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Evo 2017: A guide to the year's biggest fighting game tournaments

Tips for watching every single game, even the weirdest ones

tokido at evo
Tokido prepares for a set at Evo 2014
David Zhou

The massive Evo fighting game tournament takes place at the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas this weekend. If you’re there, congratulations! It will be really easy to watch because you’ll be able to walk on over to the game you want to watch. (And try Tacos El Gordo.) If, like the vast majority of us, you are not, things are a little more complicated.

You could stick to the main official Evo stream, or just the Street Fighter 5 stream, but there is so much being broadcasted from Evo that it’s a waste not to see more! There are no less than nine official Evo streams, and even more unofficial streams for side tournaments set up by fans of other games.

As such, this is a viewer’s guide to the many games you’re going to see on the official streams, with a little supplement for the unofficial ones. Let’s start with the official games first.

Street Fighter 5

Evo was built on Street Fighter, it’s grown with Street Fighter and Street Fighter is going to be the main event of any Evo.

Despite a rough launch, terrible communication, and continuously shoddy maintenance, the game lying deep underneath Capcom’s manifold layers of bumbling is a strong competitive fighter that’s only gotten better since last year. The main complaint from advanced players is that the game is too fair, honest, and easy to play. What’s the opposite of damning with faint praise?

This is Street Fighter at its most classic: You’re going to see players move in and out for position, attempt to poke at each other with long-range strikes, and eventually move in for the kill at the slightest opening. From a spectator’s point of view, it’s one of the easiest games to understand.

Street Fighter 5 is a pretty offense-heavy game in nature, and once one player knocks the other down and the momentum swings to their side, it’s hard to shut that down. This game can get very aggressive, and one-sided perfect victories are more common than in most fighting games.

Due to the kind of prize money involved, Street Fighter 5 also draws the very best competition in the world. This top 5 highlight reel doesn’t come close to the amount of amazing play we saw for Street Fighter 5 last year. Be ready to see world-class matches not only at the very top of the tournament bracket, but also in pools that are loaded with sharks. The mere presence of so much talent in one place indicates amazing matches are going to be happening all weekend.

Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3

Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 represents the concept of “power creep” taken to its logical extreme in a fighting game. Who would win if every character was way too strong?

In Marvel, characters run, float and fly, their attacks cover almost the whole screen, and the very first clean hit typically leads to a long, inescapable combo that spells certain death. That a Marvel player lives on the razor’s edge is exactly the appeal.

The very best players assemble teams of three with perfect synergy; players sometimes say that you’re building a three-headed monster.

Despite the fact that Marvel 3 is extremely difficult for new players to learn and utterly merciless in competition, it is still somehow a mesmerizing spectator game. It might be the endless combos, or the fact that the screen is lit up at nearly all times. It might be that Yipes is probably commentating it, and that guy’s shtick never gets old.

No matter what happens, the crowd always goes wild. Last year a kid charged the Evo stage, declaring to the champion “You’re not done here until you fight me!”. The community dubbed him The Spirit of Marvel. Marvel is fighting games’ heart of madness.

Conventional wisdom would dictate that Marvel 3 is on the way out in favor of the upcoming Marvel vs Capcom: Infinite, but the game has a certain hypnotic power that its successor, a very different and less intense game, is unlikely to be able to replicate.

Tekken 7

The other classical 3D fighting game, finally out on consoles after a two-year wait from its Asian arcade release (Tekken 7’s real launch was back in 2015!).

Like in Street Fighter, Tekken players jockey for position, trying to slip into just the right distance to land their attacks. However, Tekken’s powerful movement options allow them to dash, sidestep and shuffle with an amazing degree of speed and precision. The very best Tekken players are constantly bobbing and weaving, positioning for attack just as much as they are trying to get their opponent to throw out the wrong move.

When one player makes a mistake, you’ll see those juggle combos you’ve heard about, keeping the opponent in the air for seconds at a time and smashing through walls and floors.

Look for comebacks when one character’s health gets low and they glow red; that’s the Rage mode, which gives extra damage and access to powerful new special moves. You’ll see players get very careful around a glowing opponent — they know that Rage is dangerous, and that the next big hit could be the last.

This set, in a YouTube clip titled “Best Match Ever,” shows everything come together in a legitimately beautiful way.

