The video game tournament known as Evolution Championship Series had humble beginnings. Starting in California as a 40-person tournament between friends in 1996, it has since grown into arguably the world’s most celebrated fighting game tournament, complete with large cash prizes and major corporate sponsors.
Each tournament division — streamed online and sometimes even broadcasted on TV — attracts fans by the thousands, with approximately 12,000 people attending EVO 2017 to watch competitors from over 60 different countries.
A lot is on the line as players compete in some of the most intense games on the market, including Capcom’s “Street Fighter V,” Bandai Namco’s “Tekken 7” and Nintendo’s “Super Smash Brothers for Wii U.” The genre requires precise button work and quick reflexes as gamers fight one another in the form of soldiers, pandas and, yes, cute Italian plumbers.
Known as EVO for short, the tournament has always been held in America, initially taking place in California before settling in Nevada in 2005, where it has been held since.
Until now. From Jan. 26 to 28, thousands of players from all around the world will be in Tokyo to compete in the first incarnation of EVO Japan, with the tournament culminating on Jan. 28 at Akiba Square in the city’s “electric town,” Akihabara.
The arrival of the tournament is a major milestone for electronic sports in Japan. Anti-gambling laws in the country have meant that Japanese tournaments cannot usually provide prizes as the use of entry fees to pay winners is forbidden. According to the Nikkei Asian Review, Japanese tournaments have historically had a ¥100,000 limit, which is placed on events the government believes are used to promote a particular product, such as the games being played in the tournament. This forces the best esport athletes from Japan to spend large periods of the year competing abroad.
EVO Japan 2018 is therefore particularly notable because five of the seven playable games have ¥1 million prize pools. The sum may not seem much compared to Western tournaments, but it is a huge step forward for Japanese gaming.
The tournament was a long time in coming. Plans — first announced at EVO 2010 — were in place to host a tournament in Japan in 2011, but the March 11 Tohoku earthquake led to an indefinite postponement. Seven years later, the event has finally come to Japan, with the tournament’s game lineup customized to Japanese tastes.
Eighteen-year-old Saul “MenaRD” Segundo, from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, is one of many international players who will be competing at EVO Japan. Speaking by phone before the tournament, Segundo said he was looking forward to taking on the best competition Japan has to offer.
“I know there’s a lot I can learn from the Japanese players,” specifically mentioning Tokido, a competitor who won the “Street Fighter V” division at EVO 2017, held in Las Vegas.
“He is a player known for discovering the strongest tools in the game,” Segundo said. “When I (first) fought him, I saw his strategies. I respect him so much.”
After a disappointing 65th place finish at EVO 2017, Segundo is looking to redeem himself.
“I want to clean my name in the EVO legacy, because I did so bad at EVO this year.”
Nerves, he said, were a factor in his disappointing performance.
“I had a lot of pressure, I didn’t play like myself and I was so scared of doing bad. But it happens.”
He also commented on the unique nature of Japanese players, and how he aspires to be more like them.
“They like to talk about the game, but they don’t like to talk about drama or personal opinions,” he said. “They stay silent and let their gameplay talk, and I admire that.”
It’s been a somewhat meteoric rise for Segundo, who’s already a household name in the “Street Fighter” community. Due to his young age, a lot of the Japanese players are people he grew up watching.
“It feels amazing. I’ve been watching fighting games since I was 8 or 9, so I love getting to play these players.”
At the end of the day, he’s looking forward to the experience.
“I hope I can have fun in Japan, not only with the players in game but outside of the game. These are players I look up to, not only as players but as human beings. I hope we have a good time!”
Segundo will be up against many of the world’s best players at EVO Japan, such as Daigo “The Beast” Umehara, one of the most recognizable esports figures. Umehara is excited to see EVO brought to Japan, and believes it may give Japanese players an advantage.
“When we fight in America, where they hold a lot of tournaments including EVO, it’s an ‘away’ game for us,” Umehara said. “We get to play a ‘home’ game this time around, so I think a lot of the Japanese players will have an edge.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what some of the newer players can do. I’m very intrigued to see what will come out of it.”
He also commended the work of the event’s organizers, and expects this event could lead to more Japan-hosted tournaments in the future.
“The staff for this event have worked hard to create a groundwork, and I imagine that will make it easier to run other tournaments in the future.”
On a personal note, Umehara says he had a bit of a downturn due to the shift from “Street Fighter IV” to “Street Fighter V,” but he’s looking forward to returning to his best in 2018.
“It took me a long time — last year and the year before — to get acclimated to the game, but not only am I there now, the character balance has also improved and the game is in better shape now, so this year I’ve got a strong eagerness to win more.”
Further steps toward legitimizing esports in Japan are set to occur in the future. According to esportsinsider.com, the Japanese Esports Association is planning to grant pro-player licenses to esport athletes, which will allow them to make a living playing their respective games, and the first batch of licenses are set to be issued at the Japanese Amusement Expo in February this year.
Having EVO finally arrive in Japan, after all these years, is a homecoming of sorts for fighting games, and will hopefully inspire the next generation of fighting game champions.
“I’ve said for years that EVO offers a lot of opportunities to players,” Umehara said. “Japan typically adheres to a strict ‘one loss and you’re out’ format, but EVO is double elimination.
“And if you win you can really make a name for yourself. Plus the prize pool is big, and above all else, it provides a lot of valuable experiences,” he said.
“The fact that such an inspiring event is taking place in Japan is a big deal for Japanese gamers.”
EVO Japan 2018 is being held in Tokyo Jan. 26-28. Day 1 and 2 of the tournament will be held at Sunshine City Bunka Kaikan Bldg., and Day 3 — the finals — will be held at Akiba Square, Akihabara. For more information see the EVO Japan website.