Upsets, revenge and returns to form: EVO 2017 showcased champions old and new

EVO is a unique tournament in esports. It is analogous to the crowning events of other games — worlds in League of Legends, The International in Dota 2, Majors in CS:GO — but the foundation of its format has remained almost identical to the original grassroots competition: anyone can show up, pay their fee and play. The egalitarian vibe, both alluring and frustrating for attendees, has allowed EVO to maintain its status as the Mecca of fighting games. No matter how much people bitch and moan about setups, conditions, and problems, they still come year after year.

EVO is the only event that can draw all competitors across the globe, the only one with the prestige to be called the most important event of the year. It draws all of the games together, both on the main stage and in side events, to find out who among all of them is the best. It is where champions old and new come to prove their mettle, where players put their pride and heart on the line.

You could see that nowhere better than in the first final of the weekend. It started off with Zhoujun “Xiao Hai” Zeng against Chia-Hung “E.T.” Lin in King of Fighters 14. Xiaohai won last year’s EVO and presumptuously predicted himself to win again as he saw no one who could stop him. For most of his run to the finals, that proved true, but at the 12th hour a worthy challenger stood in his way: E.T. had made it all the way to grand finals. Both players were at the edge of their exhaustion, but with the goal so close in reach, neither was willing to give an inch. It was incredibly tense as E.T. got the early 2-0 lead off of using Daimon, a character Xiao Hai wasn’t able to handle. The savvy veteran adjusted to deal with the pressure as E.T. became flustered, and Xiao Hai rallied back to tie the finals 2-2. In the final match, E.T. gambled by putting Clark as his first character. This stratagem completely failed but he clutched it out at the end with anchor Daimon. As E.T. celebrated, Xiao Hai slumped over in defeat, stunned that he let the EVO championship slip away.

In Tekken 7, another old champion battled for his throne. The final bout was between 2016 winner Choi “Saint” Jinwoo and his teammate Kim “JDCR” HyunJin. Last year, JDCR didn’t even reach Top 8 as he had taken significant time off. This year, he established his reputation as the best Tekken player in the world, and his victory against Saint solidified that position. The dominance he displayed in the second series mirrored the other EVO finals, though for those champions it was as much a journey about revenge.

At EVO 2016, Adam “Armada” Lindgren lost to Juan “HungryBox” Debiedma in one of the closest Super Smash Bros Melee sets of the year. This time, he refused to let that happen again as he annihilated all resistance on his way to the top. The only true test came from Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman, as they had an incredibly close best-of-three. That was likely the deciding set of the tournament as no one else came close to matching Armada. A wrecking ball smashing through all obstacles was also the story of Guilty Gear’s top 8. Omito Hasimoto let the EVO 2016 title slip from his grasp in the grand finals, and he arrived in Las Vegas with terrifying focus. He dominated even more than Armada did, dropping only a single game throughout his entire run in the playoffs.

Two other anime games were hotly contested. In Blazblue, Ryusei Ito defeated Shoji “Fenritti” Sho to win the championship. Ryusei reached the grand finals by destroying Fenritti with dominating offense. For some reason, Ryusei abandoned that mentality when they met again in the grand finals and Fenritti was able to reset the bracket easily. Afterward, Ryusei seemed to have realized his error and rectified it, returning to his overwhelming, mixup-heavy style. Ryusei expertly controlled the pace in the first two sets; Fenritti barely survived the onslaught in Sets 3 and 4 to tie the series before being pummeled in the final one. It was an incredible display of aggression that was unmatched by anyone else in Top 8.

The final anime game was Marvel vs. Capcom 3 (natch). It was set to be the grand hurrah as MvC: Infinite will be released sometime between this EVO and next. It ended with a battle between one of the three Gods of MVC3, Chris “ChrisG” Gonzalez, and Ryan “RyanLV” Romero. Although the game has been out for six years, RyanLV proved there was still more to explore by using the widely disparaged character Chun Li. As the point character for a Phoenix-based team, Ryan mostly relied on her aerial mobility and defense to avoid the smothering hail of projectiles from ChrisG’s Morrigan/Doom combo. In the meantime, he spammed Morrigan’s assist to build meter. The meter could either be used to close out kills with supers or saved for Dark Phoenix as he could easily build up 5 meters. ChrisG was unable to deal with the synergy in the team and the old God gave way to MVC3’s last EVO champion.

In many minds, that was supposed to be how Street Fighter V went. This year the presumptive favorite was Victor “Punk Woodley. He dominated the past four months of competitive play, winning six tournaments in a row and taking second in two others. It looked to be a tournament where the young wave of star players finally surpassed the old timers. But one of the old guard came back to form just in time to defend his entire generation.

Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi was in a slump after the first few months of the year, and though he was still a respected veteran and strong player, he was no longer considered a championship contender. But at EVO, Tokido returned to form as he fought his way through the loser’s bracket. He eventually met Punk in the finals, where they had a closely contested set in the first best-of-five. Tokido won to reset the bracket. In the second series, Tokido ascended to another level, back to the days of his prime, and destroyed Punk.

Punk was the best player in the world, someone who effortlessly beat great players to reach this point. But in the wake of a reawakened Tokido, his composure crumbled. The 18-year-old made uncharacteristic mistakes in the heat of the moment, dropping combos and failing to convert on hits that are part of his bread and butter. Tokido swept through him again to claim his third EVO title. The last time he had won was in Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo a decade ago.

EVO is a special place. It is the holy land of the fighting game communities, the place where the old school grassroots attitude and the new school merging into the mainstream meet. It is where where the stars of yesteryear battle the stars of tomorrow, where the history of the game is created and retold time and time again. It is the encapsulation of the fighting game scene, of what it was, what it is, and what it could be. It is EVO, and the winners etch their names into the most important fighting game circuit in the world.

Cover photo by Jonathan Tayag