Guilty Gear Xrd: Rev 2

This game is the standard bearer for “anime” style fighting games, looking like a combination of the cover of an ‘80s metal album and an issue of Shonen Jump. (Fittingly, this game is where Arc System Works cut its teeth on the style of 3D graphics that wowed E3 in Dragon Ball FighterZ.) Most importantly, it’s a game where the main character fights with a giant cigarette lighter. As smartly designed as it is strange and whimsical, Guilty Gear is a cult classic whose influence can be seen in games all over the genre, including Street Fighter 5.

This is a fast, rush-oriented game where characters practically fly around the screen, attacking constantly. Some characters excel at keeping enemies away, some wage guerrilla war, weaving in and out, and others take the opponent down once, tie them to the floor, and never let them go. No matter what, players never stop moving and attacking.

When the screen goes dark and you see a glowing circle around the character, that’s called a “Roman Cancel.” Players can recover instantly from their attacks and slow down time for the opponent in the process, buying themselves some momentum and hopefully turning the fight around. High-level Guilty Gear players use this mechanic in all kinds of creative ways to invent new ways to attack.

I chose this match from last year’s top 8 to represent Guilty Gear: Machabo’s flag-bearing Sin Kiske, who has to eat periodically mid-match to keep fighting, faces off against Nakamura’s Millia Rage, an assassin who uses her shape-changing hair to fight. The fight is as intense as the characters are weird.

BlazBlue Central Fiction

BlazBlue is Guilty Gear’s younger cousin, which is even more stereotypically “anime” in every possible way. It has similar gameplay to Guilty Gear on a fundamental level, but with longer combos, heavier systems and even more complex characters — like Karl the puppet master. It’s a game for players who look at Guilty Gear and say “this could be a lot more complicated.”

Unlike Guilty Gear, you’ll see that a downed opponent can attempt to roll away from their attacker’s pressure, but they’re wide open to attack if they do so. One unique and interesting point in BlazBlue is watching the cat and mouse game that ensues as the attacker tries to see through the downed opponent’s recovery.

The Combo Breaker final between Dogura’s Azrael, a clobberer, and SKD’s booster-propelled swordswoman Izayoi, is a good example of the kind of aggressive play you can expect to see.

Super Smash Bros. Melee

The number-one seller of old CRT TVs and monitors, the number-one destroyer of GameCube controllers and the wrists attached to them, is back for another year.

Like its contemporary Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, this is a game that wasn’t at all designed for competition, yet players took it to amazing heights by their sheer obsessive love for it. Glitches and arcana galore, with an extremely high barrier to entry that calls for technique far beyond Smash’s simple core gameplay. I believe it is telling that tournament Melee players also tend to do speedruns.

As a lay viewer, you’re going to see tiny characters hopping around at the speed of light, occasionally knocking each other into the air. The tension rises as damage goes up and characters get closer and closer to being knocked out of the ring. Daring escapes from the brink of death and audacious bet-your-life attacks are common in Smash, and definitely the most exciting part of watching it. Matches can run a little long, though, as indicated by the half-hour finals last year (above).

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

Colloquially called “Smash 4,” this is the more reasonable Smash Brothers, designed for competitive play but not quite as popular as its forbear Melee. (Competitive players try not to talk about Super Smash Brothers Brawl.) The fundamentals are effectively the same — indeed, much of what we said about Melee applies to Smash 4 — but they’re easier for the average player to access.

A little bit slower, and much easier to play and understand, but many spectators and players seem to prefer the raw speed and difficulty of Melee. That being said, both games have enthusiastic fanbases, and it is Smash 4 that will take the stage at Mandalay Bay on Sunday night.

Last year’s Smash 4 finals involved Mega Man, who everyone said couldn’t win.

Injustice 2

This year’s “Mortal Kombat” entry from the gang at NetherRealm Studios, Injustice 2 combines elements of 2D and 3D fighting games to create an odd hybrid that isn’t quite like anything else you can find.

Expect a lot of projectiles — flying Batarangs, Kryptonian heat vision and the like — as the players fight over space and position. Once a player gets in close, the fighting starts to look like Tekken, complete with “guess wrong and you die” mixups and long juggle combos.

