Last weekend, the world’s biggest fighting games tournament, Evolution Championship Series—colloquially known as EVO—featured a cavalcade of announcements like rollback netcode coming to a couple fighting games in desperate need of it as well as some sleek character announcement trailers. But what almost didn’t make the event, thanks to some last-minute hold-ups on the part of music streaming service distributors, was the fighting game tourney’s official soundtrack.
The new album Believe: The Music Of EVO 2022 was conceived to be the official soundtrack for EVO 2022. In it, not only does hip-hop artist and project organizer Zaid Tabani deliver a long-awaited update to his 2011 FGC anthem “Evolve,” but mainstay EVO games like Tekken, Street Fighter, Guilty Gear, and Mortal Kombat received original songs as well. Other writers and performers include well-known artists like Tee Lopes, the composer for TMNT: Shredders Revenge, Casey Williams of RWBY fame, and Mega Ran.
All very well, and to hear the contributors tell it, the album came together beautifully. The one thing they didn’t anticipate was a last-minute hold-up from the company they’d picked to release it onto streaming services. That sent Tabani scrambling, and in the end Believe barely squeaked out onto the internet on the last day of the tournament. (Luckily, EVO itself already had all the tracks in hand, so viewers still got to hear them in the livestream during the appropriate parts of each EVO tournament event.)
In any case, Believe: The Music of EVO 2022 is now out in all the usual places (also Bandcamp, YouTube) and is simultaneously a relaxing and hype AF listening experience. I sat down with Mega Ran, Casey Williams, and Tabani to talk about their experiences working on the soundtrack and ask what EVO and the fighting game community means to them.
Back in late 2021, Tabani gathered a bunch of musicians, whom Mega Ran referred to as “a murderers’ row of talent,” to put together Believe.
“My goal was for people who have never stepped foot in an EVO, who don’t know what the fuck Street Fighter is, who have never heard of [anime fighting game] Granblue can listen to this and feel like, ‘Oh man, it feels like a family. I wanna kind of be there,” Tabani said.
Alongside this guiding principle, Tabani said that, to bring authenticity to the soundtrack, it was imperative for each musician to both be passionate for the games they wrote songs for and have a vast understanding of them.
“EVO is the most hardcore of the hardcore and I mean that in the best way possible,” Mega Ran said. “But these folks can definitely sniff out a phony and will call you to the carpet on it, so it’s important to really love what you’re doing.”
To make sure each song was on the up and up, Tabani said he handed out (for example) an eight-page document of DragonBall FighterZ terms and a five-page document of Melty Blood terms to Mega Ran and Mason Lieberman, respectively, so that they could incorporate the history and context of FGC lingo into their songs.
Reflecting the diversity in fighting games at EVO, Believe’s tracklist is a hodgepodge of different types of music, often switching genre between metal, jazz, rap, and, as Tabani put it, “Paramore-esque vocals” depending on the video game they’re attached to.
Believe also attempts to further inject authenticity into the album by interlacing it with spoken-word “confessionals” from prominent members of the fighting game community, like James Chen, LI Joe, Sherryjenix, and Seth Killian. Each person spoke about topics like the impact the FGC has had on them and EVO’s incredible growth from a tiny community event to the biggest fighting game tournament in the world.
“If you ever listen to a rap album, a skit is like a cheat code into getting you into the aesthetic,” Tabani said. “It’s like when you listen to a Kendrick album and you’re not from Compton or you’re not from Cali but you feel like you are. It’s that essence distilled. That’s the power that music or an album could bring you.”
The addition of “FGC confessionals” also doubled as a means to smooth over the transitions between the album’s various genres, where the musicians can go from belting out anime lyrics about Melty Blood to hollerin’ about fatalities in Mortal Kombat 11 in gruesomely catchy detail.
One issue that the artists faced while making the album was the limited timeframe they had in getting tracks finished. After getting the go-ahead, Tabani said the musicians “had to basically sprint” to get tracks finished within the narrow timeframe of late May to the end of July. Another sticking point for the group was deciding what EVO actually sounds like. This led to many emergency recording sessions in between artists’ busy schedules on other projects, not to mention juggling time with their families.
“We had a budget for certain things like hiring players here and there, mastering, mixing—but we had to do different sort of value props to get this project made,” Tabani said. “A lot of people did it out of love for the community.”
As if the time crunch for finishing the album wasn’t enough, contributors also ran into that issue of getting the album out on streaming services, barely squeaking into full release at the tail end of the EVO weekend. Luckily, the digital music distribution service Soundrop stepped in to ensure that the FGC community needn’t wait weeks to buy and listen to the event’s official soundtrack.
“We told [Soundrop] the situation and instantly, without any promise of promo or any of that, they just helped us,” Tabani said in a tweet. “They not only worked with us to try to make sure the process happened smoothly, they made sure our album got to stores in time for the end of Sunday finals.”
Back in 2020, EVO was canceled due to covid. Shortly after, EVO Online was canceled following sexual misconduct allegations from EVO’s suspended co-founder and CEO, Joey “Mr. Wizard” Cuellar.
“We’ve been through three years like a pandemic, EVO shutting down, and people losing their reputation because they are pieces of shit,” Tabani said. “These games mean something and I am really happy that we got to do this.”
While reflecting on what EVO means to him, Mega Ran referred to a comment made by fellow musician Mason Lieberman which equated the fighting tourney to a digital version of the Olympics.
“Believe was made with love for the community by extremely top-notch artists who have done their best to make sure that nothing was [left to] happenstance,” Mega Ran said. “It’s all very intentional and deliberate and the heart came first.”
Although Casey Williams, the singer of Melty Blood anthem “Race Into the Light,” isn’t much of a gamer herself, she said she follows the community like a hawk and it’s a huge part of who she is.
“I’ve been very happily surprised and humbled like I always am reading people’s tweets, um, over the past few days,” Williams said. “There was a tweet I read where someone said that while they were competing they heard the intro come on and knew exactly who it was and it got them even more amped up to perform well and it made me tear up. I thought it was so cool.”
Tabani said the FGC and EVO brought him a way to survive in a world rife with inequality for people of his skin color. Tabani also appreciates the dichotomy of competition and comradery that EVO brings out of players who wouldn’t have been able to become friends if it weren’t for arcade fighting games.
“There is an art and a culture to this community, and music is one of the best ways to bring that out. Basketball has hip hop, streetwear, street-level games, strategy, and cultural discussion,” he said. “Fighting games have all of that but it isn’t represented or elevated the same way, and it can and should be. That’s how you start making the community healthier, that’s how you make people feel seen.”