EVO is the largest fighting game event in the world. Making its main stage lineup is a huge honor. Even the timeslot a game occupies is a statement to a game’s relevance. When Melee got cut from the 2019 main stage and Ultimate got the headliner it had big reverberations throughout both communities. Evo 2020’s offline lineup made a similar stir when it subbed Mortal Kombat 11 – the new – out for Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 – the classic.
Naturally, EVO 2020’s new online lineup was bound to be its own shakeup.
The EVO team chose to drastically cut down the amount of actual brackets, narrowing down to just 4 games: Mortal Kombat 11, Killer Instinct, SkullGirls, and Them’s Fightin’ Herds. The other main stage games would stay on the lineup in exhibition format – all except for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
The decision feels like a direct reward to fighting games based on their netcode. Basically, the four games with online open brackets have very capable online services that can mostly mirror the offline experience.
SkullGirls, Them’s Fightin’ Herds, and Killer Instinct in particular stand out as games with small but durable communities that normally would have a smaller chance of making the EVO main stage in 2020. For Mortal Kombat and NetherRealms Studios, it’s a total reversal of fortunes. Their robust online system turned them from the one big new fighting game that didn’t make the cut to the only one that did.
EVO’s decision feels very in-line with the fighting game community at large. Viewers get to see the best-looking and most consistent games in a fully competitive format. The viewers that want to see their games still get to, just in a less serious way.
Players don’t need to feel stress about performing in an online tournament where they have less control over the game and its outcome. And the developers who did put in Rollback netcode get immediate – and sometimes immense – free press. Basically, a reward for giving back to their community and playerbase.
And that reward could be a big deal.
The EVO Effect
Making EVO isn’t just a medal for a game to wear. It’s also a huge boon to that game’s competitive scene.
Most obviously, Super Smash Bros. Melee received a big swing from the entire process around EVO 2013. Long story short, the Melee’s community had to fundraise its way into EVO and fight Nintendo off in order to get EVO the rights to stream the competition. All of it may have helped the game gain new life.
The fundraising drive brought the community together and sparked deeper organization. Nintendo’s attempts to remove Melee forced those organizations to speak out and speak together. And Melee’s ultimate success proved that the game was nearly unbreakable.
Other games have too, like UNIST, the incredibly unique anime fighter that clawed its way into EVO in 2019 and returned for 2020. Both Melee and UNIST got an EVO bump, reinforcing them as mainstays. Not to mention, missing EVO can mean not making EVO for years to come. That was the case for SkullGirls. They only narrowly lost the fundraising drive battle to Melee in 2013.
The bump isn’t guaranteed to mean anything, though. The games themselves need a strong enough community and competitive design beforehand, otherwise they can’t ride the momentum EVO gives them. Persona 4 Arena wasn’t a failure but it didn’t ride the wave quite as well as Melee or UNIST.
Similarly, Killer Instinct made three EVOs in a row and when it fell out of the lineup it fell hard. The game didn’t die but, according to an article Sam Foxall wrote for Shoryuken, competitive changes pushed it into a meta that many of its top players didn’t like. Three EVOs won’t erase the internal issues in the competitive scene.
For some games on the list, EVO 2020 has reason to be promising even given the heavy asterisks it’ll carry as an online event. Mane6’s Them’s Fightin’ Herds in particular needs press more than anything else. The game gets high marks from the FGC as well as mainstream gaming publications for nailing everything except for roster size.
Visually, it’s pretty appealing at the high level as well. The combos feel diverse and well-earned and there’s a nice balance between neutral game and punish. The small roster does hurt but each character has a distinct playstyle which at least makes the game feel more varied.
A game like Them’s Fightin’ Herds needs and can use the momentum. In the case of Skullgirls and Killer Instinct, the momentum could lead to a second wind like what we see with Melee.
But almost every decision comes with tradeoffs. No free lunches and no free punishes. We have clear winners but someone is bound to lose something from all this.
It feels obvious to say Nintendo. Not making the lineup was notable. Having the vast majority of the playerbase breathe a sigh of relief made it the gaming news of the week.
However, Nintendo has carved out an insular and strange pocket of the gaming world. They do not reveal their hand often, they do not admit mistakes often, and they’re very careful about engaging with esports as a whole. Whether it’s a pro, or a writer, or just a fan, many people will quickly point out that Nintendo just doesn’t care about any of this.
It’s a hard line to dispute or confirm. Yes, Nintendo’s president said that competitive gaming doesn’t fit their “worldview” for gaming. But Nintendo’s also made a mini-documentary about Nairoby “Nairo” Quezada.
