What is EVO: the Evolution Championship Series?

With EVO 2016 approaching we take a look at one of the world's largest eSports tournaments and what makes it tick.

This weekend, EVO 2016 will be taking place in Las Vegas, Nevada. Once again, the stage for one of eSports' biggest fighting game tournaments will be set. This year may be the most anticipated, as it'll be the first year Street Fighter V makes its appearance. The tournament has been the marquee event for all major competitive fighting games.

So you maybe wondering what is the Evolution Championship Series(EVO) and what makes it so special?

The What

The Evolution Championship Series represents the largest and longest-running fighting game tournament in the world. Tournaments started as a partnership between the VGO Network and various leaders worldwide within the fighting game community. The series evolved from the experience, collaboration, and expertise of major sites including Shoryuken.com, TekkenZaibatsu.com, GuardImpact.com and so forth.

It all began in 1995. Top players grew quite tired of arguing via message boards who was the best. Then it was decided that they would settle the matter at an arcade on Broadway in New York. The turnout resulted in 40 players showing up to prove their mettle, and the game to play at the time was Super Street Fighter II Turbo. After the first showdown, it didn't really settle the ongoing conversation of whom is the best.

It then became an annual tradition of skill and prowess against the best of the best. The competitions proliferated and took place in Boston, California, and other areas until a decision was reached that Las Vegas should remain the best battleground. Las Vegas featured the best venue overall for players and their side bets.

As the events drew in more numbers of the years, the event became more professionally run. One of EVO's strengths is that it's a purely community run events. Tournament organizers, judges, commentators are all active players within their respective scenes, or were at some point.

The Who

At the core of the event are the very individuals who helped create it. The founding members include:

  • Joey Cuellar (founder of Shoryuken.com and former manager of famous Southern Hills Golfland arcade)
  • Vik Steyaert (founder of Tekken-zaibatsu.com)
  • Tom and Tony Cannon ("the Cannon twins," shoryuken cofounders, and Tony created the amazing GGPO.net)
  • Seth Killian (former Capcom Manager now lead designer at Riot Games) 

Their hard work paved the way into what is arguably one of the best run fighting game tournaments. In an interview with Kotaku years ago, Killian shared some insight as to how he and the co-founders made EVO into what it is.

"It was all completely organic. The structure was born out of "S*** we have way too many people showing up to these things."

So they started introducing more traditional tournament rules, finally settling on double elimination, to help determine who the best Street Fighter was. The annual gathering also grew in reputation, soon attracting gamers from around the world looking to cut their teeth on a tournament known for it's skilled players.

The event had to grow along with the changing video game landscape as well. This did call forth one concern they had to face -- the choice to play on console format from arcade cabinets. The reality was that with the decline of arcade systems in America, it was only logical to start using consoles moving forward. The other issue was whether or not console ports performed as well as the arcade version. But the community was able to meet that challenge like any other and continue to improve.

You would be hard pressed to find that an EVO judge isn't an expert in rules. All the nuances that arise from possible errors are well covered -- i.e. a player accidentally pauses the game, someone forgets to desync a control, and matters of collusion. The rules and how they are followed are iron and built from years of experience. EVO is many things, but a place that allows cheating or a pass isn't one of them.

This also goes a step further with player pools. These elimination rounds are meant to favor no one and are created to be random. A top ranked player must prove herself/himself and whittle down their competition until they reach the top 8.

The Why

EVO's popularity has always been parallel to its main game; Street Fighter. Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike was the game of show since its release in 1999. The attendance was still there, but numbers were waning by 2008. The tournament's influence exploded after the release of Street Fighter IV in 2009.

After a decade, a new game on new consoles with online capability had summoned a new wave of popularity. EVO 2009 was a resurgence for everyone -- the fans, the fighting game community, and the world. This was thanks in part to emerging streaming services helping an unreachable audience discover the event. And more importantly, upcoming competitors discovered a new goal to reach for.

From 2009 onwards, the event continued to grow in attendance and the games grew in competition. In fact, EVO's influence also helped solidify fighting games as part of eSports. Prior to fighting games being normally seen alongside titles like League of Legends, it was quite the uphill battle to get the same recognition. The problem was the preconceived notion that the fighting game community couldn't provide entertainment on the same level.

Some other misguided thoughts were included the ideas that fighting game events didn't have the same grand spectacle and professionalism. Many false assumptions were made, unfortunately. But when the opportunity presented itself, the community supported eSports events with performances and professionalism that were undeniable -- and dispelled those myths. 

The When

When these problems presented themselves, what did the tournament series do? EVO lead the way by example -- they asked for nothing but the best from all interested parties. The audience numbers, player performances, and viewership numbers were hard to ignore. Players then began to be sponsored by companies that recognized their efforts and the entertainment value of what they were doing. Finally, more and more game companies over time grew to support the yearly tournament (and others) regularly.

