“We were somewhere above Barstow, on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” Specifically that drug was ibuprofen, and my god it was the only thing that made this EVO report doable.
I’ve made an improbably large amount of stupid decisions in my life, but getting my tonsils removed mere days before flying from southern Maine to Las Vegas to a fighting game convention is pretty high up on the list… The Evolutionary Championship Tournament, with competition amongst the upper echelon of fighting games: Dragonball, Tekken, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Melty Blood, Skullgirls, King of Fighters, Granblue Fantasy and Guilty Gear Strive. My roommate had a trip planned, and I had gotten the green light to cover it for the site. I’ve had an uneventful track record with fighting games as a genre, having mostly played against AI growing up, but still had a lot of fun with Soul Calibur 2 on GameCube and Guilty Gear XX on the PS2. Outside of that, most of my “fighting game” experience was with what I later found out were mostly arena fighters like Naruto Clash of Ninja 2 and my all time personal favorite, Virtual ON. I have gotten more experience recently with “real” fighting games, playing consistent games of Skullgirls and Guilty Gear Strive with my small circle of friends, but never would never consider myself to be anything other than competent at best. I love fighting games conceptually, but in practice there’s too much happening all so fast that it easily confuses my elderly brain. So I realized I was going to need an angle to cover EVO from, and thankful inspiration wasn’t too far away. Enter fellow TYF contributor, tenant, fighting game devotee and one of my eternally suffering best friends, Aaron. As luck would have it, Aaron was planning on meeting up with a group of his friends from Discord and were going to enter EVO as competitors. I filled him in on the situation, and after a few rounds of him telling me how terrible of an idea this was, he capitulated. We got the group together a few times over the next couple of weeks to work out details and plans, making sure that the travel gauntlet of the trip went as smoothly as possible. It didn’t.
The flight to Vegas was a nightmare. What was supposed to be a simple six-ish hour flight ended up as a nearly 24 hour delay-addled journey, as both our connecting airports in Charlottesville, NC and Las Vegas were undergoing a heavy storm. Our initial flight was outright canceled, and all of our backup flights were continually delayed, our spare travel day entirely lost just trying to get our flight confirmed. My very poorly timed decision to have my tonsils removed a few days before the trip immediately came back to haunt me. Not only could I not swallow properly without an eye watering amount of pain, but I couldn’t even engage in my favorite travel passtime: dining out at weird airport restaurants. (RIP to my Baddy Daddy burger bar experience) The only thing that saved me from tapping out at this point and trying to book a flight home was my secret weapon of being able to fall asleep virtually anywhere, even while wildly uncomfortable. Thankfully, after a very long night, we were able to book our connecting flights and get back to our trip back on the road. We touched down in McCarran airport a few hours after the beginning of the tournament, checked into our hotel and hauled ass to the Mandalay Bay convention center, home of the Evolution Championship tournament.
This was my first EVO in person, but I knew roughly what to expect going in: lots of tables set up with games, a big main stage with high profile matches, and plenty of side attractions. What did come as a surprise was how well organized everything turned out being, especially for a convention under new management after a pandemic induced hiatus. Gone are the days of money matches, hotel room side setups and bathroom stall bouts of Melty Blood. EVO of 2022 is a much cleaner and classy affair. I was surprised to see a focus on smaller games and a table set up with a Dreamcast and CRT playing Marvel vs Capcom 2, while the player had his very modern looking fightstick hooked up by way of a foot of daisy chained connectors and converters, showing the true fighting game spirit of “If there’s a will, there’s a way” is still alive and well. While I can’t personally compare to previous years, the convention hall was packed with people, both competitors in many of the on-site tournaments running and fighting game enthusiasts there to see the spectacle. I was glad to see such a turnout so soon during a pandemic, and while the entire venue was mask mandatory, everyone seemed to be comfortable in a convention space again, helping to abate my previous fear of the loss of offline conventions in a post-pandemic world. Another thing I was somewhat surprised to see was sales booths. As EVO had been recently acquired by Sony, I expected to see some PlayStation booths, perhaps a few game preview stations, but in the middle of a fighting game hall was a mini artist alley and my personal favorite haunt of the trip, the fighting stick repair booth.
As simple as they seem from the outside, fighting game sticks turn out to be surprisingly finicky on the inside. With a bevy of pressure fit cables and a relatively tiny control board, fighting game sticks can turn out to be real precision equipment, and something you really don’t want falling apart mid match. I loved watching the stick doctors at work as they tried to speed diagnose and repair controllers, a veritable gaming M.A.S.H. unit on the border of the main tournament hall. I knew a small amount about this process thanks to Aaron’s beloved N30 fight stick from 8BitDo as he tried replacing parts on it and modifying it for weeks leading up to the trip. By the time we got there, the gate and stick protruded so far out of the bottom of the chassis that he had to install a wood plank on the bottom of the stick with furniture sliders on the bottom to keep it from sliding about.
