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The world’s biggest fighting game tournament began with $10,000 and a UCLA ballroom

Players compete at Evo 2005, held at Green Valley Ranch casino in Las Vegas. (Courtesy James Chen)

The world’s biggest video game fighting tournament was born from a dying industry. The arcades that littered America throughout the 1980s and 90s were closing. Video gamers were saving their quarters and embracing the convenience of consoles, playing at home with their brand new Nintendos and PlayStations. For fans of fighting games, this was a problem.

For them, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Tekken arcade cabinets were their fighting rings and the arcades that housed them were their dojos. The players would crowd around the machine, a quarter on the side of the screen heralding the next challenger. But with video game consoles pushing arcades to extinction, the fighting game scene needed a transformation.

That’s when Tom and Tony Cannon attempted to rekindle that arcade dynamic and co-founded a new fighting game tournament that would bring together the best players from around the world. After a series of smaller events, the first held in 1996, the Cannons, along with Joey “MrWizard” Cuellar, Seth Killian and a few others, scrounged together $10,000 in 2002 to host the first-ever Evolution tournament, a multigame tournament that took on the now-popular nickname of Evo.

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“Could we take this really awesome resonant experience of playing in the arcades, take it out of the arcades and put in a neutral location and maintain that magic?” Tom Cannon recalled to The Washington Post in an interview over Skype.

The latest edition of the tournament, Evo 2018, begins Friday. Almost two decades and 16 Evolution championships later, the team was not only able to maintain that magic, but make their tournament the largest of its kind in the world. In 2002 the tournament was held in a UCLA ballroom. Now it’s housed at the same Las Vegas hotel and entertainment complex that has hosted fights featuring famed boxers Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao and Oscar De La Hoya. And as the prestige of the event has grown, so has the audience — and the revenue.

Attracting fans and saving money

Every year at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, thousands of competitors and spectators convene to see the best fighting gamers on the planet do battle, with thousands handed out in prize money. This year, a little over 10,000 people have registered for the event, with another 5,000-7,000 expected as walk-ins. According to Cannon, the budget for this year’s event falls into the millions, their biggest spend yet, which continues Evo’s trend of each tournament exceeding the scope of the previous year’s event.

Evo is unlike any other major esports event. It doesn’t have a major venture capital firm behind it, nor does a company seek out massive bank loans to fund its events. Every dollar spent on Evo is linked back to that original $10,000 raised in 2002. For every Evo, most of the revenue is put into the bank to be used for the following year’s event. While the organizers to take a cut, they aim to keep the operating costs as lean as possible.

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Other esports events either have big-name publishers behind them, like Riot Games, the makers of the incredibly popular League of Legends video game. Others feature an organizer like the Overwatch League — run by Overwatch and Call of Duty publisher Activision Blizzard — which has adopted an NFL-like franchise model that courted investors willing to drop $20 million per franchise spot. Evo stands as the only tournament of its scale that is community run and community funded. The tournament staff is largely made up of gamers with professional talents in other fields, like video production, that offer those skills for pennies on the dollar.

“We would much rather not spend on compensating ourselves and rather put it forward into the event,” said Cannon. “We think it sets the right example and the right tone for what we’re expecting everyone else to do, which is to chip in to the best of their ability. And that was an incredibly important part of our sustainability.”

Partners, profit and prestige

A luxury resort and casino on the Vegas strip, Mandalay Bay is owned and operated by MGM Resorts International and has been the home of Evo since 2016.

“It’s a great feeling to be at the resort during Evo weekend. The buzz throughout the property is really something else,” Sid Greenfeig, Vice President of Arena Booking for MGM Resorts said in an email, noting that the event has sold out all three years.

Evo brings in a younger audience for MGM — a significant investor in video gaming that recently announced a new venture with game development studio Foundry IV. It also brings a larger international audience, specifically from Japan. As Evo has grown, and even sprouted a sister event called Evo Japan earlier this year, it’s given the tournament’s organizers more leverage to seek out different business partnerships, particularly given the self-driven and hyper-passionate audience the event attracts.

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Sponsors for Evo include game publishers like Capcom, Nintendo and Xbox, accessory manufacturers like Qanba, and streaming services like Amazon-owned Twitch. But there are nonendemic sponsors that have jumped toward Evo, like Red Bull and instant ramen company Nissin.

“We know from our consumer research, that Cup Noodles is a very popular food to be eating when gamers are in the thick of gaming and competition,” Nissin Foods USA’s director of marketing Jaclyn Park said in a phone interview. “We really want to be the brand that shows that we understand and support the passion for gaming because we’re already a part of it. So for us, it’s kind of a natural fit.”

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Nissin Japan sponsored this year’s inaugural Evo Japan, and Evo Las Vegas will be Nissin USA’s largest esports activation. Cygames, a Japanese game publisher known for making popular mobile titles such as Shadowverse and Granblue Fantasy, created a new project within the company to sponsor several of the notable fighting gamers competing at Evo.

“We hope that sponsoring Evo will help us reach new audiences,” Yuito Kimura, executive director of Cygames said in an email. “We didn’t decide to sponsor Cygames Beast to promote any particular game. We just think they are worth promoting in their own right; another way for us to deliver the best in entertainment.”

It also helps that Cygames sponsors the Cygames Beast team led by Daigo Umehara, one of the most prolific fighting games players of all time and owner of one of the most renowned highlights for his miraculous comeback in a Street Fighter match at Evo 2004.

That moment, filmed in an auditorium at California State Polytechnic University and subsequently watched more than 1.3 million times on YouTube, helps show just how far Evo has come. It began when the arcades were fading. Now it’s grown into a massive international event that last year drew in 4.1 million combined unique viewers between Twitch and TV broadcasts, in addition to the fans that flooded into Mandalay Bay.

One factor that contributes to the tournament’s success is that, even with its thousands of competitors, Evo is still an open tournament. Just like putting your quarter on the glass at the arcade, anyone can pay the entry fee and challenge for a title.

“Evo is important to the FGC [fighting game community] because it is considered the world tournament for everyone; the one tournament that everyone thinks that if they win they are the best in the world,” Echo Fox gaming’s Justin “Jwong” Wong said in an email.

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Like Umehara, Wong is considered one of the best fighting game players of all time, and has the record for holding the most Evo titles to date, nine in total. While there are plenty of other fighting game tournaments throughout the year, there’s only one with the prestige of Evo.

“I don’t think there will be a tournament that can step up and rival Evo because of the amazing history behind it,” Wong said.

Imad Khan is a freelance esports, video game, tech and automotive reporter based in Manhattan. He received his graduate degree from CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and has written for sites like ESPN, Polygon, Digital Trends and Vice.

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