I was a particularly nerdy kid, growing up. I was raised by a single Dad who was plenty nerdy himself, and I usually opted out of sports-related activities in favor of playing as many video games as I could get away with. I have this excellent picture from my 8th grade Little League baseball team. On the day where everyone got action shots, I asked to have my picture taken on the bench, math binder in hand, since most of my game time was spent there doing homework. (I’m pretty bad at math, too.)Never in a million years did I think that I would be the kind of guy to watch other people play video games, cheer wildly, and yell “OH MY SHIT DID HE JUST DO THAT”. In other words, I never thought I’d be into sports. Until I went to Evolution 2004. That mass of roaring people cheering Daigo on? I’m in there, somewhere.
I imagine that attending Evo is, for a few brief days, a taste of what it’s like to be any average guy with a beer belly, some gym shorts, and a profound devotion to ESPN. A basketball fan can walk into any sports bar in the world and mouth off about how terrible the Warriors are and start a conversation. They can watch The Big Game with a crowd of people and not feel self-conscious about spending their time watching big guys play with big basketballs. And when they’re at work, they can say “So, how about them Knicks?” and everyone else is obligated to reply with “Hell of a team, gonna go all the way this year” whether they pay attention to basketball or not. Well, fuck the Knicks. Here at Evo, the name of the game is MAHVEL, BAYBEE.
Basically, it’s a brief trip into a world where taking games seriously is totally fucking normal.
So! You’re going to Evo next year.
I’ve been hosting a few video game viewing parties lately. They’ve been fairly well attended, too–usually about 10 people or so piling into my living room watching young men in blazers commentate the Major League Gaming finals on my TV. Beer and snacks flow as freely as the shit-talking and act-like-we-know side chatter. I used to host UFC viewing parties, before. The atmosphere is more or less the same no matter what we’re watching.
Only about half of the people in attendance actually actively play Starcraft 2, or Street Fighter, or whatever we’re watching. The others just liked to watch. Funny, isn’t it? We’re entering an age where people just really like to watch other people play video games. And frankly, I don’t think half the people that came to my last viewing party actually cared that much about the game. They just wanted to see what it was like to treat a video game like most people treat football.
I had originally written this up as a simple ode to Evolution 2011, which I went to about 2-3 months ago. After running it by the rest of the insert credit crowd, I learned that I’d have to do more than that. My job is to convince you that professional gaming, or competitive gaming, or “eSports”, or whatever you want to call it, is worth your time and attention. Actually, my job is to convince you to come to Evolution 2012.
Even if you don’t particularly like fighting games.
So I’m going to start by telling you about why I give a shit about eSports. I don’t think that the skeptics out there will all of a sudden become crazy fanatics or anything. I do hope to plant the seed of interest that will eventually blossom into an “Aw, hell, I guess I’ll watch this stream for a little bit”.
(Why do I care whether you care? Mostly because I plan to write a whole bunch of neat stuff about eSports in the months to come, and if you don’t like it, well, we’re just kind of stuck with each other, I guess.)
Let’s start with a basic question: What does it mean to take video games seriously?
I took video games pretty darn seriously when I was 5. I didn’t own a console of my own, but you bet your ass I was better at video games than anyone else in my kindergarten class. All video games. Mario, Mega Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, you name it. I was the guy who got invited to the birthday sleepovers because you knew you’d need someone to get past whatever level you were stuck on. Serious business.
Other things I took seriously when I was 5: Candy. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. General avoidance of girls. Crayons.
I’m (something of an) adult now. I still take video games seriously. But not in quite the same way I did when I was 5.
I’ve had it in my head for a while now that the grown-ass men and women who grew up playing video games have stuck to the medium because they found something in the games they play that scratch a mature adult itch. The true connoisseurs–you folks who read insert credit are a good example–wouldn’t continue to play video games for the first few decades of their lives if it felt like they were watching Looney Tunes cartoons for a few hours every day.
So when I first discovered games writing that didn’t suck–The Gamer’s Quarter, The Escapist (back when it was on PDF, duh), the original insert credit, etc., I was hooked. I wasn’t hooked because of the games they were writing about, though. I was hooked because of the way people were writing about them.
See, I knew that video games were an integral part of who I was, by then, but I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to grow into them. What was I supposed to do when I took a girl back to my dorm room for the first time and she saw my MAS Systems arcade stick sitting in the middle of the floor? How could I feel confident about the fact that I spent at least an hour in training mode for Guilty Gear XX when no one in my zip code knew what the damn game was?
And really, that wouldn’t address the issue. It’d be like a kid being so into crayons that he decides to, well, make crayons for a living, and be the best damn crayon engineer he could possibly be. That isn’t mature. That’s obsessive-bordering-on-weird. See, the parallel should be between “kid likes crayons” to “kid decides he wants to be an artist that does amazing things with crayons”, but it wasn’t, because I wasn’t used to thinking of video games as a potential medium for a performance.
But that’s what it is. Video games are many things, but one thing they can be is a venue for performance. For spectacle. And we can watch them, and enjoy them, because they can provide us just one more way to see just how amazing people can be when they dedicate themselves to a goal. When they push themselves to their absolute limits. Just watch the Daigo Parry (“Evo Moment #37”) if you don’t believe me.
