evo.jpg['The Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's GameSetWatch-exclusive column about communities built around gaming. He was in attendance for his first EVO fighting game tournament in Vegas this weekend and now realizes why, prior to his attendance, he just didn't know.]

“I think they’re having some sort of Dungeons and Dragons convention,” a dumpy man in his 40s muttered to his wife.

I’m walking past the line to join a table of fighting mates at the Sao Paolo café inside the Rio in Vegas, where the Evolution Championship Series is being held. It’s the biggest fighting game tournament in the U.S., perhaps the world. It is about ten years old, and 2009 is the biggest yet with over 1,000 participants, largely due to the success of Street Fighter IV.

Within an hour, half of what we call Team Utah will need to report for the initial pools for Street Fighter IV, the event’s biggest game. Andy is the most responsible for coordinating Utah competition, and the discussion always centers around his comments. One of the most notable players in his pool is Phatsaqs, considered the best Rose player in the U.S. “What’s her armor breaker again?” Andy asks.

“Soul drill,” one of us says. “Soul spiral. It’s the quarter circle move,” another says simultaneously.

Andy nods. He would later go on to win three matches and almost get out of the pools and into semifinals. His second loss would be to Phatsaqs, a knuckle biter that would go to the third round of the third match, with low health remaining.

I don’t realize people don’t lend sticks and don’t have a PS3 stick, so I go without registering to play. I know I’m going to write on this, so I distract myself by talking to others, asking questions. “Is there a noticeable difference between this year’s EVO and the EVOs of previous years?” I ask someone.

“Yes,” he replies. “There’s a ----ton more people this time.”

There indeed are a lot, and not just your D+D types, either. The mix of white, black, Hispanic, and Asian players seems so even it doesn’t seem like anyone is a minority anymore. And also unlike most game-centered events, long hair, tattoos, piercings, and muscles (that’s real muscles, not in-game ones) abound. There aren’t very many overweight people. The view down the wall makes the players at over 2 dozen monitors look like a NASA crew. Each station has a dozen or two people crowding around, players waiting to hear their names be called, supporters not wanting to miss the match of a friend.

evo.jpgThere’s a slight amount of variety in things to do, but not much. Namco Bandai has a handful of TVs where players can play the unreleased Tekken 6, and Capcom has a setup for Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Tatsunoko vs. Capcom. In the corner are freeplay machines for very old Japanese fighting games, some of which I’ve never seen. Aksys has Blazblue signery and a small tournament, which manages to draw and maintain a small crowd for an entire day and a half.

Few conventions or events are so singular in purpose. The only thing to do here is watch people play fighting games, unless you sign up and play yourself, and even there most people don’t play more than five matches. People come all over the world just to compete and watch people play; the champion of SoulCalibur IV came from France, two of the Street Fighter IV players are from Japan, and players come from every region of the U.S. and Canada.

More than anything, EVO is American and big. EVO has the most players, the most setups, the most games, a big screen, a big cash prize, a big crowd, and big attention. 23,000 viewers watched the live feed.

While much of EVO is recorded (and then sold on DVD and IGN Insider), EVO attendees often rebuke Internet comments with the now popular catch phrase “You just don’t know” to emphasize the difference between watching the matches on the computer and seeing them live. (It is used so often that it is often shortened to YJDK).

Day two features opening pools for some other games and matches on the big screen. It’s easily the slowest day of the event. Day three features a changed setup; Capcom and Namco Bandai still have their demo booths (which are later taken down), and the entire room is filled with chairs. The less popular games go through their finals; the chairs are not filled at the beginning of the day but as the day progresses the games, they fill up. At day’s end, the convention hall at the Rio is filled with people who are sitting, and then people who are standing.

Street Fighter IV is introduced with a video montage that alternates between brief game moments and text describing the difficulty and mastery of painting. (Guilty Gear had been compared to cooking, SoulCalibur IV to a musical instrument, and Street Fighter II: HD Remix to wine tasting.)

Then there was a special interview conducted by famous players Mike Ross and Mike Watson. They sought out Tomo Ohira, a player whose name is still whispered in forums and YouTube comments. He had played all variations of Street Fighter II, “retiring” at age 17 in 1994. He was so good that he won over 100 California tournaments, losing only 4 matches and going on to star in a tips and tricks video.

