The Evolution Championship Series has been at the center of the fighting game community since its beginnings as the Battle By the Bay tournament in 1996. Evo is the largest fighting game tournament in the world, and it owes that popularity to the selected games headlining the event and the dedicated players who support them. Every year’s featured lineup brings with it a little intrigue, a little comfort, and of course, a little controversy. 2019’s lineup, announced late last month, is no different. With nine games featured, there’ll be something for everyone to enjoy come August 2.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Surprising no one, the latest entry in the Super Smash Bros. franchise is making its first Evo appearance, having exceeded fans’ lofty expectations for a followup to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (Smash 4). As of the time of writing, it’s the current leader in registered entrants. Ultimate has the difficult task of satisfying fans of Smash 4, disenfranchised Project M players, as well as veterans of the 17-years-old-and-going-strong Super Smash Bros. Melee. The lack of Melee is a huge bombshell, but not one that wasn’t seen coming. Evo has always been a tournament that balances new fighting games, old games with strong communities, and a few wildcards. Melee’s six-year run as an Evo main title helped break Twitch streaming records, bridged the gap between the Smash community and the greater western fighting game community (FGC), and consistently featured play of the highest caliber.
Regardless of your relationship to Melee, that’s a big hole to fill. Still, Evo organizers Joey Cuellar and Mark Julio expressed that it was time to move on and to let the burgeoning Ultimate community come into its own by being the only Smash game at Evo. Full of goodwill, the two paid tribute to the Melee community with a special goodbye video during the lineup announcement. Many people will recoil at the thought of an Evo without Melee. But the simple truth of the matter is that the Melee community doesn’t actually need it — it will continue to thrive as players support it in the countless Smash tourneys outside of Evolution.
It’s to Ultimate’s credit that it takes cues from Melee in its design. Over the course of Smash 4’s competitive life, it was clear the developers had a trajectory in mind: limiting characters’ offensive options as a way of balancing the cast. While 4 was definitely faster than Super Smash Bros. Brawl, this worked to mixed success (see any community post about Bayonetta).
Ultimate turns that design on its head and instead embraces speed, aggression, and letting characters keep fun, “broken” techniques that help them feel more distinct. Instead of a game filled with a lot of similar strength characters and one Bayonetta, most of the cast shines with a little something extra to keep competition at the highest-level fresh. Perennial low-tier character Link has finally come into his own with more speed and the remote bomb from Breath of the Wild, giving him some extremely dope combos. Pichu, considered to be one of the worst characters in Melee, has turned into a demon for Ultimate, with unparalleled speed and absurd mixups.
With a cast of 70 characters (and growing!), the list of cool, unique techniques goes on. It’s clear that Ultimate’s peerless balancing act has paid off. When you’ve got Melee Gods like Armada and Mew2King signing up to compete against Smash 4 leaders and a whole host of new blood, including Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat players, you know Nintendo has done something right.
Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition
There was never any doubt that Capcom’s ubiquitous fighting game series would make an appearance at this year’s Evo. The western fighting game community rose up around games like Super Street Fighter II Turbo and Street Fighter Alpha 2 — Street Fighter is inextricable from Evo’s DNA. Still, SFV:AE is game that’s in a state of flux.
At the end of 2018, Capcom released a long-awaited patch reducing the amount of input lag, designed to address complaints from series veterans. This reduction tilted the game towards being a more reactive experience rather than a predictive one. Footsies, or “the mid-range ground-based aspect of fighting game strategy,” where players jockey for control by using specific normal attacks to try and beat-out their opponent’s moves, suffered the most at SFV’s launch. Since then, SFV: AE has come a long way.
Still, there’s tension with what direction Capcom wants to go with the game, now in its third-year of content service. It’s a game that hasn’t quite resonated with classic SF players since it upends series mainstays like strong fireballs you can use to zone opponents and reliable meterless reversals you can use to counter other moves. Also unlike previous seasons, Capcom is being cagey with future DLC characters and they’re not giving any hints. Community members have clamored for more direct communication for future content with mixed success, so it’s possible that Capcom is saving the roadmap for a big reveal at Evo finals. The tone of SFV: AE’s future hangs in the balance of its showing at Evo. Regardless, with competitors coming from around the world, this year’s competition for SFV:AE feels like it’s the first time we’ll be seeing the full potential of the game.
