Over the weekend, game fans across the globe enjoyed EVO, the world’s biggest fighting game event. While many came to the Mandalay Bay Event Center to witness the proceedings firsthand, hundreds of thousands more tuned in to Twitch to watch some of the most talented players display their prowess across a variety of different games.Yet there was something very different this year. Usually, the main event at EVO is Street Fighter, Capcom’s long-running, world-beloved fighting game franchise. Top 8 for Street Fighter is always positioned at the very end of EVO, with all of the other featured games being undercards of sorts. Pools for Street Fighter would run constantly on Friday and Saturday, with everything seemingly grinding to a halt for more hotly anticipated bouts featuring famous players. If something really absurd happened, like a killer being knocked out in pools by a relative unknown, you’d hear about it immediately.
Street Fighter was still the final game on Sunday at EVO 2018—that hadn’t changed at all. But so much else surrounding the game did. As I hung around the tournaments for side games and ran around doing interviews with exhibitors at the show, the stories of legendary battles I heard weren’t about Street Fighter, but the other featured games: Tekken 7, Dragon Ball FighterZ, even the recent Blazblue X Tag Battle. Street Fighter publisher Capcom, who was normally a reliable yearly sponsor of EVO, was surprisingly absent from the event space. Publishers like Bandai-Namco, Tecmo-Koei, Arc System Works, Nintendo, and even NIS America were all onhand to demo their upcoming games, yet Capcom wasn’t even there to hawk Street Fighter tchotkes at a merchandise booth.On the final day, during the last Street Fighter V matches, things felt weirdly subdued compared to previous years. Despite the champion being a crowd favorite—UK-based M. Bison player Problem X, who toppled last year’s champion Tokido—it just didn’t have that same excitement as last year’s fierce face-off between Tokido and Punk. The high point was arguably the game’s producer Yoshinori Ono coming up onstage to debut the final two DLC fighters of the season, G and Sagat. Viewership numbers on Twitch reflected this: almost 260,000 people tuned in to watch the game just before Street Fighter V, Dragon Ball FighterZ, setting a new record for EVO viewership. When SFV rolled around, that number had dropped to 215,000—just 20,000 more than Smash Bros Melee and 30,000 more than Tekken 7. It’s clear that Street Fighter is no longer the must-see game at EVO. That’s not a problem for EVO, but it’s a big problem for Capcom, whose games have always enjoyed a special kind of omnipresence at the event.
So why has Capcom’s place as king of fighting games started to slip? For starters, Capcom has dropped the ball on several titles that should have been massive hits over the past half decade: Street Fighter X Tekken, Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite, and to a lesser degree, Street Fighter V itself. These games all garnered some seriously bad pre-release press, with complaints ranging from lackluster visuals to bad DLC schemes to a lack of content at launch. Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite’s mishandling was particularly egregious: The game’s graphics were lousy in previews, several Marvel favorites couldn’t be used due to politics between Fox and Disney, and interviews with folks working on the games included such embarrassing PR gaffes as referring to said beloved characters as merely “functions.” MvCI wasn’t even a featured game at EVO, despite having launched late last year and the Marvel vs. Capcom series traditionally being a major draw. Capcom’s image has suffered as a result.Another factor is just how many fighting games are out right now, and the support they are getting from both their publishers and communities. Arc System Works, the developer behind Blazblue X Tag Battle, Guilty Gear Xrd, and Dragon Ball FighterZ, has taken serious steps to embrace the fighting game community outside of Japan, announcing a global tournament series akin to Capcom’s own Street Fighter-centric Capcom Cup—but with all of their current games featured. (Bandai-Namco, the publishers of Dragon Ball FighterZ, has its own separate tournament series for that game.) Upcoming fighters Soul Calibur VI, Dead or Alive 6, and SNK Heroines were all being pushed hard at the show through demos and exhibition tournament. For a long time, Street Fighter was perceived as being the game where the fame and money was at, but now that there are more options, people are more comfortable saying that actually, they don’t really like Street Fighter V and want to focus on something else instead. (Dragon Ball FighterZ actually had more entrants this year than Street Fighter V, which is a first.)But perhaps the most important factor was how much Dragon Ball FighterZ has changed the current fighting game landscape. Players from scenes like Guilty Gear, Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom, and even Super Smash Bros have all come into the Dragon Ball FighterZ fold, and the community for the game has been thriving since release. (A joke on the EVO floor was that “ Dragon Ball FighterZ player” Leffen, a well known, high ranking Super Smash Bros player, somehow won Super Smash Bros. Melee.). Among these players, a great rivalry has emerged between America’s SonicFox and Japan’s GO1 (pronounced “go-ichi”), two players known for being incredibly strong across multiple fighting games. Their constant back-and-forths at various events have kept people tuning in to see who will best whom this time around, and EVO was no different, offering up a SonicFox vs. GO1 grand finals that saw SonicFox victorious—but who knows what will happen next time their paths cross? Rivalries like these make for great stories that keep people tuning in, and it’s something Street Fighter lacks right now.One of the biggest stories at EVO this year involved a player named Mike Ross. Mike was known and loved by many in the Street Fighter scene as a personality who appeared in numerous YouTube videos and as a frequent commentator, and even worked at Twitch for some time on a Street Fighter-focused gaming show. Yet he disappeared shortly after Street Fighter V launched, remaining mostly unseen save for a Reddit AMA where he expressed his dislike of the game. But when Top 32 finals of Guilty Gear Xrd rolled around, people were surprised to see a very familiar-looking face with a different name pulling up to the tournament station.In many ways, Mike Ross’s transition from a Street Fighter personality to a surprise top Guilty Gear player felt representative of EVO as a whole. Mike no longer felt obliged to stick with Capcom’s games and shifted his efforts to a title he enjoyed more—a movement that’s happening throughout the fighting game scene as more players find new and different games. Capcom’s still a major player in fighting games, but they’re no longer the undisputed title holder.