Which segues nicely into the topic of the day–Evolution.
You’re going to feel embarrassed walking into the Rio for the first time with your gigantic MadCatz FightStick TE in hand, wishing desperately that you could just blend in. Then you’re going to realize that the guys in front of you in the check-in line are talking about this totally sweet Zero/Wesker/Haggar setup, the guys behind you are placing bets on Justin Wong making top 8 in every game he enters, and the girls standing by the roulette table practically swooned when they saw Daigo walk by.
You’re going to tell stupid Street Fighter jokes in the elevator to your friends, and you’re going to hear the strangers riding with you laugh with you. Because when you say shit like “I’mma Balrog that chick, all yelling ‘FINAL!’ “, well, they’ve gotten hit by that punch too.
And when Latif hits that oh-so-pretty 60% C.Viper combo to knock Poongko out and meet Fuudo in the finals, you’re going to get out of your seat and cheer and jump and make a goddamn fool out of yourself like the other 2000 people in the ballroom who are just losing their shit over a video game.
Enter the tournament. Don’t bellyache about the $60 or so. It’s a small price to pay to say you played in Evo 2012, and it makes the whole experience much more intense. You’ll probably spend a few weeks practicing your heart out, agonizing over who you’ll use, dreading the thought of going two and out (it’s okay, it happens to everyone), and secretly imagining yourself taking on Daigo in the finals to defend the stars and stripes (this also happens to everyone). Do it. You get a T-shirt.
Or maybe you don’t like to play fighting games that much. That’s cool too. You’ll find some of the best fighting gamers in the world putting on a show for your entertainment, and you won’t even have to pay a dime to watch.
The action doesn’t stop when the doors close, either. You’re in Vegas, of course, so plenty of folks are off to hit the bars, clubs (gentlemen’s or otherwise), or blackjack tables–no problem with a little vice. If you decide to stick around the Rio, though, you’re in for a treat. I spent Friday night playing a few solid hours of Marvel in a hotel room with some good friends of mine when who should walk in but Alex Valle. Bet that doesn’t happen to you every day. Man, I haven’t played that guy since Evolution 2004.
And if you’re really lucky, you’ll stumble across the Salty Suite. It’s not easy to find, and even if you do locate it, you’ll have to get past the doorman–this year it was Mr. SNK, in a blazer that made him look like he should have been standing in front of the Tao instead of room 6019. I got in by looking like I was part of Poongko’s posse. But once you’re in, you’ll get to watch the after-hours money matches between the best of the best. Did your favorite player get peaced out in the qualifying pools? He’s probably in the Salty Suite playing $100 money matches with Ryan Hart or GamerBee. If you’re feeling flush, look for a side bet–or if you’re a little crazy, put up a few twenties and try taking on your heroes yourself. Win or lose, you’ll get to put your name out there, in the suite and on the stream.
All that is really just the prelude to hype, though. You might get a few flashes of hype here and there in the first few days, but the real fun starts on Sunday. That’s because the whole day is devoted to the top 8 players from each game, starting with the less-popular games like BlazBlue and working up to the main event: Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition. You can feel the hype build up gradually over the course of the day.
You’ll get there a little early, maybe during Mortal Kombat 9. You probably aren’t paying much attention at this point. In fact, you’re just there to get good seats for the main event. Maybe eat some lunch, or start getting good and drunk, or catch up on sleep. Then you look up at the screen and you see a close match. Even though you don’t really know what’s going on, you keep watching. And all it takes is one close match to get everyone standing in their seats. Most of them probably don’t know what’s going on, but it doesn’t matter, because you’re going crazy with everyone else.
That right there? That’s the beginning of hype. Then the next match starts, and you’re sitting down feeling a little bit more awake. And as the day goes on, these moments get more and more frequent until every round has an OH SHIT DID HE JUST DO THAT moment, and you’re losing your voice from the yelling and screaming (and possibly the drinking and the smoking), and before you know it you’re chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” even though you’re not really the kind of person who would ever do that.
I’ll tell you a secret: I don’t really like Street Fighter IV all that much. Compared to the games of the past, it feels a little bit too easy, a little bit dumbed-down, and I generally don’t play it. But I’ll be damned if I wasn’t yelling louder than any of my friends when Poongko beat down Daigo, and even louder when Latif beat Poongko.
Because for a few precious hours, I was in a 55,000 square-foot ballroom full of people who were looking at the exact same screen I was. There. Watching Street Fighter, the game we all played with as kids and now again as adults. It’s like going to watch the NBA Finals in person, except so much more delicious because you’ve been teased and eyebrow-raised and shit on and ever-so-secretly embarrassed about the fact that you’ve spent so much time playing Street Fighter.
But there, you’re just one of many people watching The Big Game. You don’t have to feel bad about knowing what can punish Ryu’s sweep on block, and you don’t have to feel silly for slamming your drink on the floor because you just got hype. And you can feel it linger in your system after the finals are over and everyone is going back to their real lives, where every day is not about Street Fighter. Until it’s gone, and you’ll just have to go again next year.
So go. Go to the next Evolution. Go for the games, for the money matches, for the friends and camaraderie, but most importantly, for the hype.
I’ll see you there.