For the Uninitiated: An Evo 2017 Street Fighter Primer
This weekend, the Evolution Championship Series (Evo) will be all over the internet. It's the world's largest open fighting game tournament, and as such, it's always the most-watched event in competitive fighting games. Evo 2017 will highlight nine popular fighting games, in a massive tournament spanning three days. There are live feeds to watch for every game, for over 10 hours each day, and, as you might imagine, it's really hard to watch.
I personally try to pay some attention to every game's grand finals match up, but I'm really only here for the Street Fighter V segment. However, even keeping up with the one game is hard enough, and with this year's finals being broadcast on ESPN 2 once again, I figured now was a good time to explain why this thing is so popular, and maybe why you should check it out. Don't worry if you don't know much about fighting games. There's definitely some lingo (here's a handy glossary), but all you really need to know is what you already know: the player whose health bar hits zero is the sad one. There's a ton of money on the line, tens of thousands of players, and close to a million people watching. It's probably my favorite holiday after Christmas.
The Main Event
Street Fighter games always get top billing at Evo, regardless of how recent the latest game is. This is primarily because Street Fighter is the "OG" fighting game series, and it was the first one to be played in a serious, competitive manner. In recent years, Street Fighter has maintained its main event status due to the success of Street Fighter IV, the game credited with ending the fighting game drought that lasted from the early 2000's until its release in 2008. More recently, however, the release of Street Fighter V has brought about a noticeable improvement in how fighting games are broadcast. In addition, the game itself has successfully served as both a great point to begin taking the game seriously, as well as an extremely competitive title for the existing pro scene.
Where other Evo favorites like Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Super Smash Bros. Melee tend to feature the same three-to-five players at the top, the field of viable, top-level SFV players is comically huge. We've reached a point where it's reasonable to label a different player as "the best in the world" every month.
This is in part 'cause the internet. Street Fighter V is one of the only online fighting games with truly viable online play. Of course there are times when you'll be matched with someone on a bad connection, but overall, playing online is a real way to learn and practice the game; certainly more so than it ever was in previous Capcom fighting games. Combined with that, the continued rise of game streaming has created a world where Street Fighter players are not only playing in more competitive matches on a daily basis, but also watching more competitive play than ever before. This is further served by the Capcom Pro Tour, the official tournament circuit for Street Fighter, which broadcasts multiple tournaments per month. The turnaround on players learning new tactics, then having people learn how to beat those tactics (a process that used to take months) is insanely fast for this game.
So all these factors - the history of the game, the ease with which people can watch it, and the wide variety of skilled players at the top level - have helped keep SFV super exciting as a spectator sport. It's also worth mentioning that the game is one of the simpler fighting games to watch, with gameplay that focuses on fundamental ideas, and a graphical presentation that keeps it from feeling visually overwhelming in the way a Guilty Gear game might be. If nothing else, if you've ever been curious about spectating a professional fighting game event, Street Fighter V at Evo is probably your best chance to check it out.
As with a real sport, Street Fighter has its stand-out players who you'll want to keep an eye on. Last year's Evo was the end of a months-long reign for a competitor named Infiltration. The Korean player was enjoying a stretch of absolute dominance for the four months from the launch of SFV, to Evo 2016, winning almost every tournament he attended. After Infiltration's decisive Evo 2016 victory, the player base seemed to figure him out, and he hasn't won a major tournament since, despite still being a fantastic player.
Since this time last year, the field has been crazy, with lots of players and characters making finals appearances. Here are a few you should keep an eye on:
Daigo "The Beast" Umehara (plays Guile): Daigo was the original pro gamer, and he's responsible for the most iconic fighting game moment in history. His consistent greatness, dating back to the early 90's with Street Fighter II, has earned him the label of "greatest of all time", but he's struggled tremendously in Street Fighter V. Still, he's exciting to watch, and super hard to root against.
Tokido (plays Akuma): Tokido is a well-known Japanese player. He's won lots of major events, and placed highly in tournaments throughout this year, but hasn't had a first-place finish in quite a while. He's still easily the best Akuma player in the world, and he also has a flair for dramatic, aggressive victories. Akuma is a character you probably won't see played much at Evo, so it's nice knowing one of the world's best 25-or-so players will be using him.
