I set up a laptop running one of my favorite, relatively-unknown competitive games, Twinkle Star Sprites, next to a double bed while a Guilty Gear Xrd match was happening not far from me at the suite's sink. My friend of 20 years is wagering cash on Windjammers in the other room.
It's late at night, and I'm at a hotel room for one of the "Bring Your Own Console" (BYOC) tournaments at EVO 2015, the most prestigious tournament for fighting games in the world.
EVO takes place yearly in Las Vegas, and draws players from around the globe to compete in several officially sanctioned games like Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Guilty Gear Xrd, Mortal Kombat X, Tekken 7, Super Smash Bros. Melee, and others.
But there's more to EVO than what's playing out on the big stage and on the tournament stations. EVO's main games are chosen from a massive pool of competitive titles that goes back two decades, some of which have fiercely loyal fanbases, small as they may be. Side tournaments for non-featured games, managed completely by fans, are a common sight in the halls, complete with handwritten signs and rules that accentuate the less professional but no less passionate nature of these competitions.
When the halls are cleared out at night, these "Bring Your Own Console" tournaments and casual games go back to hotel room parties, where every seat and electrical outlet in the room gets repurposed to create setups for games both well-known and obscure.
The most legendary of these sorts of parties are the generally invite-only "salty suites," where well-known players congregate to consume booze and engage in (highly unsanctioned) money matches. Didn't like the way your tournament match against someone played out? Put cold, hard cash on the line for the opportunity to reclaim your honor.
It's all part of the nebulous, fast-growing segment of gaming called eSports, where people compete in tournaments for specific games for prestige and prizes. Attendance estimates at the bigger eSports events range between 9,500 on the low end and 14,000 on the high end, with the most-entered tournament, Ultra Street Fighter IV (USFIV), drawing over 2,200 entrants alone.
That's the easy description. But in truth, EVO is something much more complex.***
There was a lot of excitement over USFIV because it's likely the last year it will be EVO's "big game." The sequel, Street Fighter V is slated to hit in early 2016, so everyone had high hopes for SFIV's sunset.
EVO is only partially about the games, however—it's also about the people who play them. One of the reasons competitive games appeal to people is that they give them an opportunity to construct a persona within a community. You might be working a boring day job where nobody remembers your name, but when you're going to tournaments and bodying scrubs left and right, you are a fiercely felt presence.
It's not surprising that many well-known fighting game players have professional wrestling-like "good guy" and "heel" personas they play up within the scene. People love the goofy, smiling guys who stick with unpopular character choices in the face of tough competition, and they love to hate the players who pick the characters believed to be "overpowered," and who publicly talk smack about their opponents.
These personae play a part of each individual's personal EVO story, a harrowing journey from the morass of tournament pools to the championship on the main stage that only one will claim as the winner.
Many people come to EVO mainly to witness the drama as it unfolds. They know they're unlikely to advance far in the tournament, but the draw of the spectacle is so powerful that they don't care. They just want to be a small part of it.
Fervent cheering and shouts of disbelief from a corner of the room announce when something big's going down at a tournament station. When upsets happen—and, with the amount of players at EVO, upsets are an inevitability—the actual and virtual spaces explode, tweet reactions flying and people running to report the amazing thing they just witnessed to others.
On day two of EVO, I meet up with Darryl Lewis, known in the Street Fighter scene as "Snake Eyez." Lewis is a true hero of the people, and one of the most beloved players within the scene as a whole. He plays Zangief, the massive Russian grappler. Characters like Zangief work completely differently within Street Fighter's framework: they're all about playing a waiting game, soaking up damage when necessary for a chance to get in close to the other fighter and grab them for serious pain. It's a character type that requires tremendous patience and discipline to use well, as you are often put at a serious disadvantage before you can turn the tables in your favor.
"I like how [Zangief] makes the opponent really scared, walking them back into a corner," Lewis said. "I think Zangief is the type of character who wins when he knocks you down… it really skews the [fight] in general."
Lewis made Top 8 in Ultra Street Fighter IV at EVO 2014, fighting through numerous nail-biters before falling to Luffy, the eventual champion for that year. This year, however, he was denied his Top 8 spot by Daigo Umehara, whose now decade-old video from EVO 2004 is still the thing of legends. He had a spectacular run, though, defeating EVO 2013 champion Xian, who has played against him numerous times at EVO in some of the most heated matches the tournament has ever seen.
It's his cool, laid-back demeanor that really charms, however. Lewis isn't one to posture or put people down, and his play is among the most calm and collected out there. If he was embittered by his loss the night before, it certainly didn't show.
Lewis was smiling and laughing, eager to talk. Even when Lewis straight up told me, "I'm the best Street Fighter player in America," it's spoken in such a calm and affirmative manner that you can't see it as bragging or arrogance–it's just this man's personal belief, and one he's certainly been able to back up on numerous occasions.
"A lot of people think I'm some old-school Street Fighter II player," he laughed. "But I actually learned how to play online."
It's a surprising admission, as there's something of a stigma against "online warriors" in the community. Cross-country lag means the conditions of local play aren't replicated exactly, and many online-centric competitors discover that their tactics aren't as viable in actual tournament play.
Lewis started off in 2009 with a wave of new Street Fighter players brought in from the release of Street Fighter IV and Super Street Fighter II HD Remix, the latter of which Lewis won at EVO 2010. Before that, his competitive game of choice was the first-person shooter Halo.
"If you play against those Japanese guys and you try something stupid, you're going to get punished," Lewis said. "Nobody over here really plays the way they do… they make the characters you thought you could easily beat look like bad matchups."
