Sunday, July 27, 2014

My First EVO Experience

It's no mystery that I am a fan of fighting games.  Though I wouldn't really consider myself an overly competitive gamer, I still really love the genre and what is offers.  That being said, a few weeks ago, one of the biggest fighting game tournaments in America -- possibly the world -- happened last week in Las Vegas, and fortunately, I was able to attend!

The tournament, known as Evolution, EVO by most, was one part fighting game tournament and one part fighting game convention with some vendors and a few game-related panels.  I figured I'd write about my experience!

This is how finals looked

Before the Event!

So, due to some strange scheduling and flight pricing, it was cheaper to arrive in Las Vegas on Wednesday as opposed to Thursday night.  Now, part of this EVO experience for me was Las Vegas itself as I had never been there.  I've been to casinos before; I was just expecting a giant casino, but I was wrong, partially anyway.  For one, there were slot machines in the airport of all places; something I, quite frankly, was not expecting.  Though, I wasn't there to gamble!  The entire trip was a gamble for me since my luck with conference and conventions hasn't been great.
Anyway, the event was held at the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino which is now the WestGate or something. 
The hotel -- those signs are Photoshopped.  The real sign is much uglier.
Personally, I didn't mind the hotel.  Was it the nicest hotel in Vegas?  No way!  Was the price decent for what it had to offer?  Sure. It had a pool, gambling, bars, and restaurants -- one of which apparently made a bunch of people sick but my friend and I somehow dodged that.  Also, it was close to the monorail so getting to The Strip and more exciting parts of Vegas was convenient.  And again, it's where the convention actually takes place, so being in the same hotel as the event is always nice and convenient. 
I will say, I liked and disliked the fact EVO was in Vegas.  I liked it because when the convention got slow or I wanted to get some fresh, arid desert air, I could easily do that, but I also felt it was distracting because even at exciting moments, the intrigue of Vegas insanity was hard to resist.  Also it takes forever to walk between places so I often would say, "I wanna be back by 2," but it would take awhile to get back and I would miss my goal by 30 to 60 minutes.  This was in part due to bad planning, but also due to the layout of casinos, which have a "WE NEVER WANT YOU TO LEAVE" design approach.
Also, Vegas is hot.  We joked it was a dry heat, but after 30 minutes of walking around in 105 degrees, that joke wears thin.


Thursday, the day before EVO, the line for registration opened around 4 PM.  Fortunately, I decided to at least explore the hotel beforehand and find out where things were taking place, particularly registration.
This photo from James Chen doesn't really do the length of the line justice, but it moved rather quickly and the staff was on top of things

After getting my badge and shirt -- which, note to self, you don't need an XL -- my friend and I decided to do more Vegas exploring.  Possibly, staying and trying to make more fighting game friends and network connections would have been more valuable, but again, the intrigue of Vegas was just too much!  Also, I had a Vesper, which is a rather good cocktail when made properly.

 Day 1:  Indies and Pools

So day one had arrived!  The first day was mostly dedicated to pools, mostly Street Fighter and Super Smash Bros. Melee.  The expo floor was rather small, made up of a combination of t-shirt, swag, and joystick accessories.  There were also some booths such as one for Guilty Gear Xrd and a rather impressive Mad Catz booth.
There were also some indie games on display.  Not sure how many EVOs they've been displaying indies, but I was excited to see what was there.  The interesting thing is that they were more games that took unique spins on competition than fighting games.  The first day, I played three:  TowerFall Ascension, Gunsport, and Starwhal.  I had played TowerFall on the OUYA; this version was slightly updated and on PS4.  I like TowerFall, but I realize I'm actually rather terrible at it, and there's an aspect of all local multiplayer games that just fall short for me.  In fact, a lot of the indies there seemed to be trying to bank on the local couch arena trend that's come to light recently.  This is going to sound sad, but I'm not a fan of these games -- mostly for the simple fact I don't have people over to play games a lot.
Anyway, Gunsport was interesting; it was a futuristic take on volleyball.  There were aspects of it that seemed a little confusing, particularly the controls, but more power to the designer I guess.  Again, seems like a fun game, but would I spend money on something that won't be playable -- or at least won't be in the truest form of the designer's vision -- without four players?  Probably not.
Finally, I then played Starwhal, which was probably my favorite of the indie games present -- well except Slash Dash, but I didn't play that at EVO, I played it a few days ago while helping some people judge IndieCade games.  Starwhal was just a silly, physics-based game in which you played as a galactic narwhal whose goal was to stab other starwhals in the heart.  Even this game though, from my perspective, suffered from local multiplayer necessity.

