It is finally upon us. Evolution Fighting Championships 2016 goes down live from Las Vegas this weekend on a whole bunch of Twitch channels and, for the first time, the top eight will be shown live on ESPN 2 in America. That’s a real TV channel, full of real sports that real people watch. Incredible. The finals day will be taking place in the MGM Grand Garden Arena, a venue that has hosted huge boxing and MMA fights and is a world apart from the convention halls that usually pack out for these sort of events.
If you’re new to watching competitive Street Fighter, there’s likely no better place to start than EVO, but even those of us who have been following it for years don’t really know what to expect from what is set to be the biggest event in its history. Over five thousand players have signed up to play Street Fighter V. Over the course of Friday and Saturday that number will be narrowed down to only eight, who will face off in the final on Sunday. There simply hasn’t been a fighting game tournament of this scale before.
It’s a new game
Street Fighter V has been out for six months, which in fighting game terms is absolutely nothing. People are still finding out so much stuff about the available characters on a weekly basis and, in terms of any concrete tier list, any character seems like a viable contender. With 5000 entrants and the very real prospect that half of those will be eliminated 0-2 on the Friday, there’s plenty of room for a whole load of upsets and a bunch of unknown underdogs to emerge from the pack. Two new characters were released a fortnight ago and are eligible for use in EVO, which could catch a few players by surprise given the strengths that Balrog and Ibuki appear to have against many of the more established characters
The top eight
Finals day is always spectacular in terms of the level of skill on display and the action that comes from pitting two top players against one another. We’re expecting another showdown between Tokido and Infiltration in the top 8, but which players are also likely to make the cut? Will the top eight be filled with well-known Street Fighter standards or will a few new names appear from the pack of 5000 to shock everyone? EVO’s final stages will also have the highest production values in the tournament’s 20 year history, as the top 8 represents the moment competitive Street Fighter play hits mainstream TV (in America, anyway.) It’s currently sandwiched between a live NBA Summer League game and a Baseball highlights show, which is absolutely wild.
America has never won the main Street Fighter game at EVO. The tournament is dominated by players from Asia, but two years ago France’s Luffy won first prize and got Europe into the winners circle before the US, which was quite the shock result. Justin Wong is currently sat at the top of the Capcom Pro Tour leaderboard and seemingly America’s best hope, but he has fallen short often in the past.
In the upper echelons, there’s one other American player—Team Echofox’s Julio Fuentes, one of the three elite Ken players in the US right now—who could break America’s EVO duck. Team Liquid’s NuckleDu appears to be going from strength to strength as of late and could be on the cusp of that marquee Pro Tour win, but will EVO be the place he finally does that? Finally, Panda Global’s brash and outspoken FChamp is one of the wildest Dhalsim players in the world and is enough of a veteran to not wilt under the glare of the TV cameras should he make the top 8. Is this the year the USA does it? It’d make a cracking storyline for SFV’s first ESPN broadcast if so.
EVO is the true embodiment of Street Fighter’s ‘World Warrior’ tagline, as players from across the globe gather to test their skills with their chosen character. As well as the masses of US players and the Japanese legends attending, there’s many notable players from all over the place attempting to win this first EVO of the Street Fighter V era. From South Korea, you’ve got Team Secret’s Poongko and current favourite to win the thing, Razer’s Infiltration. The world’s best F.A.N.G player (and recent Ibuki convert) Xian from Singapore is looking to win his second EVO tournament. From Europe, there’s current EU leaderboard number one Phenom from Norway and of course, former EVO winner Luffy, among others. EVO truly is the World Cup of fighting games and Street Fighter has the broadest international turnout of all of the games being played.
Daigo claims he’s ‘not ready’ for EVO this year but you can never rule The Beast out. A genuine legend of Street Fighter, he has a book on sale exclusively at the event and will draw huge crowds for any of his matches. But how long can this continue for Daigo if he suddenly stops winning tournaments? He’s had some consistent finishes but a few players—especially Haitani, with his relentless Necalli play—appear to have Daigo’s number at the moment. Daigo is as close as you can get to being a superstar of Street Fighter, so the exponentially bigger scale of the event and media coverage shouldn’t phase him in the slightest, but if there’s one person who is feeling pressure to perform at the biggest EVO of all-time, it’s Daigo Umehara. Will he give us another to endlessly show people whenever fighting games get discussed? Something like that, shown on a channel like ESPN, could be huge for Street Fighter as an eSport.