So, here’s the thing: I really like fighting games.

I like lots of cerebral, slow games, and I grew up playing competitive FPSes, so have a taste for speed. But I grew into fighting games very late in life – in my 20s – and it turns out I love them.

Everything Frank Lantz writes in this post is true:

When we host fighting game tournaments at the NYU Game Center we are inspired by a continued interest in this intensely cognitive experience happening behind the cartoon surface of these games. I don’t think many members of the fighting game community think of themselves as intellectuals, they don’t typically wear corduroy jackets and smoke pipes and thoughtfully scratch their beards while talking about Hegel. But this thing they do, this thing they love, is an intellectual exercise, it is a strange, fascinating and beautiful form of thinking about thinking and it deserves to be studied, celebrated, and supported.

I’ve often explained Street Fighter as “Chess at 90 miles an hour” – it has the depth, the huge decision trees of a complex board game… all running at 60 FPS in real time. It requires precision of execution along with a depth of knowledge, the ability to read an opponent, the knowledge of every “match-up” between your chosen character and everybody else’s… it’s a vast balance of technical skill, practice, and (most notably) how you perform on the day, with another human player sat next to you.

So, Evo.

Evo – the “Evolution Championship Series“, but to everybody, Evo – is the world’s premier fighting game tournament, essentially. It comes after a string of other major tournaments, but this is the big one. Three days in a Las Vegas hotel, where the world’s best players come to take one another on across a string of games. How many players? Last year, there were over 3,500, before spectators (who can attend for free).

You might not know Evo, but I bet you’ve all seen Evo Moment #37:

in which Daigo Umehara, fighting Justin Wong in Street Fighter 3, down to a pixel of health (where any damage, even if he blocks it, will knock him out). Umehara parries every single hit of the super – not blocking, parrying, hitting forward with precise timing – and then cancels into a super of his own.

The crowd go wild.

I’ve seen this clip a lot: rightly, it gets shown as a demonstration of what social play can be, what the community around digital games can look like. But I’ve also seen it misattributed as a “Street Fighter 2” match; I’ve seen people point at the crowd without explaining what is actually happening on the screen (the answer being something that is insanely technical, very, very risky, and then, just when it gets pulled off, turns into a piece of showboating). And of course, we’ve got to mention the commentators! EVO is commentated throughout on the live streams, It neatly captures all the things happening at once at the tournament: two players at the top of their game; a live audience; live commentary; an amount of pride on the line; moments that you wouldn’t get anywhere else.

That’s Evo. But what’s brilliant about Evo is it’s not all about 5 seconds of Daigo being amazing. There are fights like that in the pools, surprise upsets early on, great finals from old rivals trying new characters, players branching out into new games. Evo is three days full of stories, those things everyone loves banging on about, but here we have so many of them: from Daigo/Justin to Noah Solis, the eight-year-old who placed in the top 48 in 2011 for MvC3. Fighting games are dripping in old rivalries, long friendships, all the makings of great sports narrative.

And Evo’s particularly notable because it’s one of the few tournaments where there’s a sizeable Japanese contingent that flies over: so often, the US and Japanese scenes are kept separate (because network lag is no substitute for sitting next to somebody). Evo is one of the few points of the year where old scores can be settled.

So: what can you see this year?

First, a quick note on the rough organisation of things:

The format is fairly straightforward: most games run “pools”, where players compete for positions in the various finals, which then function as a “Double Elimination Bracket” format: if you’re beaten in the first round, you transfer down into the ‘loser’s bracket’; if you lose in the loser’s bracket, you’re out. The grand final of any tournament, as a result, comes down to the fight between the winner of the winner’s bracket, and the winner of the loser’s bracket.

You can see the schedule here, and I thought I’d wrap up with some notes on what you can tune into, live, on Twitch.TV (at the URLs on the schedule), and what you might like to see.

What’s On

King of Fighters XIII: The latest iteration of SNK’s 2D fighter. It’s pretty and technical, but I don’t get on with SNK fighters and can’t tell you much about it. Sorry.

Tekken Tag Tournament 2: Tekken’s very popular, but has been fairly low-priority on the Evo roster – the final’s today, which tells you all you should need to know. High-level Tekken is entirely fine, but unremarkable, to watch. I’ve always found it very… jumpy and juddery, with all the side-stepping and wave-dashing.

Persona 4 Arena: I actually know nothing about this – it’s the fighter based on the popular Atlus RPG. I’ not going to pretend to know about it.

Super Smash Bros Melee: for the first time, Smash makes it to Evo (after the players campaigned for it). Not Brawl, the later Wii version, primarily because of that version’s “random trip” – in Brawl, characters will randomly trip after sprinting, which is a nightmare for any competitive scneario. So the competitive scene mainly focuses on Melee, the Gamecube iteration

If Smash Brothers is the knockabout game you remember from the N64 and Gamecube… well, yes, it is – but it’s also got a big scene capable of really quite technical play. See this example for more details:

Anyhow, Smash! I’m quite excited to see how Smash turns out; it’s full of characters you might know, the scene is fun, and the commentary should be entertaining.

Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3: Capcom’s big, OTT, 2D fighting game. UMvC3 is full of huge combos, crazy supers, long unbroken hits, and lots of yelling commentators. Lots of “hype”, as the community would call it. Underneath it is a meaty game that rewards bravado – and requires careful selections of mix-ups. It’s also got lots of systems going on; one of the most important being X-Factor, a one-time bonus a player can play in a match to boost damage (and which boosts damage more depending on how few characters that player has remaining); you’ll see a lot of last-minute X-Factors that turn things around, lots of whiffed combos that turn into huge reversals, and probably lots of artefacting on your stream. It’s great fun, and looks spectacular – but explaining the game going on underneath is quite hard for newbies.

Mortal Kombat 9: Netherealm’s reboot of this fighting franchise has a surprisingly big following, primarily in the US. It’s not the mashing game of prior years, and is probably the pinnacle of the franchise from a gameplay standpoint. Yes, it has a lot of blood, and the characters you’ll remember from MK3 and earlier, but it moves at a nice pace – fast, but not too fast – has great commentators, and has pacy, exciting matches. You won’t see many fatalities – they take up too much time in competition – but you’ll see a lot of long combos, some great character knowledge, and some tense match-ups.

Injustice: this is Netherealm’s latest game, based on the MK9 engine, but focusing on DC Comics’ characters. Despite the aesthetic similarity, it plays very differently to MK – different button layouts, systems more in line with a Capcom game (such as the EX-meter, as well as character-specific powers). You’ll probably recognise many of the characters, and Netherealm have done a great job of making them all interesting to play as – and all resemble their roles from comics. It’s also been growing fast, with both MK players moving over, and others coming in; this is under a year since its launch, so it’s the first Evo for it, and it’ll be exciting to see how it plays out.

Super Street Fighter IV: SSFIV is the premiere game at Evo: it’s the final final on the last day, and has the longest run-up to it. It’s the premiere game for good reason: not just the impact of that brand, its long history, but because… it’s genuinely the best. SF3 is a long love of mine, but it’s a very, very technical game: it’s unforgiving, and hard to read. SSFIV is a very immediate read – if you’ve played SF2, you’ll have a feel for what’s going on; its few systems (EX moves, where a bar of “meter” is expended to power up a move; Super moves, that use an entire meter; and Ultras, that use a separate meter, charged by taking damage) are fairly legible and quick to learn; the art and animation is delightful, bold, and readable. But best of all: the scene around it is huge; rivalries are deep rooted, players have now been playing for years, and SF4 (and later Super) were logical progressions for both Super Turbo (the last version of SF2) and SF3 players. Compared to MK9, UMvC3, and even Injustice, it’s in some ways quite stripped down – and yet, like the best games, it’s rich. If you had to pick one thing: I’d watch some SF4.

Absent this year is Virtua Fighter 5, probably the pinnacle of the 3D fighting scene, and a beautiful set of systems. Using only three buttons, VF5 manages to still be the deepest fighter I know, emphasising knowledge of movesets, frame-counts, as well as the other player, the match-up, and your own skills; it seems to punish improvisation more.

Oh! One last highlight. At 9PM PST on Saturday, you’ll be able to see Divekick streamed live. If I had to pick one game that truly summed up Lantz’ description of fighters… it’s probably Divekick. Divekick began as a parody game, with custom controllers (featuring two buttons: Dive, and Kick); two characters (Dive, and Kick, though there are a few bonus ones) – and yet it takes its simple moveset and design, where one hit will win the round, and builds a deep game out of it, full of everything the best fighters have: great yomi, an emphasis on spacing and positioning over being brilliant with buttons and frame-counts, and a lot of hype. Best of all: when played by high-level players, and commentated on by good commentators, it’s great fun.

If Evo emphasises one thing, above all else, it’s that these are games designed to be played with other people. Not just the second player with their own pad or arcade stick: but in a room, full of a braying, cheering crowd, egging you on, booing cheap moves, spurring on the underdog. That used to be the arcades, but, with a few exceptions in the US, the arcades are dying. At Evo, that experience isn’t only alive – it’s alive at giant size. It’s the world’s biggest arcade – thousands of players in the room, more online, all watching, cheering, yelling, and many of whom will then take their own turn shortly. The live commentary is a huge part of this. You may have enjoyed commentary on Starcraft 2 matches, recorded in a private room, with a replay of the match – but it’s got nothing on realtime commentary from two excited, knowledgable players – who themselves might be playing later. Evo emphasises all these elements: the audience, the players, the commentators – and hurls them at you, live in Vegas, or streamed online, for three days.

There are so many holes in this piece of writing: I haven’t got time to explain the games in enough detail, especially the ones I know well enough from playing them (I play, or have played, moderately badly, SSFIV, Injustice, VF5, and SSMB, out of this list). But it’s a whistle-stop tour, and if any of this sounds fun, you should try tuning in at Twitch. The time-offset doesn’t help, but you’ll be able to watch the last session each day over breakfast, which is a not bad start.

I’m not by any means knowlegable here – I’ve left out anything about the characters involved, the players themselves – the rivalries and the personalities involved in the scene, which are as fascinating as the games themselves, simply because I’m out of touch there. But a good commentator should catch you up, and, if you get the bug, by next year, you’ll be up to speed.

In the meantime, with the first Test nearly wrapped up, and Wimbledon long gone, I can thoroughly recommend Evo for your fix of a competitive sports tournament, even if you’ve never considered it. Yell if you’d like any more information. This is clearly too much, too rambly, and poorly edited, but as a great man once told me: that’s what blogs are for.

If you’d like to know more about the systems at play here, which I have talked about before but entirely brushed over, Patrick Miller’s Educated Gentleperson’s Fighting Game Primer is just the ticket