Look out for the environmental attacks unique to this game. In other fighting games you’ll see cars and such in the background, but in Injustice you can pick up that car and clobber someone with it.

While the previous game, Injustice: Gods Among Us, involved a lot of players spending a lot of matches standing all the way across the screen from each other, Injustice 2 is much more exciting to watch in competition, with many more fighting styles represented.

In the Injustice 2 finals at Combo Breaker, Mortal Kombat god Sonicfox took on Tekken Master’s Black Adam.

The King of Fighters 14

This was one of the big surprises of last year and probably the most slept-on of the main roster games. It might have been a case of too much of a good thing.

The King of Fighters 14 is a 3-on-3 team game that launched with 50 characters on day one. When a game offers that much all at once, it’s actually harder for players to get serious about it; there’s so much to learn that it feels unfathomable. That might have something to do with the fact that it didn’t pick up as much steam in the tournament scene as other games in the main lineup did.

King of Fighters can be disorienting to Street Fighter players and spectators who expect the players to slowly measure each other out and make tentative, poking strikes. Thanks to its fast and varied movements that can allow a player to cross the screen in an instant, KOF players rush in immediately at all kinds of unpredictable angles. On offense, you’re going to see players run and jump in, trying to land single quick hits that they’ll be able to turn into big damage. On defense, you’re going to see players trying to anticipate the attacker’s flight path and swat them away before they can get in. For the full story, enjoy this classic lecture.

Minor games

Much of the “bring your own console” space on the tournament floor is taken up by the AnimEvo Waifu Series (no, seriously), a wild-card group that runs miscellaneous lesser-known fighting games. One thing they tend to have in common: if they’re not explicitly based on Japanese anime/manga, their aesthetic will almost certainly be extremely ... anime. What exactly passes as anime, you ask? You can’t define it; you can only feel it. (I’m told the anime guys have the best parties at Evo.)

Following are some of the notables you’ll be able to catch on the AnimEvo streams.

Persona 4 Ultimax The Ultra Suplex Hold - The Persona 4 (and 3) fighting game is built to be both easy to pick up by beginners and pretty wild at an advanced level. Players control both the character (say Chie) and their Persona (say Tomoe) at the same time, leading to demanding, high-skill play. Like a more manageable BlazBlue. Available on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, likely for pretty cheap these days.

Catherine - Yes, the versus mode of the Persona team’s puzzle game about infidelity is also a serious tournament pick. Hey, ludonarrative dissonance, eat it. The people who are into this are really into it, and the stream is always intense. Never miss tournament Catherine.

Puyo Puyo Tetris - Yeah, you heard me. Styles clash in “swap” mode, where players have to switch every few seconds between the block-dropping of Tetris and the methodical chain-combo setups of Puyo Puyo. Matches are swift, brutal, and players’ hands move faster than you can move your eyes. Available on Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4.

Gundam Versus - Imagine if they had just kept making Virtual On games for the last 20 years and you can start to envision this two-on-two team robot fighter, boasting nearly 100 playable giant robots from the famous sci-fi franchise. Yet the fans are saying it doesn’t have enough characters in it. Japanese PS4 release out now, U.S. release coming in September.

Hokuto No Ken (Fist of the North Star) - This tribute to the famous Shonen Jump manga/anime mutated into “Japan’s Marvel”, a lawless no man’s land strewn with infinite combos, basketball combos, rounds that can end in three seconds, and guys who can fly off the screen forever, crashing the arcade machine. HnK players are complete madmen with no regrets in their existence. You’ll have to track down a Japanese PS2 copy or an arcade board if you want to play this crazy accident of a game.

Koihime Enbu - Contrary to most anime games, Koihime is a deliberate fighting game with the pace of a swordfight, similar to old Samurai Shodown. Players jockey for space and poke at each other with long weapons, each trying to set up that one big hit. A great basic, introductory fighting game with as much depth as anything else. Available on Steam and eventually PS4.

Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax Ignition - A beginner-oriented fighting game with popular Japanese YA novel (and thus anime) series like Sword Art Online, DRRR, and Toradora. Just because the controls are easy doesn’t mean it can’t get intense. The preferred game of the bad dude who was playing on a Rock Band keyboard last year. This particular version is Japan-only, but you can find the previous revision in English for PS3 and PS4.