Companies realized that it was a means of goodwill public relations and to show players that they fully supported their efforts. So you could say in a sense, its cultural relevancy that forced the hand of game companies. 

The road to this recognition and support wasn't without its occasional speed bump. In 2013, Super Smash Bros. Melee once again became a game of the show for EVO13. Nintendo actually tried to stop its activities after fans helped its return. The company not only wanted to stop its streams but everything it had in place for EVO. Tournament organizers' hands were tied and they had to comply.

Thanks to Twitter and Reddit, fans gained brought a lot of attention to Nintendo's misguided actions. Recognizing the potential PR nightmare on their hands, Nintendo dropped the issue altogether. What happened the following year? Nintendo became an official sponsor of EVO in support of the Super Smash Bros. community.

Of all the recognition and sponsorships, Capcom's was arguably the longest to come to the table. Despite their games often being the most popular and being the show's number 1 draw, that support fell upon deaf ears at the studio. When fighters began to solidify themselves as an eSport, many began to wonder if Capcom would support them as well.

Eventually, they did provide support, which was in large part due to the ongoing support of Street Fighter IV and its updates. In 2013, they went on to announce the first Capcom Cup. EVO 2013 was used as one of the qualifiers to invite the best players to compete. Capcom Cup then became the now annual Capcom Pro Tour. It has grown to become a series of year long competitions ending in December -- and it wouldn't be wrong to say that EVO hadn't inspired its inception.

EVO, in its relatively short of amount of time, went on to inspire many. If you're a fan or active participant with fighters, you're essentially booked year round. Final Round, CEO, Apex and etc. These events all have the same in common -- competition, attendance, and recognition of all things positive with gaming. All these events continue to build upon the goodwill of the community. 

The Where

The next reason as to why EVO is so special is its representation. EVO (and other fighting events) is a place where you'll regularly see players, commentators, and etc of diverse backgrounds. [Side note: yes, there's an obvious lack of female representation in the tweet above. The community at large is aware and is doing better. There are female professional players and commentators that are in regular participation.]

It's refreshing nonetheless to see experts in these games look like everyone you'd normally see in a day. This has been standard for the event and the fighting game community scene for years. Players choose to compete and travel the many miles for inclusion that may not normally be an option. It's both encouraging and comforting to see you're not in the minority for any event -- video game related or otherwise.

The show is also one where entrants and fans can expect new things to look forward to for the following year. Developers now regularly announce DLC, characters, reveal games, and etc. at EVO. Most recently, last year was the reveal of Street Fighter V and a showcase of its gameplay.

Game companies recognize that it's a place for their target audiences. It would be a series of missed opportunities to not recognize the beacon that is EVO. Certainly there is no better stage to excite the fighting game community than its own meeca.

Let's fight Like gentlemen

Now, an undeniable argument as to why EVO can't be duplicated or imitated? I would say the level of competition. EVO, moreso than any other event, is host to players that have spent the better part of their year to get ready. Why? because thousands of others have done the same. You can watch past performances of any year and can tell players are bringing their A game in spades. This make for an enjoyable show of expertise.

To expand further on the subject of competition, the event encourages players worldwide to visit. The world's top ranked competitors for every game call all sorts of places -- America, South America, Europe, Asia, Japan, South Korea and etc. -- home. From a spectator standpoint it's always interesting to see how regional/national/international play styles do against one another.

Year in and year out, it's some of the best in watching competitive gaming. Even with the large number of high ranked and professional players, the results are never a given. The other aspect of EVO that continues to be encouraging for fans at the show, stream viewers, and players alike is that anyone can win. There's been years of top 8 results with seemingly unknowns from the least likely part of the world.

Are you not entertained?

The final piece of the equation is the presentation of the event. As a 3 day event, EVO operates very much like a show. The organizers are fully aware that millions will be tuning in to watch players show off their best. Last year the entire event, as reported by Twitch, had nearly 19 million views. That's certainly a lot of pressure to produce a well-oiled machine.

Despite this pressure, the staff and the community has continued to deliver the best and provide hours of entertainment. They manage to do this in many ways. Knowledgeable commentators are used to explain a game's most minute nuances to first time watchers. Energetic and experienced streamers are chosen to broadcast the event and handle any technical hiccups that may arise. Last but not least the event's overall production is made possible by passionate individuals.

A lot of this is often taken for granted, but it's very apparent a high degree of work is applied to everything. EVO is many things to many people -- but with its production values, boring is certainly not one of them.

In Closing

The event isn't just merely dedicated to the competition. It has grown into an event that's both entertaining and welcoming for gamers to enjoy. EVO is a celebration of the community and all things positive. Rivalries are cemented, legends are born and ultimately friendships are created. Again, it's not about the competition, it's about the competition on the grandest stage built by the community.

We certainly look forward to EVO16 this weekend. 

Published Jul. 14th 2016
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