During winners finals, crowd favorite Hector “Macho” Cajigas joined the audience in a “Spirit Bomb” cheer while his opponent CyberJapanAgent waited.
Screenshot: YouTube

This year’s Evolution Championship Series is almost the same as last year: the Mandalay Bay Convention Center is still packed with countless setups, players reigniting friendships and rivalries, and clusters of attendees erupting into screams during exciting matches. But Evo 2018 has one glaring omission in its lineup of official events: Marvel vs. Capcom.

Marvel vs. Capcom competition has been synonymous with Evo since the 2000 B4 Championships, a tournament series that served as a precursor to Evo. Starting with Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and then transitioning to both Tatsunoko vs. Capcom and Marvel vs. Capcom 3, the popular Versus franchise remained an Evo staple for 18 years. This year, Evo announced that the latest entry, Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite, would not have a place on the main stage at the annual event.

The latest Marvel vs. Capcom game had already been through some rough patches. At launch, Capcom announced a high-profile competition series for Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite, but within the first couple of weeks, the tournaments suffered from low viewership numbers and game-breaking combos. Between the issues with combos and the ugly characters and select screen, Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite quickly became the fighting game community’s red-headed stepchild. A core group of diehard supporters have continued to explore the game and show up to tournaments, but the franchise’s standing has fallen from its former height in the scene.

Even so, Evo’s snub came as a total surprise to many players. Last February, Marvel vs. Capcom competitor Hayden “Kinderparty” Griswold told Kotaku, “Evo was the only place where we could hang our hats, and for over a decade, it’s where we’ve crowned our champions... I could feel the sadness of every player, commentator, or creator who had their eyes set on Evo as something to rally around again.”

But the fighting game community is nothing if not resilient, and competitor-turned-tournament organizer Armando “Angelic” Mejia quickly got to work on creating a community-run side tournament for Marvel players at Evo. Although Evo provides these events with a set-up space in the “bring your own console” area, the responsibility of running these competitions and broadcasting them to the world falls squarely on the shoulders of their third-party organizers. This year, Evo lent a helping hand to a handful of games by providing them streaming time at the end of the day, but the majority of Marvel competition would take place in a back corner, far from the spotlight of the main stage.

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Ray “Knives” Ruballos, an old-school competitor who recently won the Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite tournament at Community Effort Orlando, has mixed feelings about the side tournament. “We all feel a little slighted,” Knives told Kotaku in an interview during the event. “We feel like we were robbed in a way. We’re not all here joyfully. If we had other options, I guarantee we would take them. If the community was organized enough for people to get together and actually establish another major as the Marvel world title, it would have happened. After some time passed and it really set in that there was no Evo [spot], the people that continued playing started looking at Evo as just another big tournament title. It no longer has the same appeal as it did before.”

While Knives feels that Evo should still represent the culmination of months of training, it’s bittersweet to get an impressive tournament placement without the attention of the larger fighting game community. Still, he’s trying to look on the bright side.

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“I know for sure that every single player is here because they absolutely love this game,” Knives continued. “That’s more important. Whoever wins this is gonna get this win among a group of players that have devoted themselves to something they love solely for passion, not for money, not for views, not for Twitter followers. This is Marvel, we all love Marvel, we all think this is a great game, and that’s how we’re gonna do it.”

Samantha “Persia” Hancock, one of Marvel vs. Capcom’s greatest advocates and commentators, has a similar stance. Sure, the allure of Evo’s main stage is hard to ignore, but the side tournaments that have been organized for Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 still mean something at the end of the day. The community has done what it can to pull together in the face of Evo’s decision and they’re going to play their hearts out despite missing out on the main stage.

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“Of course, walking around the venue forever trying to actually find out where [the tournament] is is annoying, but all that stuff isn’t even on my mind anymore, because I’m actually seeing some really good shit,” Persia explained. “We’re still going to play, and we’re still going to do our game in the ways that we can because, without us, who else is going to do it? It’s still the best of the best showing up, and the storylines are as rich as ever.”

For example, Marvel player Tayson Defas made it to Top 4 and turned heads not only for taking a break between each match to meditate, even going so far as to walk away from the set-up and sit cross-legged on the floor, but also for getting one of his meditation sessions interrupted by a long romantic kiss from BlazBlue and Street Fighter V competitor (and his boyfriend) Sebastian “Sol” Oliva.

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The kiss didn’t help, though; Tayson lost, and the eventual top honors went to CyberJapanAgent, an emerging Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite competitor from Japan.

After winning Pasadena Regionals last week, CyberJapanAgent received a trip to Las Vegas to compete in a game that has always been dominated by players from the United States. His sudden arrival has invigorated players within the competitive community, many of whom began to see him as the new top dog.

During the final match of the Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite competition, fans rallied in support of Hector “Macho” Cajigas, hoping to to spur the Chicago competitor to victory against CyberJapanAgent. At one point, attendees even raised their hands as a mock Spirit Bomb, but the foreign player easily dispatched his grand finals opponent. In so doing, CyberJapanAgent made history by becoming the first Japanese player to win a Marvel vs. Capcom game at Evo. His victory, while incredible, was marred by scheduling issues that pushed the Infinite finals back by three hours.

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“I knew we were going to face a lot of challenges,” organizer Armando “Angelic” Mejia told me afterwards. “They told us we had to be ready by 7 PM, and we absolutely killed it. We busted our asses to get done as quickly as possible. We didn’t want anything to be [held up] on our end. The matches were great, the players were great. Everyone came through and it was a great time.”

The Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite finals were packed and “standing room only,” but Angelic isn’t sure that will make a difference to Evo. During the event’s traditional announcement stream, tournament head Joey “Mr. Wizard” Cuellar had said that Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite would not be at Evo 2018 due to low attendance throughout the year, a claim that has since been debunked. A Marvel hat got prominently featured during the broadcast before disappearing after a commercial break, which Angelic still considers an “insulting stunt.”

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“I definitely think this has solidified the community, but not because of anything specifically to do with Evo,” Angelic concluded. “[Pasadena Regionals organizer Marc “Snaketits” Tchamanian] brought CyberJapanAgent over from Japan and he absolutely destroyed everyone. I think that we now have a story in the community of Us vs. Them. Overall, the past few months [have been] really great for the community, but as far as having a tournament at Evo, I probably wouldn’t credit it that much.”