Last weekend, I joined a group of more than 5,000, many who had traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to compete against and witness the best fighting game players in the world at the annual EVO championship.
Temperatures in Las Vegas in mid-July were well over 100 degrees Farenheit. The rooms of Caesars Palace, including the 35,000 square foot ballroom where the world's best fighting game players convened, however, were frosty. But as more than 3,000 registered fighters filled the room, staring coolly at dozens of monitors and engaging in heated virtual combat, temperatures indoors rose.
I wasn't there to compete against the younger, infinitely more skilled crowd. I was there to watch the best Tekken 6, Super Street Fighter IV, Melty Blood: Actress Again and Marvel vs. Capcom 2 players battle it out for prize money and glory. I was also there on a working vacation as part of my side project Meat Bun, selling our goods to passionate video game fans; chatting with star players like Daigo Umehara and Justin Wong; catching up with game creators like Marvel vs Capcom producer Ryota Niitsuma and Tekken producer Katsuhiro Harada.
The room and the crowds felt huge. Massive double elimination brackets scattered throughout dozens of pools of fighters bordered the massive ballroom. The large screen at the front of the room, where the top tier matches played out, offered the best view.
At the opposite end of the ballroom was where the more obscure competitions occurred. This is where the hardest of the hardcore hunted for a challenge, playing less popular games like Jojo's Bizarre Adventure and Magical Drop, sometimes for honor, sometimes for money.
Other players in the open "Bring Your Own Console" space played games like the still-unreleased Skullgirls and titles that didn't secure enough votes from competitors to be included in the official tournament, including BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger and Street Fighter III: Third Strike.
Some simply looked for camaraderie, playing non-competitive games like Smash TV on a laptop computer.
Notable—and popular—for its brief appearance at EVO was its first Super Street Fighter IV women's only invitational. Curious players, most of them men who had come to compete, gathered around the smaller group of female players. Some those competitors dressed as Super Street Fighter IV's Juri or a more feminine version of Street Fighter bad guy M. Bison.
But unlike other events filled with obsessive video game fans, cosplay was rare at EVO. The costumed attendees numbered in the single digits. A Dudley, from Street Fighter III, wandered about for photo ops. A man dressed as Vega came to socialize and gawk at the marquee fights. A Psylocke came to be gawked at.
Most EVO attendees wandered around in t-shirts emblazoned with Street Fighter imagery or in-jokes that only serious fighting games would understand, a Hori or Mad Catz arcade stick under their arms, waiting for their next match.
Days at EVO are long. The games begin at 9 am and run until midnight or later, marathon sessions of one-on-one battles that kept the crowd energized. The constant competition had an unexpected effect on me. I came to envy the players for their skill, revitalizing my interest in playing fighting games competitively. The crowd's enthusiasm can be infectious.
As the Tekken 6 and Super Street Fighter IV finals carried out on Sunday—I watched much of it online, streaming through video provider Stickam's feed and laden with commentary—Caesars Palace's main ballroom reached capacity. The wave of excited "Ohhhh!!"s and jeers at the top tier players from the crowd was constant as matches flowed back and forth between talent.
There was some mob patriotism when Japanese players lost, with chants of "USA! USA! USA!" when the home team was winning. Two of the better known competitors, Justin Wong and Daigo Umehara, went on to win the Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Super Street Fighter IV tournaments respectively. Each had a noteworthy elimination, Wong in Super Street Fighter IV, Umehara in Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix.
Near the end of the finals, it felt like every match was a nail-biter, many competitors amazingly evenly matched. It was during these moments, when players were being eliminated after days of play, years of practice, that EVO hooked me. Vegas may be boiling in July, but I'll be back next year to see the world's best fighters battle it out in digital mortal combat.
Turns out, watching other people play video games can be fun.