Once a year they come to Las Vegas. Not to party. Not to compete. Not even to play Street Fighter. Perhaps they don't even realize it, but these few, these champions of a dying bit of pop culture, come to Las Vegas to scream into the approaching long night of arcade gaming. Each year EVO gathers the best among fighting gamers to celebrate arcade culture, to stave off, at least for one week, the creeping death that has turned arcades into family fun centers, filled 7-Elevens with console games and not cabinets, swept public gaming from the face of America. "Arcades have gone away but the culture is not gone," said Seth Killian, one of the group's founders. " It was such a great experience that we're not willing to say it's gone."
It's no surprise that a shared passion for fighting games is what sparked the EVO Championship Series. In the early 90s games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter replaced pool as a viable way to shark for money. Most college arcades had its own Street Fighter muscle, Mortal Kombat expert. In 1995 a group of top arcade fighters, sick of arguing over a newsnet who the player was, decided to gather at an arcade on Broadway in New York City to finally decide it. "We all came from the street fighter arcades," said Seth Killian, director of EVO and community manager at Capcom. "Everyone coming to that thing was like the kingpin of their local arcades." There were 40 people at that first throw down. It was played on Super Street Fighter II Turbo. But turns out that didn't settle things permanently. The one-off gathering of cabinet gamers turned into an annual pilgrimage. They met in Boston, they met in California and finally the settled on Las Vegas as venue best suited for the match-up and inevitable side bets. As the meet-ups grew each year it coalesced into something more formalized. Now the the group is run mostly by the community that gathers each year to play. Though a few like Joey Cuellar (administrator of the fighting mecca at shoryuken.com and former manager of famous Southern Hills Golfland arcade), Vik Steyaert (founder of Tekken-zaibatsu.com and elite French chef), Tom and Tony Cannon (aka "the Cannon twins," shoryuken.com cofounders, and Tony created the amazing GGPO.net), and Killian help keep things in order. "It was all completely organic," Killian said. "The structure was born out of "Shit we have way too many people showing up to these things." So they started introducing more traditional tournament rules, finally settling on double elimination, to help determine who the best Street Fighter was. The annual gathering also grew in reputation, soon attracting gamers from around the world looking to cut their teeth on a tournament known for it's skilled players. With the growth, the group of gamers behind EVO have had to make some tough decisions. Because they run tournaments that require more cabinets than exist on the whole continent the group decided to start using consoles for game play four years ago. "It was an extremely hard decision," Killian said. The tournament, which used to hold four qualifiers a year in the U.S., last year held qualifiers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Sao Palo, Brazil and London. Its from these tournaments that famous moments, like the Daigo full-parry video, are born. And the meet up each year in Las Vegas isn't just about competitive fighting games, it's also a chance for gamers to hang out, have fun and celebrate quarter on the cabinet arcade console. "We've recreated this experience," Killian said. "The arcade experience is so awesome. People become friends. That's part of why we started throwing this tournament. "Its about fighting games and competitions, but arcades are the crucible that sparked the awesomeness. I don't know what awesome is made up of, I don't know the physics behind awesome, but I know it when I see it." Fighting games, in particular, are about direct confrontation, Killian points out, and playing in person magnifies that feeling, gives it more personality. "If Street Fighter only came out on consoles and never were in arcades I don't think it would have been as popular," Killian said. "EVO isn't about bringing back arcades, but preserving this fire, this passion, this connection. "The arcade machine is such a ziggurat, you have to engage with it. It's not disposable, it's a statement.