Evolution Championship Series, aka "EVO", is the name of the biggest fighting game tournament in the entire world, and it's one of the landmark events in the expanding world of e-sports. It draws in the world's best competitors from all over the globe, and in particular from the hot-bed land of video gaming Japan. The event takes place every year in July in the stifling heat of Las Vegas, Nevada, and features the latest versions of classic fighting games along with hot new titles. This year, we saw competitions between the world's top players from the games "Super Smash Bros. for Wii U", "Super Smash Bros. Melee", "Tekken 7", "Street Fighter V", "Guilty Gear Xrd REV2", "Injustice 2", "Dragon Ball FighterZ", and "BlazeBlue: Cross Tag Battle".
I used to follow the competitive scenes of Super Smash Bros. Melee and Super Smash Bros for WiiU very closely up until 2016. Tournaments would take place for these games all throughout the year and I'd follow the action like a ravenous fan, but EVO was basically our Super Bowl. I followed the happenings of these games because I have strong roots in them going back to my childhood. Melee was the first video game I became truly obsessed with as a kid. My cousin and I would play this game sunup to sundown over the summers when we were kids. Playing this game is so deeply embedded into our brains and muscle memory, that picking up the controllers again feels like speaking another language that we haven't spoken in years. When you become really skilled at a video game, and in particular a fighting game, your character you play with becomes an extension of your body and mind. Reactions and controller inputs become so second nature that the quality of the matches themselves become incredible spectacles of two Gods dodging and exchanging blows.
It's very difficult to get people to understand the depth of these games if they've never played them. I wish there was an easier way. There's such a high level of quick decision making that you need to consistently display. I'm in total awe of the ones who are considered professional. Check out a video breakdown below of one of the top Melee players named Westballz doing some high-skill techniques that all the pros do. It'll still be hard to comprehend if you've never played and held the controller, but here's one of the most technically skilled players showing what's possible with the game and his character, Falco. Aside from the massive amount of inputs he's pulling off in the shortest sliver of time, it also looks cool as hell.
The Grand Finals of the Super Smash Bros. Melee event just concluded, and we have a new first-time winner of the Evo championship named William "Leffen" Hjelte. Leffen is from Sweden, where Smash competition is scarce aside from another top-level guy named Armada. It's honestly remarkable that Leffen and Armada have climbed to the top of the ranks of this game while lacking a powerful scene in their own country. They've had to travel from Sweden to the United States quite often just to keep their skills sharp against the best competition. But on Sunday, it came down to the two Swedish guys in a Las Vegas tournament that is largely attended by American players. Armada has won two Evo championships before.
Leffen is sponsored by the e-sports organization "Team Solo-Mid" as well as Redbull the energy drink company. To be quite frank, Leffen has been a complete asshole for the majority of his career. Armada had to ban him from European tournaments because Leffen would always needlessly disrespect his opponents verbally in person and on message boards. Leffen slowly cleaned up his act and was gradually phased back into the tournament scene, but then fate decided to hit him with VISA issues. Immigration rules didn't allow an e-sports athlete to enter into the States on his VISA to compete in major tournaments. The government basically didn't recognize competitive gamers as athletes, so he was actually turned away at the door of America as he entering the country for a tournament. Those issues have since been resolved after a ton of hardship and missed tournaments.
Leffen has gone from being the evil villain in the community to being slightly redeemed with better behavior, to being deprived of his right to compete with his VISA, to being finally crowned champion at the most prestigious fighting game tournament ever. After rooting against him for so long just because of his asshole tendencies, I'm kind of happy for his victory. It's well deserved Leffen. He was clearly the best player all throughout the weekend.
Another big reason I love the Smash community is because of its rich emphasis on storylines. A player named "Hungrybox" was recently crowned the #1 player in the world based off his strong tournament performances over the past year. He actually placed at an undesired fourth place in this Evo tournament, so it was a major upset! I don't like him as a player because I find his character (Jigglypuff) and slow, defensive playing style boring and bad for the game, but I really respect him as a person. He had a strained relationship with his father, whom he lost a few years ago in 2015. His dad always used to tell him "You'll never be the best at this game". After garnering a reputation for coming in second every time, he almost started to believe his father's disheartening words, but in 2016 he won first place in Evo over the defending champ Armada. Here he is in 2018 still on top and holding the #1 player ranking in the world.
I also have a ton of respect for Hungrybox based solely on the fact that he has still remained the top player in the world despite having a full-time job in Engineering. Almost all of these top players are able to practice their craft all day since they can support themselves through sponsorships and streaming money via Twitch. Hungrybox is out here juggling a full-time job in addition to honing his skills. I started out hating him just based off his lame playstyle, but I've done a complete 180 on him since learning more about his personal journey through life.
The storylines of the Smash scene remind me of my favorite league, the NBA, which has storylines that are tirelessly debated on 24-hour sports news networks. "LeBron or Jordan?", "Does Kobe deserve to be in the GOAT conversation?", "Are Golden State bad for the league?", "Should we abolish the East/West and switch to a top 16 teams format?", etc. etc. Storylines are ever-present in football(American), football(everywhere else), baseball, hockey, and every sport, but they just seem to have a special emphasis in the NBA. Maybe I'm delusional because that's the main sport I follow. Maybe you agree or disagree.
In my opinion, competitive gaming will never truly be classified as a "sport", despite multiple efforts from big organizations to legitimize it with that "sports" label. Big companies have an agenda to bring in increased revenue, so they'll always be looking to expand the gaming world into mainstream legitimacy. There are a multitude of mental gymnastics going on between competitors, but the lack of physical activity in competitive gaming may forever prevent it from being classified as a sport in the eyes of all. And to me, that's just fine.
I don't care whether e-sports become regarded as legitimate sports, I just wish there was some way to get people to understand the level of amazingness that's going on in these games! The only way people can truly appreciate them is if they've played the games themselves, or spent a decent amount of time playing video games in general. And I think it's unfortunate, because when there comes a tense do-or-die, tournament-on-the-line moment the rush as a fan feels just as amazing as having Michael Jordan with the last shot down by one, or seeing Peyton Manning march down the field with less than two minutes, or seeing an MMA underdog knock out the champion cold with a hard right cross. The drama is there in e-sports, and that feeling of exhilaration persists. See below a video of insane matches that came down to the wire
The success of the burgeoning e-sports industry will depend on whether everyday people can find the drama in these games entertaining. I think it might be a little too early for e-sports to truly emerge into the mainstream right now. I'm 26, but I think the scene can become huge by the time I and the people in my generation are in our 40's. A large percentage of my generation grew up playing video games, and more girls are starting to play and compete in gaming tournaments every year. When our generation becomes the largest section of the population down the line, more people in the world will be down with e-sports because they grew up playing these games with their friends and family. They're already starting to broadcast the popular Overwatch League on Disney and ESPN, but the ratings weren't impressive.
It's going to be hard breaking e-sports into the world of television because most people currently view the competition on internet streaming sites like Twitch. It's still going to take years of hustling and hard work, but I think the jubilant fanbases for these scenes will continue to prop their games up, and e-sports will slowly become more embraced by the populace. Who cares if it needs to be considered a "sport" or not to do that. If they can get people to enjoy and care about what they see, that's all that matters.
Do you play fighting games? What are your thoughts on the e-sports scene? Let me know!