The evolution of the world's largest fighting game tournament

Street Fighter V is just one of the many titles featured at the Evolution Championship Series alongside Super Smash Bros. Melee, Mortal Kombat XL, Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom 3, and Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator. Provided by Robert Paul

The spotlight shines on the players in the penultimate moment, akin to the myth of Atlas. Their knees are buckling under the weight of the world.

The more memorable memories are visions of trophies hoisted high. But then there are the smaller, more unobtrusive moments: when realization dawns, when certain victory slips away. Most dwell on the culmination, as if the pinnacle of the experience is all that matters. People forget that the path to that point is usually more compelling.

It's all part of a progression; it's part of the journey. People in various roles in the fighting game community can speak to their own struggles to make it to the top of the mountain. In fact, the Evolution Championship Series (Evo) had its own issues as it's grown over the years. It's the biggest annual event for the fighting game community, but even with those laurels, Joey "Mr. Wizard" Cuellar, one of the founding members of Evo, would state that complacency is not an option.

"This will be a monumental year for Evo," he said. "We're trying a lot of new things and seeing record attendance. The feeling is kind of a throwback to the early years, where we were still trying to figure out the core formula. This year is a big challenge for us, and we're doing our best to deliver on expectations. We've always believed that if you held an excellent event, people would come, so when you listen to the players and fans, you will have a respected event. All we're really trying to do is shine a light on the passion that these players have for the fighting genre. The growth is obviously very welcome and encouraging, but our focus is to stay true to the community."

While many think of Mr. Wizard solely as an organizer, he's walked in the same shoes as the 14,500 players that will arrive at Las Vegas the weekend of July 15-17 for Evo.

"I started playing games in 1995 when Tekken 2, Killer Instinct and Super Street Fighter II were out," Mr. Wizard recalled. "I used to play at Camelot Golfland, which was so close to my house that I would walk there and spend most of my free time there. I just started to play a lot of games outside of my wheelhouse because of thirst for competition. From there, I heard about another arcade that had way more competition, so I started going to Southern Hills Golfland. The competition there was out of this world, and I started going [there] on a daily basis. Since I was there so much, I started organizing tournaments on a local level, and then it got bigger when we did tournaments during E3, and then the rest is history."

The Evo series is associated with the glitz of Las Vegas. Its predecessor, however, was much less glamorous. Very few of the current entrants have heard of "Battle By The Bay" and even fewer were there in 1996. "I think there were 128 people in a crowded arcade," competitor and legendary fighting game events organizer Alex Valle recalled. "Only two games were there, too. Super Turbo and Alpha 2."

Tom and Tony Cannon organized that event (sometimes called B3), and it was groundbreaking for its time. Newsgroups were the best form of communication long before social media was even a concept, and this technology was used to gather fighting game players to Sunnyvale Golfland. The grand finals' set in Alpha 2 saw John Choi fall short to Valle, a match still remembered to this day.

Battle By The Bay's next iteration B4 would happen in 2000, and B5 the following year. In 2002 there was a rebranding: the creation of Evolution.

"Evo 2002 was at the UCLA ballroom," said Justin "JWong" Wong, a well-known fighting game player. A year prior, he had been 15 when he traveled to B5 and took home the Marvel vs. Capcom 2 trophy. "I entered Capcom vs SNK 2 and Marvel vs Capcom 2 [at Evo 2002]. I planned to defend my title in Marvel 2 and hope to make a splash in CVS2. [It] was still a crazy experience for me. I ended getting ninth in CVS2 and winning Marvel 2 again."

"I didn't think much of it, to be honest, because I was 16 years old," JWong continued. "I just wanted to play and play. The prizes were very small, and it was just myself breaking even because there were no such thing as sponsors back in the day for the fighting game community. I really was happy that I was able to keep winning against different opponents over and over again."

The scene has grown radically, and the 15-year-old B5 champion has grown up with this scene. Now, JWong is the face of the American fighting game community.

Like JWong's career, Evo has had a multitude of changes during the years. In 2004, as consoles became the weapon of choice for many of the attendees, arcade cabinets were removed as the standard. "The arcades were dying, and we had to educate people on why console was the future," Mr. Wizard continued. "The move to Las Vegas in 2005 was another big step. It transformed the character of the event to a vacation and celebration, not just a tournament."

Recordings of match footage allowed people near and far to witness the fighting game community's top talent, first through VHS tapes and then DVDs. Evo footage would even inspire some future champions.

"Evo is the tournament that got me interested in traveling and competing," Carl "Perfect Legend" White recalled. "In late 2004, I came across an IGN article that highlighted every Top 8 from Evo 2003 and 2004. At the time, the games were Tekken Tag, Tekken 4, Third Strike, CvS2, MVC2, Virtua Fighter 4, Super Turbo and Guilty Gear. What really tipped me off to getting the fire to play was how cool the Evolution DVD trailers were. I wanted to make sure by at least the next year of playing I was able to get highlighted in a DVD. I ended up getting highlighted in the DVD trailer for my game and literally every piece of Dead Or Alive 4 footage was me fighting someone."