Hanging out around the stick doctor booth also gave me a perfect opportunity to get some first hand experience with the fighting game community’s favorite pastime: stick modding. While fighting sticks offer no objective benefits over a standard controller, they have become a staple of the scene, and just like with PC and car enthusiasts, pushing the concept of “what can be a fighting stick” to its limits is the real draw. While people watching near the booth, I saw some fantastic examples of fight stick wizardry, from a tupperware fight stick and a stick made from a modified Wii U body to a hand sculpted, fully functioning hardwood stick. Asking around about stick variation, I got a real sense of pride emanating from these people and their gear, a kind of bond that can only be formed by spending countless hours honing one’s craft. Watching as a fighting stock novice, the way some of the competitors here were able to precisely input complex commands on them, I was shocked at how fluid and effortless they made it all look.
Piquing my interest in talking to professionals about the hobby, I made my way over to the hardware booths, with some of the top premium premade stick vendors there to show off their latest designs. One booth that I was pleased to see was the Hitbox team, a company that was the first to mainstream the “all button fight stick”. The concept of the Hitbox is relatively simple; by replacing the analog portion of the fighting stick with 4 directional buttons, you can faster and more accurately input your combos, reducing accidental input and completely eliminating the “stick recoil” caused by flicking a stick and having it register an opposite input caused by the stick rebounding. The Hitbox controller was actually the first fighting game stick I purchased since my last big push to get into fighting games, and while it ended up being a lot for me personally to use, I remained in love with the concept and was very excited to talk to some of the developers. Apparently, the concept of the all button stick was a natural progression from fighting games played on keyboard, an apparent mainstay in the South Korea fighting game community. I also got to see in person their new(er) device, the Cross Up, a Hitbox variant that included an analog stick in addition to a third row of input buttons dedicated to movement as well, giving you the options to switch between the two styles on the fly. The Hitbox folks were very lovely, but their booth quickly grew crowded with customers and I didn’t want to get in their way, so I made my way over to the Inzone booth, Sony’s big hardware showcase at the tournament.
A couple of weeks before the convention, Sony announced they are releasing a new hardware line of gaming optimized monitors and headsets, and that they were going to be the “official hardware of EVO”, so naturally I had to check out what all the fuss was about. After taking to the very genuine and enthusiastic rep they had on hand, I learned that while their new line was perfectly compatible with PS5 and the console space, what Sony is really gunning for is the premium PC hardware enthusiast. Being an almost perfect mark for who they were trying to sell to, I do have to say the M9 is stunning, and very possibly my next monitor (assuming it can receive the all important Rtings seal of approval). The H9 is a full 4K monitor capable of hitting 144hz with HDR enabled, a feat even my current ViewSonic XG270Q can’t match. While obviously still very much a premium product at a premium price at $899.99, seeing it in action had me honestly considering an upgrade when I got home.
Regrouping after a bit with Aaron and the gang, I found out that everything had gone pretty much as I expected and the entire party had been eliminated before the end of day one. While genuinely a pity, it did however free us up to do some more exploring of the convention hall itself. Aaron found himself making it fairly high into a Windjammers tournament, a competitive 90’s SNK cabinet frisbee game that is apparently just fighting game adjacent enough to get a nook of the main hall all to itself. It was here where I found the most interesting section of the convention, the micro communities that existed around the periphery of the main events. Of course, the main eight were the big reason for people to come, it was what got streamed from the EVO official Twitch channel, and arguably had the most attention paid to it, but what fascinated me was just the amount of people playing their own games without a care to the big event, as I got to watch what very well may have been the world’s best fighters at some of the most obscure games you’ll ever see. Newer games that had fallen from the spotlight like Marvel VS Capcom Infinite and Soul Calibur 6, more obscure fighters like Tatsunoko vs Capcom, Gundam VS Maxiboost ON, Street Fighter X Tekken, and some venerable elders like Garou: Mark of the Wolves and Street Fighter 3rd Strike. People who have been honing their craft at the same game for so long it’s been permanently baked into their muscle memory, all flocking to the Mecca of fighting games to test themselves against their peers and rivals. To the uninitiated this just looks like any regular video game, but if you watch long enough, you can begin to see what makes these people so skilled: reads made in fractions of a second, lightning fast reflexes countering an attack lasting mere moments and punishing mistakes that last only frames. I always knew the fighting game fanatics were a different breed, but nothing confirmed those beliefs like seeing it in person at the heart of it all.
By the night of day two, the convention had closed and I made a personal excursion out on the strip to see Vegas in all its glory. I’d gone out that night to see the Vegas Strip for all it was. We’d been in such a rush by the time I arrived that all my mind registered was “Damn it’s hot” whilst hustling to keep my Doc Martens from melting on the heat of the tarmac.
But at night the city glows like a walking advertisement, casinos and street performers, gaudy billboards and storefronts all vying for attention with flashy colors and promises and walls of noise that follows you everywhere. Pure unfiltered sensory overload, like the sound of burning money directly into your retinas hoping to dupe you out of yours in return. Most cities were transformed by the COVID pandemic but Vegas seems resilient.