Starwhal, TowerFall Ascension, and Gunsport

Anyway, once I had my fill of the expo floor, I went into the main ballroom -- or whatever it was called -- to watch some pools.  Pools setup was rather interesting and not quite what I was expecting.  This was this culmination of grandness -- two giant screens showing certain matches -- and normalcy -- monitors setup with the gamers sitting nearby and people watching from behind.  There were some arcade-like machiens setup as well.  These were cool to watch games like Capcom Vs. SNK 2 and Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo.  Watching pools was interesting in that, for one, it was hit or miss in that some matches you'd watch would be boring and some would be awesome.  Usually, the more crowded a setup was, the more popular the players participating.  Sometimes though, it just got so packed that you could barely see what was happening on the monitors and just watching the matches on the large screens was almost better, especially, since people usually aren't the most courteous and just step in your eyeline of a match -- nor am I willing to be like "YO MOVE!"  That's not my style.  Also, the entire room was filled with Super Smash Bros. audio, which was particularly amusing when juxtaposed with Street Fighter.

An example of people crowding around a setup during pools -- Melee I believe.

Eventually, there was an indie panel that I wanted to attend.  Though I really liked the job Patrick Miller did moderating, it wasn't really anything new from GDC and other indie panels, just sort of going over the ins and outs of developing their games.  It was intriguing to hear how a lot of them work with teams and that they personally don't have as many technical skills as I would assume they would have.  Also, there was a sense that they didn't really care about the fighting game community or respect it.  It made me regret at least not submitting Battle High 2 for consideration, but I felt like the newest iteration just wasn't ready to submit -- though in retrospect, I could have probably submitted the XBLIG version.  Anyway, I then watched Tekken's top 8; I didn't stay for the ending sadly because as much as I love Tekken, the finals can sometimes get a little stay, especially if there is a runback in the grand finals.  After this, my friend and I explored more of Vegas.

Day 2:  Why am I here?

So day 2 came, and this time it was Marvel and BlazBlue pools.  I was sort of bored -- not bored -- but didn't really feel like watching pools again, at least not immediately.  All I really wanted to see that day was watch one of my favorite Shuma-Gorath players -- BrokenTier's Angelic -- compete in Marvel and his pool wasn't until the afternoon.  The line to play Guilty Gear Xrd was short, so I played that, only to sadly have my hype for the game deteriorated.  As sweet as the new graphics look, it's still the same game that I just don't really enjoy.  Again, I think a lot of times when I say I don't enjoy a fighting game, that it could be remedied by either having a great single player experience like Mortal Kombat did, or by having a lot of friends locally to play the game with.  Will I get GGXrd?  Probably, but having played it at EVO, I'm not concerned about getting the game the moment it's released.
Awful, blurry photo of the Xrd setup...

Then I played another indie game, and it made me feel very odd.  It was called Videoball, and I just didn't like it.  The minimal art style, the lack of power, the confusing feedback -- it all just culminated into an experience that I didn't enjoy.  I always feel odd when I encounter a game I feel people like but I just can't get into for some reason.  I start to question myself as a designer.  I guess a part of the reason I went to EVO was to reignite my creative juices, my desire to work on Battle High 2 and my other fighting game projects, but instead it was making me wonder if I should even be making competitive games at all.  This is a topic for another post, but I realize, I don't really like competitive gaming or the route the genre is taking.  There was a panel that I sadly missed -- it started at 2 while I thought it started at 3 -- that was about the history of fighting games; fortunately, I can watch it here at any time:

EVO 2014: Counting Frames from NYU Game Center on Vimeo.