He had no idea what is going on the fighting world, and spoke plainly about his experiences. Much of what he spoke of survives. Toward the end of the interview, Watson asks, “Out of everything you’ve gained or lost from Street Fighter, what do you think you might miss the most since you retired?”

evo.jpgOhira hesitates briefly, and only to consider how to word it. “Just the competition, the competition and the camaraderie; you know, hanging out with all the guys, being friendly with everyone and rivals at the same time.” Mid sentence, clapping begins gradually, and then becomes sustained and respectful, the way it does when a famous public figure says something inspiring. It is the only time when the cheering is unanimously on the same page. The next shot is in slow-motion—Tomo puts a t-shirt on over his current shirt. The t-shirt is black with white text in Japanese and English. The English says “You just don’t know,” the “YOU” much larger and in caps.

Then, finals. Eight people are left. It seems that Sanford or Ed Ma may get to finals, but it goes as expected; Justin Wong, widely regarded as the best Street Fighter in America, comes from losers to meet Daigo “the Beast” Umehara in the grand finals. This is a match with significant history behind it. Wong lost 4 rounds in a row to Daigo at the GameStop tournament in San Francisco earlier this year. Before that, he had lost to Daigo at EVO 2004 in the biggest finals for Street Fighter III: Third Strike; the match was so amazing it has been viewed over a million times on YouTube since. The cash prize for first and second place is approximately seven and two thousand dollars.

Wong had already lost to Daigo earlier, two matches to zero, where Wong had used Abel. Wong had used Rufus in the Gamestop tournament and found that Daigo understood the match extremely well. Coming from losers, he used Abel again, losing the first game. Wong then switched to Balrog, the first time in a major public setting anyone has seen Wong use that character. Wong loses one match but wins three, winning one of his needed sets.

The next match is another best three out of five. Unlike the people who will browse the match list, we do not know who will win. One of two amazing things will happen: either Daigo Umehara will prove once again how much of a legend he is, further cementing his status as the best Street Fighter player the world has seen, or Justin Wong will finally best Daigo, proving that he isn’t just Daigo’s peer anymore, but an equal. An American would have bested the best Japanese player when it counted.

evo.jpgIt gets to the fifth game in the final match. Balrog is a dangerous character. They have been playing a lot of “footsies”, fighting slang for throwing out lots of safe crouching attacks from a distance in order to chip away with no risk. Each has made a few mistakes in decisions as well as execution. The pressure is intense. Over a thousand people are in the immediate audience, with thousands more watching online.

Toward the end of the first round, where both are low on life but Daigo is ahead, Wong uses one of Balrog’s quick dashing punches from close-range, which would take 2 hits to stop in less than a second. But Daigo’s incredible reflexes produce a quick two-hit combo, taking the round. In the second, Wong is cautiously aggressive; he gets a couple of sweeps, knocking Daigo’s Ryu on the ground. Wong has hardly been touched, while Daigo has just over half his life. Then, during one of Wong’s advances, Daigo does a crouching kick into a super fireball, a very difficult move to pull off, especially without it being blocked. That puts Daigo in the lead.

He then gets aggressive, getting in a throw and a few miscellaneous hits. Daigo has the lead and retreats to the corner, throwing well timed fireballs. Wong advances, because he has to. He gets in a couple of dash punches, but Daigo still has a much better lead. Justin uses an EX dash punch again, figuring it is close and safe and that Daigo can only do 2 hits in response so many times. He is wrong. He has one hit left. He goes for the rare jump in. Daigo responds in time, jumping in the air, his foot meeting Balrog’s chest. Daigo is again the champ of EVO, solidly unbeaten by Wong or anyone else from America.

Whoever anyone was rooting for, the crowd goes nuts. Everyone stands. There is shouting, there is clapping. We all hoped to get up there, but most of us knew we hadn’t the slightest chance. We’ve waited for this moment through 8 hours of lesser fights. With the exception of Wong and his closest friends, together we cheer.

Together we are all the justly and fairly defeated, comrades and rivals, hanging out with all the guys. This the last moment of only three days in the year where we can be at the world’s arcade, a unicorn of a thing. You just don’t know.

[Thanks to the official Evo Championship Flickr for the photos in this article.]