Bandai Namco’s long-running Tekken series made a huge statement at last year’s Evo. Tekken 7 had some of the hypest moments: an incredibly stacked top eight, plenty of upsets, and the incredible charm and performance from Terelle “Lil Majin” Jackson and his King play. There’s been a resurgence in the American Tekken community after such a strong showing, and it’ll be interesting to see how far things have come after a whole year of community development. This comes alongside some massive balance updates to the entire roster and system additions like cool wallbounce combos and more. Even if you’re not fully tuned-into the intricacies of Tekken play, you can always stay for one of the wildest rosters in fighting games, boasting SNK’s iconic crime boss Geese Howard, Final Fantasy XV’s Noctis, and the newly released… uh… Jeffrey Dean Morgan?
Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st]
To tell the story of UNIST, you first have to tell the story of anime. No, not Japanese animation. Street Fighter represents the dominant form of fighting games for the western FGC, but “anime” fighting games are something else entirely. In the FGC, anime describes any game with chain combos and air dashes — the combat is much faster and often takes place off the ground. In the Japanese fighting game world, these games are much more plentiful than ones like Street Fighter, but it’s been hard for anime games to shake their outsider identity in the west.
This battle for legitimacy comes from a few places. You’ve probably seen the memes and images of fighting game players running sets in hotel bathrooms, sidewalk curbs, and terrifying murder basements. Most of these images are of people playing amateur fighting game circle French Bread’s breakout hit Melty Blood. Featuring beautiful hand-drawn sprites, super tight fighting, and a storyline set in Type-MOON’s wildly popular Tsukihime series, MB set a new standard for indie fighting games. The images you see of players running sets on trash cans and in their local Denny’s are not just some goofy antics but are a real representation of the lack of infrastructure and official support for anime games like MB at major fighting game tournaments. They’re images of players making the best of the circumstances. In the mid-2000s, another world seemed possible with the steady growth of the anime scene in the US. That was before multiple setbacks.
At Evo 2007, Guilty Gear finalists failed to show up on-time to their scheduled finals and even took a break during the event period, holding up the rest of the day’s tournaments. In a Evo 2007 recap post, FGC veteran James Chen laid out how much damage had been done. Chen said, “the Guilty Gear community has a reputation [for] being, for lack of a better term, lazy… for some reason, [they] just don’t seem like they care enough, so the game is never taken seriously.”
To make matters worse, an organizer deliberately influenced the brackets at major tournament Season’s Beatings III in October 2008, leading to the cancellation of an in-progress 100+ player Guilty Gear tournament. GG, and by extension anime players, were seen as undeserving of the spotlight until they got their shit together. And while in subsequent years, we’ve had Guilty Gear, BlazBlue, and even French Bread’s own Melty Blood: Actress Again featured as Evo headliners (by Chen’s own admission, thanks to community support), the actions of 2007/8 cast a long shadow over the western anime scene.
UNIST’s inclusion in the 2019 lineup feels like an exorcism of an old ghost, especially with Evo organizer Joey Cuellar’s comment on the choice being decided by a community “that’s done an amazing job supporting their game in the past year” and one that deserves the recognition. French Bread’s latest fighting game has done so through its marriage of anime fighting game concepts with a focus on traditional fighter style footsies. UNIST players are easily drawn to specific characters and cultivate a loyalty that feels special. It’s a game where anyone in the cast can win. As a result, a ton of players from different scenes have begun to support the game on the road to Evo. The game’s inclusion is a Cinderella story. For anime, for French Bread, for everyone who has scraped and pushed their scene to grow and develop; UNIST will absolutely be one of the hypest tournaments at Evo.
BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle
If UNIST is the celebration of a bright future for anime fighters, BBTAG is a celebration of all of the games that got us to this point. Smashing together five disparate universes — BlazBlue, Persona, RWBY, Under Night, and Arcana Heart — this is a tag fighter that ramps up the absurdity of anime fighting games to an even greater level. With two characters on your team, you can call on your second fighter to assist in extending combos or just to cover your ass when you whiff something big. If you want to see some huge combos with extreme comeback potential, this is your game. If you like a lot of yelling in-game — and sometimes out — this is your game. And if you want to see rounds end in a flash as players dump their entire super meter into one absurd combo, this is absolutely one to look out for.
Mortal Kombat 11
NetherRealm Studios returns with another entry in the storied and gory franchise. Currently unreleased but already shifting a lot from MKX, MK11 will appeal to anyone who can stomach the getting-close-to-uncanny-valley level violence, with characters showcasing specific traits that guide their playstyle. Gone is the single meter used to execute powered-up versions of special moves and push-blocking. Now there are separate meters for both offensive and defensive options. All players will also get access to their (often-literally) gut-wrenching super move “Fatal Blow” attacks when they reach low health.
Taking MKX’s variation system to a new level, players will be able to equip specific gear onto characters, thereby customizing their unique set of special moves. It’ll be great to watch a whole swath of MK players getting their hands on this new title and breaking it open for fun. Esports gamer of the year 2018 Dominique “SonicFox” McLean cut his teeth on MK9 before becoming a dominating force across countless fighting games, so it remains to be seen how he’ll be approaching this new title and whether he’ll choose to focus on it going forward. NRS has proven that prestige fighting games don’t need to come from Japanese developers, and MK11 looks to push their ambitions even further than ever before.
Dragon Ball FighterZ
If BBTAG’s 2v2 fights just aren’t hard enough for you to follow, you should try checking out DBFZ. At least partially carrying the torch of the absent Marvel vs. Capcom series, DBFZ’s 3v3 battles have a lot going on onscreen at any given time. It’s not just a game where you can see perpetual loser Yamcha beat the hell out of Cell, Frieza, and Majin Buu at the same time. It’s also a game where your character choices for assists matter just as much as who is on-point.
This is a game where tagging is a constant necessity to let characters recover health and stay in the fight for longer, and with the newly added Jiren and Videl, DBFZ looks to continue over-the-top rivalries like SonicFox vs Goichi “GO1” Kishida as well as the consistently stellar performance of Ryota “Kazunoko” Inoue. It’s hard to dislike Dragon Ball, and recent balance changes have addressed the game’s lengthy fights, so you owe it to yourself to at least tune in for a taste of DBFZ’s unique personalities and savor the commentary by the inimitable Mike “IFCYipes” Mendoza.
Classic fighting game developer SNK is rebooting an old and oft-forgotten franchise. Renowned for inverting their flagship King of Fighters series’ sensibilities to focus on slow, deliberate footsies and massive damage single hits, SS has a long history of cult classic entries and amusing experiments. It’s been over 10 years since the last title, and the media released for this game has already showcased a lush, painterly aesthetic that looks miles ahead of 2016’s technically solid but anemic King of Fighters XIV.
While some might decry an as yet-untested game’s inclusion in the biggest fighting game tournament in the world, it’s impossible to uncouple the Evo Championship Series from its status as a supreme advertising tool for fighting game companies. SNK has created masterful arcade games, survived multiple bankruptcies and acquisitions, been saddled with pachislot development, and has finally been reborn as a company with self-determination. And after all this time, they haven’t skipped a beat. If there’s any company that deserves to have a spot gifted to them at Evo, it’s SNK.
Not content to have only a single 3D fighter on display at Evo, Bandai Namco’s second franchise makes its way in as well. The tale of swords and souls eternally retold got a bit of a reboot last year and marked a return to a classic setting and mechanics after SCV pushed too many prospective players away with its focus on a cast of unpopular new characters and unorthodox fighting styles. It also added more beginner-friendly mechanics to bring the series to a new audience — which, if we go by the number of absurd character creations you’ll see on Twitter, seems to have paid off. The changes made to the formula have brought a lot of players in from other fighting game franchises, and that momentum will hopefully continue through August. SCVI is currently on the higher-end of total entrants, so clearly the scene is seizing the opportunity to get its voice out there. The least we can do is give it a fair listen.