cuellar as a “faggot.” Going in to the tournament, Chris wasn’t only the player to beat to prove your worth at the game, he was also the player everyone wanted to see knocked down a peg.

In MvC2, Storm was considered a top tier character, nowadays, she's just about average.

In MvC2, Storm was considered a top tier character, nowadays, she's just about average.

But back in the days of Marvel vs. Capcom 2, there was a different villain. Justin Wong. Justin won every single MvC2 tournament out there, he was legendary. His win streak in the game holds the record for the player to have won the most Evo tournaments for a single game ever. Justin and Chris have faced off before, recently even, but this one was for all the marbles. Whoever lost went home, and didn’t get a shot at the grand finals.

Chris, the favourite, took Justin down two matches in a best of three set. And then, the comeback happened. Watching the video still makes my heart beat faster, and I was close to ripping my hair out while I was watching it live. It’s some of the most incredible Marvel play I’ve ever seen. In case you haven’t seen that part of the video, Justin won. He won three games in a row, one from about as close to death as you can get in a game as fast paced as Marvel.

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The crowd was cheering Justin’s name as he played, jumping up and down and shaking the stage every time he took back a round from Chris. A few years ago, the crown would have booed him and resigned themselves to his inevitable victory, but now, he was up against the one man they all wanted to see go down. Even commentator Michael “IFC Yipes’ Mendoza, a fellow New Yorker who trained with Chris, was rooting for Justin by the end.

Chris probably isn’t a bad guy by any means, and one can only imagine how hard it must be to be part of a community that is so out for your blood, and hates seeing you succeed, but for a few minutes there, all that was put aside. For that whole comeback, it wasn’t about Justing Wong and Chris Gonzalez. It wasn’t even about the classic MvC2 east coast vs. west coast rivalry. It was about two giants of the game, two players renowned as the best, clashing with absolutely perfect play. It was about the hype of watching the good guys triumph over the bad guys. It was about watching an underdog win, even if that underdog is one of the best in the world.

Sometimes, Evo’s about the hype, and the legends behind the big matches.

Infiltration vs. PR Balrog

But sometimes, I don’t need a rivalry, I need personal stories. I need stories like Eduardo “PR Balrog” Perez’s. A player that came out of nowhere just a few years ago to become one of the best in the world, the last American player left standing in the top eight of Street Fighter this year. Or a story like Sun Woo “Infiltration” Lee’s, last year’s champion, playing for his tournament life after eliminating not only Daigo Umehara, the “god of Street Fighter” but also his best friend, sparring partner, and coach, Ryan “Laugh” Ahn in the most intense game of Street Fighter that’s ever been played.

"Lee had to win because he had to make sure beating his friend was worth it. Perez had the hopes of a nation on his back." 

After Lee beat Ahn, the two players turned away from each other in respect. They went into the match knowing that the loser would be going home empty handed, not even making it into top eight, and they played with every ounce of their skill. It was a slow, almost painful match to watch, with commentator and former Capcom employee Seth Killian pointing out that they were running down the clock just to avoid having to fight each other. 

Lee had to win because he had to make sure beating his friend was worth it. Perez had the hopes of a nation on his back. Both are two of the best players in the game. Lee took one match from Perez. Then Perez fought back and took two. It was looking to be Perez’s game until Lee used his privilege as the loser of the last match to switch his character. Lee is known for his dominant Akuma, widely considered to be one of the best characters in the game. He switched to Hakan, who looks like this:

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He’s not that great. Hakan is a Turkish oil wrestler who can oil himself up during battle to make himself a significantly more dangerous opponent, and when I say significantly, I mean that it turns him from one of the most worthless characters in the game into a top-tier threat. The only issue is that oiling up leaves Hakan open, and if the oil wears off in the middle of a combo, your damage output is shot. Needless to say, he’s not very popular in tournaments.

Sun Woo "Infiltration" Lee

Sun Woo "Infiltration" Lee

Which is why Perez had no idea how to fight him. Hakan is already a tough match for Balrog. Hakan likes to grab characters at very close range while Balrog likes to run right up and punch people, but doesn’t really have any answers for a grab. All this was made worse for Perez because there are really no high level Hakans to practice against, especially because Lee is the world’s best Hakan.

