Evo after dark: Inside the Sea Salt Suite

Step inside the exclusive all-night gamer soiree at the world's biggest fighting-game tournament, the Evolution Championship Series, where the playing never stops. Gail Fisher for ESPN

LAS VEGAS -- On the ground floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort, amid the neon casino and sounds of slot machines blasting, the world's largest fighting game tournament, Evolution, is well underway. Players from across the world are contesting in numerous fighting game titles to be named the world's best.

Beginning in 1996 under the name "Battle by the Bay," in Sunnyvale, California, the event has grown throughout the years, now finding a home in Las Vegas for the past decade. Over the course of a weekend, thousands of fighting game players are whittled down to a select few, with the finalists of the bigger games being featured at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on Sunday, where they play in front of more than 10,000 fans. It is the pinnacle of their craft.

Upstairs, in an undisclosed suite on an undisclosed floor in an undisclosed city (OK, it's Las Vegas) the night is just beginning. Away from the action on the show floor at the Mandalay Convention Center where the qualifiers are being played into the night, a trail of shoes leads you ... to more people playing video games.

Welcome to the Sea Salt Suite, a grassroots-organized event that started in 2015 when two friends, Reid and James, who wanted to use only first names, opened up their hotel suite at the end of a long day at Evo. By invitation only, their friends from Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and other parts of the world arrive to show them how the FGC (fighting game community) does things in the United States and make sure they enjoy their time abroad. Between the two of them, they speak English, Chinese and Japanese, and with the help of their other multilingual friends, they facilitate the action for the night, which ranges anywhere from friendly exhibitions to money matches with the stakes raising by the hour (and drinks consumed).

"A lot of international players are our friends, and a lot of American players are our friends too, so we really just want a place where all our friends can meet each other, hang out, and have a good time," Reid told me about his nightlife endeavor. "Hawaii is a bridge between the USA and Asia, and if we can facilitate that same positive cultural exchange in our personal lives, then that's a fantastic goal to strive for. We understand that cultural exchange can be awkward or hard at times, but our group is multilingual, and we also have the universal language of Street Fighter."

Where players for League of Legends or Dota 2 can compete online in their isolated rooms and never once have to talk to another human being in person, the world of fighting games is different. There are players nowadays who cut their teeth online and never make it to tournaments, but the foundation of the FGC was built on human interaction. A bunch of friends piling into a stuffy motel room and playing on a ratty CRT television before passing out on the floor was standard for many players. They didn't have enough money to get their own hotel room, and for a lot of them, playing into the early morning was the only good practice they could get in before the actual competition started.

Unlike the current glitzy stage the top Street Fighter players now play on thanks to the added investment by the game's creator, Capcom, many of the guests at the Sea Salt Suite remember the days when they held their tournament finals in the corner of an empty warehouse, where the only spectators were eliminated players, and the grand prize was an arcade stick or paltry sum of money. In Japan, where arcade culture is king, teenagers will sit at a machine for hours, taking on every challenger in hopes of using their few quarters to get proper practice in.

When I first walked into the Sea Salt Suite on the Wednesday before Evo, the pre-pre-party day of the event with the tournament officially kicking off on Friday morning, I didn't know what to expect. Over the years I had watched the "Salty Suite" from a distance, hearing about the numerous money matches, the grudges and the overall debauchery. It was Las Vegas and the FGC, the known partiers of the competitive gaming world.

But when I took a step into the suite, there was no yelling. No debauchery. No heated matches. Instead, the first thing to catch my eye was the mass of shoes at the front of the door. I thought it was because they didn't want anyone throwing up on another person's shoes after a night of raucous partying, but I was mistaken. Reid pulled me aside and explained that the Sea Salt Suite was put together with the help of the Hawaiian Street Fighter crew, and by Hawaiian tradition, it was respectful to leave your shoes by the door.

"[We're] just a group of people that have been gaming together in Hawaii since fighting games were a thing. Back in the '90s, it was an arcade scene, but nowadays it's more like get-togethers at friends' houses, or weekly tournaments at local bars and gaming cafes," Reid said. "We all just want a nice place to hang out and play, so getting a suite just makes sense. We work well together."

The room itself was what you'd expect from a Las Vegas hotel: luxury wooden dining table, an assortment of overly soft leather couches and chairs with matching ottomans, a sleek marble-topped bar with an unnecessary HD screen behind it displaying a cheesy moving image of expensive fish swimming through a virtual ocean. It was the type of suite musicians booked for their friends after a concert at the T-Mobile arena next door or for a sports team who just won a championship and wanted to celebrate the night away.

The table generally used for deluxe meals and five-star chefs to deliver their masterpieces upon was toppled by suitcases. These weren't just normal suitcases, however. Inside the ordinary cases were the sure sign of any well-traveled fighting game player: a screen and a game system ready to be played at any moment's notice. Have a few hours to kill at the airport before a flight? Practice combos by yourself with your headphones as the world stands still around you. You're at a wedding reception and the groomsman calls you out? Bam, gaming suitcase, let's go, first to three out of five wins.