The matchup metagame is one of the key elements of fighting games: certain characters will inevitably be better at fighting others with the tools at their disposal. It's why, when you lose a set, you're allowed to change your character selection, a practice known as counterpicking. Zangief's matchup game is particularly brutal: characters with techniques that can keep him away can make battles look amazingly lopsided. But Lewis has persisted through and conquered many bad matchups. He just wants to conquer them better.
"I'm not a counterpick kind of guy," he said, though he has been known to switch from Zangief on rare occasions. "I just feel dirty when I do it." His tenacity in the face of potentially lopsided battles is part of the reason he's so respected, after all.
"You really do need some manner of luck on your side to win EVO," he muses. "Anything can happen." It's EVO.***
Day three of EVO is the true day of reckoning. The pools have been played through, and all that remains for each of the final day's games are eight fighters: Four from the winner's side and four from the loser's side in the double elimination bracket. A few finals have already happened: Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Tekken 7, and Killer Instinct have all wrapped up.
Story threads were already weaving. Top player Leffen's antics in the Super Smash Bros. Melee scene made him a person people loved to hate. Mortal Kombat had been singlehandedly funding 17-year-old champion SonicFox's college tuition, and it looked like EVO could be yet another source of funds. Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 was a bloodbath, with the "gods" of the game falling one after the other in pools and semifinals. Many well-known players of Ultra Street Fighter IV – the world-famous Daigo Umehara and Justin Wong, Snake Eyez, Xian, previous EVO champion and runner-up Luffy and Bonchan, and so many more – had all been eliminated before top 8. And then there was The Match Where the Shirts Came Off.
We all figured that was going to be the wackiest thing to happen at EVO. Then Guilty Gear Xrd started, giving us a moment between ace players Woshige and Ogawa, where a premature victory celebration turned disastrous. It was so tragically beautiful, so embarrassingly hilarious that it even showed up on ESPN's SportsCenter a day later. The Internet shall never, ever forget.
Ogawa would eventually win Guilty Gear Xrd. SonicFox came out of the loser's bracket to dominate Mortal Kombat in highly entertaining fashion. Mang0, Smash Bros. Melee champion 2 years running, was denied his threepeat in one of the most grueling struggles to the top the game had ever seen, with Armada coming out as the dominant force. KaneBlueRiver, a well-known though somewhat divisive figure in the Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 community, won the tournament using a team of large-bodied brawler characters: Hulk, Sentinel, and Mayor Mike Haggar.
Then it was time for Ultra Street Fighter IV. We all knew that top 8 was going to be good, of course, but we had no idea just how good.
Gamerbee, a well-loved player hailing from Taiwan, sailed through the loser's side, eliminating tough opponents like Japan's "Murder Face" Tokido and Nemo. Meanwhile, Korean force of nature Infiltration ran up against Momochi, a Japanese player who had won numerous global tournaments this year alone. While most players use one character primarily and have one or two additional characters they practice on the side, Infiltration seems to somehow be adept at using a good chunk of the 39-character roster, pulling out fighters nobody's ever seen him play before in tense situations. I had joked with Snake Eyez (here, now, I think of him not as "Darryl" but "Snake Eyez") about it during our conversation.
"Do you think Infiltration picks the next character he's going to master by tossing darts at a board with the roster on it?" Watching him now in these close three-out-of-five sets, it seemed like I had hit the bulls-eye.
I remember being in the crowd during the final half-minute of the Momochi vs. Infiltration fight, where both combatants were at a health level such that a few good hits would take the round, yet it was something of a Texas showdown, with each player hesitant to commit to an attack lest the other player capitalize on their mistake. The tension among the crowd was such that everyone was making vain attempts to communicate advice and support to their favorite player, but it could only come out as hollered gibberish, as though the Holy Spirit of Street Fighter had descended and made the audience speak in tongues.
As Infiltration moved to the Loser's Final versus Gamerbee, Gamerbee invoked a rarely-used rule that allows character choice in the initial set to be done "blind," so as to prevent counterpicks. It wouldn't be the last time special-case tournament rules would need to be invoked, as the duo went on to play one of the longest, tensest back-and-forth sets in Street Fighter history.
It's hard to believe anyone could come out of a drawn-out fight like that ready to face off in the championship battle, but it was now down to two: Momochi on the winner's side and Gamerbee on the loser's side. Yet it didn't take long for Gamerbee to show that he still had plenty of fight left in him. A bracket reset, a character switch, a series of fights that went down to the last round. It came to the last set, the competitors tied up 2-2, with Momochi up one round. The atmosphere was tense, the hall about to explode from the hype that had built over the course of these absurdly high-skill battles. Then disaster struck.
Momochi's joystick controller had malfunctioned, causing the console to pause. A pause is one of the most disruptive things that can happen in a fighting game, and as such, it's heavily penalized: the player who pauses, intentionally or unintentionally, forfeits the round. It was now 1-1, down to the final round – and Momochi needed a stick replacement.
This was unprecedented. The crowd was upset, their victory celebration after this long marathon delayed. The players were baffled. But amazingly, the players, the EVO staff, and the technical crew got it under control with a minimum of struggling.
And then, finally, it was clinched. Momochi, despite suffering one of the worst possible setbacks, was going home the champion.
As everyone filed out of the hall, returning to their rooms to relax and get some final games in, the mood was universal: "I can't believe I just witnessed that." You always go to EVO expecting to do a lot of things: meeting new and old friends, following favorite players through the ups and downs of their tournament run, and playing your beloved competitive games. You expect excitement, you expect disappointment, you expect shocking upsets and amazing comebacks. But nobody had expected this. Street Fighter IV's run as the big game at EVO had ended, and ended in the best way imaginable.
And then it's over, back to boring reality, away from multinational character casts throwing fireballs and crazy onstage antics and cheering for the underdog with thousands of other like-minded players.
But you know you'll be back again next year. It's EVO.