It's been ten years since the greatest comeback in competitive video games happened. In the decade since Daigo Umehara and Justin Wong met in a fateful match of Street Fighter III: Third Strike, EVO Moment 37 has become the stuff of legend. Now there's a book about it.
The myriad low-res videos that capture their match-up have been watched more than a million times. It's easy to understand why. You can look at EVO Moment #37 over and over again and still shake your head in disbelief at what's happening. Two of the world's best video game players locked in battle, with one seemingly ready to effortlessly pound his opponent into submission. Then, the player closest to being knocked out executes a perfect series of parries, swatting away more than a dozen rapid-fire attacks to roar back to the unlikeliest of victories.
EVO Moment #37 is an iconic video game happening, equivalent perhaps to sports legends like The Catch from the 1982 NFC Championship Game, Babe Ruth's "called shot" in 1932 or the U.S. men's hockey team's Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Olympics. All those instances shocked audiences because a wild explosion of player skill and circumstance upended the preordained narrative. It looked like one thing might happen and then something else on way out on the far edge of probability happens instead.
Glenn Cravens is one of the people who became enthralled by when he watched the 57-second video clip years ago. The thirtysomething sportswriter decided to track down the people and events that led up to the Umehara/Wong match and weave his findings into a self-published book called EVO Moment 37. Cravens—a former competitive player who used to run fighting game tournaments himself—was kind enough to answer my e-mail questions shortly after the book came out. You can see our exchange below.
Kotaku: What are the biggest differences between the fighting game scene of 2004 and 2014?
Glenn Cravens: The biggest change, from my view, is where the players were born from. In 2004, a lot of players started in the arcades, but there were many others who came from the home console. It was probably 50 percent arcade-born, 50 percent home-born. Today, you or I would be hard pressed to find anyone who completely started in the arcades, given the downturn of the arcade economy and the continued rise of home play and mobile play, so that number is probably 9 percent arcade born, 90 percent home born, 1 percent mobile born.
The knowledge curve has risen sharply over these past 10 years, and we can thank video and mobile technology for that. In 2004, players had to scrap for video footage, getting a tape on the pseudo-black market in order to learn new moves and playstyles. Also, the world wasn't as connected back then, so if you had a strategy that was unbeatable, you could hide it from the rest of the nation/world and win tournaments with ease until someone figured it out. Today, there are tournament matches that are up on social networking sites as quickly as 5 minutes after they happened. There are more highlights of tournaments that we can do with these days. People broadcast their practice sessions. Strategies are no longer hidden for a long time. If a new "tech" is figured out, it is worldwide within a day. If someone lost a match at a tournament, he or she could pull up a mobile phone and try to find the answer and then immediately play their opponent again trying to learn.
Back in 2004, if someone lost a match, which probably happened in an arcade, he or she had to wait in line and had to think about what happened in the match and why he or she lost, and then after mentally racking the brain to come up with a strategy of revenge, get back up there and play again. And the person that guy or girl lost to might not still be there on the next turn, so that strategy you came up with might not work against the 'new' person.
Cravens: "...the world wasn't as connected back then, so if you had a strategy that was unbeatable, you could hide it from the rest of the nation/world and win tournaments with ease until someone figured it out."
That gets to another factor of change over the last 10 years, and that's the willingness by many people to share their knowledge. In the early 2000s, nobody in my community would share their strategies with me, and all I wanted to know was to how to come up with a basic Ryu strategy so I didn't get destroyed in whatever Street Fighter game people were playing. I remember in 2009 being in a HD Remix grind session and I got my ass kicked by a Honda player doing the same tactic. Now, he could have kept doing it, but he told me after about 10 minutes how to escape it and how to avoid falling into the trap. That would have not happened in 2004. In 2014, it wouldn't have taken 10 minutes before someone would have told me the answer because of the willingness by players today to share their knowledge.
Kotaku: Do you think that EVO Moment 37 was the sole catalyst for wider fascination and success with fighting game tournaments and competitive gaming? What other factors would you say helped transform those two fields?
Infographic created by data visualizer Shu Li that breaks down the Umehara/Wong fight.
Cravens: It was not the sole catalyst, but it helped push the momentum forward for those who were on the fence. I did a survey before the release of the book asking people if the Daigo Parry was the reason they got into fighting games, and the majority of people said no. What I think helped build interest more was Evolution 2004 going to console. The fact that the moment happened on console gave outsiders the realization that the event, although really tough to do, could be done on a machine that they had in their homes, that they didn't have to go to the arcade, if there was one nearby, to try to do this same moment.
Kotaku: Do you think that developers and publishers are catering too much to the FGC? Or are they losing touch?
Cravens: I think developers are doing as best as they can. As much as tournament competitors like to think they are changing the world and making the game relevant, it is just a small percentage of the whole player base, and sometimes we don't get the requests we want because the change wouldn't make the thousands or even millions of nontournament players happy. I remember one fighting game tournament organizer (forgot who) challenging everyone to find new players and welcome them into our tournament scene. He said something along the lines of "A million people bought (no-name game), where is everyone?"
These developers are getting hundreds or even thousands of requests for changes and additions via social networking sites. Someone is going to get pissed off because his or her request is not being fulfilled.
Kotaku: What new information did you find out about the various people, organizations and games that led up to Moment #37?
Cravens: There was a lot, so I'll mention just a few tidbits.
- Perhaps the more startling to me was that I had always assumed Evolution, since the name change in 2002, was done on consoles, but it took two years after that to make the change.
- I finally talked to the guy who said "Let's go, Justin!" and learned about why he said. I can't believe I even had to shoot this down, but there was, 10 years later, people who thought the guy said something other than "Let's go, Justin!" like "Ready, go, Justin!" or "You won, Justin!" or something that wasn't even close to "Let's go, Justin!"
- Being totally selfish, I had hoped the Evolution finals would someday be held in San Francisco or San Jose or a place where I could drive to it without a problem. And those involved in the organization of the event explained why it is now been held in southern Nevada ever since 2005, and it is justified. If the event continued to be held somewhere in Southern California, I'm not sure it continues to grow as fast because it wouldn't have pulled in the casual base of players as rapidly as it did.
Kotaku: Why do you think fighting games generate this kind of fervor?
Cravens: Time is a big factor. The average three-game series match in a fighting game is about five minutes long, and in that time, you're going to get action. Can't camp forever in a 99-second round, although people have tried. That life bar is not going to stay perfect for long. In that five-minute span, something wild is likely going to happen, whether it's a comeback, a perfect, multiple perfects, or an amazing moment such as the Daigo Parry. Who is the best between two players? You only have to wait a few minutes to find out.
There were other competitive games where the two teams or players compete in a three-game series, and Game 1 lasts one hour. That happened the first time I watched a League of Legends match, it was probably a world final from last year or something of that manner. I didn't know the ins and outs of game, and I had to seriously ask myself whether I was going to watch another hour or two hours of it. But I did because I was already pot-committed, as people say in poker terms.
Another factor, albeit small, is the humanization of many fighting game characters. They kick, they punch, they do a jump punch. They throw a fireball. Many of us as kids in the past or kids today mimicked a shoryuken or a tiger knee or a hadouken or even Scorpion's spear, saying "Get over here!" as we did the motion. I'm not sure if that's possible with many other games today. Do kids mimic a baneling or a Master Chief with needles? Maybe, but it would look really weird.