I never really learned how to gamble so I tried my luck for a taste of the experience; just a few dollars on some slots or painfully learning craps. I didn’t even notice I had lost until Ryuji was mocking me for not doing better. Figuring it was probably best to cut my losses early, I made my way back to our hotel, the Orleans, at about 2AM. It’s a beautiful Mardi Gras themed hotel with an attached casino that was very lively for this late at night, with endless rows of slot machines and virtual poker tables occupied by the nocturnal gambling addicts. It was a very curious experience, looking at these poor folk from the outside, as clearly any love they had for the lights and manufactured excitement for gambling had long since past, it had devolved into what looked like a job, as if they would rather be anywhere else but are mindlessly laser focused on pumping virtual quarters into a machine that made a few seconds of lights and noise but rarely any payout. Is this not different from any game you can download on your phone? Hell, on your PlayStation? Pumping invisible dollars into Candy Crush for better results, flashy prizes or securing the best new cute girl character in your party in Genshin Impact? There’s something quaint about this old way of hooking people in that it feels less dangerous than what video games of the modern age are capable of. Is it sad to have friends waste away hard earned hours on Activision loot boxes or tearing crinkly foiled packages of Pokemon and Magic cards? Sure, but everyone needs some way to do some stress relief and turn themselves off from the rest of the world for a little while. Vegas is a monument to that mentality. With that sobering thought to end the night on, I make it back to our room and crash.
Dawn of the final day, and we are in for the full EVO experience at the Michelob Ultra Arena. The top eight games are the big show that everyone comes out for, and that means you get to see the beset players in the FGC (fighting game community) smack down for hours for a crowd. That energy is electric. For me, it was really the first time I paid attention to the actual main events going on. We made it to our seats just as King of Fighters was wrapping up and made it just in time for my first exposure to what I later found out was called “Good Ass Tekken”. Having fallen on the Soul Calibur side of Bamcos fighting game duology, I had very little experience with Tekken outside of the clips Aaron would show me and a few rounds of Tekken 7 bowling mode (arguably the superior Tekken experience) but watching the top eight of the world’s greatest players going head to head made something click.
Even with no real Tekken experience and not knowing anything at all about any of the characters, watching the fights play out I was able to immediately pick up on the ebb and flow of the fight, the “blink and you’ll miss it” whiffs and pokes, the moment when a hit gets through the defense of a combatant and the game transitions from a duel between two players to a juggling game where you want to get in as much damage as possible before the combo drops and the cycle repeats. As we watched the matches play out, one thing that came as some surprise was that although the games had different character types, rules and mechanics, the momentum of each of the games was surprisingly similar. In extremely high skill matches, defense is paramount, so the long game is all about positioning and playing footsies: the act of baiting your opponent into a big attack with small jabs, and this stayed true across Tekken, Street Fighter and Guilty Gear. Having moderate experience with Guilty Gear Strive, I figured the Burst mechanic, where each player has a “get out of combo free” card that they can play with an extremely long cool down, would fundamentally change the way the players would engage each other, but for the most part, it was the same “defense and poke, if poke do combo” techniques I’ve seen in the previous games. It was fantastic seeing all of this playing out live, and it’s really hard to sell just how much different the energy is seeing this in person.
A personal highlight will forever be witnessing an entire audience of people belting Guilty Gear Strive’s main theme “Smell of the Game” with the series director Diskue secretly watching on, and even though he was fully masked up, you could just tell he had the biggest grin on his face. Watching the matches play out while Aaron sat next to me checking FGC Twitter for the latest play-by-play updates and memes was an experience I greatly enjoyed, and making gentlemen’s wagers with the belligerently drunk man in front of us was just the cherry on top of the whole night. (Sadly he dipped out before Street Fighter ended, but we would have won $50! Vegas, Baby!) At around 1 in the morning, as Guilty Gear was finally wrapping up, the EVO team came out on stage and took a final bow and showed a brief short film about the weekends events, which was a nice little recap that must have been put together in real time, so hats off to whoever had to edit that together live as the matches progressed. We finally made our way back out through the casino and began bracing ourselves for the final part of our journey.
After some Home Alone levels of shenanigans that we had to deal with at the airport between missing check in windows, misspelled names on boarding passes and abrupt delays, we made it on our flight by the skin of our teeth as the boarding terminal doors closed behind us.
Before long I was back in the comfort of my Mainer home, and throughout my admittedly overlight writing process, I observed Aaron teaching our other roommate and our editor Evan the basics on Guilty Gear Strive, unlearning and relearning how to do quarter circles, half circles and combos. I watched with a newfound appreciation for the fighting game medium. I can see myself going back out into the world to experience another fighting gamer tournament. Hell, living with Aaron, I have no choice.
God I just hope it’ll be somewhere colder.