Under cobalt lights arranged into three diamonds, people crowded into the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada this weekend. Many more spilled out onto the concrete floor. They were there not for a musical artist or a high-profile comedian, but to watch the top eight competitors of anime fighting game Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st] (UNIST) compete for a coveted Evolution Championship Series trophy.
Rikir, a top UNIST player from Waterloo, Canada, could hear the volcanic eruption of the crowd, which included his proud parents, from the stage.
He hadn’t ever had a spotlight like this on him before. Although Under Night came out nearly seven years ago, this year marked the first time it was featured on the prestigious main stage of Evo. Over 1,100 players participated in the tournament, putting it ahead of some other main-stage Evo games this such as BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle and Soulcalibur VI. It was also just shy of Dragon Ball FighterZ‘s 1,191 entrants.
“This chance at Evo has brought so many foreign players together to play this one game. The community has seen so much growth and it will only continue to grow as we move into CLR [the game’s upcoming iteration],” he said from the community-funded UNIST suite in the Mandalay Bay hotel.
“Everyone loved the chance to compete on a bigger stage and not just the Melty parking lot,” he added, referencing one infamous Melty Blood tournament settled with the top three competitors playing in a hotel parking lot in the dead of night on a laptop propped up on a shoebox. “We like it indoors.”
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Anime fighters at Evo haven’t been quite that neglected in recent years, with multiple making the main stage each year as of late, but these are usually new titles or games in more prestigious and recognized series like Guilty Gear. UNIST is neither new nor was it particularly well-known. So when it was announced to be one of the nine main games to be featured at Evo, Rikir, along with the rest of the game’s tight-knit community, was pleasantly surprised.
Others, like Daryl “DJCream” Bunao, saw the changes this would mean for the player base. Bunao is a community organizer and co-creator of AnimEVO, a group of volunteers who run anime fighter side tournaments at Evo. According to him, when the game was brand new a UNIST side tournament would pull in around 100 entrants. Those numbers dipped into the mid-double digits over time, and then suddenly roared back as over 200 players entered last year’s side tournament.
“I haven’t seen a community this old grow this fast in a long time,” he said. “As someone who had boots on the ground at Evo last year I could definitely feel the community rallying behind this game.”
That fact, combined with an exhilarating grand finals set, a strong presence at major tournaments like Combo Breaker, CEO, and CEOtaku left a strong impression on Evo’s staff.
A Growing Under Night Community
With the spotlight comes attention, and every pool at Evo was filled with sharks. Top Japanese players specializing in UNIST could finally justify the expenses of flying out to compete. Even at the local level the difference is being felt from the increase in notoriety that this spotlight brought. Barao, who is from a small farm town in California, historically struggled to find local competition.
After the announcement, though, more people showed up at local tournaments, and players from other games like Smash got involved too. By Evo weekend, the swell of interest in the game was apparent. Over 1,100 people entered the tournament, tens of thousands tuned in to watch the grand finals on Twitch, and thousands massed in front of the stage to gaze awe-stricken in person. Oh, and a new iteration of the game is just on the horizon.
With everything suddenly going so right for this community that was once a group of just dozens crammed into a lonely back corner of Evo, you could be forgiven for thinking they would be fiercely protective of this newfound status. While they are confident they’ll be back next year, they also aren’t intent on jealously guarding the spotlight.
“I hope other [players of] games get to feel that same emotional high,” Bunao said.
“To see everyone’s reactions, it definitely struck a chord,” Ben “Shinobi” Robinson, organizer of UNIST and other tournaments, added. “I was feeling tired because I had to work all day and then play, but as soon as I got in there I saw Rikir fight Hishigata and I was blown away. I was excited. I was hype. I was getting up out of my seat.”
Robinson, who has been a part of the fighting game community for approximately 14 years, didn’t expect UNIST to make the cut this year, but says he would have showed up to support and help run side tournaments anyway. It’s that sort of dedication that got UNIST to where it is today.
From the Grassroots to the Main Stage
The only spot of rain on the UNIST parade was blowback from Smash Bros. Melee‘s community directed towards Evo’s staff.
This year, Melee was not a part of Evo’s main lineup. Fans of the game were understandably disappointed, since the title has been a standby of the tournament since 2013. While the newest title in the series, Ultimate, was included, there is very little overlap between Melee players and players of more recent Smash games.
Disappointed in the decision to exclude Melee while giving a niche and relatively unproven game like UNIST the spotlight, many of the game’s fans went online to express dissatisfaction. For the first few nights, instead of a community getting to celebrate this newfound validation in peace, much of the online discussion was dominated by what some Melee fans considered to be a snub.
“A lot of people forget,” Robinson notes, “but Melee started out like us. They were straight grass roots. They had their chance and just ran with it.”
Indeed, prior to 2013, Melee had been absent from Evo’s official lineup for four years. Seven games were initially announced for the tournament’s 2013 lineup, with an eight slot being decided by a donation drive. Fans would donate money towards the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and tie their donation to the game they were voting for. Fans raised $225,744 in total, and $94,683 of that total came from Melee‘s fanbase. Much like the UNIST community, Melee‘s renaissance at Evo started with a niche community rallying together when an opportunity presented itself.
Now that UNIST has gotten its chance, Robinson, Bunao, and Rikir all feel like they made the most of it and are confident the game will return to Evo next year. And it’s hard to argue they didn’t make an impact. In the final showdown between Clearlamp_o and Oushuu-hittou in which the former came out on top, the roar of the crowd was not only for the masterful play — but for a game and community that was finally getting a turn in the spotlight.