K-Brad (plays Cammy and Karin): K-Brad is an American fan favorite who seems to be good friends with just about everyone in the fighting game community. He's my personal favorite Cammy player to watch, but he also seems universally beloved by everyone except one specific player. His play style is the definition of "clean" meaning he plays patiently, and capitalizes on his opponent's openings and mistakes.
Wolfkrone (plays Laura): 'Krone doesn't have the historical accomplishments that many top players have, but he's a remarkable player. Hailing from my home state of Michigan, he mostly developed as an online player and that "outsider" persona has created some friction between him and the community at large. More recently, he's had public drama with K-Brad at multiple tournaments, so if the two of them get matched up, you can expect some nonsense. He's one of the only pros using Laura (my main character) and has come close to winning a few major tournaments.
Momochi (plays Ken): Momochi is a Japanese player, with a decades-long legacy of excellence, similar to Daigo. He's struggled lately as Ken, so there's a chance we'll see him using some side characters. He's credited with being the cleanest player in the game, and his play is so precise, he almost seems to know what the opponent will do before they do it.
Filipino Champ a.k.a. F-Champ (plays Dhalsim): F-Champ is another character specialist. He only plays Dhalsim and does so like no other player can. He hasn't had a first-place finish in months, but, because he's so good with a character so few people play well, he's hard to root against. You'll also see him destroying people in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 this weekend.
Ricki Ortiz (plays Chun-Li): Street Fighter's best female player has struggled lately, due to an overall increase in skill from pretty much everyone, and downgrades to her main character. That said, she has a fundamentals-based play style that leads her to lots of high tournament placings. I don't expect her to win Evo 2017, but she's certainly made some notable underdog strides, like placing second at last year's Capcom Cup.
Justin Wong (plays Karin and maybe Kolin): J-Wong is historically regarded as the best American player in the history of Street Fighter. He's not the absolute best American player in Street Fighter V specifically, but he's still one of the greats, with multiple tournament wins in this game. He's a master of the "turtle" style, meaning he tends to play defensively and wait for the opponent to make a bad decision. That sounds like it'd be boring to watch, but that's such an usual style of play in SFV that is actually makes him very entertaining.
There are lots of other big-name players at Evo this year, like Ryan Hart, Nemo, RB, Brolynho, Xian, Fuudo (who may win the thing), PR-Balrog... but there are clear players everyone will have in their sights. Here are the favorites to be 2017 Evo champion.
Snake Eyez (plays Zangief with a side of Akuma): Snake has clawed his way from being almost completely forgotten last year to being a major threat in SFV. An elite American player, he's placed top-four at Evo in Street Fighter IV, and, due to his recent first-place and second-place tournament wins, he's a favorite to win it all this weekend. He's a Zangief player primarily, which means he has to rely on mind games and intimidating his opponent. With Gief being a grappler, though, it means Snake Eyez has to utilize some crafty methods to get close to opponents who use projectile attacks. That struggle led to what is probably my favorite match in SFV so far, Snake Eyez vs. NuckleDu at Combo Breaker 2017. Snake's victory at last month's CEO tournament was also amazing to witness. He's my current favorite player to watch, and I'm hoping he wins Evo 2017. Well, I'm hoping Daigo wins (everyone always wants to see Daigo win), but that's not happening.
Xiao Hai (plays Cammy): An excellent Chinese player, Xiao Hai is perhaps the best Cammy player on the planet. That's a big deal, considering she's a really popular character. He's recently been placing top 8 in tournaments all over the world, which is usually a sign that a player is one of the best. My personal interest in him, however, came from him making a rare public statement that he can't stand the fact he's never won against NuckleDu, then subsequently getting an incredibly hard-won victory over him earlier this year. Xiao Hai has climbed the ranks steadily over the last year and a half and his hard work is finally paying off.
The Big Three
Above all, there are three players no one saw coming, who have shown clear, consistent dominance in Street Fighter V this year. The craziest part is that they're all lovable (well, maybe not Punk) trash talkers, who have no problem playfully taunting their opponents. If you ask anyone who they expect to win Evo, 99% of people will say one of these three guys... or should I say "kids"? They're all 21 years old or younger.
