LAS VEGAS -- Nestled near the back of the Mandalay Convention Center at the Evolution Championship Series this past weekend, beyond the showroom booths, throngs of fans and an in-house bar, sat a handful of spare tables with monitors on them. Around the area, a few onlookers stopped by for a second to look at the action on the screens and then passed through, onward to a new destination, a new game to watch where the mobs of people are louder, more exuberant. Yet those who stuck around didn't budge, watching the rapid-fire movement on the screen, engrossed in the stylish combat unfolding in front of them.
This is Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2, one of the nine fighting game titles officially hosted at Evo this year. A staple of the Las Vegas weekend tournament, Guilty Gear has continued to trudge on through different variations and new releases. While bigger games such as Smash Brothers for Wii U and Street Fighter V take precedence, the fans and players of Guilty Gear were steadfast in their love of the over-the-top, bizarre, '90s hard rock-themed fighting game that was released in Japan almost two decades ago.
Although the prize pool was dwarfed by the two Smash games, Tekken and Street Fighter, Guilty Gear had the fourth-highest payout out of any competition at Evo, thanks to the game's publisher, Arc System Works, which donated $10,000 to the pot. The publisher hasn't wavered in support of its game, and the fans, regardless of how many, remain loyal.
"Part of what sets Guilty Gear apart right now in the broader scene is that it has such a high skill cap," David Vest, one of the dedicated fans standing near one of the Guilty Gear tables, explains. Vest, a veteran of the scene, was glad to help any newcomer to the Guilty Gear scene learn a bit about the expansive game. "It's [like] checkers vs. chess. Right now, Guilty Gear has some of the most options and is the most technically demanding, so there is always room to grow into the technique."
The high skill ceiling was on full display at the back of the convention center, where the main Guilty Gear stage stood; a big screen dedicated to the qualifying rounds was sandwiched in between the stages for Tekken and King of Fighters. There were a few rows of chairs for people to watch the action, and the attendance was lukewarm at best, people coming and going every few minutes after catching a match or two. In front, the players who were awaiting their upcoming matches made up the brunt of the audience, talking to each other casually as the games on stage moved at lightning speed.
In the back row sat Ron Saliza, 35, another lover of the game, playing a mobile game in between sets before raising his eyes once again to watch the games on the big screen. What draws him to Guilty Gear over everything else is the beauty -- the bombastic characters flinging across the screen at a moment's notice, each character with a unique look and playstyle.
"A lot of us started playing [Guilty Gear] as teens. If we're still playing now, you'll sure bet we're playing for another five [or] 10 years," Saliza says.
Instead of the hollers and chants heard from across the hall at the larger stages for Smash Bros. Melee and Street Fighter V, the fans watching the qualifying rounds of Guilty Gear talked to each other in hushed tones, pointing out a minute detail that led to a combo. Someone who doesn't follow the game closely would never notice it. In some games, a round can be over in a matter of seconds, a combo leading to the next, and before you know it, the two adversaries are shaking hands, having gone through a complex battle that to the common man lasted only a couple minutes.
"You're in for a treat," says Hamad Akbar, one of the American favorites to possibly break into the top eight traditionally dominated by Japanese players. Akbar was talking about the appearance of Omito "Omito" Hashimoto, last year's runner-up. A charismatic showman off stage and stone-faced when the game starts, Omito was the favorite to take the crown. His main character, Johnny -- "a cool pirate captain that only lets cute girls on his ship," per one fan -- hummed along with in-game expression, merciless with a bit of flash, juggling his opponents in the air for minutes on end until the beating finally ceased.
"A lot of us started playing [Guilty Gear] as teens. If we're still playing now, you'll sure bet we're playing for another five [or] 10 years." Ron Saliza, 35, Guilty Gear fan
That's not how his first game on stage went, however. His South Korean opponent, Heetae "LLon_nu13" Kim, took the first round in an upset. Nonplussed, Omito rallied, and one round turned into two, and two turned into three, and his Johnny corralled the faster characters in the game, poking and bouncing them up like a racquet to a tennis ball, and Omito was victorious.
After descending from the stage and talking with a smile on his face to his friends and fellow Japanese players, the player he had just defeated, Kim, came up to Omito with a simple request: a selfie. Omito, reverting from his machine-like tendencies while playing to his softer side in front of the camera, kindly obliged, stepping to the side to take a quick picture.
The cheers heard throughout the venue at that moment were not for Omito, but probably for some Melee player with over 50,000 Twitter followers or a Street Fighter player who has won over $100,000 in the past year. Only about two dozen people were in attendance to watch Omito qualify through pools, but in this small corner of the venue, to the people watching, and even to the people playing against him, Omito was the tournament's main attraction.
The next day, on championship Saturday, the crowd swelled. Instead of the two dozen dedicated fans watching the qualifying rounds, the Guilty Gear show turned into the biggest stage in the convention hall.
On the main stage, the final eight players -- all from the Guilty Gear home country of Japan -- stood in front of a packed crowd to watch the festivities. Arc System Works employees gave out thundersticks in an attempt to drown out the noise of the event's three biggest games -- Street Fighter V, Melee and Smash for Wii U -- on the outskirts of the main stage.
Omito, rested from his first-place finish in his qualification pool, strode to the center stage with an air of confidence, wielding a pair of sunglasses and posing for the crowd. His biggest rival, Masahiro "Machabo-" Tominaga, who withheld the crown from Omito last year, was already out of the tournament, upset in the earlier rounds. His biggest remaining challenge was someone who wouldn't have been at the event without the support of the community. "T5M7," more commonly known as Tomo, was sponsored by the subreddit r/kappa, a competitive fighting game board famous for rallying behind international players to send them to events.
Compared to Omito, Tomo, and his character Leo Whitefang, were complete opposites. Where Omito's display of skill was a rhythmic butchering, Tomo and his character were constantly moving forward, a bullet train confined in the limited dimensions of the screen, falling behind before coming back with a ferocious charge that made the fans - die-hards or not -- leap from their seats. They may not have known the vast intricacies of how Tomo got the victory, but the excitement at the end was something to behold.
As the final eight went along, Omito's theatrics died down until the end, when hundreds watched him win the championship that eluded him last year. All he could do was stand up and stare at the victory screen for a few seconds before raising his arms in the air in victory.
At the far end of that ladder, Jacob "Mintyfresh" Roberson, 23, was far removed from the Omitos and Tomos of the world. He'll most likely never win a Guilty Gear championship, as he claimed he "sucks at the game." But then what is Guilty Gear if you can't grasp the expert combos and keep up with the fast-paced combat?
"Every time I play Guilty Gear ... I just leave with a big smile on my face," he told me, smiling. "For every game that I lose -- I lose five games and win one -- that one win keeps you coming back. It's that thirst for blood that keeps the player base alive."
As scenes in competitive video games wax and wane, one thing is for certain: The same guys who were here this year will be there next year, huddled around the same tables, soaking in the metal music and colorful action of Guilty Gear, while talking with their friends about a dropped combo that you didn't see, but ready to help you as they helped me.