The Continuing Growth of EVO

Dear readers, I love video games and the hype around them more than I care to admit. While hype surrounding games in the form of previews and preorders has become a bit of a dark cloud of a conversation, hype surrounding eSports is thriving. This past weekend was the Evolution fighting game tournament, and it scratched an itch for hype that I’ve been having for a while. I watched a good portion of the finals this past Sunday, and I had some observations on what made the event so exciting and fun to watch.

Evolution, or EVO for short, is a three day long convention and tournament for the fighting game community (FGC). If there’s a fighting game that you’ve heard of, chances are there is a competition for it at EVO. From Mortal Kombat, to Street Fighter, to Super Smash Brothers, almost everything is represented, even indie darlings like Skullgirls and Divekick; no game is too complex or too simple. This is good for the community, as it brings gamers from all walks of life to compete for a shot at some sort of glory. While the main stage is streamed on Twitch and even national television networks like ESPN U (and Disney XD in the case of Smash 4), there are smaller scale tournaments all over the arena that people can watch or participate in. Personal grudge and money matches are common, with people fighting for pride and prizes even if they aren’t in the upper echelon of competitors.

The broadcasting across these multiple networks is how so many people get to experience EVO. Making the trek to Las Vegas would be prohibitively expensive for many, but flipping a channel or opening another browser window is much more accessible. And to that end, the broadcasts are fairly welcoming and open. I caught the Smash 4 finals on both Twitch and ESPN U for the sake of comparison, as well as Tekken 7s, and BlazBlue’s just on Twitch. Each stream had announcers giving both general commentary on the players as well as some occasional play-by-play. Describing each move in a fast-paced game would be a bit too much and annoying, but when the situation is wild and energetic enough to call for it, the announcers never shy away. Additionally, there are headings added to the streams (not native to the game usually) telling which player corresponds to which character. Twitch made sure to add in which, if any, gaming organization the player was affiliated with, and ESPN color-coded the names to match the character icon. These bits of information obviously carry different weight to different audiences, but were overall helpful additions. Diversity was also present in the commentating. ESPN maintained its continual push for commentator gender diversity, as the Smash cast had both a male and female announcer, which is uncommon in eSports as far as I can tell. The Twitch commentators were of many different ethnicities, which was great, as this mirrors the diversity present in the actual FGC. That said, the Twitch broadcasts didn’t have any women commentating from what I could see, which was a bit of a bummer. Hopefully this is something they’ll work on going forward.

As I said, though, it is exciting to see gamers of so many races and nationalities present on the fight stage. While so much of gaming seems to be catering to straight white cis men, the FGC very explicitly is not. So many fighting games either have a Japanese or anime-inspired background, or at least rely on the characters-from-around-the-world mindset, that the people both on and off screen are a gradient of shades. Just as importantly for character representation, female characters are treated (agency and power-wise, at least) as equals to their male counterparts. The Smash 4 finals saw an American Bayonetta player defeat a Chilean Diddy Kong player. Again, it would be nice to see more women in the FGC, but I’ve heard that this is growing with time. Despite the occasional language barrier and infamous toxic reputation of the community, interactions between players were generally pleasant, even when massive defeats occurred. There is definitely an undercurrent of friendly competition between high level players. Additionally, the announcers stayed on topic without making sexist or racist remarks for the sake of humor. (One announcer even mentioned that a player exemplified “Black Excellence” because of good play!)

Narratives are just as important in EVO as they are in any sport. You have your heels, your underdogs, trolls, and champions. Your mindset on a player may change mid-bracket depending on who they play against, or which character they choose. However, seeing someone’s mom cheer them on from the audience is a surefire way to gain a new favorite player. And as these narratives evolve, or comebacks start to roll, hype builds. If you watch a few matches, you’ll see yourself cheering with your friends, or even in a room by yourself—the energy is infectious.

Overall, watching EVO 2017 was an amazing time for me. While I didn’t catch the entire event, it’s inspiring to see both such talent on display and the continual evolution of eSports. (No pun intended.) I hope to see the FGC grow both in size and diversity, as more people’s dreams come true, and I already look forward to the next big tournament and next year’s display. If EVO sounds like something you’re curious about, I recommend checking out their site and searching YouTube (they don’t have a centralized channel) for highlights from this year’s event.

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