Perfect Legend got that shot in 2006, winning Dead or Alive 4, the first of his three championships. His 2006 victory catalyzed his career, but it was also an opportunity for Evo to try something else out. While the tournament had solely run traditional fighters up to that point, it decided to step outside the box and give Mario Kart DS a try. While that didn't pan out, it opened up the opportunity for a game that wasn't as traditional as the other fighters gracing the stage: Super Smash Bros. Melee.

"Getting third at Evo 2007 [in Melee] was pretty cool because I was only, like, 15," Joseph "Mang0" Marquez recounted. "I remember, even then it was nuts because of the stage and everything else that goes with Evo."

2009 may have been the most pivotal year. The release of Street Fighter IV created a renaissance in the fighting game genre, and staples of the modern scene began to appear, such as match footage being easily accessible online. Being able to showcase the competitors live created growth that wasn't seen previously when matches were shown on DVDs.

"We did a really bootleg stream in 2005, where we pointed the camera at the stage and broadcasted," Mr. Wizard noted. "But in 2009, we went full out and had broadcasters, and the whole shebang."

Things have changed a bit since then. This time, there will be cameras pointed at the stage for both Twitch and ESPN2. Two games were on the roster at B3 while nine are at Evo this year. Some, like Valle are in awe, seeing the scene go from filling up an arcade to filling up the theater at the Mandalay Bay Resort. More than 100 Battle By The Bays would fit into Evo 2016. The enormity is unmatched.

While there are a myriad of events that have these various scenes under one roof, such as Community Effort Orlando, NorCal Regionals, Combo Breaker, Final Round, and East Coast Throwdown, there are also many events that only cater to one scene or game. Circuits, leagues, tours and cups exist for Tekken, Pokken, Street Fighter, Killer Instinct and Mortal Kombat. CEOtaku has reached out to the various titles underneath the anime banner while the Smash scene holds events like Genesis in high regard. So what is the role of Evo?

"Evo is a global celebration of the whole fighting genre," Mr. Wizard revealed. "We see ourselves as a great complement to the circuits, which focus on one game. Competitors from 85 different countries come out to compete at Evo. When you have an event that caters to almost all sections of the fighting game community, it's special."

As more of these events become specialized, many players grow concerned that they are being left behind. The quantity of players has certainly increased; talent is everywhere, but opportunity isn't. Players looking to improve and test themselves regularly would love that chance to see the world, to be on the hunt for glory, for points, or simply just the chance to see how far they've come. With the increased number of elite invitationals and cups, Evo is the largest event of its kind that represents an era that many wistfully mourn: an era of brick and mortar, the flashing lights of various fighters under the same roof, when open competition was the driving force, and the concern wasn't about how much you take home, but how many challengers you take out.

"There are always going to be players out there who don't have a lot of money to travel as often as other players, so keeping an open tournament is really important to us," Mr. Wizard stated. "If everyone just did invitationals, we would never get to see the awesome talent the world has to offer. This philosophy is based on the arcade era, where anyone can put a quarter up and take a shot at the current best player in the arcade."

That's why an Evo championship is the biggest prize in fighting games: it's about surviving the onslaught of players. It's about traveling from wherever you call home and being able to take that trophy. It's about bragging rights; it's about being the last one standing. It's about doing it in front of your peers, acknowledged by people of all backgrounds and experiences, of all ages, with players who have been competing longer than other players have been alive. It's about doing it in front of people from all over the world who are linked by a single thread: the love of fighting games.

"The format is pretty exciting to have once a year. It reminds me of the NFL playoffs," Mang0 noted. "Whoever shows up on that given day makes it super hype. It gets the most viewers. It used to be [one] sold out ballroom, then two. Now, the new Sunday venue this year -- [there's] nothing like it."

"Winning Evo is like winning the accumulation of every tournament in the world," Valle added. "By quarterfinals, you are playing a world-class player all the way through Grand Finals."

"Winning Evo is the best thing for anybody that is involved in the [fighting game community]," JWong continued. "It's different because everyone from all over the world comes to this tourney to prove their worth. That's what really stands out. You can say you're the best on your block, your group of friends, your region, your state, but the world? That's what I am talking about."

"[There's] just something about Evo. Regardless of how much money is on the line, I want to win Evo," White explained. "Evo is the ultimate test as a competitive fighting game player. Whoever wins Evo is the best. Every event leading up to it is just a part of the tournament season."

Shortcuts don't exist. When you're sitting down after the judges call your bracket match, you know the journey that has led to this moment. Every experiment, every success, every failure. Twenty years after B3, Evo has become a behemoth.

Only nine participants will own the memory of taking home the top prize. Everyone else will be left wanting more: a better placement, an opportunity to play on the main stage. The love of competition doesn't end when you're eliminated. It doesn't end after the final trophy is handed out. You can tell by the sounds of plinks, dash-dances and pop-offs emanating from random hotel rooms throughout the course of the weekend during off-time. You can tell by people studying matches and already recalling what they've learned as they say farewell.

You can tell by the stories being shared, as complete strangers hop in a taxi and talk about their weekends and the game that brought them to that event. You can see it at the airport, where two fans with nothing in common but a shirt adorned with the same logo talk about their local scene, whether that's in the Pacific Northwest or the Philippines. In the end, not all lasting memories need to come with a trophy attached.