ORLANDO, Florida -- It's been seven years since Alex Jebailey, founder of Community Effort Orlando, took his first financial risk in the fighting game community. After nearly half a decade of successes, seeing his small, 300-person event at a fairgrounds transform into a nearly 3,500 attendee behemoth, he'll take what he calls the "biggest risk of his life."
Jebailey announce that CEO, the second largest tournament in the fighting game scene, is headed to Daytona Beach, Florida in 2018. It will occupy the Ocean Center, a convention center that seats just over 9,300 in the arena.
In 2016 The Wyndham Resort on International Drive, the home of CEO since its second year in 2011, was packed to the walls by 2,600 spectators during the Street Fighter V finals; it became a fire hazard concern. CEO needed a new home, but 2017 was already booked at the Wyndham.
"Last year, we were overwhelmed with people," Jebailey told ESPN. "The growth spurt was huge, the birth of Street Fighter V and [Super Smash Bros.] was huge, and now that I can take the finances that made that event successful, I could invest into the future of CEO. That's why you see we're going somewhere bigger and better. It's amazing how fast has grown."
Jebailey described moving away from Orlando as "bittersweet" due to the long-lasting relationship with the Wyndham and "Orlando" being included in the event's name. However, he said that he first fell in love with fighting games as a child due to frequent trips to Daytona Beach, where its arcades hosted the latest games.
"I'm going back to one of the first places I got good at fighting games," he explained. "It felt right. I have to believe in what I do, I believe in the people, first and foremost, who help me get there and it's just exciting that this will be a really special venue, the city's going to take good care of us, and I have lots of plans with the neighboring businesses, so I want to take this as big as I can get it."
Due to upscaling the event, a two-year contract and a larger venue, CEO 2018 presents a big risk. Competitors for this year was lower than 2016 by about 500 people, mostly as a result of Street Fighter V no longer being in its release year, which has decreased interest from the non-professional player populus.
However, games such as Injustice 2 and Tekken 7, which both hosted tour events at CEO, have grown in interest. Good prize pools, deep followings and for Injustice 2, a finals that will take place on TBS in October, certainly help.
"The city's going to take good care of us, and I have lots of plans with the neighboring businesses, so I want to take this as big as I can get it." CEO Founder Alex Jebailey
Despite the risk, Jebailey said he's sure that he'll make good on what process he's begun.
"I wouldn't sign anything that I didn't feel confident that we could make a success... There are a lot of new games coming out, especially the new Dragon Ball Fighter Z, which is seeing a lot of fighting game fans [in awe]," he explained. "You always have to wonder where the games are going, because we need the games first and foremost, because if the games aren't popular, no one is going to compete."
As CEO continues to grow, it also continues to be on the heels of its friendly rival - the Evolution Championship Series, which takes place in July. Evo's championship Sunday in 2016, which hosts five finals in one day, moved to the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. About 12,000 people fit in there, and it was packed during the Super Smash Bros. Melee and Street Fighter V finals. It's considered the Olympics of fighting games, a world championship event thanks in part to the amount of international competitors who fly in to attend. CEO and Combo Breaker, which takes place in May and is operated by CEO's creative consultant Rick Thiher, are slowly cementing their prestige in the community.
"I've been going to Evo for years, I've always respected and loved those guys," Jebailey said on his relationship with Evo's creators. "They actually gave me a lot of advice that boosted my confidence to take CEO to the next level, so I owe a lot to Evo. Combo Breaker, with Rick, we've been working together for years so with every thought I have, he makes [them] even better. It feels good, there are so many big esports events that are just continuing year round."