Perez didn’t know what hit him. In an utterly dominant set of games, Lee’s Hakan climbed back up and won two rounds, taking the set. The crowd was screaming, Hakan became a worldwide trending topic on twitter, no one could believe that they just saw a Hakan not only be played at Evo top eight, but that he just knocked out PR Balrog, the great American hope. 

Eduardo "PR Balrog" Perez

Eduardo "PR Balrog" Perez

Everyone was flipping out, unable to control themselves due to the hype when the match ended. But Perez and Lee were calm and collected. There was no anger, they knew that it was an incredible game they just played, maybe the best game of the tournament, and instead of the traditional post-game handshake, the two got up out of their chairs and gave each other a big hug.

Sometimes, Evo’s about the people and their love, not just for the game, but for each other.

 

Mango vs. Hungrybox

To continue the sports comparison, sometimes, there’s nothing that can get me into a sport. The stories aren’t good enough, the hype’s not great enough, and I go into it thinking I’ll be bored.

"To me, the people who broke down Smash Bros. and figured out how to remove all the randomness and understand the many, many hidden variables were developing an algorithm that churned out jazz."

 

Year ago, I used to play soccer with some kids from my tae kwon do class. None of us were “good” but we played as sort of a cooldown from the two hours of punching and kicking and pushups we just did. We weren’t playing it because it was a sport, we were playin it because it was a game. Soccer only needs a ball and something to mark off a goal, it’s the lingua franca of games, everyone gets it, and anyone can play it.

But whenever the World Cup is on TV, I always watch a game or two. Not because I love the sport of soccer, or I have any affiliation with a team, but because I have a respect for the game that anyone can play being played by the absolute best. Everyone plays hockey as a kid in Canada, but there are barriers there, you need to be able to afford the gear, it’s no cheap sport. Soccer is the cheapest sport in the world; literally everyone who can kick a ball has a shot at being the very best.

Street Fighter isn’t as simple as soccer, but it was born in the arcades, where one round cost 25 cents. It was the cheapest videogame to play, and it was all about who was the best. That’s might be a reason why the fighting game community is populated by so many visible minorities, who are very often, and very unfortunately, not given the same opportunities in this world as white people. Kids who couldn’t afford new games all the time, but could drop a few quarters on Street Fighter.

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But Street Fighter is too complicated to be a lingua franca of videogames. Super Smash Bros. wasn’t cheap, but it just might be simple enough to be a contender. I’ve never enjoyed Smash Bros. as a tournament level game. It was designed with elements of randomness, with certain factors and variables deliberately hidden from the players. A game designer once told me you want your games to feel more like freeform jazz than math. To me, the people who broke down Smash Bros. and figured out how to remove all the randomness and understand the many, many hidden variables were developing an algorithm that churned out jazz. Sure, it was recognizable as the the thing I love, but it wasn’t the same.  

After watching this video, and the whole Smash Bros. top eight, I still don’t like it as a tournament level game. I think matches take too long, characters aren’t distinct enough, strategies are boring, and positioning is pointless. I think playing on only a handful of stages without any items defeats the purpose of Smash Bros., a game all about randomness and goofy fun.

But, hearing the crowd cheer, and seeing two players that were obviously at the top of their game (check the moment at about 7:30 where Hungrybox’s Jigglypuff chases Mango’s fox all the way off screen, then expertly floats back to safety), made something click in my head. It’s not the tournament level game I want, but it’s the tournament game that thousands more do. Hell, the game made it in to Evo for the first time since 2007 this year because the fans won a charity drive; they love the game more than I could probably understand.

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I might not care about the World Cup, or the Super Bowl, or even the Stanley Cup finals, which my country places unbelievable importance on, but I care about Evo; because sometimes it’s not about me. It’s about something bigger.

It’s about the hype, the legends going into each match, the people who love the game, the people who just want to bond over their shared love of a game, the people who watch three days of tournament just to see the one guy who knocked them out make it to the top. Evo is about respecting a game, and falling into the hype. Evo is about a community, the fighting game community, and even though they’ve had some problems in the past, the very best of them, the ones on stage at the end of the night, they’re what shows you the community is great. People who inspire the hype, people who don’t let it get to their heads, and hug after a match, people who will respect another game, and another person.

Evo is about inspiring the community to be the best it can be. 

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