In hindsight, I really don't know what I was worried about.
Before this year's EVO championship series kicked off, I was vaguely concerned. The usually reliable hype-factory Marvel vs. Capcom 3 was on first - way too early for my idiot band of friends to truly enjoy. Blazblue was next, followed by the big-stage debut for Tekken 7 and then Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, which has fairly equal potential to be both amazing or boring. Tournament entrant numbers were down, and after a year of particularly negative word of mouth around flagship fighters like Street Fighter 5, I just had an iffy feeling about the whole thing. But, no - this year's EVO was, again, amazing.
Last year when I talked about EVO I focused on Street Fighter 5. While that game is undoubtedly still the driving force behind my EVO obsession, it's long since escalated beyond Street Fighter. I began watching with my friends because we loved SF4, but things snowballed from there.
We'd watch Marvel, Tekken, Persona 4 Arena. When Super Smash Bros made its triumphant return to EVO thanks to a charity donation drive we were ecstatic - we knew little about the competitive Smash community, but it was a game we all knew and had put many hours into being played at a level we scarcely imagined existed.
EVO became a tradition for us; as many as twelve of us would hole up in an overcrowded room to watch live. Things escalated. Watching on a 40-inch TV gave way to a 100-inch projector screen. One of my friends, a bar manager, turned up one year with a shed load of booze and a custom cocktail menu with drinks based off and named after games and characters we'd see on stream. That too became tradition, and this year the group knocked back cocktails like the Devil Gin for Tekken, the on-fire Yoga Burner for Street Fighter and the blue-and-red When's Marvel for... well, you get the picture. It's an amazing night.
But I was still worried. This year was strange. The substitution of the tried-and-tested Super Smash Bros. Melee for Smash 4, a game that's even longer in the tooth, was a bit of a question mark. I never think Blazblue is particularly interesting. Tekken 7 is an amazing game, but I was yet to be fully convinced of it being all that watchable. Pretty much all of those fears ended up being unfounded.
"Street Fighter 5's EVO 2017 top eight was the finest championship final of any Street Fighter I've ever seen."
Special commendation has to be given to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, which featured a diverse, eclectic top eight featuring a wide range of different characters and none of the same-player, same-character stuff we so often see in Melee. It feels like an incredibly dynamic game right now even if it's a little on the slow side in tournament runtime.
The goodbye to Marvel vs. Capcom 3 was poignant, but it has to be said that one can sense that the game is at its natural conclusion, with tournaments driven by gimmicks and character quirks that, were it still contemporary to Capcom, would be patched in an instant. It was a bittersweet goodbye, made better only by the fact that we all know two great-looking new versus-style tag team fighters are incoming in the form of Dragon Ball FighterZ and Marvel vs Capcom Infinite.
But then, wow - I hate to bring it all back around to this one, but I have to. Street Fighter 5. Goodness me: after all the belly-aching, all the complaining, all the left behind jokes - Street Fighter 5's EVO 2017 top eight was the finest championship final of any Street Fighter I've ever seen.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8m0eUxwKAUE
Sure enough, there have been individual matches that beat it. I'll never forget Poongko taking out Daigo in Street Fighter 4, and it's probably no surprise that no individual moment here matched Street Fighter 3's genre-defining EVO moment 37, but in terms of a couple of hours of fighting game action this was the finest I've ever seen. We had numerous characters, players with histories and compelling personal storylines behind their path to the championship, and many of the matches where nail-bitingly close.
EVO felt like it had a bit of a rough year, with entrant numbers for games like Street Fighter 5 and Smash Bros down to the tune of something like 40% on 2016's record-shattering numbers. This was likely was driven by a far more expensive entrance fee alongside a rough general perception around the state of games like SF5, but you wouldn't have been able to sense the dip last night. The fighting game community has never looked more vibrant, more mad, and frankly more beautiful.
As the newly crowned Street Fighter champion Tokido struck one of the signature poses of Akuma on stage, Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay seemed like so much more than just an arena. It had all the fanaticism of a church. Veteran Street Fighter commentator James Chen sort of summed it up best: he just burst into tears on stream in front of hundreds of thousands of people. Chen crying is actually something of a meme at this point, but this year it felt especially appropriate: this year's EVO felt like one of the strongest arguments yet for fighting games as the most exhilarating eSport possible.
This is a drum I've been beating here on VG247 for a while, but there really is something about fighters. Being built for arcade competition simply makes them the best possible video game to spectate. Where other genres found themselves in online play or closed LAN parties, fighters were built for arcades, where a stranger could walk up, pop a quarter into the corner of your screen and demand to challenge you. They were built for that raw competition, and for the spectacle of people crowding around a monitor whooping and hollering.
This is why EVO and fighting games are special. Even as they grapple with the faux-polished, immature world of esports, they've held on to the culture that made fighting games a success in the arcade. They have remembered their roots. Some I know fear this; they watch as the fighting game community struggles to marry their relentless, raw energy with the sense of try-hard glamor around broadcasts on ESPN and worry that fighters may lose their soul. I don't think they will, though. Sometimes that ends up weird, the community like an awkward teen who borrows their dad's suit to look smart. This tournament is proof it can work, however.
"This is why EVO and fighting games are special. Even as they grapple with the faux-polished, immature world of esports, they've held on to the culture that made fighting games a success in the arcade."
The combination of EVO and Street Fighter remains the most accessible and open expression of this: a game that anyone can understand with incredible depth.
After launching in - let's face it - a pretty shitty state, EVO 2017 was proof of what I've said about SF5 since launch: it's a mechanically rich game that simply lacked content. It has that content now, and it needs showings like this EVO and probably a retail relaunch to convince everybody of its newfound quality.
Because of this I'm hoping that rumored free Super Street Fighter 5 update is announced before the end of the year, but I'm also pumped for the future of fighting games in general. In the coming months we have Dragon Ball Fighterz, Dissidia Final Fantasy NT, Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite, and a slew of DLC for SF, Injustice and Tekken. No doubt a Smash is on the way for Switch too and Mortal Kombat 11 is a matter of when, not if. It's a fantastic time to like fighters.
Ultimately this is about the people more than the games, though. That's what Chen's tears were for. Not for the games, but for the incredible people that make them what they are. They're for the cheering, ecstatic fans, so much more vibrant than your average stony-faced, energy drink chugging esports crowd. They're for the teary-eyed parents watching their 18-year-old son play live on TV in front of millions of people. They're even for the stream monsters at home, curtains shut, spamming memes in the chat and looking forward to Thursday. And all of them - this entire community - is really something special and beautiful. Even the stream monsters. Sometimes.
I've said it before, but fighting games really are amazing right now. If you're not playing, if you're not watching, if you're not going to your dinky local tournament, you should. It might be the best video game experience you'll ever have.