Reggie Fils-Aimé, former president of Nintendo America, also said this in an interview with ESPN. “[…] as the Melee community gets their hands on Smash Bros. Ultimate, and they see the speed, they see some of the gameplay mechanics that Mr. [Masahiro] Sakurai has put in that, if they get excited about that […] we could see a consolidation of Smash play, competitive play, behind Ultimate, which in our view would be fantastic.”
Clearly, Nintendo as well as Sora and Bandai Namco – Smash’s developers – don’t ignore everything esports. That would be naive. But it would be naive to assume the fallout is that big a loss to Nintendo. With Animal Crossing: New Horizons out, there’s reason to believe online subscriptions went up, not down.
The company with the bigger hit may be Bandai Namco. Nintendo brought them on to develop Smash 4 alongside Sora and kept them on for Ultimate. Both developers could be linked to the sub-par internet services in Ultimate. Plus, Bandai Namco publishes fighting games like Tekken, which have bad online systems as well.
However, Bandai Namco isn’t the name that appears on the tin or in the tweets or articles. Plus, the clueless decisions like GSP seem a lot more indicative of Nintendo and Sora than Bandai. After all, the Tekken games at least have a tiered ranking system. So even if Bandai made most of the decisions for Ultimate’s online, Nintendo will likely take more blame for approving the decisions, and for just how much those decisions fit inside a wider trend of Nintendo’s internet-cluelessness.
The clearer losers might be the pros that can stand the delay. While many pro Smash players rejoiced, others, like Samuel “Dabuz” Buzby, did not. Losing out on a big EVO run means losing out on thousands of dollars just from subscriptions, gifts and viewers. In Smash, the money runs more through content than competition, meaning many players double as content creators.
EVO online would have been good content for many pros. Lag or no lag. Exhibition or open bracket. While Smash could organize its own event, it would fight EVO for viewers over all of August, since EVO Online will run over 4 weeks. That could be another factor that puts Smash and the FGC at odds.
- No, the online play is just too awful and tortures top players 79%, 26 votes26 votes 79%26 votes - 79% of all votes
- Yes, it's still entertaining and good for the players 21%, 7 votes7 votes 21%7 votes - 21% of all votes
At the end of the day, the only true certainty is uncertainty – even down to the basic details.
EVO itself still needs to reveal the full schedule, tournament rules, and what “exhibition matches” will look like. An exhibition match could be a small, low-stakes bracket of top players in the same region to reduce delay. Or it could look like Panda Global’s Hibernation Arc and feature DragonBallFighterZ with no Gokus.
The ambiguity leaves a lot of room for excitement and disappointment. Exhibition matches might end up underwhelming or they might steal the show. Small scenes may grow based off of their developers’ merits or they might not have the sway to hold an audience. The 4-week, online aspect might keep the tournament fluid and draw a bigger crowd or it might make everything feel less interesting and less legitimate.
It’s very hard to say what will happen and what the repercussions of EVO 2020 will be. To truly know, the FGC and esports world will probably have to wait.
Time moves slow, even in the fast world of gaming and esports. This may be one large point that finally establishes a clear argument for better online play in fighting games, but even if it does, implementation will take time.
Improving online fighting games takes implementing an entirely new system – rollback. (Here’s a masterful article from Ricky Pusch at Ars Technica if you’d like to know even more about rollback). Getting buy-in for the system will take time and most business leaders probably won’t see reason to retroactively put it into games that are well past their release date.
Add to that, the task becomes significantly harder – and more time/resource-consuming on a game that’s already released and not designed for rollback. Michael Stallone from NetherRealm Studios estimated it took 7-8 man years to retrofit Mortal Kombat X with rollback. The US Office of Management and Budget sets one man year as roughly 1,776 hours, so that’s 12,432 to 14,208 hours. Which is 518 to 592 days – depending on lots of job factors.
That time would be spread across a whole team of engineers and designers, making it manageable, but it’s a big labor cost at minimum. Even with rollback, a game can still have subpar netcode, as is the case with Street Fighter V. So all of this discussion might not lead to anything until the next generation of fighting games releases – Street Fighter Six, Tekken 8, Super Smash Bros. BloodBath, etc.
Fortunately the corporate headwinds already seem to be changing. ArcSys, the developer for several fighting games, has promised rollback netcode for the new Guilty Gear game, Strive. Bandai Namco also created a division focused on online play in 2018, just about two years ago. It’ll take a mix of patience and pressure, but fighting games might just get the internet services they’ve been wanting for years.
EVO 2020 is just another part of that long-running argument, how big a part is still up in the air. Regardless, EVO 2020 will be a tournament to watch. After all, this might be the moment a fighting game that is Definitely Not Based On My Little Pony begins a meteoric rise to the top. You don’t want to miss that.