Without any words exchanged save for a few pleasantries, players sat at the table, plugged in their arcade sticks and hopped into a game. It didn't matter what country or what language you spoke, the universal language of the fighting game, and Street Fighter in general -- a franchise that has been around for more than three decades at this point -- was all that was needed. Chinese players would play against players from Japan. Hawaiian versus British. Etc.

At one point on Wednesday, two players, one who spoke English and one who spoke Korean, sat by themselves in the living room of the suite, away from the row of players wordlessly practicing in exhibition matches. After picking their characters, they got into the game with the South Korean player winning, the two laughing after a back-and-forth match ended with a single blow deciding the outcome. Not knowing how to communicate, the English-speaking player pointed at the screen in an attempt to charade what he was trying to say before reaching into his pocket to pull out his phone. He used Google Translate to figure out the right thing to say before showing it to his new friend. The South Korean player chuckled, grabbing his own phone and showing it to the player. Nodding to each other, the two would go back at it for a series of rematches, the two trading wins back and forth before parting to test their skills with the other players in the suite.

The Salty Suite, as it has been known by in the past, can be seen as a place where "salty" players come following the morning events to let out frustration with alcohol and money matches. Though alcohol and money do flow freely into the night, that's not what it is about. The suite is a gathering of all things that make the fighting game community great.

Off in the corner of the room, near the growing pile of shoes, a group of people pushed one of the overly expensive couches in front of a television. The people on the couch were playing an old-school Sailor Moon fighting game that was created in the early '90s, grabbing the attention of the Street Fighter players from across the world.

Players drank away from the games, retelling stories of Evolutions past. Some complained about early start times of their matches. Others asked if they could sleep on the floor of the suite because their hotel reservation wasn't until the next morning. Regardless if they were professional players, longtime veterans or just fans invited by a friend, the connection and love of the fighting game genre brought them all together, playing into the night and well into the morning.

"It was surreal and like something out of a movie," Alan said, one of the non-professional partygoers of the suite, about the suite. "It's wild to see a lavish Vegas penthouse suite filled with gamers and fight sticks. It makes me feel hopeful about our scene overall as within the room you can witness multiple generations of the FGC having fun and that this is a hobby that can become [a] lifestyle for years to come."

Wednesday, the room was the calm before the storm, players diligently practicing before the event.

Saturday night, the evening before the final day of the tournament when only the top-eight Street Fighter players remained in the tournament, it was anything but calm.

Over the course of the weekend, the Sea Salt Suite had moved to another undisclosed suite on an undisclosed floor. The reason was that the team hosting the party wanted to stream some of the matches between the players, and the internet in the previous room just wasn't up to snuff. Some of the members helping put together the bigger rigs in the suite tried to fix the internet, even going as far as to try to dive into the electrical circuits behind the wall to see if they could get a faster connection.

After failing to get satisfactory speeds, the team moved suites, this time moving away to an even bigger suite, with the main attraction being a television, which doubled as a vanity mirror when turned off. At the end of the tournament, with most of the attendees were already out of the tournament, this is when the money matches started to get into full swing.

Two trios decided to put money down on a team Street Fighter match, with one team exclusively playing Akuma while the other had to exclusively play the hulky character Abigal. The sides agreed on a sum of money thrown into the pot from all players, and following a swift victory from the side playing Akuma, the opposing side made up of some professional Street Fighter players protested, wanting a rematch, upping the ante with more money thrown in. For the next two hours, the two sides would throw cash around like a world-class tennis match. More players would filter into the room as the night went along, raising their hand and egging their friends to join them in putting a bit of money on the line.

By 4 a.m., the suite was jam-packed. People were continuing to play friendly matches in the back with their gaming suitcases. Some were flirting with people they had met at the party. Others, having been awake all day playing at the convention hall and then playing all night at the suite, were slumped onto the ground, face sunk into the plush carpet not able to keep their eyes open any longer. The front of the room, money matches on the overly expensive mirror/television were still going on, players yelling and raising their voice with every blow.

Reaching a crescendo, Reid tried his best to silence the room, pleading that the hotel had been getting numerous noise complaints from the other suites on the floor. It didn't work. In the Sea Salt Suite, the universal language is the love of fighting games, and nothing more. Trying to communicate that the police were going to come if they didn't quiet down didn't translate to the melting pot of personalities in the room.

There was only one way the night could end.

"We got shut down by security at 4 a.m., right when the after-after-after party was getting started," Reid said. "I had to turn away all the UK players as they were walking down the hall to our suite while I was talking to security and front desk management."

It's OK, though.

It doesn't matter if it's a high-rise suite, a messy dorm room, a stuffy motel or a convention hall floor. As long as they're armed with a gaming suitcase, a fight stick and, hopefully, an energy drink to stay awake, there is always time for another game.