In the bright lights and air-conditioned casinos of Las Vegas, it’s easy to forget that all that separates you from a desert of concrete and eventually sand is a wall or a ceiling. By design, you are not supposed to think about much beyond your immediate surroundings, all of which is intended to keep you focused on the next hand or pull of a slot machine’s elongated arm. Walking through the cavernous halls, you almost get the feeling that Las Vegas isn’t recovering from the pandemic, it has somehow existed in a bubble that never acknowledged it. If you ignore the long history of the city, it is absolutely a quixotic location for multiple arenas and stadiums and some of the world’s biggest sporting events, and yet they still come to the city in droves.
It feels like a city that is written and rehearsed to exemplify the idea of the comeback narrative, which maybe actually makes it the most appropriate place in the world for Evolution 2022 — the world’s biggest fighting game tournament often simply called EVO — to stage its return as a physical event once again.
“The Road to EVO” is a phrase a lot of players and commentators use in the fighting game community referring to the myriad tournaments and training sessions it takes to get to participate here. In the past few years, however, it has taken on a different meaning, as the organization and event have undergone massive internal and external changes. The fighting game tournament was on the figurative ropes after underage sex scandals about EVO leadership and an international pandemic that seemed to hasten a likely end for the event. That it came back this year at all could be looked at from the outside as a small miracle, though is more accurately dashes of corporate intervention and a lot of hard work.
In 2020, in response to spiking COVID cases around the world and national lockdowns, EVO chose to take its physical tournament online. This made logistical sense, as players could participate from around the world without needing to risk infection, and it benefited games with robust online systems to add more variety to the roster. However, in July of that year, allegations of sexual misconduct against EVO CEO Joey Cuellar emerged. Though the board released Cuellar and replaced him with an interim CEO, the damage had already been done. Developers like Capcom, Netherrealm Studios, and Bandai Namco had pulled their sponsorships and involvement and the organization’s board had no choice but to cancel for the year.
In 2021, EVO Online did go ahead and take place, but it largely flew under the radar outside the fighting game community. A physical companion EVO Showcase had been planned, but was also cancelled amidst rising COVID case numbers. The glitz and glam of an in-person event, of people rising from their seats in excitement, was notably absent and with it also a lot of the attention that goes to the tournament. By that point, plans had already been made to proceed with a physical event for the next year — hoping, perhaps overly-optimistically, that COVID numbers would decrease and vaccine numbers would increase. But EVO didn’t need to just come back, it needed to come back big. The top of the mountain needed to be a polished beacon for the rest of the international FGC and it turned out a year was barely enough time to ensure that.
Two key events in 2021 helped instill internal and external confidence for a return to form. The first, which took place in March of last year, was Sony Interactive Entertainment announcing a joint-acquisition of EVO alongside esports investor RTS. This provided a desperately needed cash buffer for the event, which could not risk losing money for its relaunch. Later that year, the acquiring parties and the EVO board agreed to install Rick Thiher as the show’s General Manager, Event Director of the national tournament Combo Breaker and longtime FGC stalwart.
“I haven’t slept in about a hundred hours,” Thiher admits during an interview as the show wound down. It is easy to assume he was joking, but he repeated that comment a few more times — including during his closing ceremony speech — so it’s entirely possible he wasn’t far off. “This is a live event and lots of things go wrong,” he adds.
The budget for EVO 2022, backed partially by new corporate resources, had exploded over previous years. Massive custom screens dotted the walls of every arena, full graphical packages that went far beyond anything from tournaments prior, and a host of safety measures that simply were not a concern years ago. Every dollar introduced this year presented a new possible point of failure and another problem to fix, even if they contributed to a greater value.
As the first EVO during a pandemic, numerous problems had to be solved starting from an infrastructure standpoint.
“It was exceptionally challenging,” Thiher explains. “Aside from normal difficulties around increased cost and inflation and people being out of practice with attending and working events, there’s a variety of staff that —for fighting games — have become the infrastructure for our events and our tournaments. Arcade hobbyists, dedicated attendees that come through to run brackets, help us actually run the productions even, who in two-and-a-half years away from live events have gotten new jobs, started families, gotten other hobbies. Having to find replacements for them or get them reignited with the culture that we find a lot of our time in is a new wrinkle that I did not expect.”
The more obvious issue with having an event during a pandemic is trying to figure out how best to keep people from getting sick. It is maybe too early to know how thoroughly COVID spread during the event, but official EVO policy may have mitigated it as well as possible considering the circumstances. Vaccinations were mandated for attendance, as staff bestowed wristbands following verification that were required to enter the event hall or arena. Similarly, guards were posted up at the entrances and around the event space, reminding people without masks or whose masks had slipped off that they were required to keep them on while inside.
It is, if nothing else, a damning indictment of every other convention that refuses to provide the same safety protocols — such as Twitchcon in San Diego [Update 08/12/22: Twitchcon has since reversed this policy decision, and is now requiring masks and either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test]. It maybe cost EVO a few more people to check vaccine certificates and enforce mask usage, which is a negligible cost next to the totality of the rest of the event. For those who did not get sick there, a group that I count myself among, it’s likely that these policies are the reason why. Other events that fail to learn from EVO here are doing so willfully.
For his part, Thiher sees the infusion of corporate ownership in to the fighting game community as a good thing. While he wouldn’t comment on how it has changed EVO specifically, stating he didn’t work EVO before it was corporate-owned, he spoke in slightly vaguer terms about how important it will be to the next few years of events.
“We have companies involved that are interested in us as a culture and not just as a product,” Thiher offers. “So they’re giving us the resources to actually experiment with what this event is and what the brand can do. That’s going to be phenomenal, not just for how EVO can live out its purpose, but how that purpose can grow.”
As fighting games enter a bit of a transitional phase, with games like Street Fighter V on their way out and likely sequels to games like Mortal Kombat and new titles like Project L on the way in, EVO is coming back at a bit of an inflection moment for the entire genre. Every year brings more and more new and returning participants and that number will explode as fighting games both reach new audience and experiment with more accessible models. Where else could someone go from being a competitive Overwatch player to becoming champion? Or someone else go from pursuing their college degree to a few months later beating most of the best Street Fighter players in the world?
But all those opportunities, like everything else, create places for things to fall apart. The Road to EVO is itself never-ending, as work starts now to plan next year’s show and figure out how to do it bigger and better. And as those things expand and the event itself accommodates more and more people, expectations naturally rise with it.
“We’re never going to hit every expectation,” Thiher says minutes before the show’s closing Guilty Gear Strive Top 8. “This is an aspirational organization and the sky is not high enough. I want this event to be digestible, consumable, explorable, that’s really what I’m looking to do in the next six months.”