Once I find time to watch it, I feel it'll help me understand what aspects of fighting games I like and which ones I don't.
Anyway, after taking a break to think about where I want to approach games, I came back to watch the pools I wanted to see, and by the end of the night, Marvel was on the big screen.  At the same time, I realized something was missing from this entire experience:  commentary.  I was realizing how much I missed the commentary, particularly from my favorites like James Chen, David P. Graham, and Yipes.  Something about commentary really adds to matches, even if the commentary is bad.  It helps explain things that might be missed, and it creates hype and excitement too.  When they get excited, I, as a spectator, become excited as well. 

David and James -- not sure where / when this is, but...yea...

Also, I wasn't there to compete, and I'm happy that, after speaking with some others on the monorail, I wasn't the only person who goes just to spectate.  Though competing isn't much more expensive, I guess I didn't feel like spending extra money just to lose -- and most probably immediately -- at whichever games I entered.  Anyway, day 2 left me feeling odd.  I was still having a good time, but I wasn't getting the inspiration I was looking for.

I wasn't really feeling salty, but I did find this salt shaker in the Monorail station.

Day 3 -- FINALS!!!!!!

These were the 8 biggest games at EVO, but only 5 of them were played on the final day.
By Day 3, some finals had already happened, but the third and final day, the main ballroom was set up with hundreds of chairs for all to watch the top 8 in games like Street Fighter and Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 to compete.  There were a lot of chairs, but people really wanted to be close to the main stage as possible and with their friends.  There was a lot of seat-saving and "getting to know your fellow spectators".  I didn't mind, but also, I didn't need to be so close.  By the end of the night, sitting in the back was fine.  I could hear the action, see the matches, sense the excitement in the room.  To say the least, the grand finals were awesome. 
Calm before the storm -- the chairs setup the day of finals

Though I tend to be more subdued in my enthusiasm, it was great to see the excitement in the audience as well as the emotion of the players when presented their awards.  Especially since the day started out with the BlazBlue top 8, which literally had its participants crying -- happy tears mind you -- but it was great to see players so invested, awarded for their efforts.

Champion tears


Despite it not inspiring me in the way I was expecting it to, I still really enjoyed EVO.  Would I go again?  Definitely!  Will I go in 2015?  I'm not 100% sure as there were definite low points:

Low Points

  • Vegas.  Again, the heat; distracting and insane layout; and rainbow coalition of people trying to get you into a strip club or prostitute was a bit overwhelming.  I have to say though:  still liked it way more than San Francisco.
  • Evola.  I got sick.  Who or what I contracted this cold from doesn't matter -- getting sick sucks.  I was, at least, well during the entire convention, and didn't start feeling it until Monday night while watching ZARKANA!
Yes, your hoops are fun and all, but when it feels like a small parasite is trying to burrow through a tonsil, it's a bit hard to concentrate.  It did make me say, "I Zarkan't believe my eyes!" though.
  • Angelic not making top 8.  I was sad to see my favorite player not making it into the top 8 for Marvel, but I was happy to see another Shuma-Gorath user there.

High Points

There were a lot of awesome high points, and being there was one, but I'd would say the biggest highlights were...
  • Hearing the announcement of Tekken 7.  Even though it was leaked and even though I would have read about it probably minutes after being announced, there's a certain satisfaction to seeing the game announced live from those working on it was pretty exciting
  • Patrick Miller Vs. Alex Jebaily on Capcom Vs. SNK 2.  I had never seen good Capcom Vs. SNK 2 play live, and their interaction was, and possibly unintentionally so, comical.
  • Grand finals.  Seeing the high level of skill and the drama associated with the grand finals was definitely awe-inspiring and interesting


Do Differently?

If I were to go again, I would definitely have tried having a build of Battle High 2 ready to play.  They had a bring-your-own console section, and I think it would have been neat to try and get SOMEONE to play.  I also wish I would have played more games in general; someone had offered to but we were watching the Street Fighter finals.  I should have tried to get something going afterwards.  Again, I had a great time, and hopefully I can find more people in the Pittsburgh area to become a bigger part of its fighting game community and help it grow -- if it even exist.  Also, I have this photo, which will serve as a pretty awesome memory:

The guy in the middle with the tiny Blanka is Yoshinoro Ono, the producer for Street Fighter IV.  He's pretty wild.