EVO, the biggest fighting game showcase in the world, grew out of the pavement. Bay Area brothers Tom and Tony Cannon and their friends Joey Cuellar and Seth Killian spent the 1990s putting on underground tournaments in local arcades, but in 2002 they shipped off to Vegas for something a little bigger. The goal was to create a centralized, all-encompassing festival that would function as a quasi-Olympics for their favorite fighting games.
So, without any capital or sponsorship, they wheeled a few cabinets into a vacant ballroom, and a small group of registrants did battle in Street Fighter 2, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, and Capcom vs. SNK 2. There were no Twitch streams and a very limited prize pool. The primary reward? The crucial respect of the community, and a VHS tape as proof. It was humble as hell, but the Evolution Championship Series was born.
"Those were the gritty years, we did everything ourselves," said Joey Cuellar in a phone conversation with VICE Sports. "We ran the entire event, we moved the TVs ourselves, all the consoles, everything. Looking back, it's pretty incredible to see how far we've come from an arcade in Northern California."
Things will be a little bit different when EVO celebrates its 14th anniversary this weekend. Last year's event handed out $303,500 in prize money, with Yusuke Momochi, the first place finisher in Street Fighter IV, taking home $33,000 for himself. This year, the prize pool will nearly double, with EVO squashing the registration records it set a year ago. Over 5,000 people will compete in Street Fighter V. Another 2,637 gamers will complete in Super Smash Bros. 4, along with 2,350 in Melee. The finals of this year's Street Fighter tournament will be broadcast live on ESPN2, bringing more mainstream attention to the fighting game scene in a single evening than in all of the last decade combined.
None of this should be totally surprising. After all, the Esports industry is expected to exceed $1 billion in revenue in 2019; against that backdrop, EVO's growth is predictable. On the other hand, most of the other major events in esports are funded by massive, hungry corporations Valve, Blizzard, EA, and Riot are pouring millions and millions of dollars into their esports programs, and while the product is often good, they also can feel like a boardroom ploy to buy into the future of gaming before it's too late.
But EVO? EVO is still independently owned by those same four friends. They're still calling the shots, signing the deals, and featuring the games they want to feature. The estimated value of the operation may have changed, but the ethos has remained the same.
"I've done all the 9-5 jobs there was, and I didn't like that life," Cuellar said. "It's been 20 years of hard work, and now we get to reap the rewards. It's a great feeling to wake up and work on EVO."
The first time Vineeth "ApologyMan" Meka tuned into EVO it was in 2010, while he was on vacation with his family in India. His power went out during a now-classic match between legendary Street Fighter player Daigo Umehara and Poongko. Lesson learned: since 2012, Meka hasn't taken any chances, attending EVO every year and competing in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Today, he's the 11th-ranked player in the world, and took third place in last year's tournament.
Meka plays in contests all over the country, but like everyone else in the fighting game scene, he considers these three days in Vegas a tournament apart. "EVO is special because you know every player has been training all year because it's The Big One," he says. "You can almost feel the intensity in the air when you're surrounded by so many passionate players, and every match you play carries so much more value than other tournaments."
Julio Fuentes feels the same way. The 24-year-old Street Fighter pro has been going to EVO since 2010, and has made a name for himself as one of the best American-born players in the world. He's had his nose to the grindstone for months. "I'm from Northern California, but I've been taking trips to SoCal so I can play against different people so I make sure I'm really strong for EVO," he says. "I'm going in really confident, I can feel the improved version of myself."
While EVO promises a chance for stardom and significant cash, it's more than just a grueling gaming gauntlet against the best competition in the world. The fighting game community is famously close-knit. A cult of diehards resists new technology and builds a vibrant Super Smash Bros. Melee scene. A couple lifers in San Francisco turn a grassroots bragging rights tourney into one of the biggest esports events of the summer. The real fun of EVO, Meka says, is hanging out with friends that he only gets to see a couple times a year. The tournament is first and foremost a family reunion—even if everyone is there to beat the virtual shit out of each other.
Funtes says the "real" EVO experience doesn't start until the lights are off, and the players retreat back to the hotels. "The money matches that happen in the hotel rooms and hallways at night, that's the exciting part," he says. "Before I was sponsored, I'd be up 'til 4 AM every night money-matching with all the top stars from around the world, literally doing nothing but putting money up and playing sets. For me, that's the best way to enjoy EVO. A little Street Fighting and a little gambling."
So much about esports is new. New games, new investors, new partnerships, new initiatives. Only fighting games haven't changed much, and in 2016, EVO hasn't left behind its arcade roots. Some of the scene's foundational players—like Justin Wong, Lee "Infiltration" Seong-woo—are still active, and still competitive. There's still an air of true independence at EVO that's become harder and harder to find as the industry grows.
What's less certain is how long the tournament can remain that way.
"There's been offers to buy EVO, and it's something we look at seriously," Cuellar said. "I can't see us selling to a company in the near future, but you never know. It's a different situation if there's a real offer on the table, and you have to contemplate how much longer you want to do this."
Cuellar insists that if he and his partners ever do decide to sell EVO, it will be to people who will maintain the event's ethos. Still, it's a little sad to imagine a future in which the premier event in fighting games isn't run by people who grew up in the community. EVO always felt genuinely home-grown, never embarrassing or inauthentic. It would be hard to trust a cabal of venture capitalists to keep it that way.
On the other hand, Esports continue to look more and more like traditional sports. And traditional sports are a big, corporatized business. Fuentes takes independence seriously, says he grew up playing Street Fighter in laundromats and 7-11s. But he's also a professional with bills to pay. If EVO ever did switch hands to a company rich with publishing power and prize money, well, maybe that wouldn't be the worst thing.
"I'd be cool with it as long as it was sold to a trustworthy company," Fuentes said. "We have to move forward, we can't be an underground community forever. We need to be on a bigger platform with more regulation. That'd be excellent, as long as we can trust them. If someone bought EVO and really supported the scene and put on more tournaments, everyone would be happy."
No matter what happens, the community figures to endure. A decade ago, the gaming press was elegizing the "death" of fighting games. EVO was scrounging for attention and forced to run tournaments for older, stale games like Tekken Tag Tournament, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, and Street Fighter II. But hardcore players still showed up. It doesn't matter if there's thousands of people watching live on Twitch, or a hotel room full of dudes dropping $20's. There will always be a core group of gamers who just want to beat up their friends. They survived the bust; they'll certainly survive the boom.
"Our community has kept us resilient," Meka said. "Without the people to interact and play with, fighting games are nothing. The thing I always enjoyed about fighting games is that they require you to be there in person, naturally forcing these face-to-face human interactions, which nurtures these strong bonds."
EVO is Thanksgiving dinner with ultra combos. The production values are getting higher, the purses are getting larger, and the guest list is becoming more prestigious. But at its core, it's still an event powered by friendship. Esports' growth comes with more corporate involvement, making the scene bigger, richer and more impersonal. When it comes to EVO, it's hard not to hope that the ultimate video game punk rock tournament stays that way.
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