Combo Breaker is winning the fighting game battle

Over Memorial Day weekend, 1,800 fighting game fans flocked to a large resort an hour west of Chicago for Combo Breaker, a series of tournaments over three days on a variety of games, including the competitive debut of "Injustice 2." Jacob Wolf/ESPN.com

ST. CHARLES, Ill. -- While families travel on their Memorial Day vacations and thousands board planes destined for O'Hare or Chicago Midway airports, an hour west of the Windy City one of the biggest fighting game tournaments of the year is about to begin.

This is Combo Breaker, a three-day convention featuring the most notable games and players in the fighting game genre in front of roughly 2,800 fans. Competitors, whether professionals who make thousands in salary or the average Joe, have an equal opportunity to fight for sizable prize pools and glory. But that's not why most of them are here. It's a communal event where you can catch up with friends, watch some games and most of all, have fun.

In the two years since Combo Breaker debuted in 2015, it has grown to be the third-largest fighting game event in the U.S., sitting behind only the behemoth Evolution Championship Series and Community Effort Orlando. Many organizers would dream of having their event hold such prestige.

But for Richard Thiher, it's not a dream, it's a reality.

The story begins in the Midwest, where Combo Breaker's predecessor, the Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament, saw moderate success before the explosion of esports. When Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament's founder Adam Heart accepted a position at a game studio, Thiher, a co-director for that event, was left with unfinished business.

"When Adam announced that he was going to step down, that left kind of a giant hole in the Midwest," Thiher told ESPN. "I had a lot of friends in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, Illinois who would have nowhere to go this time of year; that was their event."

Although 2015 showed promise -- it had significantly higher attendance than the Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament had the year before -- Thiher was focused on making this community gathering something worth attending. Combined with Gaming Generations, a multifaceted company best known for leasing peripherals to tournaments, Combo Breaker was born.

After that first year, Combo Breaker had outgrown its former stomping ground, the Crowne Plaza Chicago O'Hare, and the search for a new venue began. Thiher said the search was an "everyday panic," and ultimately led Thiher and his team to Pheasant Run Resort, a secluded yet massive resort in a tiny suburb of Chicago. Equipped with an 55,000-square-foot venue space, it was -- and still is -- perfect.

Since then, the tournament has continued to grow, which ultimately landed it its biggest break yet: a spot as a premier event for the Street Fighter V Capcom Pro Tour and the competitive launch of one of 2017's hottest fighting games, Injustice 2.

Debuting Injustice 2 on a pro level at Combo Breaker was a sign of trust from NetherRealm Studios, a Warner Bros. Interactive-owned studio formerly known as Midway Studios, one of the oldest developers in modern gaming. NetherRealm, based in nearby Chicago, had some of its staff at Combo Breaker, including co-founder and creative director Ed Boon.

"It wasn't essential, but it absolutely was special," Boon told ESPN. "Where we made the game, it was great to have the first tournament there and then also have the debut of the Red Hood trailer. It was nice to have it all in one place, in Chicago. It was great."

"My biggest stress is Tyler and Ed Boon are in this crowd and are going to be watching this show," Thiher said. "Particularly Ed, coming out of my own childhood fandom for the franchises he's created, there's a very personally rewarding cool factor to 'Ed Boon's in my crowd, yo!' But on that same token, on the flip side of that, it's omnipresent, 'Ed Boon's in the crowd.' Let's not drop the ball on that."

The launch of Injustice 2 turned out to be a success. There are some competitive flaws, such as long gameplay that resulted in series just shy of 20 minutes, significantly longer than normal in fighting games. And despite some minor bracket kerfuffles early in the tournament, the competition smoothed out and was a fitting launch of Injustice 2.

"I've always been impressed with how Rick runs that tournament, he runs a very tight ship," Boon said. "Every single one seems to be run better than his previous one. ... I think Rick Thiher does a particularly good job with organizing the tournament and has really made a lot of things transparent to us; everyone's got to be here, you're next, this and that. Very little organizing that we needed to do from our side."

Thiher's continued success, which also includes co-direction of Community Effort Orlando, has landed him at one of esports' largest companies, Twitch. Thiher is now an esports program manager at Twitch, with a specific fighting game focus.

"I spent the better part of the past eight years working as much as I possibly can on fighting game product," Thiher said. "Fighting games are of obvious importance to Twitch at the moment. ... As a company, they seem to be invested both financially and emotionally in fighting games. Everyone I want to be around is invested financially and emotionally in fighting games."

Twitch will allow Thiher to continue his additional roles with Combo Breaker, CEO and Evo.

To reach this point, Thiher has had loads of help along the way. His wife, Caitlyn, whom he met over a decade ago, is an active part of the Combo Breaker staff and works on other tournaments, such as CEO. The two have traveled this road and career path together.

"[Her support has] been absolutely necessary," Thiher said. "It's an exponential need as events have grown. Our events would not function without Cat's support. Very few events I work in general would function without Cat's support."

The success hasn't come without bumps, though. Thiher himself met criticism in the past months because of his unwillingness to reseed professional players who would be attending ELeague, the Turner Broadcasting-run Street Fighter V Invitational that ran on the same Friday as Combo Breaker.

"What's important to me is that everyone has the equal opportunity to play, compete and exist together," Thiher said. "One of the downsides of being at the scale we're at, we need to be able to run pools on Friday and Saturday. There's a wide chunk of players that can't play on Friday, there's a small number of players who can't play on Saturday, but if we arbitrarily go through and let them define where they want to be or define where they want to be preferentially, the bracket destabilizes and we get into a situation where we could probably only do that for 15-20 people and still be able to run our tournament. ... To me, everyone has to be treated as equitably as possible at all times so that opportunity for everyone stays the same."

Moving forward, Thiher has some goals in mind. CEO will move to Daytona Beach's Ocean Center in 2018. Thiher says he hopes to make the Florida event into something massive -- not just as a competition but also in a traditional convention format, something he's never been able to achieve before.

"It's interesting; CEO is convention scale now," Thiher explained. "But it's the question of whether it can be more of the popular culture definition of convention, where if we bring 5,000 people to an event last year, we're going to have to lose some of that because it's not a launch year for 'Street Fighter V,' Smash is very saturated right now; even if we subtract a big chunk of that, if we can get the general populace involved and have that type of experience."