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Under Night In-Birth’s Evo invite is a long time coming

How this indie fighting game got onto Evo’s main stage

under night in-birth French-Bread

The folks behind the Evolution Championship Series, often regarded as the most important fighting game tournament of the calendar year, revealed the 2019 lineup during a live broadcast last week. Evo 2019 will feature a largely safe collection of returning titles and expected newcomers, but one game, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st], was quite a surprise. But saying its first appearance at Evo came out of nowhere would be disingenuous. Under Night In-Birth’s invitation to Evo 2019 is the result of years of dedication from its core playerbase, and a sign the community had proven that they deserved to be part of the influential tournament series.

Under Night In-Birth was first released in arcades by Japanese developer French Bread in 2012 before making its way to consoles throughout 2014 and 2015 with the publishing help of Guilty Gear and BlazBlue developer Arc System Works. Thanks to its work on the Melty Blood franchise—a fighting game series that features characters from the popular Tsukihime visual novels—French Bread had already garnered a strong reputation with diehard fighting game players, but the outfit’s dedication to crafting deep, competitive experiences has made it almost impossible for it to break into the mainstream. While French Bread’s work on Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax, a fighting game featuring characters from franchises like Sword Art Online, Accel World, and Spice and Wolf, would bring the developers a certain measure of visibility, the studio’s independent sensibilities have made them the fighting game community’s best-kept secret for almost two decades.

Evo’s importance to the fighting game community cannot be overstated. The annual event draws thousands of attendees to Las Vegas every summer, and registration numbers have risen steadily over the last few years. The growing number of non-tournament players shows that it has begun to cultivate healthy attendance outside of the usual competitor class. But this same growth has ostensibly made viewership an important part of what games bring to the table, making Under Night In-Birth’s appearance something of a coup due to its status as an indie game among major releases like Street Fighter V and Tekken 7.

The shock of Under Night In-Birth’s invitation was amplified by Super Smash Bros. Melee’s absence. Evo 2019 will be the first year Melee misses the big dance since 2013, drawing outrage from Super Smash Bros.’s fanatics. Last year’s Evo Smash champion, William “Leffen” Hjelte of Sweden, even went as far as to suggest that the Evo 2019 games were only chosen thanks to bribes from their respective developers. This prompted bemused responses from those in the traditional fighting game community more familiar with French Bread’s status as an indie developer, even if Hjelte didn’t call out Under Night In-Birth by name.

No, Under Night In-Birth’s entry into the Evolution Championship Series lineup wasn’t boosted by a large cash donation from a famously self-reliant studio. Since its release, Under Night In-Birth has been regarded as one of the best fighting games of the modern age thanks to its combination of the methodical, footsie-based combat of Street Fighter with the aerial mechanics of Guilty Gear. There’s also a unique tug-of-war aspect to matches thanks to the shared GRD meter, which rewards players for smart, aggressive play. That didn’t necessarily translate to registration numbers that rivaled these bigger games, but every tournament that included French Bread’s game was rewarded with additional attendees ready to throw down. Dominique “SonicFox” McLean, arguably the greatest fighting game player in the world, took time away from Mortal Kombat to try it out. Unsurprisingly, he did pretty damn well. This reputation helped make Under Night In-Birth the biggest side tournament at Evo 2018 (plentiful space is provided in the venue for community organizers to hold their own competitions) with 210 entrants, but even dedicated fans thought an official spot was still a pipe dream.

“Even with the swelling of passion and support the game had gained in the past year, it still felt way too small and niche to be considered,” Under Night In-Birth player and Michigan Masters tournament organizer Jay “Mr. u Suk” Gary told Polygon when asked if he thought the game had a chance to make Evo before the announcement. “Not to slight the work we have done at all, but it’s not a game that can be compared to the size of something like Tekken 7 or Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Also, French Bread is a much smaller company than Capcom or [NetherRealm Studios], so the idea of [them] being able to sink big esports money into getting Under Night In-Birth at Evo is outlandish.”

Under Night In-Birth’s growing popularity in the fighting game community peaked with November 2018’s Climax of Night, a first-of-its-kind American tournament built around French Bread properties. After playing second (or third, fourth, fifth, etc.) fiddle at many competitions, Under Night In-Birth was finally the main event, and over 140 players—a group that included players from across the United States as well as key visitors from Japan—made the trip to Atlanta, Georgia to compete. Climax of Night’s head organizer, veteran fighting game player Ben “Shinobi!” Robinson, said the event was “long overdue” in a previous interview, and remains proud of the spotlight it placed on Under Night In-Birth outside the realm of Evo’s influence.

“It shows that there are fighting game communities out there able to stand and mobilize for years without being under the prestige of Evo,” Robinson explained in an email. “Some people are easily discouraged when their game does not make it to Evo’s main roster while others continue to build. It is not for the sake of one day making Evo, but that their game and community would be self-sufficient. With how much natural growth [Under Night In-Birth] has displayed outside of Evo, it was only a matter of time an exclusive event would be made. From Climax of Night, the people at Evo see the community front row and center. It’s their passion, drive, and love for the game that showed out through Climax’s platform.”

It’s true that games are often capable of growing, as Under Night In-Birth has, without direct support from Evo, but there’s no doubt that getting an official nod from the world’s largest fighting game tournament has its benefits. Since it was announced that Under Night In-Birth would be part of the main lineup at Evo 2019, its player numbers on Steam surged, and many notable players from other games (SonicFox among them) jumped in, now that the game has Evo’s endorsement. And while it would be easy for longtime players to scoff at the newcomers finally coming around, the Under Night In-Birth scene has largely welcomed beginners into the fold, eagerly sharing the tips and strategies that they have developed over the last few years.

“This is truly an unbelievable opportunity, so I’m confident the scene is going to come together to make some magic happen on the Evo main stage,” Under Night In-Birth advocate Brett Young told Polygon. “If there’s any time to watch, it is definitely now. Also, compared to most Evo games, there has been very little interaction between Japan, Europe, and North America. A lot of us are extremely excited for the chance to see the best from each region well represented on the same stage. It goes without saying, but [Under Night In-Birth] is a treat to watch. The tug-of-war fight for resources creates a kind of ebb and flow of crucial moments. It’s the only game where some of my favorite sets are decided by time-outs.”

The fighting game community has expanded such that Evo is, thankfully, no longer the only way to make a name for your scene, but it’s still nice to receive recognition from such a prestigious institution. Under Night In-Birth is a perfect example; fans of this relatively obscure indie fighter have kept it at the forefront of the overall community’s consciousness. Even in this era of mega-popular games like Dragon Ball FighterZ and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, it was simply a matter of time until Evo finally acknowledged Under Night In-Birth and sent the invite.

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