Smug (plays Balrog): Smug seems to have more fun playing Street Fighter V than any other pro player. He's regularly participating in some sort of nonsense, goofing off at the camera during events, or just being silly. He stands out as someone who is really hard to dislike in a field full of serious players who've been doing this for multiple decades. Beneath the surface, though, Smug is perhaps the most-feared player in the world. He plays as Balrog, who is capable of taking over any round with one well-timed punch, and nobody times them better than Smug. He's also just so battle tested, due to having trained with some of the best American players around, that no one ever seems confident that they'll beat him. Watching him play is a bit like watching Tyson in his prime. People you thought were good just get embarrassed. And then, after the match, he's side-eyeing at the camera and entertaining the crowd again.
Punk a.k.a. "The Alpha" (plays Karin): I would argue that Karin is the best character in the game. Punk is the world's best Karin player. His success isn't that hard to understand. What makes Punk so dangerous isn't just his character, though. It's that he's one of the best players in the world at controlling space on screen, and he almost never misses an opportunity to punish a mistake. From the moment the round starts, when both players are standing across the screen from one another, any one playing against Punk is at an immediate disadvantage. Punk has gone multiple tournaments in 2017 without ever losing a single match. Like Smug, he also seems to have a good time playing the game, but his humor comes from making fun of opponents rather than just being silly. Punk has no issue with being the bad guy, nor with disrespecting an opponent. He's that guy you want to see lose, but he so rarely does, that you have to respect him. "Punk" was a very appropriate name.
NuckleDu (plays Guile and R. Mika): Du is actually the official Street Fighter V champion, having won the Capcom Cup (basically the season-ender/Super Bowl of Street Fighter V) last year. Like Smug and Punk, he's somewhat cocky, but it seems to be all in good fun. He's less a trash talker and more that guy who will playfully point out that you can't beat him. NuckleDu is probably the easiest to root for of the three favorites, because of his calm demeanor, but his play style is infuriating. He's a master of using an incredibly low-risk style, and then lulling an opponent into a devastating mistake. If Smug's strength is aggression, and Punk's is spacing, Du probably has the strongest mental game of all three. He simply has a knack for just making the right call at the right time, in a way that makes his Guile and his Mika different from anyone else's. And he gets a lot of respect points for winning over a quarter of a million dollars in the last year from Street Fighter yet still competing in every tournament just to keep his edge. He's very much a fighting champion with a maturity you wouldn't expect from a guy who just turned 21 and plays video games for a living.
What's Happening Besides Street Fighter?
There are nine games featured at this year's Evo.
Street Fighter V
Tekken 7 - With the game having finally released in North America just a month ago, T7 should be fun to watch. It's actually three years old now, though, so there's a good chance the winners will be the same guys who've been winning the international tournaments lately.
Injustice 2 - Whether or not this game has the chops for competitive longevity is still up in there air, so hopefully we'll find out at Evo.
Guilty Gear Xrd 2 - I know nothing about the GGX2 scene, but watch it for the crazy characters and combos. It's definitely something to see.
BlazBlue: Central Fiction - Basically what I said about Guilty Gear.
Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 - This is another really flashy game, if you've never seen it. With its sequel, Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite releasing in a few months, this may be the last time we see UMVC3 at Evo.
The King of Fighters XIV - KoF is the fighting game of choice for the hardest-core fans. I hate the way it looks, but it's widely regarded as the most skill-based game of this year's lineup. It's worth checking out for that reason alone.
Super Smash Bros. Melee - Look, they take community votes for games to feature at Evo, and lots of people keep making this happen. Even if you like Smash Bros., competitive Smash isn't actually the same game most people play at home, due to the rule changes required to turn this into a fighting game. If you watch this, don't tell them I sent you.
Super Smash Bros. for Wii U - ....How? This could have been Mortal Kombat X, or Killer Instinct, or For Honor. Nope. We get the second-worst Smash Bros. game.
How to watch Evo 2017
If you're like me, and primarily planning to watch Street Fighter V, your best bet is the Capcom Fighters Twitch channel, until the finals start Sunday night at 7 EST. The finals will be on ESPN 2 and on the main Evo Twitch feed. Otherwise, most of the major stuff will be on the aforementioned Evo feed. Here's a handy chart if you want the full details, though.