Natural Selection and Option Selects: The EVO Championship Series

The Evolution Championship series, also known as EVO, is the largest fighting game tournament in the United States, and it’s set to return to Las Vegas this weekend. Having been in existence for 14 years through multiple iterations of fighting games, technological changes, and even generations of gamers, what I find most fascinating about EVO is that, true to its name, it is both a showcase of a survival of the fittest philosophy, as well as an example of change and adaptation.

Fighting games are in an incredible place today. With more active fighting game communities in existence and a larger community than ever before thanks to the advent of online play, it’s easy to think that the famous impact of Street Fighter II and the legacy of the arcades had never truly gone away. However, prior to the grand mainstream return of the genre in the form of Street Fighter IV in 2008, fighting games had entered their dark ages. In 2002 Capcom barely considered fighting games to be a part of their lineup, and fans were standing up for what they believed in: fierce competition, and an appreciation of strategy, nerve, wits, and camaraderie, as well as a sense of “purity of experience.”

From Arcade to Console

EVO was born from arcades, as that’s where competition was at its finest, and the ability to adapt to whatever the arcade threw at you—whether it was unlikely opponents, difficult controls, or even a bustling yet foreboding atmosphere—was key to victory. New York gamers were well aware of this, as NYC was home to Chinatown Fair, the birthplace of many EVO champions. On the day of a tournament, only the best could move on, and EVO embraced this mentality. Additionally, while many games were adapted to home consoles at that point, most of the time they had minor to significant changes due to differences in hardware. As a result, EVO matches were played out on arcade machines, because that was the competitive standard.

In 2004, however, home consoles had reached a point of development where they were practically as good as the arcades. Between the Playstation 2, Dreamcast, and more, the old adage that having a video game console was like “having an arcade at home” was less an advertising slogan and more of a reality. EVO decided to make almost a full switch to consoles, which was controversial to say the least. EVO had been built with arcade machines, and the idea of the arcade as the default and therefore most common iteration of a fighting game meant that it was forcing players to unlearn what had at that point become gospel to the community.

History has proven the switch to console to be the right decision, as not only are arcades themselves an ever-increasingly rare sight in the United States, and consoles have become the de facto standard for fighting games, but the philosophy of adaptation on a competitive level has encouraged players to learn a lot more about themselves and their peers. For example, where at one point playing with a gamepad instead of an arcade stick was considered ridiculous for “real competitors,” a number of players have rose up using their gamepads, and have even won tournaments with them, most notably EVO 2014 Ultra Street Fighter IV champion, Meltdown Louffy.

Super Smash Bros. and the Philosophy of Adaptation

While competitors at EVO have always been subject to the law of the electronic jungle, the game themselves have also been under scrutiny. While some tournaments have always erred on the side of caution, EVO was willing to throw any decent fighting game on-stage and challenge its players to find the greediest, most exploitable strategies possible and abuse them to no end. The idea is, if a fighting game is deep and complex enough, then people will eventually find ways around it. Another possibility would be that publicizing these strategies at EVO would make them commonplace and thus allow people more access to the strategies themselves, as well as the potential to devise counters. If neither could happen, then a game simply didn’t deserve to be competitive. EVO was willing to experiment where others would not even dare.

And yet, this philosophy of change and adaptation was also stubborn in its own ways. When Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. series first became part of EVO, it was done hastily, and so organizers decided to adapt the existing Smash community’s rules, which involved a heavy customization of the ruleset well beyond the default. Smashers had learned how to take their raw materials and refine them into an environment that emphasized skill and the pleasurable competitive experience they desired, and this was evident in the way they played their game, Super Smash Bros. Melee. When the sequel, Super Smash Bros. Brawl came out in 2008, EVO decided to immediately throw it into their tournament, reflecting their on-going desire to put the games themselves through trial by fire, but with the caveat that the game would adhere closer to its default rules and that it would be up to the community to change them.

This would be a point of contention between the EVO organizers and the Smash community leading all the way up to the tournament itself, as both sides believed they were in the right. The results themselves were controversial, and both sides left with a bitter taste in their mouths, believing the other to have been too unwilling to change. It wasn’t until a community-wide effort involving a breast cancer donation drive that rose over $200,000 that Super Smash Bros. would make its return to EVO, and this time the Smash community’s rules were embraced. Sometimes the best adaptation is to understand where the players themselves are coming from.

 

And now…

EVO 2015 has more games than any previous iteration. Between Ultra Street Figher IV, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Guilty Gear Xrd: Sign, Persona 4 Arena: Ultimax, Killer Instinct, Mortal Kombat X, and Tekken 7. Each game boasts a unique community, and this makes running the tournament all the more challenging. This makes sense, as EVO has historically shown both a desire to push itself to the limits and a willingness change with the times. All the same, however, sometimes the biggest changes come from remembering the core beliefs that EVO were founded on.

EVO never fully abandoned the core philosophy of testing games at the extremes. This year marks the first time that the new Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (aka Smash 4) will be at EVO, and amidst a controversy within the Smash 4 community as to whether or not custom moves—special variations in characters’ techniques that can sometimes drastically change how they play—should be allowed, EVO has allowed them. One gets the feeling that they’re hoping to see just how high the game can soar, or indeed crash and burn, when pushed to its limits.

Moreover, 11 years after the move to consoles, an arcade tournament is coming back to EVO. Tekken 7 isn’t even available on consoles, which necessitates bringing actual arcade machines of this brand new game to Las Vegas. For many, the contraptions will look out of place, but to those who remember EVO’s roots, it’ll be in a certain sense a return home.

Whether you’re competing in person, crushing all those who dare to attack you, or watching at home as a family man (or woman!), I hope you enjoy EVO 2015.

-Carl

Waku Waku +NYC is a new Japanese pop culture festival coming to New York City this August 29-30. Games, anime, manga, food, fashion and more, Waku Waku +NYC is a celebration of the best of Japan!

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