Friday marks the 20th anniversary of Final Round, the first large, multigame fighting game tournament of every year. In its celebration this year, the Atlanta-based event starts something special for one of its featured games: a yearlong goodbye.
"Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3," a game initially released in 2011, was thought to be all but done as an esport in 2016 as exhibited by its Sunday finals appearance at the Evolution Championship Series at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. One of the game's top players won his first Evo in an exciting-but-somber finals. It seemed like a sendoff.
"I felt like the [competition] was definitely lacking; the best players weren't playing or trying, at least, and everything is looking just air tight," said Raynel "Ray Ray" Hidaldo, a Marvel vs. Capcom player and two-time Evo finalist. "But I feel like it's going to be different now."
What's making it different? The community as well as a big announcement from Capcom, the creator of the game series.
In December at the PlayStation Experience in Anaheim, California, Capcom revealed "Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite," the latest installment in the game series that's been featured in arcades worldwide since 1996. Infinite isn't set to release until the end of the 2017, and that leaves the majority of the year open for more Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3.
In addition to the announcement of "Infinite", Capcom announced it would be porting "Ultimate vs. Capcom 3" almost immediately to the PlayStation 4, which will be the competitive platform for Infinite as well. Ports of the game came to Xbox One and Windows machines in early 2017. For the first time in its five-year history, the game would be playable on current-generation consoles that were released in 2013.
Then came the Evolution Championship Series donation drive. Organized for charity, the donation drive allowed the fans and community of different fighting games to contribute money to choose the wild-card game of the Evo 2017 lineup. Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 raised almost $72,000 and earned its spot back in the tournament.
"After we won the [Evo] donation drive," RayRay said, "it just seems like everyone is caring again."
The spike in community enthusiasm led tournaments organizers, including the operators behind Final Round, to create the Curleh Circuit. The Smash.gg-run series is composed of some of the biggest Marvel vs. Capcom events of the year and will feed into a finale later in the year.
"Once they were on the Evo 2017 Donation Drive, you could really see the community coming together to get UMvC3 one more go at Evo before the next iteration comes out," tournament organizer and Smash.gg employee Bassem "Bear" Dahdouh said. "I reached out to some core community leaders to help put together the Curleh Circuit with our main goals of inclusiveness, accessibility and community."
RayRay is No. 2 in that circuit's standings following his big win over 2016 Evo champion Christopher "ChrisG" Gonzalez at Naptown Clutch VI, a previous Curleh event. ChrisG won't be in attendance for Final Round, but RayRay's excited about one opponent, an old foe and a spectacular Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 player in his own right.
"I know Justin [Wong] has been putting in a lot of time, so I want to see him and see if he's actually back in form," RayRay said. "Hopefully I get to fight him."
RayRay, Justin and ChrisG all have something in common: Each has attempted to switch his focus to rival fighting game "Street Fighter V." Justin, who went on a tear at the beginning of 2016, has been arguably the most successful and was often referred to as the best North American Street Fighter V player during that time.
Some players have split focus, and others have returned to Marvel completely, so the player base is still in flux in comparison to when the game peaked in popularity several years ago. RayRay said for his part that the Season 2 updates in Street Fighter pushed him back into UMvC3, and he says he believes the send-off this year to Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 will bring respected and popular names back to UMvC3.
He's certain that once Infinite is released, the Marvel vs. Capcom community will see another resurgence. This game hasn't been KO'ed yet.
"One hundred percent," he said. "I firmly believe that."